A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


November 5, 2016

The New Cold War: Russia, NATO, and the Re-Division of Europe

More articles by »
Written by: Politis

DC medallionBy Ambassador John Koenig

Note from the Editors. John Koenig is a retired career Foreign Service Officer and former US Ambassador to Cyprus. He is a member of the Honorary Board of Advisors to the Dukakis Center. The following is the text of prepared remarks delivered at Western Washington University.

  1. Intro

Good afternoon and thank you for coming.  I would like to thank Western Washington University, Dean Mallinckrodt and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Professor Abedi and the Political Science Department for arranging this event.  Amir, Brent, I greatly appreciate your initiative and support.

This afternoon I will present my understanding of the current position and trajectory of relations between the United States, Canada, and Europe, on the one hand, and Russia on the other.  When I refer to Europe, I refer mainly to the European Union and the European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but more generally to all the states of Western and Central Europe, including the Balkans.

First, a couple disclaimers:

I am a retired American diplomat, with 25 years’ professional experience in Europe, but not a scholar or specialist in Russian history or politics.  I dealt with and studied the matters I will describe as a foreign affairs practitioner.  I worked in East Berlin during the mid-1980’s, and returned to Germany two decades later as the second-ranking official in our Embassy, after a political-appointee ambassador.  With NATO, I was Deputy American Permanent Representative at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels from 2003 to 2006, and later worked on secondment as Political Advisor to three U.S. 4-star admirals in charge of NATO’s southern region.  My last job before retirement in 2015 was as American ambassador to Cyprus.

My views have been formed by my experience with the U.S. Government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but are entirely my own.

As indicated by the title of today’s talk, I will argue that today, 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, we are in a New Cold War with Russia that threatens to re-divide Europe and distance Europe and Russia from each other and the United States.  I will first describe the characteristics of the Cold War – or as I will call it, the First Cold War.  I will then describe how the present situation displays enough of these characteristics to be called the New Cold War.  I will describe how we got to where we are, drawing on my own experience, and address the question of who bears most responsibility.  This will lead to a final brief section on the risks of the present situation and where we go from here.  And I want to leave ample time for your comments and questions.

  1. The First Cold War

How many of you were adults before 1989?  Good/interesting.  Let’s start then with a brief review, not so much of the history, as of the principal characteristics of the First Cold War, which lasted 40 years, from 1949 to 1989.  The history included periods of tension and of calm, periods of crisis and of normality.  But what were the broad characteristics, or markers?  Let me tick some off:

  • Military confrontation in Europe, huge armies facing each other along the dividing line between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. As anyone can tell you who encountered this face-off on the central front – Germany – it was awesome and inhuman in ways one can hardly imagine.
  • Closely related to this conventional military show-down, a more or less stable nuclear stalemate that fueled an on-again, off-again arms race focused on nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
  • In Europe, the United States and the West relied on the nuclear deterrent in the face of superior Soviet conventional forces, especially in the early stages of the Cold War.
  • Competing ideologies – let’s call them communism or state socialism and liberal democracy – used to mobilize domestic support, and enlist foreign allies around the world, but also to justify varying levels of interference in the domestic affairs of smaller states.
  • Covert programs including espionage, subversion, propaganda, and other activities aimed at weakening the other side.
  • An effort, on the side of the Soviet Union, to create a separate trading block based on state-directed exchanges, enabling Moscow to better control its satellites, and the state to control production and force savings in order to invest in state enterprises – especially the military and security apparatus.

This presentation will focus on Europe, but it is important to remember that the First Cold War, while centered on Europe, was a global phenomenon.  A wide range of major events and developments either sprang directly from the Cold War or were profoundly influence by it.  To name but a few, these include the Korean War, Vietnam and other conflicts in Indochina, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the space race, the civil wars in Central America and Southern Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent developments there, including the rise of radical Islamic terrorism, and the growth and politicization of the Olympic Games.

  1. The New Cold War

So what do we see today?  What I see is a New Cold War.  Most – not all, but most – of the markers of the First Cold War are present again in current relations between Russia, on the one hand, and Europe and America on the other.  Let’s have a look.

Military confrontation is increasing and serious.  While it has not reached the dimensions on either side that it had during the First Cold War, the potential for miscalculation and crisis may be greater.  Russia has recently made a series of provocative and potentially dangerous moves.  Let me name some of the most important:

  • renewed intrusive long-range flights by strategic – i.e., nuclear weapons capable – bombers;
  • recurring Russian probing of the defenses of NATO and other Western states, including Sweden, a non-NATO EU member state;
  • the build-up of Russian conventional and nuclear-capable forces along the boundaries of Poland, the Baltic states and other NATO members, coupled with exercises based on aggressive scenarios in the same region;
  • In this connection, the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskender missiles to Kaliningrad is especially disturbing – they could strike Berlin, for example.
  • Russian cyber attacks against the Baltic states, Germany and others;
  • Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of other parts of Ukraine, and the phenomenon of “little green men”, military and paramilitary forces whose relationship to the Russian state is unclear;
  • and Moscow’s refusal to abide by major long-standing arms control agreements – including the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, or CFE, a classic reassurance arrangement, limiting offensive forces, offering advance notice of troop movements and transparency — and threats to abrogate others – such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, which greatly reduces the risk of nuclear war in Europe.

In response, the United States and its NATO allies have increased the number of forces deployed in countries like Poland and the Baltic States and intensified planning and exercise activities to respond to a Russian attack.  These counter-moves have been visible but relatively modest in size, and the intent is purely defensive.  So far, the West has shown tremendous constraint.

Meanwhile, both sides continue to rely on a nuclear deterrence strategy, though the arms race has cooled, and it is Russia, rather than the West, whose defense posture in Europe depends most heavily on nuclear arms.

Russia has created a free-trade area comprising a few post-Soviet states to compete with the EU – the Eurasian Economic Union.  For the most part, however, Russia has integrated itself into the world economy as a producer of primary goods – especially oil, natural gas and other minerals — and as an industrial and agricultural importer.  Here the Cold War pattern is only partly repeated – but not for lack of trying on the part of Moscow.

The ideological face off has diminished and shifted, but is again resurgent.  America and Europe continue to promote free market economies, representative democracy, multi-lateralism, rule of law, etc., much as they did before 1989.  Russia, like other authoritarian regimes, regards efforts to promote these ideas – openly, through NGO’s and other programs – as subversive and has tried to suppress them along with the domestic political opposition and reform activists.  Meanwhile, Moscow has become a champion of populism – both left and right – nationalism, statism, nativism and unbridled national sovereignty – except in the so-called “near abroad”, where it claims a right to protect its interests and Russian minority populations at the expense of its neighbors’ sovereignty.

Covert programs are once again being pursued with vigor, especially from the Russian side.   These include political subversion of a kind we have not seen since the early stages of the First Cold War – witness Russian funding for nativist political parties in Western Europe, such as Marine LePen’s National Front in France and AfD in Germany.  Recent efforts to meddle in the American presidential election, primarily through cyber attacks and hacking, rank with the most aggressive covert actions of the First Cold War, such as the placement or recruitment of agents in positions of influence in the UK, West Germany, etc.  Russia is deeply engaged in “active measures” – the planting of false stories in foreign media — especially social media – to sow confusion and resentments.

I was personally involved in combatting one Soviet active measures campaign during the First Cold War – the baseless claim that the U.S. Government invented the HIV virus in a laboratory at Ft. Detrick, Maryland.  This was one of the great vignettes of my diplomatic career – Kaffee und Kuchen with a charming pair of elderly East Berlin scientists, the Segals, real Old Communists and Soviet nationals, who were leading the propagation of this lie.  The Segals duly reported it all to the East German State Security Police, or Stasi, and so it lay buried in my Stasi file until a few years ago.  I visited the Segals to confirm that the husband in the couple, Jakob, was the author of a purportedly scientific paper on the Ft. Detrick story, and to obtain a copy of the paper if I could.  Jakob’s wife, Lilli, evidently liked me, and even gushed to the Stasi that I seemed like a Quaker — something she also said to my face, by the way.  For our second meeting, perhaps not coincidentally, a Stasi heavy was also present.  To my amazement, these encounters with Segals became the focus of an arcane scholarly dispute a couple years ago, with one side claiming that I did not really exist – that John Koenig was, in fact, a Stasi impersonator sent to entrap Jakob and Lilli.

