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How we can avoid a new Cold War with Russia

As tensions mount on the Ukrainian border, the US must try to understand Moscow’s insecurities and work toward shared goals.

Analysis | Europe

Alexis de Tocqueville ends “Democracy in America”with a famous reflection on Russia and America. “Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”

In 2021, the two powers seem to be on the verge of a new Cold War. President Biden in his U.N. address back in September reasserted old-style U.S. leadership against “iron-handed authoritarianism,” and he has scheduled a Summit for Democracy to begin later this week.

Neither Russia nor China is openly belligerent, nor is the United States, which needs time to get its domestic house in order, but there is always danger of a 1914 event. What would happen if Russia, feeling threatened by NATO, and concerned by Ukrainian instability should launch forces poised on the borders, or even reconquer the Baltic states, which the Russian army has boasted it could do in 60 hours? There remains danger of another U.S. recourse to its vaunted military forces. The same class of generals, officials, experts, and politicos who brought us the war in Afghanistan are still in power.

We in America and Europe need to find a way to deflect current tensions. The place to start, in my opinion, is Russia. It is useful to challenge hardened feelings about Russia if only to practice the new kind of interdependent statesmanship we need on many global problems. Germany will soon have a new chancellor, and France will elect or re- elect its president in 2022. These states will be the ones to exercise new diplomatic leadership particularly toward Russia, especially if America continues its “decline,” made manifest by political gridlock in Washington.

Where is Vladimir Putin taking Russia? He is not preparing for World War III, as used to be feared from the old Soviet Union. He is on record at aiming to reestablish a wider federation of Eurasian states, in order to restore Russia as a great power on a par with the Group of 7. This might be done by persuasion, as in Gorbachev’s draft union treaty of 1991. The worst process would be use of force and civil war, as in 1917-24. Putin has shown the way with the establishment of his Eurasian Customs Union (now called Economic Union), which is a value-neutral, collective security and nonaggression pact (no democracy and human rights as in the Helsinki accords). It seems to be envisaged as an equal contender to the European Union. He speaks of it as a community “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” This is not too far from Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision in the late 1980s of a “Common European Home.”

Yet the West sees every action by President Putin as an act of aggression. This goes back, of course, to his seizure of Crimea in 2014. From Putin’s point of view, based on his address of March 18, 2014, Ukrainian corruption and NATO expansion threatened Russian security and the Russian naval base at Sevastopol was at stake. Putin claimed that the soldiers who fought to defend independent Crimea were drawn from the Russians living there and that a large majority of those living in Crimea favored returning the peninsula to Russia.  

This view, which Gorbachev confirmed in his 2016 book “The New Russia, has been treated by the West as sheer propaganda justifying aggression. Financial sanctions were immediately imposed by the U.S. Congress, most members of the European Union, and other states ranging from Norway to Japan. Russia was charged with invasion and seizure of territory like that of Iraq against Kuwait in 1990. Then Vice President Biden at the time said, “These asymmetrical advances on another country cannot be tolerated. The international system will collapse if they are." Sanctions since 2014 have kept Russia’s annual economic growth to 0.3 percent, while the global average has been 2.3 percent, and they have cost Western businesses over $700 billion, as Anders Aslund and Maria Snegovaya reported to the Atlantic Council. But the effect has not been to reverse Crimea’s fate.

As James Baker, secretary of state at the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, said, “We are faced with an act of aggression at a defining moment of the end of the Cold War.” But are we truly faced, in Crimea, with a similar act of aggression? Westerners find the comparison of Crimea with Kosovo strained, but Kosovo was an internal province of Slavic Serbia, not an independent state, and Russian fears of losing Ukraine, then notoriously corrupt, and Georgia, wracked by civil war, to NATO is understandable. We forget how we took in all the former Warsaw Pact states and broke promises to Gorbachev that Germany, reunited, would not be added to NATO.

It wasn’t so long ago that the United States invaded a sovereign state, Iraq in 2003, in order to change its government, by its standards dictatorial. And before that, a long war in Vietnam, blockade and embargo of Cuba, invasion of the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama, blockades and counter-insurgencies in Central America, and for that matter war with Mexico in 1846 to take all of her territory north of the Rio Grande.

Historically, states hardly ever change their borders by peaceful agreement. We could have demanded that Russia give back Crimea to the Tartars, since it was Catherine the Great who took it from them in 1783.

President Putin is not taking an aggressive stance. It is said that Putin is seeking more “predictability and stability” in his relation to the West and more “respect for Russia” in the ranks of great powers. This can be seen in his address on April 21 to Russia’s Federal Assembly. Most of it is about meeting the pandemic, helping families and single mothers with direct payments, opening schools, reducing greenhouse gases, and uniting people in the federation. Only the last few pages are devoted to foreign policy, in which he resolutely defends Russia against “the practice of politically motivated, illegal economic sanctions and to certain actors’ brutal attempts to impose their will on others by force.” There is even a passage that seems to me to be an opening to something like the old “Common European Home” of regional security on Russia’s borders. In the context of his Eurasian Economic Union, he says, “There are new, interesting projects here, such as the development of transport and logistics corridors. I am sure they will become a reliable infrastructure backbone for large-scale Eurasian partnership.” This speech reads rather like President Biden’s great speech of April 28 on a “blue collar blueprint to build America.”

How do we “restore respect” for Russia? We can recognize our own provocations and aggressions, as Biden’s forthcoming democracy summit is likely to be seen in Moscow and elsewhere. We can instead make an effort to understand Russia. Its centralization of power has been a strategic necessity to defend itself, located on a vast Eurasian plain. We can see Russia as a partner rather than an adversary in Eastern Europe. We can ask for a “generous act” on the part of European leaders, like bringing Russia back into the Group of 8, rather than continuing to hurt her people by sanctions. A new Cold War with Russia is avoidable. We can take up Putin’s offer to find some way to cooperate with his Eurasian Economic Union.  

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin participate in a tete-a-tete during a U.S.-Russia Summit on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at the Villa La Grange in Geneva. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
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