Foreign Affairs

The Looming Prospect of a New Cold War

putin2After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, President Obama had this to say about President Putin in an interview on CBS News:

He’s been willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union. You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward does not revert back to the kinds of practices that, you know, were so relevant during the Cold War.

In April, 2005, on Russian national television, Vladimir Putin lamented that the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics left tens of millions of his fellow countrymen outside Moscow’s command. The break-up of the Soviet empire, he said, was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Clearly, President Putin’s understanding of “the path forward”, which aims to reconcile the reach of the Soviet empire with a born-again Holy Mother Russia, contrasts sharply with six years of President Obama’s multilateral New World Order.

What informs Putin’s foreign policy is not a universe away from the xenophobia and imperial ambition that drove the Kremlin’s foreign policy at the commencement of the Cold War: a form of exceptionalism that can only be checked by American exceptionalism in concert with regional allies. Stalin’s Plan A for Germany, much like Putin’s Plan A for modern-day Ukraine, amounted to the “Finlandisation” of the entire country. Stalin made his move in early 1946 when he ordered the merger of “his” KPD (Communist Party of Germany) with the SPD (Socialist Party of Germany) in the Soviet Zone. When the SPD in the three Western-occupied zones did not follow suit but backed instead the concept of an American-sponsored West German state, Stalin had to fall back on Plan B: quitting the Allied Control Council, opposing currency reform in Trizonia, laying siege to West Berlin, founding the German Democratic Republic and giving the green light for Kim Il-Sung’s T34 tanks to cross the Korean 38th parallel. The Kremlin’s geopolitical aspirations set off the Cold War and embroiled America in a lethal rivalry. Today, tragically, we might be witnessing the emergence of parallel circumstances in Ukraine.

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There are three ways the world can be spared a Second Cold War but, unfortunately, the first has gone by the board, the second is mostly dormant and the third might have come too late to deter Putin’s adventurism. In the first scenario, post-Soviet Russia would have adopted the normative practices of a Western-style liberal democracy—as per Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis—and by doing so renounced traditional Russian imperial ambitions. The astonishing growth of genuinely autonomous media outlets during the Boris Yeltsin era (1991–2000) persuaded many observers that Russia was set to embrace Western-style freedom. Independent-minded reporters, such as Anna Politkovskaya, found not only their liberal voices but also the means to be heard. For the first time since the conclusion of the Russian civil war (1918–21), journalists—entire newspapers and television stations, in fact—were not mere marionettes for the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, during the Yeltsin years the Russian economy experienced a meltdown as it made an unruly transition from a Soviet-style command system to private enterprise. Yeltsin’s steep cuts to welfare, the raising of taxes and reduction of state subsidies to industry were meant to counter the liberalisation of prices, but all to no avail—the financial system went into a tailspin while inflation skyrocketed. Russia’s one-time lovable rogue may have been re-elected in 1996 and yet by the time he handed over the reins of power in 1999 to Vladimir Putin, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Yeltsin was as unpopular as Mikhail Gorbachev.

The linchpin of Yeltsin’s economic strategy during the 1990s had been privatisation. Regrettably, state enterprises finished up as giveaways to the powerful. Assets in industry, energy, finance, telecommunications and the media found their way into the hands of those with connections to the old Soviet nomenklatura. Anna Politkovskaya saved her greatest condemnation not for Boris Yeltsin but for his successor. In Putin’s Russia (2004), Politkovskaya claims that “Putin’s new-old nomenklatura has taken corruption to heights undreamt of under the Communists or Yeltsin”. Moreover, Putin’s exploitation of the Second Chechen War (1999–2009) effectively polished off democracy in Russia.

In the chapter of Putin’s Russia titled “Our New Middle Ages, or War Criminals of All the Russias”, Politkovskaya depicts the Second Chechen War (and its toll of 25,000 to 50,000 dead or missing) as a cancer that affected every part of Russian society—the judiciary, human rights, the political opposition, the army, the police, the various intelligence agencies, the media and, most important of all, the psyche of the general population. Politkovskaya, like Marsha Gessen and so many other Russian investigative journalists of the time, came to believe that it was the FSB that perpetrated the Russian apartment bombings resulting in the death of 300 civilians. It was this supposed “false flag” operation that swung Russian public opinion behind Putin and his ambition to go to war again in Chechnya. The rumour, whether true or not, may have enhanced his image in certain quarters because it marked him as the kind of ruthless strongman who could save Russia from itself.