Anyway, last year, while ambassador to Cyprus, I encountered the new style of Russian active measures.  It was on Twitter.  When I tweeted something critical of Russia – about the assassination of leading Putin critic Boris Nemtsov – and it gained a bit of local attention, my Twitter feed was suddenly flooded by hundreds of Russian bots and trolls.  I had never experienced anything like it – active measures for the social media age.  You can try this experiment at home, by the way.  Just look for a prominent post on Twitter or Facebook that is critical of Putin – say, The Economist posting on its Putinism article, which I will discuss in a few minutes – and have a look at the comments and responses.  I think you’ll notice something strange about the folks posting a lot of derogatory material, not so much defending Putin as criticizing The Economist and dragging down the West.  Their profiles are paper thin, their accounts are new or otherwise implausible, or sometimes you just can’t follow the string back to anything.  In many cases, they’re bots and trolls, organized by the Russian government.  And they’re all over social media.  The Atlantic Monthly did an outstanding long story on them back in August 2014:  “The Kremlin’s Troll Army.”  Since then, things have only gotten worse.

  1. What Happened? 1989-1999 – A Decade of False Hope

OK, things are bad.  Let’s go back and look at how we got to this point.  It can be useful to consider two periods in the development of relations between Moscow and the West since 1989, with 1999 as the dividing line.  Let me first take up the earlier period.  I will then go over what happened in 1999 and conclude with a brief listing of what went wrong from that point forward.

The first decade after the Cold War was seen in the West as a time of promise.  There was a good deal of cooperation between Russia, on the one hand, and the United States and Europe on the other, even in security matters.  NATO and Russia cooperated to end the Bosnia conflict, for example, and the United States assisted Russia in securing its nuclear weapons.  It was also a period of relatively constructive relations between Moscow and the states of the former Soviet Union, despite the conflicts that arose in the former Soviet states of Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.   It should also be noted that these early years were a time of severe economic and social dislocation in Russia.

Some analysts and observers – Paul Pillar is often cited – have recently revived and elaborated the view that the United States and Western Europe mishandled this first decade of post-Communist Russian weakness and thereby tipped relations with Moscow into the downward spiral that has accelerated so alarming in recent years.  NATO enlargement, bringing Central and Eastern European countries into the Alliance, is often characterized as a strategic mistake or even the “original sin.”  Moscow has certainly made this claim, treating NATO enlargement as a threat.  The Western critics, mainly academics but also some practitioners, generally argue that the U.S. and Western Europe failed to understand and anticipate this Russian threat perception or simply ignored it, perhaps due to our own ideological or experiential blinders.  Proposing a sort of intellectual ‘what-if’ scenario, they suggest that if U.S. and Western European leaders had been more sensitive, tried harder to assuage Russian sensitivities, and treated Russia like other post-Communist states, relations would have taken a more positive course.  They often have a forward-focused message, urging greater accommodation of supposedly reasonable Russian demands.  But they usually wag their fingers most vigorously against NATO enlargement in the past.

There is clearly some value to this critique.  The analysis usefully points out how bureaucratic culture, politics and other factors affected perceptions on key issues and contributed to misunderstandings.  These are real problems that merit our attention.  There is no reason to thwart Russia’s ambitions out of spite or to ignore Russia’s views or concerns.  Fair enough.  Based on my experience, however, the bulk of evidence suggests that Moscow bears the heavier burden for worsening relations, even in this early period, and certainly more recently.  More importantly, looking back, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to forge the kind of positive relationship with Russia as a post-Communist state that these critics envisage.

Why?  I will go over two broad areas where Russia’s approach, even in the 1990s, cut off the chances for more positive relations.

First, Russia doggedly insisted throughout this period that it be treated separately and differently from other post-Communist states.

Second, let’s unwrap the process of NATO enlargement and Russia’s reaction to it.  It turns out to be a good example of Russia’s persistent failure to seek positive relations with the West.

There were many efforts by NATO, the European Union and individual states to offer Russia the kind of relations that were being developed with other post-Communist countries.  To be fair, these efforts often faced peculiar challenges due to Russia’s size.  It is simply much harder to reach agreement with partners as large as Russia, and, given resource constraints, the magnitude of Russia always meant that outside assistance efforts, for example, would move the dial less there than in smaller countries.  By far the largest impediment, however, was mutual suspicion.  On the U.S. and Western European side, this was rooted in the Cold War and deeper history, and even after two decades of détente and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it remained a problem.  This is where the critics direct their attention when they speak of experiential blinders and “original sin”.  I would argue that the attitudes of others were, however, much more important impediments than residual Cold War reflexes in the West.

