It's now or never for Washington

America's real aim in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is to seize control of vital resourc

Are we on the brink of a new cold war? On both sides of the Atlantic, media commentators see the crisis in Ukraine as comparable to the Berlin crises, involving the US and the Soviet Union, which kept the world on tenterhooks for decades. In this supposed drama, a resurgent Kremlin under an ex-KGB colonel is suppressing freedom at home and encroaching on ex-Soviet republics around his country's vast rim.

This terror of shadows has a track record of success. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the ailing world of Leonid Brezhnev was portrayed as a sinister superpower with its tentacles almost around Uncle Sam's throat. The US and the majority of western European nations combined behind a programme of arms build-up and covert sponsorship of anti-communist dissidents.

The coincidence of dates is not often noted, but the Pentagon was inaugurated on 11 September 1941, exactly 60 years before it took its first direct hit. In my view, its role was positive for many years: few would regret the fall of Hitler or the deterrence of Stalin. But America's bloodless victory in the cold war did not lead her to rest on her laurels. As early as 1992, Pentagon insiders led by Paul Wolfowitz and sponsored by the then defence secretary, Dick Cheney (under President Bush I), had drawn up a doctrine designed to prevent any power getting the "capacity" to challenge the US in the future. Not only potential foes but friends were to be kept subordinate.

There was no peace dividend. Instead, US defence spending rose. Now the Pentagon spends more than the European Union, Russia, China and India combined. As one Pentagon friend said to me recently: "The new arms race is between the US army today and the US army which might fight it tomorrow!"

Yet, according to Washington's friends, Russia is on the prowl, even though its military technology is ageing and Nato expansion (and with it, US bases) reaches deep inside the old Soviet Union. In reality, the Kremlin's writ is fraying at the edges of the smaller, post-1991 Russia. Already Chechnya is in chaos and much of the north Caucasus is simmering. If Russia poses no military threat even to its neighbours, the divide of the first cold war era is dead.

And yet the culture of the new cold war is very different from that of the old. For 40 years, the west's intellectuals and media were bitterly divided over policy towards Moscow. Each side - particularly the west - had its allies on the other side. The west's victory in 1989 was good for the market economy but bad for intellectual pluralism. Sky News came online in 1989 but the explosion of 24-hour news has been matched by an implosion of alternative views.

With the collapse of one-party states, any justification for western covert intervention in elections died. Yet the methods of the old cold war have continued and even grown in scale. Washington's power elite see the whole world as former president Reagan saw Latin America - indeed, many Reagan administration figures are involved in current events. Cold war methods are still in use - even more so - but now against opponents who do not merit the description "totalitarian", whatever their faults.

In the run-up to the velvet revolutions of 1989, I was a bagman carrying tens of thousands of dollars to eastern European dissidents. I have a good idea of how much money and foreign input are required to get a spontaneous "people power" revolution going. Then, however, it was the Communist Party that blocked dissent. Today, western intelligence agencies, the media and "the people" crush any dissent from the Washington consensus.

At the time of the Falklands war, Henry Kissinger said: "No great power retreats for ever." Maybe Russia is about to disprove his thesis, because so far Russia has retreated steadily under Vladimir Putin's rule. If Ukraine falls into the Nato orbit, Russia will lose her access to Black Sea naval bases and Russian oil and gas export routes will have to pass an American stranglehold.

Yet Russia is a bit player in this new global competition. The Pentagon is really aiming at Beijing in its grab for the old Soviet strategic space around Russia. China is booming, but energy is her Achilles heel. Economically and technologically, China's 1.3 billion people seem poised to assume superpower status, but China cannot risk falling out with America. Only access to Russian and central Asian oil can liberate China from dependence on vulnerable sea-borne oil supplies, so the real "Great Game" is between Beijing and Washington. America's real strategic fear is the rise of China and India. Unlike Russia, they are not beset by demographic decline.

Worse still for US planners, the Chinese and Indians may want the benefits of western consumerism but they do not share the cultural cringe of peoples of the former Soviet bloc: like Gandhi, they believe that western civilisation would be a very good idea.

In Latin America, too, Washington does not have everything its own way. It is not just that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez saw off a Ukrainian-style "people power" push, having already trounced an old-style putsch in 2002; Brazil and Argentina are also failing to toe the Washington line. The region's big players show signs of looking to China and south Asia for markets and investment.

If South America, south Asia and China begin to coalesce, then Washington could find itself confronted by an alternative axis not seen since before the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s. But, whereas Mao and Brezhnev represented economic dead ends, the new China and her potential partners have dynamism on their side. Maybe India and China are business rivals, but their old frontier disputes in the Himalayas are frozen. Latin America has nothing to fear from either superpower of the future, nor do Latin Americans nurse visceral resentments of Beijing or Delhi that are in any way comparable to their deep-dyed anti-Yankee feelings.

America's drive to dominate the old Soviet Union represents a gamble by today's only superpower to seize the highest-value chips on the table before China and India join the game. If China can add access to post-Soviet energy to the Chinese hand, it will be game on for a real new cold war. Many of the predictions among Washington neoconservatives about China's growing power recall the fear among German militarists that the window of opportunity for a global role was closing by 1914. Washington's drive to seize maximum advantage before the inevitable waning of US power recalls the Kaiser's cry 80 years ago: "Now or never!"

Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford