Echoes of Cold War as US-Russia ties plummet

A Russian armoured vehicle drives on the road between Simferopol and Sevastopol (17 March 2014) Image copyright AFP
Image caption The switch from diplomacy to confrontation was inevitable after Russia ignored calls to withdraw its troops

Not since the end of the Cold War more than 20 years ago have Russia and the West been on such a collision course.

The spiral into which the two sides are descending is gathering momentum now that the referendum in Crimea is over and officials there say 97% of voters opted to join Russia.

You need go no further than Russia's state-run Rossiya 1 TV station to get a sense of the extent to which relations between Moscow and Washington have now plummeted since the halcyon days of the "reset" in 2009.

In a news review programme on Sunday evening, the presenter - well known for his loyalty to the Kremlin - stood in front of a backdrop photograph of a nuclear bomb exploding.

"Russia is the only country in the world which has the capability of turning the United States into radioactive dust," he said.

And he was not joking.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The referendum was widely celebrated in Crimea. Many in the West said it was illegal
Image copyright AP
Image caption As Russia-US ties sour, Ukraine has put its troops on a maximum state of alert
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many are fearful about what will happen if Russia sends its troops into eastern Ukraine

On the other side of the divide, President Obama has announced that he will travel to Europe next week and his Vice-President Joe Biden will be visiting Poland and Lithuania.

"Our message is clear," said Mr Obama.

"As Nato allies we have a solemn commitment to our collective defence and we will uphold this."

The switch from diplomacy to confrontation was inevitable after Russia ignored persistent calls from the West to withdraw its troops from Crimea and put a halt to the referendum there.

Since then Moscow has continued to push ahead at a relentless pace, announcing that on Tuesday afternoon local time, President Putin will address a special gathering in the Kremlin of members of parliament.

A few hours later on Red Square, there will be a concert entitled "We are together".

Unstoppable course

Could it be that just two days after the referendum, President Vladimir Putin will declare that Russia will begin the process of annexing Crimea?

There are other indications this could be the case.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Vladislav Surkov (right) is one of those targeted by the US sanctions

On Monday a senior member of parliament was asked if a decision had already been taken in principle to bring Crimea into the Russian Federation.

"There can be no other decision in principle," he said.

As Russia has forged ahead on what seems an unstoppable course, so the US and EU have responded with a round of sanctions.

Both have targeted officials in Crimea and Russia whom they accuse of involvement in the military intervention in Crimea and the vote on secession.

But Washington has gone for much more powerful politicians and advisers.

At the top of its list is Vladislav Surkov, a close aide of President Putin.

In the past decade he was the chief ideologue who helped create the authoritarian brand of government or "vertical of power", at the top of which Mr Putin still stands.

Number two on the list is another top aide, Sergei Glazyev, the president's point man on Ukraine.

The nine others include the head of the upper house of the Russian parliament, the deputy prime minister and the leader of the ethnic Russians in Crimea.

But it is far from clear if any of these officials have assets in the US such as bank accounts, shares or property, which can now be frozen.

And the response from those on the hit-list has been dismissive.

"I view the decision by the Washington administration as recognition of my services to Russia," presidential aide Vladislav Surkov told the Moskovskiy Komsomolets newspaper.

"This is a great honour for me," Mr Surkov said, adding that he did not have any accounts abroad.

And what if Mr Putin does announce on Tuesday that Russia will annexe Crimea?

Who or what will be targeted in the West's next round of sanctions?

And what if Mr Putin does send his troops into Eastern Ukraine?

What then would the West's reaction be in this new Cold War?