First, the countries of Central Europe, newly liberated from Moscow’s orbit, were intensely suspicious of Russia.  This was especially true of Poland and the Czech Republic, but it was a broader phenomenon that included all the former members of the Warsaw Pact – even Bulgaria.  These countries sought protection from Russia as a paramount national priority, and for them NATO was insurance against a resurgent Russia.  Perhaps they were paranoid or lacked vision, but it was hard to ignore or argue against their perspective.  Think of Hungary in 1956.  Think of Prague in 1968.  Think of Solidarity and General Jaruzelski in the 1980s.  Think, frankly, of every day of all 40 years between 1949 and 1989.  When I was Number Two in the American Mission to NATO, the Polish Ambassador was Jerzy Novak, who had been a prominent figure in Solidarity when I was a junior diplomat in East Berlin.  He was also a Unitarian Catholic whose family came from Lviv, now in Ukraine.  If you have a sense of what that all means, then you can begin to understand Jerzy’s perspective on Russia – personal, well informed and highly skeptical.

Just as important as Central European concerns and desires was Russia’s attitude, which combined suspicion of the West with a desire to preserve and assert a special role in Europe and beyond.  For some time there has been a lively discussion of “American Exceptionalism”, a sense that the United States has a qualitatively unique role to play in the world.  For what it’s worth, I personally don’t believe in American Exceptionalism.   It is a huge and important topic that merits extensive discussion, but not one we need to take up here today unless someone wants to raise it at the end.  I only mention it to point out that Russian Exceptionalism – the sense that Russia has a unique and even holy mission in Europe and Asia  – was a major impediment to building and sustaining positive relations between Moscow and the West in the 1990’s.  The wounded pride of the post-Imperial moment, exacerbated by the huge economic and social dislocations caused by the end of the Soviet regime, seemed to sharpen Russia’s demands for exceptional treatment.  Russia persistently balked at being included in cooperative frameworks as just one among a number of post-Communist partners of the West and Western states.  It would not even accept a role as primus inter pares, which would have been resisted in any case by the other states of Central and Eastern Europe.  Instead, Moscow always sought a separate, privileged relationship with the West.  The West and its organizations created these special frameworks for cooperation with Russia, not to isolate Russia but to cooperate with it in the only way Moscow would accept.  Unfortunately, these binary frameworks were always vulnerable to politicization, not least because Moscow nearly always sought to politicize them and manipulate them for its own geo-strategic aims, often at the expense of other partners.  Predictably, the stand-alone nature of these special cooperative arrangements for Russia made them extremely vulnerable to broader developments in relations between Russia and the West.  They were the first place each side turned to show displeasure by cancelling meetings, walking away or just screwing around with the agenda.  They could not serve to counteract negative pressures on relations, serving instead as wind vanes or whipping boys – for the most part, useless.

Now let’s turn to the special case of NATO.

As we look at NATO and Russia, let’s keep in mind three key facts about the North Atlantic Alliance:

First, NATO is the strongest institutional link between North America and Europe, represented most clearly in the political institutions at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and, even more importantly, in the unified command structure.

Second, throughout the Cold War, NATO was purely defensive.  As has often been said, with a hint of hyperbole, NATO won the Cold War without ever firing a shot.  Article Five of NATO’s founding document, the Washington Treaty, states that an attack on one is an attack on all.  This mutual collective defense commitment is at the very heart of the Alliance.  The unified command structure exercised on a truly massive scale, planned extensively, and did all manner of work to prepare for defense against a Soviet attack.  But NATO only assumed true command of national forces in the event of a conflict – a conflict that never came.  Incidentally, Article Five has only been invoked once in NATO’s 67-year history – on September 12, 2001, in response to the al-Qaida terrorist attacks the day before in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.  This has been pointed out during the current presidential election campaign when one candidate questioned the value of NATO to the U.S.  My good friend and former boss Nick Burns submitted the proposal to invoke Article Five to the North Atlantic Council, or NAC, which collectively governs NATO.  The 19 Allies at the time did not hesitate to support it.  After that, NATO conducted a couple small operations under Article Five that you probably never heard about.  But NATO’s operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and other places were not under Article Five.

This brings us to the third key fact about NATO:  the Alliance began to change in important ways after the end of the Cold War in 1989.  NATO’s mission began to shift, providing a framework for crisis management and peace support operations.  Beginning with the Implementation Force or IFOR in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, NATO took on an operational role it had never had before, generally acting based on mandates from the United Nations.  At the same time, the Alliance launched an ambitious program of partnership with non-NATO countries focused on defense reform.  The foremost aim of partnership, especially in the 1990’s, was to prepare applicant states for NATO membership.  In addition to a wide range of requirements regarding civilian democratic control of the military and other civic principles, the NATO program sought with great success to transform partner militaries along Western lines, enhance interoperability, and even integrate them into Alliance planning.

