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Do we really want another Cold War?

We must ensure Russia's punishment is appropriate but avoids long-term damage — or we're doomed to reliving the past.

Analysis | Europe

In the wake of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, it is tempting to want to go beyond the very severe sanctions that the West has imposed, even as the publics in both the United States and Europe are not prepared for the likely economic pain. Others have proposed that NATO impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, or provide arms to the Ukrainians resisting Russian aggression, which would not affect Americans’ pocketbooks, but do increase the risk of escalation that could directly threaten global security.      

The overriding question, therefore, is of how to ensure the punishment is appropriate, and eliminates the potential for long-term damage. In the process, the United States must consider its own interests and goals as well as those of Ukraine, European allies and partners, and the broader global community.  

The near-term and urgent priority will be to address the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe caused by the war that Russia initiated. It may not seem fair that others will have to clean up for the mess that Vladimir Putin created. This isn’t like a response to an earthquake or tsunami. But the ramifications are similar, including internally displaced persons in need of food and shelter, and possibly millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine into neighboring states, especially NATO allies Poland and Romania.

Like the brutal civil war in Syria that drove millions to flee into Turkey and Europe, we can expect to see a similar scenario playing out in this instance. The desperate Syrians who fled the civil war caused enormous strain on European states, in extreme cases prompting a xenophobic backlash that upended domestic politics. 

That may not be the case here, but the scale of the problem may be quite severe, as Ukraine is simply closer to the heart of Europe, and the methods that the Russians are likely to use to put down any Ukrainian resistance will be truly draconian, a la Chechnya. Addressing the humanitarian crisis of the Ukraine war will be an enormous undertaking that will call for a wide-ranging response by international bodies, sovereign states, and NGOs.

A proxy war in the middle of Europe, with the U.S. and NATO allies arming Ukrainian resistance fighters, could also end in disaster. There is a tendency in the short-term to focus on the morally superior stance, that it is always better to aid the defenders against the aggressors. But it is worth asking whether that is in the best interest of the Ukrainian people, for example if the additional arms prolong a war that might otherwise have ended more quickly in a negotiated settlement. 

A grinding war in Ukraine, including a civil conflict that pits pro-Russian vs. anti-Russian Ukrainians could have terrible long-term implications. Countries do not easily recover from such things. 

Meanwhile, there is the serious risk of escalation outside of Ukraine. The possibility of U.S. or NATO forces coming into direct contact with the Russian military is ever-present, as incidents in the first 48 hours of the war involving a vessel from Turkey proved. Managing these risks requires great skill and persistence. The U.S. and NATO should therefore strenuously resist any calls to institute a no-fly zone or other measures that would inevitably involve such clashes.

People like to imagine turning Ukraine into Putin’s Afghanistan, but they should remember the extraordinary — even sometimes absurd — lengths that the Carter and Reagan administrations employed to conceal U.S. involvement in that earlier war (even though the Soviets were quite aware). As Austin Carson explains in his book Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics, the United States worried about the spread of the conflict should that support be disclosed. And there were inadvertent consequences as well. The United States’ arming of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan, though justified at the time, eventually produced al-Qaeda. 

One way or another, the Russian war in Ukraine will wind down. Our common interests should push toward something other than a new Cold War between Russia and the West. All parties should recall that decades-long confrontation, with vast armies massed along militarized borders, as a tragedy to be avoided. The only thing worse, also a distinct possibility, is World War III.

In short, we are going to have to figure out a way to deal with Russia, perhaps even a Russia still ruled by Mr. Putin. Trusted third-parties may prove to be essential intermediaries for maintaining communication between Putin and the rest of the world. The Swiss, for example, facilitated the dialogue that eventually produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and they could play a similar role in the aftermath of the Ukraine war. 

No doubt, going back to the status quo ante will be impossible for the foreseeable future. However, leaving the door open for diplomacy, and ensuring continued exchanges with the Russian people, are vital if we don’t want to see an Iron Curtain descend across Europe again, punishing everyone, not just Putin and his cronies, or the Russian nation. 

Over time, anger and resentment toward Moscow will give way to something else. The impulse to cut Russia out of the international system is understandable but also impractical. Efforts to totally isolate Russia will increase its dependence on China, and no doubt expand Western frictions with Beijing, further accelerating deglobalization. The dramatic expansion of trade and cultural exchange over the last three decades opened up unprecedented economic opportunities for the world, almost ending extreme poverty. Putin deserves to be punished, but not at the cost of a much poorer future for everyone.   

Saint Petersburg, Russia, military Victory Day parade in 2019. (Shutterstock/Pimen)
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