The Cold War and the permanent threat of nuclear war was the cloud that hung in the political skies over my childhood. While we played on the lawn in our backyard, F-16 fighters from the local base buzzed the neighbourhood. My parents bought iodine tablets during Chernobyl (to prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland, a major problem during radioactive spills) and kept them lying around — meaningful exchange of looks — “just in case”. I saw crude, early computer animations of the SDI “Star Wars” programme on the evening news and remember my parents glued to news about the Reykjavik summits. When Glasnost came and the Soviet Union finally collapsed on itself at the end of the 80s, I remember it as a gradual unclenching of muscles I didn’t realise had been tight.
I don’t know how deeply that affected me, but surely it did. I can’t imagine that it doesn’t do something to you, living with the notion that if things went wrong, tomorrow might quite realistically just as well not come at all.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the coming of the last cold war in response to the new crisis in Ukraine. It reminds me of the rhetoric surrounding the Berlin blockade in 1948—49. We seem to suddenly realize that we have been sliding into the same kind of geopolitical dynamic that sustained the Cold War.
Surely we aren’t surprised? I have a ton of friends who travel frequently in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Belarus, the Balkans and Russia. They have all been saying the same thing for years now. That Russia has ceased to be a democracy. It has become an oligarchic pseudodemocracy dreaming imperalist dreams. Putin, in particular, is a troubling force, full of the banality of evil, as Julia Ioffe makes clear in a very readable piece in today’s New Republic:
One of the reasons I left my correspondent’s post in Moscow was because Russia, despite all the foam on the water, is ultimately a very boring place. Unfortunately, all you really need to do to seem clairvoyant about the place is to be an utter pessimist. Will Vladimir Putin allow the ostensibly liberal Dmitry Medvedev to have a second term? Not a chance. There are protests in the streets of Moscow. Will Putin crackdown? Yup. There’s rumbling in the Crimea, will Putin take advantage and take the Crimean peninsula? You betcha. And you know why being a pessimist is the best way to predict outcomes in Russia? Because Putin and those around him are, fundamentally, terminal pessimists. They truly believe that there is an American conspiracy afoot to topple Putin, that Russian liberals are traitors corrupted by and loyal to the West, they truly believe that, should free and fair elections be held in Russia, their countrymen would elect bloodthirsty fascists, rather than democratic liberals. To a large extent, Putin really believes that he is the one man standing between Russia and the yawning void. Putin’s Kremlin is dark and scary, and, ultimately, very boring.
The original Cold War was madness. And somehow, I find myself being drawn back into its logic now. I find myself thinking that the appropriate response should perhaps involve the West escalating tensions to the breaking point. Perhaps we should go the route of putting our fleets into the Black Sea, putting troop carriers on the borders. Maybe we should be pledging a military response if Putin goes for the Eastern Ukraine (as surely he will)? But that would be a hot war, a madman’s game of brinkmanship.
A military show of force is anyway a dangerous road to go and in terms of realpolitik simply impossible to make happen. But the logic behind why I’m feeling that’s the level we should be responding at is simple: you can’t allow an expanding great power with imperialist ambitions on the eastern edge of Europe. We have a lot of experience with that sort of thing, and it doesn’t end well. This situation also dramatises how we are nearing the breakdown of the international system of law.
What Putin is doing here is just amazingly, agonizingly illegal. If his aims were simply to allow the Crimea to secede, he should be working for a referendum on the issue. That’s not happening here. Russia has bigger sturgeons to fry.
So what can be done? The cold war-mindset is one the Republicans do well, and Marco Rubio, amazingly, has some constructive and brinkmanship-esque alternatives to offer in a piece in Politico, including expelling Russia from the G8, suspending all negotiations on all issues, targeting more Russian officials for Magnitsky List-type travel bans and expanding NATO to Georgia.
But all of that is going to make Putin go “meh”. Unless something more globalised can be achieved, Russia can manage just fine on its own. Russia is too self-sufficient a country to back down from that kind of threat. Putin thinks he doesn’t need the rest of the world. And he may be right. That’s what the coming Eurasian Union is all about.
And if Putin manages to escalate this situation into a new cold war, as he looks very, very set to do, then we don’t have any options anymore. We would have to do what we did: suspend trade, put armies on the borders and hope for the best. Is that even possible anymore? Can we have a disconnected great power in the connected age?
John Kerry has made the most precise description of what’s happening today. He said: Russia is behaving like a 19th century power. That’s completely right. In fact, Russia in many ways still is a 19th century power. And that’s an absolutely mad strategy to play in a 21st century reality. It won’t lead anywhere good. And yet: what’s the next move of the Western powers and China? I’m at a loss, and really looking for the big idea to solve this.
In the end, the big takeaway here is not so much how to respond to autocrats, imperialists and bullies — it is the screaming need for reform of the UN system to take away veto rights from the great powers. If China, Russia and the US didn’t have the veto, this situation probably would not have developed in the way that is has. We need to move towards a real democracy on the international scene. One in which unilateral aggression by the great powers can be immediately cancelled by strong, international coalitions. As it is, a UN that can’t stop or aggressively reign in great power aggression is dead.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary of the UK makes some interesting points on the kinds of cold war we might be looking at in this Channel 4 interview. Oh, and Timothy Snyder is, again, quite readable on the disinformation campaign and the Ukrainian question.