A New Cold War?

David Kramer, a senior director at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and the former president of Freedom House, responds to some popular assertions regarding the current geopolitical situation in Europe and answers the question: Are we really in a period of a new Cold War?

Assertion one: The extension of NATO membership in Central and Eastern Europe has forced Russia to respond; hence the West is at fault for bringing back the Cold War mentality.

It is absurd to argue that the West bears responsibility for bringing back the Cold War mentality. NATO enlargement has been carried out because countries that formerly fell under the Warsaw Pact or were part of the Soviet Union became free and independent states and wanted to join Euro-Atlantic institutions. No country in the West forced Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or other countries to become NATO members. They wanted to join, just as they sought to become members of the European Union, because it gave them a sense of returning to the European fold, protection from outside threats (not necessarily from Russia at the time they joined), and incentive to undertake difficult reforms. NATO’s decades-old open-door policy made their joining possible, even desirable, but at no point were countries threatened if they did not join. The only pressure they faced was from Russia to not join.

Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies Project at Harvard University (and in the interest of full disclosure, one of my brothers), wrote an important article in The Washington Quarterly in 2009 debunking the notion that NATO pledged to Russia that it would not enlarge in exchange for Russian agreement on the reunification of Germany. His article is an important contribution in rejecting the idea that the Clinton Administration reneged on commitments made by the Bush Administration, which at that time was negotiating over the reunification of Germany.

He wrote that “the purpose here has simply been to determine whether Russian and western observers and officials are justified in arguing that the US government, and perhaps some of the other NATO governments, made a ‘pledge’ to Gorbachev in 1990 that if the USSR consented to Germany’s full membership in NATO after unification, the alliance would not expand to include any other East European countries. Declassified materials show unmistakably that no such pledge was made. Valid arguments can be made against NATO enlargement, but this particular argument is spurious.”

Michael O'Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro piece in The Washington Post urging policy of appeasement towards Vladimir Putin
Michael O’Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro piece in The Washington Post urging policy of appeasement towards Vladimir Putin

Some argue that to address the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia, Ukraine should rule out seeking to join NATO and remain neutral. Michael O’Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro made this case in the Washington Post in December 2014, essentially calling for giving Vladimir Putin a veto over anything the European Union and NATO would do vis-à-vis Russia’s neighbours and consigning Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and other countries in the region to a Russian sphere of influence. No more NATO enlargement, they argue, and any EU relationship with Ukraine would have to receive Moscow’s approval and not interfere with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union project.

Yet countries join the Eurasian Economic Union because they face tremendous Russian pressure to do so. On the other hand, they join the EU and NATO because they want to and see it as being in their nations’ best interests. Moreover, NATO enlargement was not an issue that factored into Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. To justify his invasion, Putin fabricated stories that Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians, first in Crimea and then in eastern Ukraine, were under threat after Viktor Yanukovych’s departure. In reality, no such threats existed. In the early phase of the invasion, Putin did not cite NATO enlargement as a reason for Russia’s move – in large part because nobody was discussing the idea of Ukraine joining the Alliance.

Thus, NATO enlargement had nothing to do with Putin’s decision. It only became a factor cited by western analysts like O’Hanlon and Shapiro who blame enlargement for many of the current problems between Putin’s Russia and the West, when, in fact, the source of tensions between the West and Russia lies with the nature of the Putin regime.

Ukraine’s membership in NATO is a far-off possibility, to the extent that it exists at all, but Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has produced recent survey results showing, for the first time, a small majority of Ukrainians’ wanting to join NATO. How demoralising would it be to Ukrainians for NATO, on top of already refusing to provide Ukraine with the military means to defend itself against further Russian attacks, to announce that it is shutting the door to NATO, too? Putin would read such a decision as open season on Ukraine and other non-NATO neighbours.

