A New Cold War?: Lessons of Crimea


Russians celebrating Crimea’s return to Russia

As many of us are watching, Russia is all over the news. Just on the heels of celebrating the Winter Olympics in the Black Sea town of Sochi, Russia has been in the spotlight over a very different incident. The passing of the referendum that has brought Crimea back Russia has led to swift international condemnation and U.S. sanctions. Once again, Russia has been willing to flex its political and military muscle to stay relevant on the international stage. Putin, it seems to outsiders, is resurrecting the specter of the Soviet Union, a powerful Russia capable of competing with the United States, an emergent China and the economically competitive European Union.

Are we entering a new Cold War? What’s different? Is it economically or ideologically motivated? Or is it fundamentally moved by something else entirely? These are questions I have been asking myself since the Crimean Intervention, drawing on research from five years of following international relations. At the passing of the Soviet Union, John J. Mearsheimer in how article “Why we will miss the Cold War?” lamented the passing of our bipolar or “two-power” system that preserved peace, even while tensions were high. The technology age had not yet torn the boundaries of borders, and globalization had not yet brought the conflict of cultures that Samuel P. Huntington warned us about. How the world has changed in 23 years, and that’s my age!

Since 1994, Russia has struggled to find a post-Soviet identity that reconciled its autocratic past, its role as a global superpower and the new challenges of an increasingly globalized international market. Its experiments with economic reform created a corrupt oligarchy that has left the country stagnate and limping. The Putin Era can be described as a search for the “soul of Russia.” His actions domestically and internationally has created a controversial picture of this large country that both embraces and shy’s away from western democratic and economic systems (something we call the Washington Consensus). Now it has reemerged, attempting to once again influence the course of international events.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has faded from importance in the order of priorities for American foreign policy. The Clinton Administration shifted to issues of non-nuclear proliferation, chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Terrorism was barely a blip on the radar before the Embassy Bombings in Nairobi and Der al Salaam (1998) and 9/11. Israel and Iran continued to be American priorities while the Intelligence Community struggled to escape from its own tunnel vision of Cold War to a strange world of international collectivity. So when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, it came as shocking news to Americans who never experienced them as Americans adversaries.  The magnitude of the Crimean Intervention provoked shocking reactions at home, including Senator John McCain’s denouncing the President Obama’s actions toward Putin.

The Obama administration has had its challenges. They inherited two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and, by extension, the War on Terror. The war and Libya in the early days of Arab Spring, while possibly pulling the United States into a regional war, was executed with NATO cooperation. It was the defining moment of the Obama Doctrine of war on humanitarian grounds. Obama has continued a path of American moderation that, while earning respect from some critical of Bush, has been accused of weak leadership.

I am sure you are wondering what this means going forward for Russia and the USA? We can summarize them in one sentence: Russia is not going away and we can no longer treat Russia as a paper tiger or a pale shadow of the old Soviet Union. Russia is not strong enough to exercise its old powers, but its not weak enough to be discounted. History proves that the Russians are resilient, perseverant and wanting of recognition. So we must continue to count on them to face us down alongside China.

CNN had a story about how Russia’s new intervention demonstrates a return of old fears. The new Cold War (should it happen) will not be at all like the last. It will not ideologically motivated by anti-communist or capitalist fear mongering. It is increasingly nationalist, economically motivated and increasingly unconventional (economic, cyber and non-state) conflict. Nor will it be fought as two great powers using their allies in proxy wars around the globe. The fact is there is MORE competition between the regional state powers and rising states that want a say. The EU, while lacking a common security policy, has shown itself capable of projecting its own global influences. And it may only get stronger with a stronger Germany, behind its own “Iron Lady” Chancellor Angela Merkel!

So what is our response? The administration is now talking again with Putin and he seems deterred from a larger invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Therefore, we should continue our diplomatic and economic pressures that may return a semblance of equilibrium in our relationship. We must supplement these efforts by rebuilding our capabilities in the Intelligence Community (IC)  and national security institutions to understand the New Russia. Old analyses based on the Soviet experience only serves to repeat the fallacies and mistakes made by the IC during Iraq. And we need to hold on to our partnership to Germany (through NATO), the major economic nexus and political driver of the EU bloc, our longest standing friends.

 America needs a new understanding of our friends and foes in Russia and Eurasia. Over 300 ago, Peter the Great led the Great Embassy to the West, in hopes of understanding how Russia’s place in the world and drag it out of the darkness of its ignorance. Now, with the click of a button, we are all capable of understanding people around the world from different cultures and histories. We should all strive to be diplomatic and intelligence consumers, seeking answers to the following question: “In the age of Globalization, a world created by American entrepreneurism, international capitalism and democracy, are we now in the darkness of a new world?”

Think like Peter the Great. If we do not know, then its in our interests to find out!

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