Cold War II
A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the world unexpectedly finds itself in a second one. This state of affairs was anything but inevitable, and it is in neither side's interest to escalate tensions further.
NEW YORK – The Cold War lasted four decades, in many ways both beginning and ending in Berlin. The good news is that it stayed cold – largely because nuclear weapons introduced a discipline missing from previous great-power rivalries – and that the United States, together with its European and Asian allies, emerged victorious, owing to sustained political, economic, and military effort that a top-heavy Soviet Union ultimately could not match.
A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, we unexpectedly find ourselves in a second one. It is both different and familiar. Russia is no longer a superpower, but rather a country of some 145 million people with an economy dependent on the price of oil and gas and no political ideology to offer the world. Even so, it remains one of two major nuclear-weapons states, has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and is willing to use its military, energy, and cyber capabilities to support friends and weaken neighbors and adversaries.
This state of affairs was anything but inevitable. The end of the Cold War was expected to usher in a new era of friendly Russian ties with the United States and Europe. It was widely thought that post-communist Russia would focus on economic and political development. And relations got off to a good start when Russia, rather than standing by its long-time client Iraq, cooperated with the US in reversing Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
The goodwill did not last. Just why will be a matter of debate among historians for decades to come. Some observers will blame successive US presidents, pointing to a lack of economic support extended to a struggling Russia, and even more to NATO enlargement, which, by treating Russia as a potential adversary, increased the odds it would become one.
It is true that the US could and should have been more generous as Russia made its painful transition to a market economy in the 1990s. Nor is it clear that NATO enlargement was preferable to other security arrangements for Europe that would have included Russia. That said, the lion’s share of the responsibility for the emergence of a second Cold War is Russia’s, and above all Vladimir Putin’s. Like many of his predecessors, Putin viewed the US-dominated world order as a threat to his rule and to what he regarded as his country’s rightful place in the world.
Russia in recent years has used armed force to seize, occupy, and annex Crimea, in the process violating the fundamental principle of international law that borders may not be changed by armed force. Putin continues to use military or covert means to destabilize Eastern Ukraine, Georgia, and parts of the Balkans. And Russia employed military force in particularly brutal ways in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s appalling regime.
Putin’s Russia also went to great lengths, in the words of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, to carry out “fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.” Heads of US intelligence agencies have made clear that they expect further such efforts between now and the midterm congressional elections in November.
As Russia has become a revisionist country, with few if any qualms about overturning the status quo by whatever means it judges necessary, shoring up Europe’s defense and providing lethal arms to Ukraine is a sensible response. But what more should the US do, beyond reducing the vulnerability of voting machines and requiring technology firms to take steps to prevent foreign governments from trying to influence US politics?
First, Americans must recognize that defense is not enough. Congress is right to call for additional sanctions, and Donald Trump is wrong to refuse to implement sanctions that Congress has already passed.
The US government also needs to find its voice and criticize a Russian regime that arrests its opponents and reportedly murders journalists. If Trump, for whatever reason, continues to coddle Russia, then Congress, the media, foundations, and academics should publicly detail the corruption that characterizes Putin’s rule. Circulating such information might increase internal opposition to Putin, persuade him to hold off on further interference in US and European politics, and, over time, buttress more responsible forces within Russia.
At the same time, the objective should not be to end what little remains of the US-Russian relationship, which is already in worse shape than it was for much of the first Cold War. Diplomatic cooperation should be sought whenever it is possible and in America’s interest. Russia may well be willing to stop interfering in Eastern Ukraine in exchange for a degree of sanctions relief, if it could be assured that ethnic Russians there would not face reprisals. Likewise, the Kremlin has no interest in a military escalation in Syria that would increase the relatively modest cost of its intervention there.
At the same time, Russian support is needed to tighten sanctions against North Korea. And maintaining arms-control arrangements and avoiding a new nuclear arms race would be in the interest of both countries.
There is thus a case for regular diplomatic meetings, cultural and academic exchanges, and visits to Russia by congressional delegations – not as a favor, but as a means to make clear that many Americans are open to a more normal relationship with Russia if it acts with greater restraint. The US and its partners have a large stake in greater Russian restraint while Putin remains in power – and in a Russia characterized by other than Putinism after he is gone.
