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The New, New Cold War


When an epoch ends, as the Cold War did between 1989 and 1991, it takes some time to come up with a name for the new order. For some years, the world lived in a “post-Cold War” era. That phrase was supposed to capture the optimism of a new beginning as well as the uncertainty that accompanies any great transition.

“Post-Cold War” didn’t last long. The horrors of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Somalia in the 1990s were a grim reminder that the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States wasn’t the only source of instability and violence in the world. Instead of disappearing, NATO not only discovered new missions for itself but began a seemingly inexorable march eastward during the Clinton years. New tensions emerged between Beijing and Washington.

By December 1994, The Economist was already using a new phrase to describe this brave new world: “post-post Cold War.”

Plenty of pundits came up with their own phrases to describe the post-1989 reality. There was the rise of the Pacific Rim, the EU-ification of the globe, the division of the world into three currency zones (yen, euro, dollar), and the descent into civilizational clashes. In the early 2000s, the BRICS emerged, along with a new vision of multipolarity. In the mid-2000s, Thomas Friedman pushed his thesis that the “world is flat.” By the end of the 2000s, Fareed Zakaria was talking about a post-American world, a “rise of the rest.”

Nothing has stuck, for the post-post Cold War reality has outpaced the attempts of pundits to define it.

And now, if you had the misfortune of falling into a coma just before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and only happened to wake up last year, you might actually think that you haven’t missed much at all.

Both Russia and NATO are conducting large-scale military exercises — “Zapad” vs. “Aurora” — across from each other along the Eastern European border. In his annual address to parliament last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin described a new generation of hypersonic nuclear missiles that would render U.S. anti-ballistic missile system as porous as cheesecloth (actually, given its technical difficulties, the system is already little more than a shamanic invocation).

In December, meanwhile, President Donald Trump authorized the largest commercial sale of weaponry to the Ukrainian government and then followed up this month with the provision of precisely the heavy equipment — Javelin anti-tank missiles — that Ukraine lamented were not part of the December package.

As of mid-February, a street outside the Russian embassy in Washington, DC has been re-named Boris Nemtsov Plaza, after one of Vladimir Putin’s assassinated opponents. This might remind old-timers of the decision back in 1985 to rename the segment of 16th Street outside the Soviet embassy Andrei Sakharov Plaza, after one of the prominent Soviet dissidents.

Thirty-three years, and only the names of the streets have changed.

Let’s be clear. This is not simply a “new Cold War.” That phrase emerged rather quickly in the 1990s, with no less a figure than George Kennan declaring the Senate vote in 1998 on NATO expansion “the beginning of a new cold war.”

No, this is, like the post-post Cold War, the “new new Cold War.” Perhaps, as I wrote back in 2014, the Cold War will eventually be viewed like the 100 Years War, an epic struggle across more than a century with the occasional lull that fools observers into believing that peace has come. But for the time being, let’s treat this recrudescence of conflict between Moscow and Washington as something different from that old ideological struggle between capitalism and communism or the narrower disagreements over European security architecture in the 1990s.

This new new Cold War — between a United States nostalgic for its glory days of the 1950s and a Russia equally nostalgic for the same period of time — is potentially very dangerous indeed.

Yes, much of the responsibility for this conflict lies with the more powerful party, the United States. As I pointed out in that same 2014 article, “If the United States had disbanded NATO, pushed for nuclear abolition, and helped to create a new security architecture for Europe that included Russia, the Cold War would have died a natural death. Instead, because the institutions of the Cold War lived on, the spirit of the enterprise lay dormant, only waiting for the opportunity to spring forth.”

But let’s dispense with two equally ridiculous notions. This uptick in tensions does not in any way “prove” that the Russiagate allegations are fallacious. And not all critiques of Russian actions — from the wars on its periphery to its actions in the far abroad — should be read as somehow a covert desire to see a return of the Cold War.

Defusing this new new Cold War will require a much more clear-eyed view of Vladimir Putin and the future trajectory of Russia.

First the Stakes

Today’s Russia isn’t the major military force that the Soviet Union once was. Sure, it comes in as the third largest spender in the world, but that’s actually not as impressive as it sounds. In 2016, the United States was responsible for 36 percent of total global military spending. China was number two at 13 percent. And Russia managed a mere 4.1 percent, just a nose ahead of Saudi Arabia.

Of course, $70 billion in annual spending still translates into a lot of firepower. And until recently, Russia had actually been behind Saudi Arabia in fourth place. In 2016, it boosted its share of military spending as part of the overall budget to over 5 percent, its highest since 1991. Meanwhile, the Kremlin presides over one of the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world.

