Welcome to Cold War II
This is what it will look like.
The West and Russia have sailed into uncharted waters. Crimea has de facto declared independence from Kiev. Russia has intervened to effectively secure the new entity without, so far, a shot being fired. The Ukrainian police, security, and military forces on the peninsula have been neutralized, many of them pledging allegiance to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. In Kiev, the new government talks about Russia’s aggression and orders mobilization — even as it loses control over some of the key cities in the country’s east and south. Meanwhile, the West has responded with suspension of preparations for the G-8 summit in Sochi. The U.S. president has talked about Russia paying a high price for its actions, and the U.S. secretary of state has laid out a menu of possible sanctions and other measures.
Thus, the post-Cold War may now be seen, in retrospect, as the inter-Cold War period. The recent developments have effectively put an end to the interregnum of partnership and cooperation between the West and Russia that generally prevailed in the quarter-century after the Cold War. Geopolitically, this period saw a massive reduction of Russian power and influence in Europe and Eurasia, along with the arrival of new states, many of them carved out of the historical Russian Empire. Instead, the United States became the dominant power in Eurasia, and the European Union, while no great power or even a strategic actor itself, turned into an economic magnet for its eastern neighbors. The Russian Federation, the core of the former empire, was essentially left out of the new system, mired in an increasingly awkward, uneasy relationship with the United States and Europe.
The system had been fraying on its eastern edge for almost as long as it had been in existence, but it took a crisis in Ukraine to lead to its clear breakdown. The successful, Western-supported revolution in Kiev in February fatally undermined the delicate balance in the key state between Russia and the West, leading to domestic turmoil in Ukraine. But perhaps more importantly, it also marks the end of Russia’s post-Soviet passivity. Make no mistake: Putin’s actions in Crimea and the powers he received over the weekend from the Russian parliament — allowing him to using military force in Ukraine writ large — return Moscow as an active player in Europe for the first time since 1989.
In 1991, Russia agreed to the dismantlement of its historical empire and accepted the ex-Soviet administrative lines as international borders, which left some 25 million ethnic Russians in the "near abroad." Even if one adds the painful and bloody Chechen wars, this was the most peaceful dissolution of any empire in the 20th century. Russia’s "gas wars" with Ukraine, roundly lost by Moscow in Western public opinion, were no more than heavy-handed attempts to make that country pay more for the natural gas it received from Moscow. Even the 2008 war against Georgia was fought by the Russians in response to the Georgian shelling of South Ossetia, which killed Russian peacekeepers deployed there. But all these events, as well as the ramifications they caused vis-à-vis the West, pale compared with what’s coming now.
What follows will be "interesting" in the Chinese sense — i.e., fraught with dangers. The geopolitics of the new Eastern Europe will be fundamentally altered. It will be some time before Ukraine is reconstituted in some new shape — almost certainly without Crimea — and with a new structure, probably taking account of its ethnic and cultural complexity, apparent between its western and southeastern regions. The entire former Soviet Black Sea region, from Moldova/Transnistria to Abkhazia/Georgia will look markedly different from how it looks today. Georgia, once deemed too much of a pressure point in the Kremlin’s backside, will be back on the fast track for NATO’s Membership Action Plan, while Moldova might succumb to instability as the governing pro-EU coalition faces a challenge from pro-Russian opposition. As to Transnistria, it will gravitate to Russian-speaking southeastern Ukraine. Farther north, one can safely forecast pressure building for permanent, if symbolic, U.S. troop deployments in Poland and the Baltic states, as well as for Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO.
Meanwhile, relations between Russia and NATO will assume a more familiar, adversarial nature. A military standoff in Europe will not be as massive as that during the Cold War, but there will be more certainty than in recent years as to just who is the potential adversary. There would be no need, for example, to talk about Iran when upgrading NATO’s missile defenses from bases in Romania and Poland or those at sea. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could actually be brought back from the closet where it has languished since the end of the Cold War and become a prime venue for Russian-Western security dialogue. Indeed, the recent agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to use the OSCE to form a contact group with regard to Crimea already points in that direction.
When it comes to Washington, Russia’s relations with the United States will eschew any warmth that may still remain. There will be no return to the eyeball-to-eyeball Cold War confrontation, though; on the contrary, the relationship is likely to grow even more distant. Elements of U.S.-Russia cooperation might survive where the two countries’ interests clearly meet, but doing anything together in Syria or Iran would become much more difficult. Trade and investment will be restricted as a result of U.S. government sanctions, and the Russian equity market, owned largely by foreigners, will collapse. By contrast, however, EU-Russia trade, worth almost $500 billion a year, will continue by and large, due to economic interdependence between the two.
As Russia’s relations with the West deteriorate, its ties with China will need to grow stronger. With more problems in store for Gazprom in the European market, the Russian gas company may have to agree to sell gas to China. Significantly lower prices offered to Beijing would be compensated by the emergence of an alternative market. With Russia likely to be excluded from the G-8, Moscow will have to make more use of the world’s remaining global platforms, such as bilateral summits with China or forums with fellow BRICS countries or with Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries. In all these forums, however, Beijing, rather than Moscow, will be the senior power. As a result, Moscow will lose its unique position of being present in all major multilateral organizations, both Western and non-Western.
It’s not a pretty picture. Thankfully, some of the worst things of the first Cold War will never likely be resurrected. Officially sanctioned Russian patriotism, even with an anti-American bent, will not be tantamount to a new ideology. The state-dominated capitalism that controls the economy will be more like its more distant czarist — rather than its immediate communist — predecessor. Political liberties will continue to be curtailed by an authoritarian government, but personal liberties will remain. Russia will stay mostly open to the outside world, and Russians with some means will continue traveling around the world. The superrich, however, might have to park their assets in Russia — or stay with those assets, away from Russia. In terms of historical analogies, in other words, the internal situation in Russia would resemble the early 1850s under Emperor Nicholas I rather than the 1950s under Joseph Stalin.
U.S.-Russia geopolitical competition will not be confined to Ukraine, but a string of proxy wars is also not in the offing. However, U.S.-Russia collaboration on Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan will suffer. The United States might use economic sanctions against Russia in an effort, Iran-style, to split the Russian elite and provoke the resentment of ordinary Russian people against their government. Although the static military confrontation is unlikely to be resurrected, nuclear deterrence will be reaffirmed, and competition in the military sphere will spread to other areas, from cyberspace to conventional prompt global strike.
This will be the dawn of a new period, reminiscent in some ways of the Cold War from the 1940s to 1980s. Like with the two world wars, the failure to resolve the issues arising out of the imperfect peace settlement and the failure to fully integrate one of the former antagonists into the new system are leading to a new conflict — even if a large-scale war will again be safely avoided. This new conflict is unlikely to be as intense as the first Cold War; it may not last nearly as long; and — crucially — it will not be the defining conflict of our times.
Yet, it will be for real. Competition between two unequal parties carries additional risks of underestimating the other side or overreacting. Keeping the world safe in the uncertain times ahead will be a bigger challenge than many thought only two weeks ago.