It’s not a strong Russia we should fear, but a weak one.
Every year, the security glitterati of the world gather in Germany for the annual Munich Security Conference. The forum has been around for decades, but this year, over an unseasonably warm weekend, the most dramatic speech was about the cold: as in the Cold War, by Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev. Most remember former President Medvedev from a few years ago, when he led the Russian Federation with a more congenial face than that presented by current President Vladimir Putin.
He was clearly sent on a mission to provide the West (Europe, the United States, and NATO) with a view from Moscow. In a long and somewhat rambling speech, his key sound bite was actually quite jarring: We are in a new Cold War, and that this year, 2016, reminded him of 1962 (never mind that he was not born then). For those who need a quick refresher, 1962 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Hardly a comforting memory to surface at a security conference.
In Munich this year, many of my Russian friends and colleagues were quick to say, “What he really means is that we need to be careful that we don’t end up in a Cold War.” In other words, it’s a friendly cautionary note as we continue to levy sanctions on Russia for their illegal invasion of Ukraine and blatant annexation of Crimea. With all due respect, most non-Russians here didn’t hear a conciliatory tone; instead, they heard a not-so-veiled threat. The comments came across to many as a cri de coeur on the part of the Russians that if things don’t start going their way (lift the sanctions, let Assad dominate Syria, show us the deep respect we crave) then this new Cold War will become a new normal.
Let’s begin with a reality check: we are not in a new Cold War. I am old enough to remember the Cold War — it featured millions of troops on the Fulda Gap in Europe, ready to attack each other; two huge battle fleets all around the world chasing each other in a massive Hunt for Red October world; and a couple of enormous nuclear arsenals on a hair-trigger alert poised to destroy the world. There was virtually no dialogue or cooperation between the Soviet Union and the NATO alliance. Proxy wars abounded. Fortunately, we are not back there.
But let us be realistic in the assessment of Moscow’s messaging in Munich: this is a regime under significant internal economic pressure, resulting from a combination of low oil prices and sanctions. Coupled with declining demographics, a significant alcohol and drug problem, falling life expectancy, an economy dependent on commodities, and a lack of transparent democracy, Russia has a handful of difficult challenges — although there has been some modest demographic improvement of late. We should not be afraid of Russian strength, but rather of Russian weakness — because they still possess a powerful military, the will to use it, and over 7,000 nuclear weapons (which they mention frequently, as if to remind us of their existence).
Frankly, we should not lay awake at night worried about Russia. Rather, we here in the United States ought to be worried about Europe and the centrifugal forces that seem to inexorably be pulling apart our closest pool of allies in the world. A weak or fractured European Union is a serious geopolitical setback for the United States. The question is, given Russian weakness and saber rattling about the Cold War, alongside European nervousness and disaggregation, what is the best course for the United States?
First, we should strengthen NATO. It is the foundation of security in the Europe, despite its trials and troubles. Strengthening NATO means admitting a 29th member, tiny but willing Montenegro in the southeast of the European continent at the Warsaw Summit this summer. It also means continuing to emphasize to our European partners that they need to spend the NATO-determined minimum of defense reflecting a full 2 percent of GDP — only five NATO nations meet that target today. (The United States exceeds it, spending nearly 3 percent of GDP on defense. NATO should bolster rotational forces in the east (not permanently base them); respond vigorously to Russian air and sea intrusions into NATO territories; conduct realistic defensive exercises, especially in the Baltics; and emplace pre-positioned forces for airborne forces to fall in upon in Poland.
Washington must also send its leaders to Europe often, to bolster a strong sense of alliance cohesion and reassure a very nervous continent as they look at Russian actions in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Top U.S. military professionals should be assigned to jobs in European military commands. And Washington should frequently comment on the hope that Britain stays in the European Union — we want a unified Europe to be able to stand alongside the United States in the international world. After all, Europe has 500 million citizens and a GDP that is larger than the United States: we need it as a coherent, unified partner. This has a reassuring effect, but more importantly a deterrent affect on any further Russian adventurism.
Third, we should be investing with our European colleagues in the cyber world. This means not only working on cyberdefense measures (via the NATO Center of Excellence for Cyber Security in Estonia), but also thinking through private-public cooperative measures to ensure that we can protect privacy appropriately while still allowing a global Internet. With the United States and Europe in alignment on these key issues, we have a vastly better chance of protecting ourselves and ensuring the Internet continues to be widely available with the right levels of privacy.
Finally, it is important that we keep open the channels of communication with the Kremlin. Plenty of dialogue, especially military-to-military, can help reduce the chances of an inadvertent collision or incident in the air. Leaders like Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov should continue their close, personal exchanges. There is no need to stumble backwards into a Cold War which benefits no one.
At the Munich Conference this past weekend, the Polish foreign minister was asked at one point by a frustrated Russian, “well, what is our part of Europe?” implying that so much of the former Russian zone of influence had become part of NATO and the European Union. Without a great deal of thought, the Polish leader said, simply, “your part of Europe … is Russia.” No one in NATO or the United States is seeking to intrude into Russia; our colleagues in Moscow should let the other nations of Europe make their own decisions about where they seek to set their course. That is the best way to avoid heading to a new Cold War.
Photo credit: Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images