Politkovskaya claims in Putin’s Russia that by 2004 her country had fallen into the “Soviet abyss” and for a journalist to survive in Russia required “servility to Putin”. For any remaining contrarians, Putin’s “guard dogs” were ready with “the bullet, poison or trial”. On October 7, 2006, four bullets struck Politkovskaya, one to the head. Oleg Gordievsky, a covert agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service who defected from the Soviet Union in 1985, warned the world that the FSB was now operating straight out of the old KGB handbook.

Max Hastings’s virtuoso essay “Will We Have to Fight Russia in This Century?” (2007) made the connection between Vladimir Putin’s emboldened despotism in Russia and his stepped-up anti-West rhetoric from 2003. Hastings observed the mood of the Russian population to be one of “brooding anger” on account of “20 years of perceived Western slights and condescension since the collapse of the Soviet Union”. As a result, Russians did not disapprove of one of their intelligence agents assassinating Alexander Litvinenko, a trenchant critic of Putin, in the heart of London two weeks after Politkovskaya’s slaying. The Russian public thrilled at the story of the alleged assassin, Andrey Lugovoy, returning safely to Russia after completing his mission in a way that made “fools of Britain’s James Bonds”.

Alexander Litvinenko, who died from polonium-210-induced acute radiation syndrome, had co-written Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within (2003), an attempt to substantiate the accusation that Putin’s FSB allies were responsible for the September 1999 bombings of Russian apartments. Lugovoy’s guilt remains in dispute, but a telling postscript is that Putin made Lugovoy a member of the Duma, thus guaranteeing him immunity. Putin also spurned every attempt by the British government to extradite Lugovoy to the UK for trial.

Most Russians, contended Hastings, care “amazingly little” that Putin curtailed free speech and “systematically dismantled the fragile instruments of democracy created by Gorbachev and Yeltsin”. As David Satter argued five years later in It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway (2012), the Russians have retreated into a traditional form of statism in which “nothing is higher than the goals of the state”. They are prepared to sign away their individual sovereignty and “submit to the supererogatory claims of a de-ideologised state” on the understanding that Tsar Vladimir safeguards them from home-grown and foreign malevolence and that his potency portends the resurrection of the Russian empire.

Hastings did not envisage a Second Cold War resulting from Putin’s hostility towards the West, but declared that the “notion of Western friendship with Russia is a dead letter”. His assessment of Putin’s Russia was not one the European Union or the Americans were ready to hear:

The best we can look for is grudging accommodation. The bear has shown its claws once more, as so often in its bloody history, and its people enjoy the sensation. We may hope that in the 21st century we shall not be obliged to fight Russia. But it would be foolish to suppose that we shall be able to lie beside this dangerous, emotional beast in safety or tranquillity.

Only those who had been the direct victims of the old Soviet empire—the Poles, the Estonians, the Georgians, the Romanians, the Moldavians, a majority of Ukrainians and so forth—appeared to be alert to the perils of Russian revanchism.

Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War (2008) goes further than Hastings’s article. As his title suggests, Lucas is ready to claim that Putin’s ambitions—even at this relatively early juncture—are akin to those of the Soviet empire. While the countries of the European Union slumbered and America focused its intention on the War on Terror, Putin was hatching plans to resurrect the time-honoured Russian ambition of dominion over Eurasia from Vladivostok to Lisbon. Key to achieving this objective, warned Lucas, would be Russia wielding its natural resources like a lethal weapon against European countries. And it is true that gas has not been piped to Europe from the Russian hinterland in accordance with normal market practices. The supplier, Gazprom, behaves like an arm of the Russian state:

The Kremlin wants to prevent European countries diversifying their sources of energy supply, particularly in gas. It wants to strengthen its hold over the international gas market. It wants to acquire “downstream assets” distribution and storage capability—in Western countries. And it wants to use those assets to exert political pressure.

Lucas likened Putin’s geopolitical mastery over his European counterparts to “a battle-hardened chess grandmaster playing against a bunch of inattentive and squabbling amateurs”.