In other words, as the Cold War ended, the Warsaw Pact dissolved and Russia reeled through a series of political, social, and economic dislocations and adjustments, NATO undertook new operational and partnership missions.  Russia contributed to some operations – in IFOR, Russia even put its forces under NATO command – and became a partner, as well.  But it is perhaps not surprising that Moscow viewed these developments as at least potentially threatening.  Russia expressly did not want countries in Central and Eastern Europe to join NATO, and there was mounting unease in Moscow as NATO forces became increasingly “expeditionary” and engaged in peace-support operations.

Russia’s perceptions were well understood on the NATO and U.S. side, as was the historical context that molded Moscow’s threat perceptions.  Critics have argued that the course NATO took showed a lack of sensitivity to Russia’s concerns, but to my mind it is unlikely that heightened sensitivity on its own would have made much difference.  Then as now, it’s not all about Russia, despite what Moscow would have us believe.  Two other factors of greater importance drove decisions on NATO’s enlargement and increasing involvement in peace support operations.

First let’s discuss enlargement.  There had been several earlier rounds of enlargement, bringing Greece, Turkey, Germany, and Spain into the Alliance.  The criteria for membership were clear, and the interest of former Warsaw Pact states was strong.  Bear in mind that these post-Communist states also faced difficult transitions, and that assisting them in the process was of vital importance to the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and other NATO Allies.  For obvious reasons, there was no stronger advocate than Germany for bringing Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into the Alliance.  Given all this, it would have taken a deliberate decision by the Alliance to ignore the relevant provisions of the Washington Treaty and the desires of these aspiring Allies in order to exclude them from membership in NATO.  That simply was not going to happen.  The rationale could only have been to appease Russia.  No assurances were ever given to Russia on this score, despite persistent, spurious Russian claims – claims that have only suffered from Russia’s use of obvious forgeries of NATO documents to press its case.  Bottom line:  enlargement was inevitable given the range of interests and policy priorities it served for the Alliance and aspiring members alike.

So what about NATO’s engagement in peace support operations?  This, too, was rendered almost inevitable by the course of events in the 1990’s, especially developments in the Western Balkans.  While the failure of UN peace-keeping efforts in Bosnia is a separate discussion, it was clear that the UN’s credibility was severely damaged by the massacre in Srebrenica.  Once Holbrooke and the U.S. took the lead in brokering a peace deal, there were compelling reasons to use NATO as the framework for building the peace implementation force.  Three key advantages leap to mind – the planning and operational capabilities that NATO had on hand, Bosnia’s proximity to NATO member states, and the American reluctance to place our forces under foreign command.  The planning and operational capabilities of NATO were by far the most important; these remain far and away the most robust of any international or multilateral organization.  So from Bosnia, the line of development was clear – Kosovo, Macedonia and on to Afghanistan and other parts of the globe.  Indeed, George Robertson, NATO Secretary General when I arrived at NATO HQ in Brussels, had a catchy phrase for the logic:  NATO had to go “out of area – that is, operate beyond Europe — or out of business.”

One might ask, “Why not out of business then”?  That is clearly what Russia wanted, and it’s also a view supported then and now by some in the West.  For me, the answer is simple – NATO continues to serve the military and broader security needs of its member states.  I have seen the Alliance from close up and believe its capabilities and benefits could not be replicated, and we need those capabilities.   Ironically, Russia’s own behavior over the past several years has done more than anything else to bolster the view that NATO will be needed for years to come.

  1. What Happened? 1999 – the Seeds of the New Cold War

1999 was an inflection point.  Since 1999, relations between Russia and the West have trended downward despite periods of renewed cooperation.  Two developments in 1999 related to NATO created tensions between the West and Russia:  NATO intervened in Kosovo, conducting a bombing campaign against Serbia; and Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO, becoming the first former Warsaw Pact states to join the Alliance.