To justify his way of governing, Putin has needed to perpetuate the myth that the West, and the United States in particular, represent a threat to Russia. As far back as his speech following the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004 and continuing with his Munich speech in 2007, Putin has hyped the threat from outside powers. NATO enlargement was cited in the 2010 Military Doctrine as the greatest military danger, a theme repeated in the newly released Military Doctrine that Putin approved in December 2014.

Russia’s most secure, stable borders are with countries that belong to NATO and/or the European Union. It is utter nonsense that NATO, a defensive organisation, is a threat to Russia. Instead, Putin’s Russia is a grave threat to its immediate neighbours, to the West and to global stability more broadly. The true dangers for Russia lie in the south and east – and within its own borders, from the Putinist system itself.


Assertion two: A Cold War can be characterised by a clear distinction between two competing ideologies, often through proxy wars or conflicts. The current conflict with Russia is an extension of a conflict of two ideologies played out on the geopolitical arena (e.g. in Ukraine).

I do not find comparisons to the current crisis and the Cold War useful and do not agree that the latest situation is a “New Cold War”. The Cold War was a unique confrontation between two ideologically different powers, one being the Soviet communist system and the other the democratic West. The Soviet system collapsed and the western model prevailed. This is not to sound the trumpet of victory but to state the simple fact that when the Soviet Union fell apart and lost its satellites, it is impossible to deny that it lost the Cold War. The current Putinist system is not an updated version of the Soviet Union, even though Putin famously has declared that the collapse of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

To be clear, it is Putin who is isolating Russia from the West, not the other way around.

The current situation is more complicated. Putin’s ideology is to stay in power no matter what. He is willing to play the nationalist card to do so, if that suits his purposes, but he is more opportunistic when it comes to real Russian nationalism than a true hard-core believer. His talk about Russia as the protector of traditional values also seems contrived. It is more a play to Russian populism than a platform from which he espouses an alternative model.

Putin cannot afford to surrender power and has become a kind of hostage to his own system. This is why he cannot tolerate real elections, serious opposition and criticism, or even the emergence of genuine civil society movements. Opposition to him, he believes, must be driven from outside forces and thus to deal with that threat, he has implemented the “foreign agent” legislation and is even considering new legislation that would enable authorities to close down foreign organisations operating in Russia that are deemed “undesirable”. Putin refuses to believe that populations either in Russia or in neighbouring states are able, on their own, to rise up and demand better, more accountable governance.

For Putin, what happened in Ukraine between November 2013 and February 2014 – where a thoroughly corrupt leader was driven from office by millions of frustrated Ukrainians demanding a more accountable, western-oriented leadership – was a nightmare, worse than the Orange Revolution in 2004. Were Ukraine and the other countries along Russia’s borders to move towards closer ties with the EU and demand more democratic and rule-of-law based governing structures, Russians might have wanted the same thing. And given the terribly corrupt and increasingly authoritarian system that Putin had built up over a decade-and-a-half, nothing threatens the paranoid Putin’s grip on power more than seeing his neighbours break free as truly independent states able to determine their own orientation and become a possible alternative model for Russians (especially in the case of Ukraine). In other words, this is less about ideology than it is about alternative and attractive models that would threaten the Putinist system.

Pro-democracy and anti-corruption crusader, Boris Nemtsov, seen here at the Bolotnaya really in December 2011, is widely regarded to have been murdered for his activism.
Pro-democracy and anti-corruption crusader, Boris Nemtsov, seen here at the Bolotnaya really in December 2011, is widely regarded to have been murdered for his activism.

Putin sees movements calling for liberalisation and democracy and against corruption and authoritarianism as threats to his own grip on power. When Putin’s partner in crime in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled power, Putin decided to invade his neighbour so that Russians would not get the idea that they could produce a similar result in Moscow. By first invading and annexing Crimea with stealth forces and then moving into and occupying eastern parts of Ukraine, a country of 46 million people, Putin sent a clear signal that attempts to democratise, liberalise, and integrate more closely with western institutions like the EU would be stopped. Moscow would decide what was best for Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, and others, denying them the right to choose their own destiny. And the West, Putin believed, would do nothing in response.