“The ‘New Tsarism’: What Makes Russia’s Leaders Tick”, the second-most critical chapter in Lucas’s book, decodes the political glossary in contemporary Russia, exposing the understanding that exists between the Russian people and Vladimir Putin or the “First Person”. For instance, the word gosudarstvennik, which is often applied to Putin and his coterie, can be translated as “statist”, a mildly derogatory term in Western parlance, and yet for Russians something far more patriotic: “A gosudarstvennik cares about the state’s prestige and strength; he believes it to be an expression, perhaps the highest expression, of society, culture, even of civilisation.” The advancement of Russia’s derzhavnost (“great-power-status”) drives not only Putin but also his Russian devotees.

The year 2006 saw the introduction of a new history guide for secondary school teachers, A Modern History of Russia, 19452006: A Teachers’ Manual. The First Person personally endorsed it. The Soviet empire, Putin would like us to believe, was no “Evil Empire”—even if (say) the Poles might beg to differ. Edward Lucas, back in 2008, even worried that the Kremlin would reverse its official position on the 1940 Katyn Massacre, in which Soviet NKVD agents slaughtered 22,000 Polish prisoners, including 8000 Polish officers. Only in the twilight days of the Soviet Union did its authorities own up to the fact that the Nazis had not been guilty of this crime against humanity. In November 2010, thankfully, the Duma approved a declaration censuring Stalin and other Soviet officials—but that has not been the end of the matter.

President Putin, in his 2010 meeting with Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, acknowledged that the decades-old attempt by Soviet officials to “cover up the truth about the executions” had been “cynical lies”. However, Putin then proceeded to assert that “suggesting the Russian people are to blame for that is the same kind of lie and fabrication”. The best that can be said about Putin’s statement is that it constitutes a half-apology and a disingenuous one at that. According to Putin’s narrative, the atheistic communists who killed the innocent Poles were the same criminals who carried out the Great Purges (1936–39) resulting in the murder of innocent Russians. Ipso facto, the Russian people were no less the victim of the excesses of Stalinism than were the 22,000 blameless Poles executed in the Katyn forest.

At the time, Tusk put the best spin on it he could, describing his meeting with Putin as “crucial” and a “turning point” in Russo-Polish relations, even if he did admit to a “slightly different” understanding of the significance of Katyn. That “slightly different” outlook is why Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March has sent Poland, Estonia, Romania and other Eastern European countries into high alert to defend themselves and deter any further Russian encroachment on the sovereignty of Ukraine. Julian Assange, along with other leftist types, has fobbed off Putin’s seizure of Crimea as an “existential” geopolitical necessity for the Kremlin, ignoring the fact that Russian revanchism is an existentialist threat to Eastern Europe. The Eastern Europeans will turn to America for support, just as West Germans sought American help in the late 1940s.

“How Eastern Europe Sits on the Front Line of the New Cold War” is the most prescient chapter of Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War. Right there in black and white is Lucas’s warning that Putin planned to reassert Russian control over the “Near Abroad”. As early as 2000, Putin was defining any form of “discrimination” against the 25 million “Russian citizens” who lived abroad as “one of the military threats facing Russia”. A year later he was broadening the definition of Russian citizen to “any Russian-speaker with a pro-Kremlin orientation”: generating, in effect, geopolitical leverage—or a potential fifth column—in almost every neighbouring country, from Estonia to Ukraine and beyond.

And that was just the start of it: “Kremlin-financed think tanks have been set up in Ukraine, the Caucasus and Moldova, coupled with media outlets, Internet websites and networks of academics.” In short, Putin has been waging a political, social, diplomatic, economic and propaganda campaign against Atlanticism (the US-European partnership) and Eastern European self-determination for over a decade while the West, divided and distracted, turned a blind eye.

The great hope of the USA and Old Europe was always to bring post-Soviet Russia into the fold and develop a strategic partnership that would confine the Cold War to the twentieth century. The early rapport between President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin, combined with the unexpected and shocking terrorist attack on America in 2001, convinced many that a genuine post-Cold War strategic partnership really could be forged between Washington and Moscow.

