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Drawing the Lines for Cold War II by Sven R. Larson

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Drawing the Lines for Cold War II

In the midst of the high tensions between Russia and the West, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Moscow on February 1st for what Orbán called a peace mission. He and President Putin had a number of topics to discuss, among them bilateral trade.

The visit was an important show of faith in diplomacy, right as Russia and the West have started positioning themselves for another cold war. Referring to Ukraine, the epicenter of that cold war, Orbán explained that “we must negotiate” with Russia regarding their “demands for security guarantees.” The prime minister also pointed to Hungary as a role model for EU and NATO member states on how to manage relations with Russia.

The risk of a new cold war

Prime Minister Orbán’s recipe for how to handle international conflicts is time-tested and worth trying again. Meetings and negotiations benefit de-escalation efforts in times of international tensions, and they almost always lead to stronger economic relations. Countries with strong economic relations rarely want to replace those relations with war. But even a cold war is highly undesirable: it would mean a return to lines of conflict where entrenched military resources can rapidly replace chilling winds with a firestorm.

Russia has already built such tensions along the Ukrainian border. Their troops cannot remain there if the situation is to de-escalate and if Ukraine is going to continue to exist as a peaceful, sovereign nation. The West, on the other hand, has been sending mixed responses to Moscow’s demands regarding Ukraine and its affiliation with NATO. While the right for Ukraine to choose alliances can never be questioned, the American government has contributed to escalating tensions by irresponsibly talking up the risk for an armed conflict.

As of today, it is impossible to say whether we are heading into a Cold War II or if Prime Minister Orbán’s path to de-escalation will prevail. We can only hope for the latter; there are no winners in a new, tense showdown between the superpowers. As the world so painfully experienced in the last century, every nation on Earth will de facto be forced to take sides. 

This also means that every corner of the world could potentially be dragged into an escalation, should a cold war become hot. This has already happened to a small degree. Beyond Ukraine, Sweden and Finland are debating NATO membership. If even one of them joined, it would escalate tensions in one of the most peaceful regions of the world. 

The Balkans is already being pulled into the whirlpool of an emerging cold war. While Russia is arming Serbia, Croatia is ramping up its military capabilities in line with its NATO membership. So far, the superpower involvement in the region is limited, but that could change rapidly. Serbia is practically an island in an ocean of NATO members: of all its neighbors, only Bosnia-Herzegovina remains outside the alliance. 

Will the shape of Cold War II become sharper, or will the world choose the path of dialogue and de-escalation? The answer to this question depends on how the leaders in primarily Moscow, Washington, and Brussels answer two other questions: 

  • Who would benefit from a new cold war? 
  • What would each side be defending?

The last question is perhaps the most essential one to answer, but it does not suffice to simply copycat the motive for the last cold war. That decades-long stand-off between the superpowers had merit: the free world sized up a totalitarian, communist empire in defense of values held dear to the West. There was never any doubt that the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to freedom, Christianity, democracy, and capitalism. The communists in Moscow had shown what they were capable of, both in their own country and throughout eastern Europe.

There are ideological battle lines between the West and China, but the relations between Russia and the West are different. That is not to say Russia is a peaceful, thriving Western democracy. Far from it: President Putin is an authoritarian with a sordid record in terms of freedom and democracy. He has rewritten the constitution so that he will not be bound by such petty constraints on his power as “term limits.” His country has been hit hard by Human Rights Watch for cracking down on critical media and opposition groups. 

Ukraine in a global context

At the same time, today’s Russia is not yesterday’s Soviet Union. What Putin does to his country is unacceptable, but unlike the leaders of the communist state of the last century, he does not have an ideology that compels him to eliminate the economic and political system of the West. 

But is not the conflict in Ukraine a case in point to the contrary? 

It is beyond question that Russia is at fault for creating the tense situation around that country. Having occupied Crimea and not-so-subtly occupying the easternmost part of Ukraine, Moscow is the uncontested culprit in the current situation. Amassing troops along the Ukrainian border has not helped.

That said, it is a non-sequitur to generalize the Ukrainian conflict into an existential threat to the West. Pulling the Nordic countries, the Balkans, and possibly other parts of the world into the conflict presumes a motive behind Russia’s aggressions toward Ukraine that does not exist. 

Put differently: if the Ukrainian conflict is entirely about Kyiv’s future international alliances, then the current situation is—so to speak—unique to Ukraine. Neither Russia nor the West would have a reason to escalate it beyond where it is now. The way forward, instead, would be that which Prime Minister Orbán pointed to: negotiations focused on the Ukrainian conflict. 

The desirable outcome would be a compromise—or, in the words of the fictional character Jonathan Archer from the science-fiction series Star Trek: a solution that both parties are equally dissatisfied with.

There are emerging signs of interest in a solution of mutual dissatisfaction. According to Euractiv.com, there is genuine interest in Washington in “an immediate de-escalation” of tensions with Russia. Part of the reason, Euractiv explains, is that the American leadership is worried that a conflict over Ukraine would distract both attention and military resources away from China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. 