Russia’s take on the Kosovo conflict is ambivalent but mainly negative.  Moscow claimed the Kosovo bombing campaign violated international law, and while that is far from clear – indeed the U.S., NATO and others have strenuously argued that there was no violation of international law – it is perhaps fair to say that the matter will never be fully resolved.  The Kosovo campaign affected Russia’s interest in a special relationship with Serbia, though more positively than negatively.  It strengthened a Moscow-Belgrade axis that for more than a decade was pitted directly against the EU, NATO, and the U.S. in the Balkans.  To America and others in the West, the case for humanitarian intervention in Kosovo was compelling.  Milosevic, who had ignited virulent nationalism in the former Yugoslavia and assisted Bosnian Serb forces to commit ethnic cleansing and war crimes, had ordered his forces in Kosovo to drive hundreds of thousands of Kosovars across the border as refugees.  When Milosevic resolved to press ahead with his ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo despite NATO warnings, the Alliance had little choice but to launch the campaign to bomb military targets in Serbia.  Serbia soon conceded, Kosovo became autonomous and later independent, and there has since been slow progress toward stabilization and normalization.  For the most part, Russia has sought to impede progress at every stage.

Russia perceived the accession of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to NATO as a threat, bringing the Alliance’s boundaries – though not many Alliance forces – closer to Russia’s borders.  Even though Russia was also a NATO partner, Moscow never wanted to join the Alliance, and regarded it with suspicion.  In Russian eyes, NATO remained the embodiment of U.S. defense engagement with Europe.  As a more cooperative alternative, Russia would again and again dangle the vision of a common European security scheme based on, for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, a rather unwieldy grouping of 53 states stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok where action is frequently blocked by disagreements among members.  These Russian offers had little credibility in the West, where they were regarded as transparently cynical.  More fundamentally, NATO membership was seen by most Central and Eastern European states as an element of integration with Western Europe, complementing the much more far-reaching process of joining the European Union.  For two decades, the drive to integrate with the West was an extremely potent political idea in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly among the elites.  By any measure, the enlargement of NATO and the EU were hugely successful, increasing stability and prosperity and spreading democracy and the rule of law.  None of this harms Russia.  But Russia – by general agreement on both sides – was never part of this integration process and regarded it with varying degrees of suspicion and even hostility.

Before we move on from 1999, it’s absolutely essential to recall a third event, unrelated to NATO, which occurred at the very end of the year.  On December 31, Vladimir Putin became Acting President of the Russian Federation.  That, and the subsequent evolution of Putin’s rule, proved more decisive than NATO enlargement or Kosovo to the subsequent course of relations between Russia and the West.

  1. What Happened? The Evolution of Putin’s Russia Since 1999

Relations did not worsen quickly or steadily after Putin came to power.  There were perennial tensions; for instance, American and European missile defense plans were a constant point of friction.  There were also, however, two important periods of closer cooperation.  During the early years of Putin’s presidency, the United States and Western Europe developed warmer relations with Russia, including intensified cooperation on security matters, especially against terrorism.  This was the time when President George W. Bush peered into Vladimir Putin’s soul and saw a good man.  The second period of warming, from 2008 until 2011, was the so-called “reset” between the U.S. and the West and Russia under President Medvedev.   I was in Munich for the launch of “reset” in 2009, by Vice President Biden, and President Obama subsequently devoted much time and effort to building trust with Medvedev.   In both periods, substantial and potentially lasting agreements resulted, including New START and Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization.  But after both periods, relations soured, and in the latest instance, we have entered a New Cold War.

What went wrong was the evolution of Putinism.  Clearly this is much on people’s minds these days – I recommend the excellent special report in The Economist this week.

Somehow the year 2004 was a first watershed.  The excellent article in The Economist suggests two events inside Russia ignited Putin’s intense suspicion, even hostility, toward the West:  the terrorist attack on the school in Beslan in the Caucasus, and the dismemberment of Yukos Oil and the arrest of its owner, Khodorkovsky, both of which led Putin to accuse the West of meddling in Russian affairs.  I would add to these the second round of post-Cold War NATO enlargement, which brought seven new members – including the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – into the Alliance on March 29, 2004.

But for all, including The Economist, the pivotal development of 2004 and 2005 was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Putin’s perception of it, and the Russian policy of domination and destabilization in the so-called Near Abroad which it set in train.  Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, Yanukovich – the personalities, factions, twists, turns and complexities of the Orange Revolution and subsequent events are daunting to follow and understand.  You may recall the bizarre poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, evidently by Russian agents, that left his face scarred and discolored.  In terms of Russian, and especially Putin’s, interest, however, the issue was plain:  a Ukraine aligned with the West would be a massive setback for Russia and Putin’s regime, and one Moscow would seek to prevent at almost any cost.