Bush’s first meeting with Putin came at the Ljubljana Summit in June 2001. His warm words for the Russian leader surprised many observers at the time: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Though he was less effusive, Putin’s body language and general demeanour at the summit contrasted with the frosty relations that existed between Russia and America during President Clinton’s final year in office. There was, nevertheless, a caveat to Putin’s determination to treat America as “Russia’s partner”. He warned that “any unilateral action” on the part of Washington would “complicate” matters.

The Bush–Putin relationship grew in the aftermath of 9/11. Putin promised to support Bush’s War on Terror in any way he could—and he did. America, for instance, was given permission to utilise ex-Soviet military bases in Central Asia for the Afghanistan War. Putin opened a military hospital in Kabul in December 2001 to service wounded NATO personnel and Afghan civilians. The Moscow theatre siege in 2002 and the Beslam hostage crisis in 2004 seemed to confirm the view that Islamic terrorism had made unlikely partners out of Russia and the USA. Significantly, this is the period when Anna Politkovskaya wrote Putin’s Russia and rebuked the West for looking at the words and deeds of Vladimir Putin “through rose-tinted spectacles”.

Ultimately Bush did lose his rosy point of view. Six years after relinquishing power, he had this to say about his one-time counterpart:

Vladimir’s a person who in many ways views the US as an enemy … I felt that he viewed the world as either the US benefits and Russia loses or vice-versa. I, of course, tried to dispel him of that notion.

Putin would no doubt insist that it was Bush’s Iraq War that turned everything pear-shaped. He might argue that America’s use of force to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime was a unilateralist act—or, at least, done without Russia’s endorsement—and this rendered the nascent Russo-American strategic partnership null and void. There is an element of truth in such a narrative, but it tells only a part of the story.

More likely, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was the breaking point in Russia’s relationship with the United States. Putin had presumed that an unwritten understanding with the West designated Ukraine a part of Russia’s sphere of influence until the end of time. The Orange Revolution challenged that notion. Erupting after the allegedly rigged 2004 presidential contest gave victory to the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych, people-power challenged the results of the election. Putin, according to all reports, looked on in horror as Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko proceeded to assume the posts of president and prime minister of Ukraine respectively. Later, Putin was able to turn the tables when “his man”—Yanukovych—became prime minister in 2006 and subsequently president in 2010. The situation appeared to have resolved itself in favour of the pre-2004 status quo.

During the time of the Orange Revolution, crucially, Putin believed that any move on the part of Ukrainians to exist beyond the remit of Moscow must be the product of meddling Western intelligence agencies (often disguised as civilian NGOs) who colluded with local ultra-nationalists or Russophobes (with, naturally, pro-fascist or even pro-Nazi sympathies). Such is the paranoid worldview of an old KGB hand. Dealing with such a fearful and mistrustful Russian leader was always going to be tricky for the United States and the West in general—no less awkward, perhaps, than dealing with a Khrushchev or a Brezhnev. Only American strength of purpose has the capacity to inhibit Russian adventurism.

Barack Obama believed he understood the key to eliminating Russo-American antagonism when he entered the White House in January 2009. The remedy for reversing the enmity between the USA and the Russian Federation was to be found in the origins of the Cold War. Indoctrinated in New Left ideology, Obama knew it was not only mutual fear and suspicion but also Harry Truman’s bad faith that kick-started the Cold War after the Second World War.

The solution, in the mind of Obama at least, must have seemed relatively straightforward: conduct yourself with humility and repentance and immediately make provisions to remove US troops from Iraq. Putin was bound to come aboard the peace train. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even presented the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, with a gift-wrapped red button—pinched from a hotel jacuzzi—to symbolise the resetting of relations between Moscow and Washington. Only belatedly did the American delegation realise that the lettering on the button translated as “overcharged” rather than “reset”. The Americans, to the unconcealed glee of the Russians, squirmed in the media spotlight—and have been squirming ever since. Four years of an accommodating Obama failed to win over an unbiddable Putin. In October 2012, just before his re-election, Obama was overheard on a “hot” microphone promising Putin’s proxy, Dmitry Medvedev, that he could be “more flexible” in his second term if that would help. Medvedev politely agreed to pass the message onto Putin.