To some extent, Putin was right. The West was slow to understand the gravity of the threat Russia posed to European security and to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and other countries. European countries in particular were reluctant to lose business opportunities in Russia and feared a tough response would heighten tensions, for which none on the continent had an appetite. Moreover, the West had done very little after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and the Obama administration came to office five months later eager to “reset” relations with Moscow. Putin undoubtedly thought he could get away with the same thing, this time with Ukraine.

But instead of halting Ukraine’s westward shift, Putin has accelerated it, albeit unintentionally. Ukraine, while still riven with huge challenges, has never been more united – thanks to Putin. The December 23rd 2014 vote in the parliament (303 to 10) in favour of revoking Ukraine’s “non-aligned” status and increasing co-operation with NATO was a huge rebuke to the Russian leader and never would have happened had Putin left Ukraine alone. Similarly, the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan, founding members of the Eurasian Economic Union, visited Kyiv in December to express support for Ukraine, worried that they could be next on Putin’s hit list. Instead of winning over his neighbours, Putin is repelling them – and badly damaging Russia’s standing and national interests in the process.


Assertion three: A new Cold War would mean the further deconstruction of mutual interdependencies. The majority of ties with Russia will be eventually broken and Russia will become isolated from the West, economically, politically and socially. 

To be clear, it is Putin who is isolating Russia from the West, not the other way around. Sanctions would have never been imposed on Russia had it not invaded Ukraine. Indeed, the policy of the West over the past two-plus decades has been to seek to integrate Russia more closely into the global community, whether through inclusion in the G8 and the World Trade Organisation or through NATO-Russia and EU-Russia channels. The “reset” policy of the Obama administration was an effort to work more closely with Russia on a range of issues and the fact that it was articulated so soon after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 underscored the interest on the American side to put the Georgia conflict in the past. At the same time, it arguably gave Putin the impression that he could get away with invading a neighbour without paying a significant price.

Talk of a strategic partnership with Russia is a thing of the past. Despite the efforts of some in the West to stress that the US-Russia relationship is too important to allow the clash over Ukraine to get in the way, most policymakers and analysts have concluded that the bilateral relationship will never be the same, that the reset is over and not to be revived, and that as long as Putin is in charge in the Kremlin, the ability of the West to work with Russia is very limited. There are some who want to return to a business-as-usual approach, especially in Europe, but from the shoot-down of the Malaysian Airliner in July 2014 to renewed fighting in Ukraine’s east in early 2015, Putin makes it virtually impossible to do so.

That said, just as we worked with the Soviet Union on arms control agreements at the same time that the United States passed the Jackson-Vanik legislation in the 1970s (which denied “most favoured nation” status to certain countries, like the Soviet Union, with non-market economies that restricted emigration – editor’s note), we can find some areas where the West and Russia can work together, whether on non-proliferation, North Korea, or Iran. But we should keep our expectations very low and remember that Putin thrives on building up the West, and the US in particular, as a threat to Russia. In the end, he is limiting his own country’s ability to work with the West.

An isolated Russia is not in our interests. But the West can only go so far in indicating its readiness to work together when there is little reciprocation from the other side. We are in for a rough period in relations with Russia, and we should not pretend that the Ukraine crisis is a minor blip on the radar screen. It is a very big development which undermined the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the Paris Charter of 1990, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 as well as other agreements and commitments that had kept peace in Europe – with the exception of the Balkans – since the end of the Second World War.

Suddenly, the post-Cold War order was torn to shreds. Putin’s authoritarian Russia poses an enormous challenge not only to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but to the liberal world. Will the West rise to the challenge presented by Putin? Or will it attach more importance to preserving good ties with Russia at Ukraine’s expense? Much depends on the answer to those questions.

This piece originally appeared in New Eastern Europe and has been republished here with the kind permission of the author.

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