The Cold War — again

It is still the early stages; the final outcome of the war in Ukraine is unknown. Many scenarios, including a protracted bloody stalemate, are possible. However, it is increasingly clear that this war will shape the international strategic landscape in ways more profound than any since World War II. Wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, plus many others, were huge events with lasting impacts. But none of them shook the foundations of global geopolitics like Ukraine — a process that is already well advanced.

The process begins with revelations about the true nature of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and the support it seemingly enjoys among large segments of Russian opinion. Moscow’s utterly unprovoked attack against a peaceful (and generally friendly) neighbor reveals a regime and a leader much like that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. There is the same total contempt for international law and the basic norms that make civilized society possible. It is pure might makes right; pure law of the jungle; pure megalomania fueled by a kind of psychotic rage with a large admixture of fantasy. For Hitler, it meant summoning a mythic Teutonic past; for Putin, it is a deep bond that empowers the Slavic heartland. CIA Director, and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, William Burns paints a capsule portrait of an angry Putin obsessed with imagined grievances and a lust for power. “His risk appetite has grown as his grip on Russia has tightened [as has] his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia’s [power].” The same profile would have fit Hitler like a glove.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine came as a deep shock in much of Europe. Ever since the collapse of the USSR three decades ago, the working assumption has been that Europe and Russia can live together peacefully, and growing commercial, diplomatic and cultural/scientific interdependence will ensure that outcome. In simplest terms, Europe depends on Russian oil and natural gas for its energy requirements and Russia depends on European payments to buy everything it needs. Moreover, Europe and Russia come from the same civilizational roots in the Judeo/Roman/Christian tradition. However, a number of countries on Europe’s eastern edge, including Poland and the Baltic states, had experienced Soviet occupation and long warned that Moscow was not as benign as Berlin and Brussels assumed. But, even when Putin’s Russia invaded and occupied Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the wishful thinking of Europe and Russia together largely prevailed. No longer.

The impact of Russia’s invasion on both opinion and policy in Europe and the U.S. has been greatly magnified by the savagery visited on Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers. In one occupied Ukrainian village, an old man was accosted by Russian soldiers who first shot him in the legs and lower torso so he would die slowly, before beheading him — just for amusement. That evening the same soldiers had a convivial meal with plenty of vodka and wine while the corpse lay on the ground nearby.

This incident has been repeated in varying forms hundreds of times over. The effect of all this on European official opinion has been decisive. The new European policy consensus is crisply stated by Latvia’s foreign minister: “Support Ukraine as much as you can, do as much as you can to reduce dependence on Russia however you can, and finally, yes, put more emphasis on military defense.” In 2010, NATO adopted a “Strategic Concept” that envisioned a “true strategic partnership” with Russia. NATO further pledged not to deploy forces close to Russia. All that is gone now. NATO forces are being moved eastward. U.S. military units are now in Poland, Slovakia, Romania and the Baltic states and many of them are being asked to stay on a permanent basis. Meanwhile, Sweden and Finland, both determinedly neutral throughout the Cold War, are now moving to become members of NATO — and soon.

President Biden has stressed the enduring nature of these developments. “We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow … and for years and decades to come.”

These military initiatives have economic counterparts that are equally consequential over the “long haul.” A constantly evolving “blitzkrieg” (Putin’s description) of sanctions have hammered Russian currency reserves, elite assets and strategic exports and imports while effectively cutting off air travel between Russia and Europe/North America. The next big debate will be whether to go beyond freezing the $100 billion in Russian official reserves held in U.S. banks and seize them outright so they can be used to finance reconstruction in Ukraine. All this is important, but the most consequential steps involve weaning Europe (especially Germany) off its dependence on Russian oil and gas. EU officials have produced plans to cut gas imports from Russia by two-thirds by the end of this year. The Dutch foreign minister laid out the objective: “It is about … making sure that we become independent of Russian gas and oil. For some, that will be a trajectory of months. For others, it might be years. But the Netherlands and other countries are dead serious about this.”

If any single initiative will frighten the “tough guys” in the Kremlin, it is the prospect of losing oil and gas revenues. Those monies bankroll all their ambitions.

All this adds up to fundamental changes in America’s relationship with Europe, in the capabilities and role of NATO, and in the posture of the West toward Russia. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan put it this way: “At the end of the day, what we want to see is a free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia and a stronger, more unified, more determined West. We believe that all three of these objectives are in sight.” The new Cold War has begun.

Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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