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News coverage of the situation to Crimea frequently employs one of two ideas:
1. Putin is Hitler and we are headed for World War Three.
2. Putin is seeking to reassert Russia’s superpower status and initiate Cold War 2.0
I reject the first assertion out of hand. The second is more interesting and I’d like put in my two cents on the idea. While I have little insight into Putin’s thinking or strategy, it is still possible to shed some light on this issue by taking taking a look at both Cold War history and the present situation.
The situation in Ukraine may be the opening shot of Cold War 2.0, it may lead to a protracted struggle, but if it is the beginning of a new Cold War then Russia should be very concerned because it is in a fairly disadvantageous position.
A review of history can be enlightening. Differences in values and culture have frequently led to disputes between Russia and the powers of western Europe. There has long been a competition for control and influence over eastern Europe. Russia, twice invaded by western nations, has committed itself to maintaining a buffer of satellite states between itself and western Europe. The Cold War can in some regards be viewed as an escalation of historic tensions to unprecedented heights. The Cold War was, in some respects, a continuation of a long standing struggle over the future of central and eastern Europe.
Interestingly, while most portray Putin as the current aggressor (and in some sense he is) the Western powers have been engaging in some very provocative actions (from the Russian point of view) since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the EU was created and expanded to include not only former Soviet satellite states but when the Baltic states were admitted it moved the EU into territory that was part of the Soviet Union itself (and the Russian Empire before that). NATO, whose founding purpose was to deter and defend against a Soviet invasion, was expanded in a similar fashion. The US and its allies invaded Afghanistan and stationed troops in former Soviet republics to assist in the invasion. The US and its allies engaged in regime change in Iraq, and Libya. The US has also basically used economic warfare against Iran to make them more pliant toward western policy goals. All of this was done with little objection from Russia. If Putin was seriously interested in starting another Cold War, 2004 and 2005 when the US was bogged down in its occupation of Iraq would have been an excellent time to do so.
Tension between the US and Russia did not begin to escalate until the US began talking about regime change in Syria a former Soviet client state and Russian ally and trading partner. Then the EU tried to woo Ukraine into its orbit with a trade deal. When the Russians countered with a better deal (and some coercion) the Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych chose to sign the Russian deal. Massive protests then broke out that indicated that many Ukrainians (or perhaps just a powerful elite) favor the EU over Russia.
Since the end of the Cold War Russia has seen its historic sphere of influence all but vanish, not only in eastern Europe but in central Asia as well. Many central Asian states who were formerly part of the Soviet Union (and Russian Empire) are finding little incentive to remain in the Russian sphere other than economic benefit. But now, with the rise of China, Russian influence is also being pushed out of central Asia. Countries in Asia are finding it more beneficial to sign (sometimes exclusive) trade deals with China rather than Russia.
From a Russian point of view this is very worrisome. They are losing influence on two fronts. So it is logical that Putin would want to try and seize on what many perceive as a moment of strength to try and reverse the trend of declining Russian influence in areas that they have historically been dominant.
However things did not go as planned. Certainly, Putin and Russia looked strong in preventing the US from intervening in the Syrian Civil war, but when engaged in a battle of soft power with the EU Russia clearly lost. Unwilling to concede defeat on soft power alone, Putin resorted to an area of Russian strength- military force. It can rightly be perceived as a desperate maneuver. Although it is a maneuver designed not to start a new Cold War, or to establish hegemony, but rather it is in line with the long tradition of Russian foreign policy and can, in some regards, be viewed as defensive.
The Cold War was fought, in part, over the future of places like Germany and Czechoslovakia, now, the conflict is over places like Syria and Ukraine. If this really is Cold War 2.0 it is being fought on Russia’s home turf.
There has been a deluge of articles that have been written about the fascinating geopolitical struggle that is taking place in Ukraine. Some (much) of what has been written is not worthwhile, and usually contains shallow analogies to Hitler and Munich. However, here are some of the more interesting articles that I have read that make worthwhile points:
“The Ukraine Nuclear Delusion,” Gareth Evans, Project Syndicate
"An argument now widely heard is that Ukraine would not be in the trouble it is in had it retained its substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War. This has dangerous policy implications, and must not go unchallenged. […][W]eapons that would be manifestly suicidal to use are not ultimately a very credible deterrent. They will not stop the kind of adventurism now seen in Ukraine, because the risks associated with their deliberate use are simply too high.”
The idea that the situation in Ukraine would be different if they still had a nuclear arsenal has been speculated upon by many including me on this blog.