Vladimir Putin has not only embarked on a serious modernization of the Russian military — begun in 2011 at an estimated price tag of $670 billion and including $28 billion by 2020 to upgrade the nuclear triad — but considers military force to be a key element of statecraft. The seizure of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine illustrate the relative importance of diplomacy and military in Putin’s thinking, while military force has positioned Russia as a player in the Syria conflict where it can now assert its vaunted diplomatic role.

Although it has plenty of conventional and nuclear firepower, Russia has also developed its “asymmetrical” capabilities — cyberwarfare, disinformation campaigns, and the maskirovka (deception) operations that attempt to conceal Russian involvement (as with the “little green men” in Ukraine). Russia cannot hope to achieve “full-spectrum dominance” worldwide. But it can certainly control its “near abroad” and play a spoiler role elsewhere.

Under Donald Trump, meanwhile, the United States is starting from a much more well endowed base and surging from there. Trump wants to up the Pentagon budget to $700 billion in 2018 and $716 for 2019. As analyst William Hartung points out, that’s an additional $165 billion for two years — which is more than what the Russians will spend overall during the next two years. “It brings total spending on the Pentagon and related programs for nuclear weapons to levels higher than those reached during the Korean and Vietnam wars in the 1950s and 1960s,” he writes, “or even at the height of Ronald Reagan’s vaunted military buildup of the 1980s.”

At one point, Trump called for a massive increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. With the latest version of the U.S. nuclear strategy released in February, he has settled for something a little different — and even more dangerous: more usable nukes.

The Obama administration, for all the contradictions of its nuclear policy, at least took steps to reduce the usability of nuclear weapons. Not so the Trump administration. It wants more “low-yield” nuclear weapons in order to incorporate them into actual war planning — as in “limited nuclear attacks.” This is supposedly in response to Russia’s similarly lowered threshold for the use of nuclear weapons — Moscow’s purported “escalate to de-escalate” strategy — but that in fact is a misreading of Russian nuclear doctrine.

The National Security Strategy, released in December and showing the imprint of National Security Advisor HR McMaster, reserves some choice words for Russia. The NSS groups Russia with China as the twin hegemonic threats to U.S. global power. It asserts that:

Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United State, and in destabilizing cyber capabilities. ­Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world. The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.

Them’s fighting words!

Finally, the Trump administration has not relinquished the overall U.S. foreign policy of fighting anywhere and everywhere in the world. It promises to scale back on programs that particularly irked the Kremlin — such as democracy promotion through the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy and its attendant institutions — but otherwise it has upped U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan and Syria. And it seems to be angling to expand the conflict with Iran, a key Russian ally.

So: new capabilities, new strategies, new fears, new rhetoric. The bromance between Trump and Putin has obviously not yielded an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations.

But please: This has little to do with Russiagate.

Russiagate and the Cold War

Russia tried to influence the U.S. elections. But it remains unclear how effective it was and how closely it worked with the Trump campaign. I’ve written about why I think this somethingburger comes with all the fixings.

But let’s put that controversy to one side for the moment to focus on a different kind of assertion: that Trump’s current stance toward Russia somehow “proves” that there was no coordination between the two at some point during the campaign or between the election and inauguration.

Let’s hear from “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone, who has cultivated a following on Medium with her anti-Russiagate rants:

You need to plug yourself into Louise Mensch and Rachel Maddow ramblings so extensively that you can contort your sense of reason to the point where it looks perfectly rational to believe that Putin was omniscient enough to know that Trump could defeat all primary opponents and take the fight to the heir apparent Hillary Clinton back when virtually no one else imagined such a thing was possible, recruited his team reportedly at the cost of billions of dollars, poured all kinds of intel and resources into ensuring Trump’s election using hackers and bots to influence American opinion, only to get a U.S. president who is, when it comes to facts in evidence, already just a year into his administration demonstrably more hawkish towards Russia than his predecessor was.

It takes a certain chutzpah to complain about other people’s “ramblings” with a sentence as serpentine as that one. But let’s ignore the stylistic excesses and focus instead on the twisted logic.

Putin’s omniscience is not at issue. The Kremlin has backed all sorts of long shots without any guarantee that they will pay off in the short term or even over the long run. Putin knew what he didn’t like: a U.S. foreign policy consensus that generally backed NATO expansion, democracy promotion, and U.S. military interventionism. Trump seemed to offer something different. Plus, supporting Trumpism helped drive various wedges into the U.S. political system.

Has Trump proven to be more hawkish than Obama?

Well, yes, he has authorized the arms sales to Ukraine and has promised a new round of sanctions against Russian cyber entities. He has proven to be a disappointment to Moscow in his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and his support for a surge in Afghanistan.