Before dealing briefly with events in Ukraine and Russia since 2012, which are most immediately related to the New Cold War, I would like to touch on two other important developments:  the Russian military intervention in Georgia in 2008 and the Libya bombing campaign in 2011.  Both are cited as needless provocations of Russia.  Both involved collective missteps by the West in which the United States played an important part.  I was tangentially involved with Georgia policy and more directly engaged on Libya.  Mistakes were no doubt made that contributed to the worsening of relations between Russia and the West, but I would argue they pale in comparison to the impact of Ukraine and domestic developments inside Russia.

Georgia was in some ways a model of post-Communist transformation.  Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had spent time in Washington’s conservative think tank community and was admired by many American conservatives.  This led many in the West to overlook the creeping authoritarianism of his domestic administration and – more ominously – to send potentially dangerous mixed signals on the extent of Western official support Saakashvili truly enjoyed.  In the lead-up to Saakashvili’s foolish decision to send Georgian troops into the break-away region of South Ossetia, I know that the American ambassador in Tblisi – John Tefft, a real pro, now serving in Moscow – made clear to him that the U.S. opposed such a move and would not protect Georgia from the consequences.   I also knew first-hand how concerned Chancellor Merkel and the German government were about Saakashvili’s adventurism.  Of course, Russia responded to the Georgian assault on South Ossetia with a punishing counterstrike, sending Russian forces deep into Georgian territory.  The fault was Saakashvili’s, but I will always suspect that political and think tank conservatives in Washington, some of whom I knew, had goaded him toward this massive miscalculation.   It’s fair to say that Saakashvili, himself a neo-Con, was such a darling of the neo-Cons that it contributed to his undoing.

Libya started well and turned out badly, in my view.   Washington and other Western capitals share a good deal of credit for the former and blame for the latter.  If you are interested in a balanced, well-informed account of American involvement, I strongly recommend Mark Landler’s recent book Alter Egos.  Having withheld the Russian veto on a UN Security Council Resolution authorizing “all necessary force” to protect civilians in Libya, Russia claims with some justification that it had been duped as NATO’s mission veered toward the ouster of Gaddafi and regime change.  There is little doubt that this experience colored the diplomacy surrounding the Syria conflict, especially early on.  But for America and our Allies, the much bigger problem with Libya was the failure to prepare and support a sustainable post-Gaddafi transition – something of little importance to Russia, apart from Moscow’s undoubted pleasure at seeing the Alliance with egg on its face, facing additional security challenges from the South.

This brings us to 2012, and more recent developments in Ukraine and Russia itself.  Starting with Russia, the declining prices of oil and natural gas accelerated a negative economic trend that began even before the 2008 financial crisis.  Putin’s Russia rapidly shifted the economy toward a more statist, arbitrary model, exacerbating more long-standing negative trends.   The share of government spending in the economy rose sharply, with much investment going to military production.  The economic downturn cut into Putin’s political support, notably among the enlarged middle class.  In an apparent effort to contain and reverse the decline in regime popularity reflected in protests in Moscow and other cities following the 2012 parliamentary elections, Putin turned increasingly toward xenophobic propaganda and foreign adventures, most notably Ukraine.

The story of Putin’s Russia over the past 4 or 5 years is full of fascinating detail, but it can be summed up quite briefly.  On the economy, Putin and his government are failing, and, barring a dramatic rebound in oil and gas prices and genuine reform, that failure is likely to intensify in the future.  Barring some dramatic change of direction, the long-term outlook for Russia’s economy is grim.  On the political side, on the other hand, Putin’s formula has worked and is still working.  By playing on Russia’s wounded pride and nationalist traditions using control of the popular media and a heavy dose of repression, Putin has been able to bolster his personal support through such adventures as the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, and the military intervention in Syria.  Over time, Putin’s political strategy is likely to drag Russia down.  But given its dividends in reinforcing short-term regime stability, Putin’s course will likely remain the same for the foreseeable future, with ominous implications for relations with the West and, especially, the fate of Russia’s neighbors, particularly Ukraine.  For someone like me, who cut his diplomatic teeth in East Berlin 30 years ago, it feels like déjà vu all over again.

  1. A More Volatile but Less Dangerous Cold War?

Let’s conclude with a look at the risks and dangers of the present situation, and what the U.S. and its partners should do.