While such signals are seeping through, other signs would suggest further entrenchment. The Biden administration has apparently reached an agreement with Germany that reinforces the Western alliance. If Russia invades Ukraine, Germany will scrap the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

President Biden is not helping by failing to exhibit consistency regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict. To make the American response even more complicated, an open foreign-policy disagreement has erupted within the Republican party in Congress. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently sent a letter to President Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken, demanding clarifications on the administration’s position regarding Ukraine. The senator pointed to the limited resources that the United States military has at its disposal and noted that a major commitment to the defense of Ukraine would weaken the ability of the United States to challenge China in the Pacific Ocean and nearby regions.

Hawley was viciously criticized by another Republican, Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL). In an outburst completely unbecoming of a member of U.S. Congress, Kinzinger called Hawley “one of the worst human beings.” 

If the aforementioned report from Euractiv is correct in its suggestion that the Biden administration wants de-escalation, there is hope that Senator Hawley’s approach will prevail. However, that does not mean Washington is ready to avoid a Cold War II. If the American government backs away from heightened tensions, and does so based solely on a practical, almost fiscal calculation of its military capability, it could just as well re-escalate tensions in the future. 

The situation is very tense on the other side of the fault line as well. Even if the Ukrainian conflict is resolved to Kyiv’s full satisfaction, Russia is indeed capable of stirring up new conflicts and tensions. However, to see this as a threat ominous enough to engage in another cold war is to read more into the Russian president than is merited. 

What are Russian motives?

To assess whether Ukraine is a unique situation, it is essential to ask what motives Russia could have there, that are not particular to that conflict.

There is no shortage of suggestions. Among the more speculative contributions is an article from February 3rd in the Washington Monthly, suggesting that Putin is raising global tensions in an effort to play up domestic divisions within the United States. His goal, it is said, would be to make America more isolationist and weaken Biden and his democrat party in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections.

The Washington Monthly does not have to worry. President Biden has done a fine job on his own to weaken his voter support. He alone may lose the November elections for his party. If this explanation of Putin’s motives has any purpose, it is to illustrate what Amero-centrism looks like in foreign-policy analysis.

A more productive analysis comes from Keir Giles with the Chatham House, a British think tank. Giles suggests that Putin is using the Ukrainian conflict to shore up domestic support for his continued hold on power. This level-headed view aligns well with what election analyst and consultant George Ajjan put forward in an insightful piece from 2020 in the American Conservative. Pointing to a substantial decline in voter support for Putin’s United Russia party, Ajjar puts a strong domestic-policy framework around the Russian president’s foreign-policy muscle flexing. 

Ajjar also notes that Putin is facing increasingly resilient opposition, but not from Alex Navalny whom Ajjar essentially portrays as a hyped-up darling of the West. Other movements, he says, are more credible challengers to Putin’s power, an observation that appears to be verified by election data from 2021.

While it is always important to be cautious about data published on Wikipedia, their numbers from the 2021 Russian election are sourced from the Russian Central Election Commission. Assuming their reliability, they reinforce Ajjar’s point. Putin’s United Russia party lost votes in absolute numbers in 2021, compared to 2016, despite a rise in voter turnout. In other words, the electorate shifted decisively away from the president and his party. 

If reports on Russian election fraud are correct, the actual trend in voter dissatisfaction is far stronger than the official numbers indicate. This, in turn, should have Putin worried; his response has been to beat the patriotic drum. 

To Putin, patriotism has the same meaning as it does with American neoconservatives: support your country and its government, especially in times of war, nothing else. There is no doubt that Putin sees patriotism this way: his new National Guard has gotten involved in elementary school education, he has established a “military-patriotic youth movement” and a “patriotic directorate” within the Russian Armed Forces

There is nothing wrong per se with this traditional, almost habitual definition of patriotism. It is almost a given that one wants to support one’s country against an existential foreign threat. What is not included in this definition of patriotism is the reciprocity that President Trump included in his definition of the term: that the national leaders do everything in their power to create opportunities for its people to build prosperity, for themselves and their country.

Putin, like America’s neoconservatives, does not understand the Trump version. Putin has done far too little to improve the Russian economy, especially in the past ten years. This forces him to double down on the neoconservative definition; his adherence to it is confirmed by a 2016 report from the Institute for Modern Russia. Called “What’s in a Name? The Russian Understanding of Patriotism,” the report suggests that the political leadership in Moscow promotes patriotism 

as a creed to fill the ideological vacuum that resulted from the fall of the Soviet Union; to “save” Russia from Western ideology; to consolidate society; and to restore and promote national pride.

If this is a correct assessment of the ideology behind Putin’s global posturing, it means that his country has no general expansionist ambitions toward the West. It would also suggest that Putin is willing to size up the West when its military alliance, as he sees it, closes in on his country’s borders. His methods for doing so may be deeply reprehensible  and require a firm response, but it does not follow that the West needs to engage Russia in a Cold War II.

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.

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