The West’s Unilateral Cold War
The problem between Russia and the West is really a problem among Westerners themselves. If there is a new cold war, it is only because established elites have not come to terms with reality: the balance of military, political, economic, and moral power has shifted too far away from the West to be reversed.
MOSCOW – Rising tensions between the United Kingdom and Russia are but further proof that Russia and the West, according to no less an authority than Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, have entered a “Cold War II”. I tend to disagree.
Yes, Russia’s relations with the United States, and now also with the UK, are worse than in the 1950s, and the chance of a direct conflict is higher than at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Given the complexity of today’s strategic nuclear weapons and the systems designed to neutralize them, one cannot rule out the possibility that some actor on either side, or a third party, could provoke escalation.
Making matters worse, communication between US and Russian leaders is all but nonexistent, owing to the lack of trust on both sides. Among Americans, feelings toward Russia verge on something close to hatred, and many in Russia now regard Americans with ill-concealed disdain.
This psychological backdrop to the bilateral relationship truly is worse than during the Cold War. But that does not mean that today’s tensions amount to a sequel. Such a confrontation would require an ideological component that is decidedly lacking on the Russian side.
Russia has no intention of waging another Cold War. Although some degree of confrontation with the US does help President Vladimir Putin unite the public while burnishing Russian elites’ nationalist credentials, Russia is not an ideologically motivated state. What ideology it does have is based in Russian culture and civilization, which it is not interested in exporting.
The Kremlin in fact prefers not to proselytize on Russia’s behalf. Russia’s approach to international affairs has long centered on respect for national interests and sovereignty, and the belief that all peoples and nations should have the freedom to make their own political, economic, and cultural choices. Russia also embraces universal human values such as trust in God, family, and country, as well as self-fulfillment through service to society and nation.
I dream of the possibility that even 2% of the accusations concerning Russian “interference” in the 2016 US election prove true. It would bolster my self-esteem as a Russian, while educating Americans – whose government has long interfered in other countries’ internal affairs – about the dangers of throwing stones from a glass house.
But the problem between Russia and the West is really a problem among Westerners themselves. The US establishment is using the scarecrow of Russian interference to regain its lost political control, particularly in the realm of social media, where a discontented population and maverick politicians have finally found a voice.
But even if American elites do manage to wrest back control, the deeper source of Western angst will remain. For at least the past decade, the world has been witnessing the endgame of the West’s 500-year hegemony. It started in the sixteenth century, when Europe developed better guns and warships and began its imperial expansion. In the following centuries, Europeans would use their economic, cultural, political, and especially military dominance to siphon off the world’s wealth.
For a few decades in the second half of the twentieth century, the West’s dominant position was challenged by the Soviet Union and China. But after the Soviet Union imploded, the US emerged as the sole hegemon, and the world seemed to return to its historic status quo. Soon enough, however, the US overextended itself by plunging into geopolitical misadventures like the invasion of Iraq. And then came the 2008 financial crisis, which exposed the weaknesses of twenty-first-century capitalism.
At the same time, the US has long pursued military superiority. In 2002, it unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And, more recently, it has embarked on a massive build-up of conventional forces and a large-scale modernization of its nuclear arsenal.
Still, Russia, China, and the rest of the world won’t allow a return to US hegemony. Putin recently made this clear by unveiling a number of new, cutting-edge strategic weapons systems, as part of what I would call a strategy of “preemptive deterrence.” The message was that the US cannot hope to regain absolute military superiority, even if it decides to bleed itself dry in an arms race, as the Soviet Union did.
Preliminary assessments that my colleagues and I recently carried outsuggest that even if the US decides to wage a unilateral Cold War, its chances against Russia, China, and other emerging powers would not be very good. The balance of military, political, economic, and moral power has simply shifted too far away from the West to be reversed.
Nonetheless, a new Cold War, even if largely one-sided, would be extremely dangerous for humanity. The world’s major powers should concentrate on strengthening international strategic stability through dialogue; reopening channels of communications between militaries; and restoring civility to their interactions. We should also consider establishing more diplomatic, legislative, academic, and educational exchanges. Most of all, though, we must stop demonizing each other.
The world is entering a dangerous period. But if we are wise, we can build a more balanced international system, one in which the major powers will deter one another while cooperating to solve global problems. Smaller countries, meanwhile, will be freer to develop according to their own political, cultural, and economic preferences.
The previous, Western-led system has collapsed. To ensure a peaceful future, we need to start working together to build a new one.