But in other respects, Trump has been more accommodating of Russia in Syria, has not raised issues of human rights with Putin, and has consistently taken Putin’s word on the various Russiagate issues. Other foreign policy positions that Trump has taken probably warm Putin’s heart as well, such as his scrambling of transatlantic relations, his withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, and his broadsides against immigration. So, it’s a mixed bag.

But the real problem is the projection backward of a result that was indeed very hard to predict. Trump has been the very definition of unpredictability — as a businessman, as an “entertainer,” as a husband, and yes, as a political figure. The fact that Trump has taken certain hardline positions against Russia can’t be taken, ex post facto, as proof somehow that Putin wouldn’t have bothered to put the energy or resources into supporting Trump because he must have anticipated that outcome. If Putin lacked the omniscience to know that Trump would get elected, he obviously couldn’t predict what the president would do in office either.

I imagine — and I’m just guessing here — that Putin feels that:

  • He got pretty good bang — a lot of American political chaos and a reduction of the U.S. global hegemonic footprint — for not a lot of bucks.
  • S.-Russian relations still suck, but given the power of the Blob in Washington, any real improvement from the Obama years would have been the real long shot.
  • At least Trump is proving to be useful from a domestic point of view. Putin can use the American military build-up to justify his own continued modernization and burnish his own credentials as the strongman that Russia desperately needs in these perilous times.

And you thought that only the American military-industrial complex ran on foreign threats?

From Critique to Cooperation

There might be a few critics of Russia who would be happy to throw another bag of ice onto the new new Cold War between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. Former UN ambassador John Bolton comes to mind, or perhaps the ever-lunatic former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney.

But the notion that covering Russiagate or critiquing Russian policies represents a desire to disrupt U.S.-Russian relations even further is far-fetched. Media critic Norman Solomon makes an even more logic-defying leap in an AlterNet piece from January: “Narratives scapegoating Russia now have an extremely powerful grip on the USA. The consequences include heightened U.S.-Russia tensions that absolutely mean heightened risks of nuclear war and worsening threats to democratic discourse at home.”

Nonsense. U.S.-Russian tensions existed prior to the 2016 election and have far more to do with NATO expansion, Russian moves in Ukraine, disagreements over Syria, and Putin’s own efforts to dispatch his domestic critics. An investigation into Russian activities in the U.S. presidential campaign, which has already yielded any number of revelations (though you can dispute the impact of those activities), is an entirely legitimate exercise in a democracy.

To connect these critiques of Russian behavior to an increased risk of nuclear war and threats to democracy at home is an extraordinary overstatement. It’s the actions of the two leaders that are contributing to the increased risk of nuclear war. And can you cite any examples of how Russiagate investigations have threatened democratic discourse in the United States? Okay, Glenn Greenwald no longer appears on the Rachel Maddow show. But he seems to have taken this “McCarthyism” in stride by appearing before larger audiences on Fox.

There’s no dispute, however, that U.S.-Russian relations are at a nadir. So, the question must be: what to do?

First, as during the original Cold War, let’s come up with some ground rules. Back then, you could support arms control and disarmament activities and still criticize the Soviet Union for its human rights record, its foreign policy, and the lousy chocolate it produced. It pains me that this kind walk-and-chew-gum distinction must again be made with respect to Russia, but so be it.

Next, during the Cold War, activists in the east and the west teamed up in support of peace and human rights on both sides of the divide. It’s essential that peace activists pursue something similar today. Neither East nor West, neither Trump nor Putin!

Third, let’s focus on making Eastern Europe — the broader swath that includes the eastern members of the European Union as well as Ukraine and Belarus — a zone of peace. Let’s start with the easy part, places like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, which are EU members but maintain good relations with the Kremlin.

I’m no fan of the leaders of those countries, but let’s leverage their influence. These countries would lose the most from any escalation in tensions between Washington and Moscow. They must take the lead in creating a new kind of security forum for addressing the tensions of the new new Cold War. Bulgaria and Serbia would certainly join. Poland and Romania would be tougher sells.

Once that’s in place, let’s move on to Ukraine and come up with a solution that can satisfy both Kiev and Moscow. It might mean bidding Crimea goodbye — a move I’ve compared to cutting off your arm to get out of an impossible situation — but that would be a small sacrifice for the territorial integrity of the rest of Ukraine plus peace and security for the region.

Is this something that Putin and Trump can pull off? I have my doubts. But these guys won’t be in power forever. The Cold War has been around, in various permutations, for a long time. It will take patience, organizing, compromises, and some luck to bury it once and for all.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel “Splinterlands.”

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