If This Is Cold War 2.0, Then the Russians Are Winning

Russia is a great power again in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Where does it go from here?

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Japanese, Russian and American flags on a desk at the Mission Control Center in Korolev, Russia, June 10, 2011 (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

Sequels are so often disappointing; I’d love to meet someone who thought Independence Day 2 was an improvement. So it is with so-called Cold War 2.0: it can certainly feel meaningless, as Moscow doesn’t hope to raise a hammer and sickle above the White House.

Perhaps it’s better to refer to it as Cold War 1.5, a metaphorical halfway point between a full-on sequel and the original.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t think of it as a cold war at all, but rather, the return of geopolitics.

Because in truth, that’s what it is: the return of old-fashioned, nineteenth-century geopolitical competition, full of intrigue and danger but wary of conflict. Alliances are shifting, neutrals seeks to play great powers off one another and nobody wants an all-out war to settle accounts once and for all. Students of history will hear echoes of Germany’s Otto van Bismarck in the maneuvers of Vladimir Putin.

And as the United States seek a new president, it must be said: if score can be kept, the Russians are winning.

First, what’s the contest all about?

A good reason not to call it a “New Cold War” is that there is no ideology driving the conflict between the Russians and Americans. On paper, Russia is a capitalist democracy; Putin doesn’t want to bring his authoritarian brand to America, mostly because Putin seems to see his system as an efficient tool rather than a guidebook to utopia.

So they’re not squabbling over government forms, religion or economics. Instead, what they’re both seeking is something quite reasonable: security, mostly from one another.

For the Americans, the experiences of both World War I and II taught them that they can’t leave Europe well alone. Like the Romans who not once but thrice invaded Greece before they decided the Greeks simply couldn’t be trusted to manage themselves, the Americans believe, with good reason, that a Europe without an outside hegemon would eventually turn its powers on the United States. That is, after all, what scared Americans about the Zimmerman Telegram — the notion that the Germans, victorious in Europe, might then use Mexico as a proxy to break up American power.

So the Americans believe they must dominate Europe, and they believe they can do so cheaply and efficiently by promoting strong European democracies but weak European militaries. It did the former after World War II through the Marshall Plan, then by encouraging the European Economic Community, which became the EU. It did the latter through NATO, slowly but surely becoming the dominant military power in Europe.

But Europe does include Russia and so American goals, post 1991, should have been crystal clear to anyone paying attention. When NATO surged eastward into the former Warsaw Pact, once the USSR’s great buffer system, nobody ought to have been surprised, American promises notwithstanding. The Americans believe by providing NATO protection they could expand liberal democracy, who would then become reliable, disarmed allies, never a threat to the United States.

Eventually, America would like to see Russia in both the EU and NATO, democratically proficient but mostly demilitarized, reliant upon the United States to secure its borders. That would permanently secure the United States from Europe, much as the destruction of Corinth secured Rome from Greece.

That is obviously not in Russian interests.

Who fear American domination would also mean yet another collapse of Russian power

This goes to the heart of the misunderstanding between the two: While Americans don’t really understand why the Russians would want to opt out of NATO or something like the EU, Russians don’t understand why the Americans would be so absurdly nieve as to believe Russia would be better off under either.

Russia is a very different place geopolitically from the United States. While America was a colonial society built as a do-over improvement project of Western Europe, full of immigrants who were forced into a social melting pot and came out bland Americans, Russia is still, in many ways, an empire. While heavily dominated by ethnic Russians, it’s still a federation with many minority groups who might prefer their own states. Chechnya is the headliner here, but there are Volga Muslims, Kazakhs and even a nascent Siberian nationalist movement that could all crack Russian power, if ever given too loud a voice in the system.

To hold Russia together as it exists requires a centralized, powerful and occasionally ruthless government. It cannot be checked as the American federal government sometimes is; that could open the door to a second unraveling of Russia. This has happened very recently, and Putin knows it: Mikhael Gorbachev fatally decentralized the Soviet state, then even more fatally didn’t mass murder the nationalists who tore the USSR apart. Gorbachev wanted to make the USSR more economically efficient and even more moral; Putin sees both as subordinate to the survival of Russia as it exists today.

