Staunton, May 9 – Moscow commentators have been denouncing the West for launching “a new cold war” against Russia, and a large share of Western commentators have assumed that this is because the Russian leadership doesn’t want one. In fact, Moscow is desperate to have that the new-old paradigm be restored at least at the level of rhetoric for at least three reasons.
First of all, if Moscow can get people in Russia and the West to talk about a new cold war, the Kremlin will have succeeded in boosting its status from what it has been since 1991. During the cold war, the USSR was the other super power, certainly not equal to the West in most dimensions but often treated as if it were nevertheless. Moreover, if that becomes the dominant paradigm again, there will always be people in the West who will argue not that the West needs to promote its interests against Russia but that the only way forward is compromise. And that too works to the benefit of Moscow.
Second, the Putin regime is pleased to make use of the idea of a new cold war domestically to divert attention from its own disastrous economic policies and worsening demographic situation at home and to provide a justification for increasing repression. If as the new cold war paradigm suggests, Russia is a “besieged fortress,” few Russians can or will object to the kind of steps the the Kremlin says are necessary to defend them and their country. And if the West can be convinced to use the cold war paradigm, so much the better, because Moscow propagandists will then as they are already doing quote Western officials and commentators as evidence that the West has launched the cold war against Russia.
And third – and this is perhaps the most important reason that Vladimir Putin has for wanting new “cold war” rhetoric — it conceals what he is actually doing. It helps elevate classical aggression and land grabs into something more vaunted, and keeps the West off balance because it prevents many from seeing what he is doing and from taking the kind of steps necessary to stop him. The cold war was a unique event, reflecting a specific kind of ideological and geopolitical competition. It is a mistake to assume that it is the default setting of the West’s relations with Russia if there are fundamental differences of interest and opinion.
But what Putin has been doing in Ukraine and elsewhere around the periphery of the Russian Federation is not a revival of the cold war; it is a revenant of something earlier and in some ways is both uglier than that and more difficult to mobilize to counter: the kind of Russian piecemeal but regionally limited imperialism that Moscow used to extend its sway over an enormous territory by military conquest. Putin is trying to package this as something else just as his Soviet predecessors promoted the notion that territories conquered by Russian arms had “voluntarily joined” Russia. Now as in the past, such ideological games cloud the situation, at least enough to cause those who confuse balance with objectivity to echo some of these falsehoods.
And it is uglier in two other ways as well. On the one hand, Putin’s ideologists in contrast to his Soviet predecessors openly talk about whole peoples as the enemy and not just their leaders. Communist propagandists were generally, albeit not always, careful to distinguish foreign governments and intelligence services from the populations that these ideologists suggested were victims of these same institutions. Putin in contrast has promoted a vicious nationalism in which Ukrainians are treated collectively as an enemy nation; increasingly he and his minions are projecting that alternate version of reality on the entire populations of Western countries. That ideological shift makes future progress more difficult.
And on the other hand, Putin’s aggressive assertions that ethnicity is more important than citizenship and that empires are a better form of governance than nation states is sending messages to other powers on how they can and even should act. There is an all too direct connection between what Putin is doing in Ukraine and what Beijing is doing in the South China Sea and with the overseas Chinese. If what Putin is doing is allowed to succeed, China will not be the only country to follow Moscow’s lead in taking a revisionist, even revanchist stance in its policies.
Countering Putin is thus as important as countering the Soviet Union was, but it is going to be a far greater challenge. Because Putin’s actions take place on the margins of the existing Russian empire, they do not appear to be the existential threat to the West that the Soviet system was. Consequently, there will always be those in the West who will argue that the West should “understand” what Moscow is doing and reach “compromises.” And that is all the more likely because the West and especially the United States has relatively fewer resources to bring to bear than it did – and many more political leaders who are playing to the crowd by suggesting that what resources these countries have should be spent not on defense against a “distant Russian threat” but at home. Putin is playing to that and one could even say promoting that by his on-again-off again aggression, with each step back gaining plaudits from those who refused to condemn his earlier two steps forward.
But because the Kremlin leader wants to revise all three 20th century settlements that are at the foundation of the current international order – the denunciation of empires in 1919; the rejection of the idea that ethnicity is more important than citizenship in 1945; and support for the end of Soviet empire in 1991 – the West does face a challenge. If Putin succeeds in Ukraine and elsewhere, the international system will be transformed not to one of a new cold war as he suggests and as some in the West fear but into something much worse: a Hobbesian world of all against all, in which once again the hard power of military force rather than the soft power of principles will be dominant.
That is not a world that the US or the West will find at all congenial – it will be even more uncomfortable for us than was the cold war — but it is one they will be allowing to emerge if they do not work to contain Putin’s aggression – and ultimately reverse it.