Too much “flexibility”, in fact, is the third reason the world has found itself revisiting Cold War scenarios. If the Russian Federation had evolved into a normative liberal democracy rather than the world’s first bona fide mafia state, a “supersize model of the KGB” as Masha Gessen describes it in The Man Without a Face (2012), then Obama’s first-term flexibility might have been just the ticket. He dropped the missile shield program promised to Poland and Czechoslovakia, took US forces out of Iraq, remained silent when Gazprom modulated westward gas supplies to the rhythm of Russia’s foreign policy, turned the other cheek after Putin accused him of the “planned murder” of Muammar Gaddafi, and meekly endured Putin’s undisguised contempt every time they met in public. Did Obama ever comprehend what he was up against before it became too late to chasten the First Person? This is Putin, over a decade ago, justifying Russia’s unrestrained brutality in Chechnya:

It’s like with a dog, you know. A dog senses when somebody is afraid of it, and bites. The same applies here. If you become jittery, they will think that they are stronger. Only one thing works in such circumstances—to go on the offensive. You must hit first, and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet.

The first six years of Obama’s presidency did not pass entirely without Russo-American collaboration. On May 9, 2010, American soldiers participated in the Moscow Victory Parade alongside Russian troops for the first time. That same year the USA and Russia conducted an anti-hijacking exercise called Vigilante Eagle. America and Russia often co-operated in fighting piracy and terrorism in Afghanistan, although Obama has now signalled he will be removing the US military presence there. The optimists might argue that Obama worked in a productive way with Putin when they enticed Iran to the negotiating table on the subject of nuclear weapons. However, Russia can live with its principal ally in the Middle East going nuclear, but the United States and its Middle East allies cannot. This was never a recipe for a successful outcome, and even less so in the shadow of the crisis in Ukraine.

Tony Blair, in his role as UN Middle East envoy, now asserts that the greatest danger to the West is not Russia but “the threat of Islamic extremism”. The former British leader is currently encouraging America to increase co-operation with Russia (and China) in the fight against Islamic extremism irrespective of “other differences”—in other words, the crisis in Ukraine. As long as Obama remains in the White House, though, Blair is probably whistling in the wind. The Kremlin remains dumbfounded by Obama’s embrace of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, not to mention his close association with Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, who provides aid and comfort to Al Qaeda types in Syria. It might have been due to narrow economic self-interest—the creation of a Russo-Libyan OPEC-style cartel for gas producers—that Putin wanted Muammar Gaddafi to remain in power. Yet it is not only Putin who would like to know why America has done so little to impede Al Qaeda-aligned extremists thriving in the post-Gaddafi landscape.

The ideal of a strategic partnership between Russia and America, which would reduce the chances of a Second Cold War, has become less likely over the past six years. The primary guilty party in this unfortunate turn of events is Vladimir Putin, the upstart KGB opportunist who has exploited the fears and disappointments of the Russian people in order to satisfy his despotic impulse and resuscitate the darkest aspects of Russian history: imperial ambition and xenophobia. His reconfigured version of Russian exceptionalism means that Ukraine has every chance of playing Ground Zero in a new Cold War, reprising the role Allied-occupied Germany performed in setting off the original Cold War. An over-confident Putin, who has so far outplayed Obama at every turn, is in danger of overstepping the mark in Ukraine—just as Stalin did in post-war Germany.

A new generation of revisionist historians wait in the wings to caricature the massive demonstrations that toppled Viktor Yanukovych as the work of Western-sponsored provocateurs, and Putin’s actual provocateurs as the voice of the people. But Angela Merkel and the EU did not bring things undone in Ukraine. The vast majority of Ukrainians, including most of those in Eastern Ukraine, would prefer to associate with the West rather than accept kind Mr Putin’s altruistic offer of membership in his proposed four-nation Common Economic Space, even with subsidised gas thrown into the bargain. Obama, as a result, is between a rock and hard place. The less he does to support the freedom-loving people of Ukraine and the Baltic states, the more ambitious Putin will become; conversely, the greater the push back on Obama’s part, the more the usual anti-America crowd in the West—plus a sprinkling of so-called paleo-conservatives—will mock The One’s original ambition to be the twenty-first century’s foremost healer-in-chief.

Daryl McCann wrote “The Lethal Ideology of Holocaust Inversion” in the May issue. He has a blog at


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