The last thing Putin wants is a nearby neighbor extolling the virtues of NATO or the EU to ordinary Russians, who might then demand one or even both for themselves. In Putin’s view, that would lead to a second collapse of Russia. So he must convince Russians neither are in their interests.

Of course, Putin’s rule has also meant a healthy slice of cronyism for himself and his supporters. While all political systems reward their elites, Putin believes, probably rightfully, that too much democracy would seize the assets of himself and his followers.

So that’s the why. But where’s the conflict?

Unlike the Cold War, which was global, this struggle is very provincial. Russia has extended its influence back into old stomping grounds: Ukraine, Syria and Georgia are its biggest successes, but they’re also very near to Russia itself. Let’s glance at each.

In 2008, Putin waged a very brief, rather decisive war on Georgia, preventing Tblisi from reconquering a Russian-backed enclave called South Ossetia, which had split away in the 1990s under Russian influence. It was a test run for the Russian military, the first war fought beyond Russia’s borders since 1989 in Afghanistan. While there were hiccups, the Russians won decisively and most importantly froze the conflicts there so as to make it impossible for Georgia to join NATO or the EU. Georgian troops, deployed to Iraq to support the United States (and curry favor to join NATO), had to return home, where they’ve stayed ever since.

This was meant to be a wake-up call to the United States: Russia could and would use its hard power to advance its interests and it would trample just as readily over American influence as the United States had over Russia’s in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

But American politicians, Barack Obama included, misread the war as a localized flareup rather than the beginning of Putin’s grand strategy. Hardly anyone responded beyond rhetoric. The Georgians were left to twist in the wind. Today, it remains fragmented, with Russian power still maintaining those enclaves.

This set the stage for Syria. When the Arab Spring washed over the country in spring 2011, Bashar al-Assad very clearly embarked upon a campaign of violence to keep power. His main arms supplier was Moscow, who was keen to prove that Russia could keep old allies in power (and thereby earn a few new ones). Putin wanted the world to know that any country that allowed a Russian base in their territory would get whatever support they needed; this is the same principle America often operates under, but on a much bigger scale.

Thus Putin rearmed Assad’s air force and army as the civil war ground on. When Assad used gas on rebels and the United States looked like it might bombard the regime (and possibly destroy it), Putin rushed to Assad’s rescue. Outfoxing Barack Obama, he got the Americans to sign a disarmament agreement that supposedly disarmed the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. There’s evidence this didn’t fully happen, but it was a masterful stroke by Putin. Not only did Putin prove he could protect allies, he could even do so against the mighty superpower. No wonder that Rodrigo Duterte, the loudmouth Filipino president, thinks Russia might take up his offer of alliance.

The Americans continued to misread the situation. They saw Syria as yet another localized conflict and believed Russia did too. They focused on damage control, believing, wrongly, that Syrians would eventually overcome Assad and replace him with a democracy.

When the Islamic State emerged, America saw it as an über-terror group that had to be fought in the framework of the War on Terror. Russia saw it as an opportunity.

The United States committed itself to an open-ended war of conflict management, hoping to contain the Islamic State rather than destroy it. Russia, on other hand, used IS as a casus belli to deploy directly into Syria itself and reestablish Russian military credibility in the Middle East.

This largely worked: Russian propaganda capitalized on the might of the air force and pointed to gains on the ground by Assadist troops. To top it off, Russia then expanded its air base in Syria into a permanent one.

Meanwhile, America was hardly achieving any of its goals in Syria. While US support was slowly pushing IS out of Iraq, Assadist forces were on the march. Desperate for efficient allies, the United States leaned too heavily on the Kurds — and upset the Turks along the way, who then invaded Syria this summer and are still there.

Now Putin and Turkey’s president, Recep Erdoğan, are acting as though Turkey didn’t shoot down a Russian jet last year and are planning on building an energy pipeline from Russia through Turkey to Europe. As Turkey’s loyalty to NATO wobbles, Putin smells yet another chance to chip away at American global power and discredit NATO in the eyes of Russian citizens.