The New Cold War is riskier in some ways than the First Cold War.  Putin is less inherently conservative in foreign policy, especially in Europe, than the Soviet regime, which reacted strongly against Khrushchev’s  brinksmanship, most notably in Cuba.  Russia has potentially revanchist ambitions against the Baltic States and the “near abroad” – unlike the Soviet Union, it is not a status quo power in Europe.  Moreover, given its comparative conventional weakness, today’s Russia is more prone to wage unconvential war against its neighbors – with “little green men” as in Ukraine, some other form of “hybrid warfare”, or nuclear blackmail.  This weakness will also prompt Russia to intensify subversive and sabotage activities to weaken its real or imagined adversaries further afield.  There is a potential for such efforts to provoke retaliation that could spiral out of control.

That said, Russia is not the USSR, and does not have the capacity to sustain all-out competition with the West as the Soviet Union did.  It aspires to dominate the states in its neighborhood and defend its own venal and authoritarian regime.  Neither of these aims deserves our respect, but they do not constitute a bid for global dominance.

What America and its partners need is an updated Containment Strategy, as boring as that may sound.  We cannot accept that Russia will dominate or destabilize Ukraine in the long term, or that it will threaten and attempt to blackmail its other neighbors, including NATO Allies and EU Member States.  At the same time as we impose a cost on Russia for its misdeeds, we need to recognize two important facts:

  • First, neither America nor the West is prepared to escalate indefinitely in many of these conflicts, though we need to be clear in those cases where our resolve and capabilities are strong, as with defending our Allies;
  • Second, we want to, and in some cases need to, cooperate with Russia on a range of interests that transcend the New Cold War showdown in Europe.

There is nothing new here.  The appropriate strategy for the New Cold War is similar to the strategy we pursued with broad success in the First Cold War.  Containment had its drawbacks, of course, during the First Cold War.  It impelled the U.S. to ever deepening and more damaging military involvement in Indochina, to cite perhaps its most damaging excess, but also led us to back brutal dictators like Soeharto in Indonesia.  Hopefully, an updated Containment Strategy will be more balanced and careful than the first.  It demands discipline, a cool head, and a desire to defuse potentially dangerous confrontation.

It also demands unity of purpose among European countries and between Europe and North America.  Here is where the greatest danger lies, and Russia’s ability to exacerbate difficulties is most worrisome.  The re-division of Europe in the title of this talk is not so much about a new Iron Curtain between East and West.  It is about divisions within Europe, including inside the European Union, and between Europe and the United States.  The trajectory of developments inside EU is very unclear.

Some argue there is a growing internal division – north vs. south, east vs. west, seen in such things as the financial crisis and bailouts or the influx of refugees.  There is Brexit and the rise of nationalist political parties, including those in power in Poland and Hungary.  I tend to share this pessimistic view.

Others see a healthy reaction to Brexit marked by the Franco-German proposal for defense integration and a broader realization that most problems – not just economic ones – can only be addressed effectively at the European level.  I aspire to be such an optimist.

Meanwhile, we have seen one of two leading presidential candidates speak irresponsibly about NATO, among other issues, in the current American political campaign.  This candidate treats all alliance relationships – not just NATO – as purely transactional, an approach that seriously undermines solidarity and unity in the face of common challenges.  Full disclosure on this – I am one of more than 200 former career ambassadors who has signed a letter opposing Trump and supporting Clinton in November’s election.

It would be facile to claim that Russia created the tensions within Europe or between Europe and the United States.  Nor did Russia make American politics as partisan and bitterly divided as they are today.  But it would be naïve to think that Russia is not doing all it can to exacerbate these problems, or that it won’t continue to do when circumstances permit.  We should not panic, but we should be on our guard.  We can help ourselves by working to restore trust in institutions on both sides of the Atlantic – something we need not only to survive – or let’s say contain the damage from – the New Cold War, but also to sustain our own democracies.

I have tried to cover a very broad topic and could not do it justice, due to my own limitations more than time constraints.  I hope you can understand why I believe we are in a New Cold War and how I think we got there, and that I helped to inform and stimulate your thinking on these matters.  I have dwelt on events that some of you might regard as the distant past, but I believe the effects are played forward into today, and for me they remain alive.  I may have neglected the more recent developments we read about in the news every day, like Syria or Wikileaks, so I hope some of these will come up in our discussion.  I hope I have stimulated questions and comments.  Thanks again to all of you for your attention, and especially to Dean Mallinckrodt and Prof. Abedi for their kind support.


Be the first to comment!

You must be logged in to post a comment.

The Latest