New Cold War? Not Really

UPDATE: Michael Totten chimes in with a first-hand look at the area.

I wouldn’t concede anything yet, or even that there’s a new cold war. Russian power embarrassed the Georgians and made clear that Georgia’s claim to territorial integrity lacks operational content. Russia flexed a little muscle, said to the world that it’s tired of being ignored (which it never was) on ABM and missiles, NATO’s eastward expansion, and independence of Kosovo. The heart of the Muscovite cab driver again beats with pride. O-chin horrorshow, as Anthony Burgess might say.

The Russians did succeed in highlighting and expanding (ever so slightly) the gaps between the U.S. and Europe, and between Old and New Europe. But there’s nothing new there, and Putin knows that the West Europeans are a bit defensive about their own less-than-firm reaction, and that they will be impelled to stiffen their collective spine a bit next time. So instead of this being an opening salvo in a new crusade in the Near Abroad, I think this is likely to be a one-shot deal. Not that there aren’t risks and flashpoints, such as the tussle with Ukraine over the Crimea.

The one significant gain for Russia is that, perversely, its bellicose behavior makes it less likely that Georgia and Ukraine will be invited into NATO any time soon. But to maintain this status quo, the Russians will have to be civil toward their neighbors.

As in the Soviet period, the Russian posture toward the West is fascinatingly ambivalent. “Fear us. No, love us and show us the respect we deserve (and crave). No, fear us. No…” But this time around, there is no underlying ideologically-driven bedrock of hostility. To be sure, there are disquieting continuities. On 8/7, I immediately thought of a long-ago line from Kennan: “Russia’s neighbors must either be enemies or vassals. No country bordering Russia can simply be its friend.” (More or less. I’m just being too lazy to google the exact quote.)

Even so, the Cold War was about a fundamentally competitive and adversarial relationship, leavened by the mutual desire to avoid direct confrontation–especially, of course, in nuclear form. The current relationship is much more mixed, with, dare I say it, more shared than competing interests. On the one hand, Russia wants to dominate energy markets, maintain maximum economic ties with Iran, coddle dictators (and maybe even pull the American lion’s tail by playing naval footsie with the shithead from Venezuela), and avoid any real reform at home. On the other, the Russians want to be tied in constructively to the global economy, are afraid of loose nukes and terrorism (especially Islamism), and don’t want to see nukes in the hands of the North Koreans, Iranians, or any other of the world’s zanies. They don’t like American policy in Iraq, but also don’t want to see conflict or instability in Pakistan, the Gulf or anywhere else along their vast periphery. Most importantly, they want security. Unlike the U.S.S.R., Russia cannot sustain an arms race–though it is very likely to make significant if limited attempts to build power–despite its seas of oil and oceans of gas. I think even Putin understands that the one potential threat to Russian security is a mobilized and hostile NATO, a state of affairs that can only come about through the folly of Russian bellicosity.

Did I yet mention, by the way, that even in Georgia Russia failed to depose Saakashvili and his Western- and reform-oriented (if only “partly free”) system. And it created (reaffirmed, actually, a state of affairs that has existed since the mid-90s) facts (a familiar phrase?) on the ground in the two territories–but not even a political arrangement that anyone else of consequence recognizes. Russia’s clumsy use of power only impels other states to reiterate their support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, whatever that actually may mean in real terms. And, as I suggested before, the Russians might be hoist on their own petard, having created a kind of template for Chechnya.

Despite their huffing and puffing, I don’t really think the Russians want to belly up to the bar for another round of the Great Game. (To switch metaphors: they might want to play a tennis game or two, but not a whole set and definitely not a match.) Were they to do so, I like the pieces arrayed on our side of the board.

(By the way, the actual shoe-pounding incident was in 1960).

Jay Speakman


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