But none of this would be complete without a revisit to Ukraine. This is where the conflict has gone quiet, yet is without a doubt the heart of the struggle.

When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president fell in February 2014, Putin saw a mortal threat to his regime. If Ukraine joined the EU and/or NATO, it would bring Russian speakers under their control. If either of them worked for Ukraine, it would mean they’d more efficiently spread stories of their success in Russia itself, undermining Putin’s power. It’s bad enough that Russian speakers in the Baltic already do so, but Ukraine’s far more numerous Russian population is better connected to Russia itself. Over time, that would be like a slow-drip rot on the Putin-run system of the Russian Federation.

So Putin made sure that could never happen and invaded. Grabbing Crimea pandered to the Russian nationalists back home and demonstrated more Russian military prowess; fighting the proxy war in eastern Ukraine has meant any EU or NATO applications from Kiev are dead letters. Putin absolutely does not want a free eastern Ukraine; that would let the rump Ukraine join the West. Instead, he wants, as in Georgia, a slow-burn, frozen conflict, that makes geopolitical movement impossible.

Here the United States responded most competently. Targeted sanctions rallied as many European states as could be done while American forces deployed to Russia’s borders in the Baltics. This forces Russia to deploy its own forces to counter; like the Cold War, it doesn’t mean either wants to start a fight, but neither does either want to be unprepared.

So despite numerous successes, Russia is starting to run out of opportunities

Putin has achieved a great deal: Russia is a both an Eastern European and Middle Eastern great power again. Few would have seen any of that coming in 2000.

But there are also hard limits to how much further Russia can go. Despite Putin’s ambitions, Russian power could not stop Cuba from opening its doors to the United States, nor could Russia save the basketcase regime in Venezeula haunted by Hugo Chávez’ ghost. His slow-burn war in Ukraine has been costly on both sides and has spooked much of NATO, especially the formidable Poles, who border the Russian enclave of Kalingrad.

Nor is Russia in a position today to take advantage of Rodrigo Duterte’s offer of friendship and alliance. The Russian military is much better off than it used to be, but it stills requires a good deal of reform before it returns to its Soviet levels of power. While Putin has done a great deal, he has yet to achieve much in the Pacific; Russia remains a symbolic partner in the North Korean dispute and in the spats between Japan, South Korea and China.

Turkey and Egypt, both American allies, could possibly be huge opportunities for Russia, should America alienate either regime enough to drive them out of the American alliance system. But America provides Egypt with massive aid; that would be an expensive bill to pick up for a government under sanctions. Turkey, meanwhile, is reliant upon American military parts to keep its army effective; to replace them with Russian equipment would take years, if not decades, to complete, and would in the meanwhile threaten the integrity of an army fighting in Syria and against Kurdish rebels.

It’s beyond Russia’s current power to bribe either to switch sides, but repeated American mistakes could do so; should the United States come under a bad president who wins two terms, for example.

The problem for Russia is that it began the millenium in what soldiers call a target rich environment — there were plenty of targets, so spraying from the hip was bound to land a few hits. But with each success, some targets have dropped out of sight: the once warm German-Russian relationship is tense over Ukraine and Syria and Poland, once ambivalent to Russia, is rallying Eastern Europe against Moscow.

China, meanwhile, sees Russia not as a natural ally but a natural rival. If Putin begins to rebuild Russian power in the Pacific, it will bump up against Chinese interests and almost certainly accelerate Japan’s rearmament program. Remember that Japan once put paid to czarist ambitions in the Pacific over a century ago. While they wouldn’t fight another war, Japan would bring its economic and political clout to bear quite readily on Pacific Russia.

The smarter thing for Putin to do would be to consolidate his gains and wait for American mistakes to exploit. He has done so masterfully thus far and could continue to do so into his old age. If he does so, he could go down as Russia’s Bismarck. But if he pushes too hard and runs into the hard edges of American power, he, and Russia, will be crushed under sanctions and blockade. His conundrum is that Russia cannot afford a full blown second Cold War, but America can.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, October 12, 2016.