"Mr. Biden stood with Estonian president Toomas Ilves Tuesday to “reconfirm and reaffirm our shared commitment to collective self-defense, to Article 5.” He wanted to make it “absolutely clear what it means to the Estonian people” and that “President Obama and I view Article 5 of the NATO Treaty as an absolutely solemn commitment which we will honor—we will honor.” Shortly thereafter, Moscow “expressed concern” about the treatment of ethnic Russians in Estonia."
Estonia is a member of NATO and the EU, Russian adventurism in Estonia or the other Baltic states (formerly part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union) could play out very differently than the events in Ukraine.
“Obama: In Eisenhower’s Shadow,” Nicolaus Mills, World Policy Blog
“With Russian President Vladimir Putin reclaiming Crimea as part of Russia on Tuesday, criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy continues to escalate. Few, however, have come to the realization that the president is merely following a very traditional diplomatic strategy. Obama is acting with the same, pragmatic restraint President Dwight Eisenhower showed nearly 60 years ago, when the Soviet Union sent troops into Hungary to deal with that nation’s 1956 uprising. Realizing this stark comparison between President Obama and President Eisenhower’s actions would help put Ukraine’s crisis, and the international response, in context.”
Mills provides a good historical perspective using Hungary in 1956 as a point of comparison. Much of Eisenhower’s foreign policy would have been viewed by the Republican party of today as akin to appeasement and the comparisons to Neville Chamberlain would have been plentiful.
“Wake Up NATO, You’re No Deterrent to Russia,” Philip Seib, Defense One
“The organization retains considerable luster from its early years, but its reputation is not in line with reality. An honest appraisal of NATO’s capabilities will quickly find that most of its European members have let their militaries fall into such disrepair that NATO, in terms of accomplishing military missions, is nothing more than a horseless Tonto, while the United States remains the Lone Ranger.
The agreed-upon benchmark for defense spending by NATO’s member states is 2 percent of GDP, but as of 2012 only four of the organization’s 28 members reached this threshold – the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece and Estonia. […]
Russia is not Libya. If NATO underperformed against Muammar Qaddafi’s sloppy forces, why would anyone think that it could intimidate Russia’s first-rate military?”
Seib argues that NATO lacks the military and will power to deter or forcefully engage Russia.
“Who Lost Ukraine?” Elizabeth Pond, World Policy Blog
"For centuries, Russians have thought of Ukrainians as their little East Slav brothers. Most Russians still seem to think so. The Ukrainians, however, gave notice last week that they have now grown into adulthood and see themselves as autonomous Europeans. Their assertion of this new identity has shocked Russians in general and President Vladimir Putin in particular.
When future Russians ask, “Who lost Ukraine?,” the answer will be clear: President Vladimir Putin, through overreach.”
According to Pond, Putin has made a huge tactical blunder that will push Ukraine toward to Western sphere.
“Ukraine Signs Political Accord with European Union,” Henry Chu and Sergei Loiko, Los Angeles Times
"In Brussels, Ukrainian officials sealed a deal deepening political cooperation with the 28-nation European Union. […] The signing of the EU deal, which includes security and defense cooperation, risks further angering Moscow, which sees a Europe-leaning Ukraine as a threat. […] EU membership is not on offer. But the agreement puts Ukraine squarely in the orbit of the EU, which pledged to sign the accord immediately as a riposte to Russia’s armed takeover of Crimea."
If Ukraine can retain independence and viability as a sovereign state, it may indeed be pushed by Russia’s actions directly into the arms of the EU. The question will then be: will the EU help Ukraine meet its stringent admission requirements or will they let them flounder as they try to achieve those goals on their own?
“Kaliningrad: Russia’s Own Breakaway Region?” Dick Krickus, The National Interest
"Since the Russian government claims that the residents of Crimea have the legal justification to bolt from Ukraine, can we assume that the residents of Kaliningrad have the same right to join the EU? […] If allowed to vote in favor of joining Europe—without fear of retribution—it is plausible that most residents of the Oblast would vote to bolt from Russia; clearly this would be the preference of younger people."
Kaliningrad (Koingsberg) was historically a German region and was only ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the post-WW2 settlement. The region no longer has a significant German population because they were deported by the Soviet Union. However, as a geopolitical maneuver, an attempt to wrench control of Kaliningrad from Russia could be a good way to apply pressure against Russia in ways that sanctions can’t.
Snowden was apparently referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s indignation at reports that the U.S. had listened in on her personal conversations, but her failure to condemn the NSA for mass surveillance of communications of German citizens. Both were revealed by the release of documents that Snowden took from NSA computers and distributed to journalists.
I suppose it would be cliche to say that Iran is watching the events in Ukraine and probably:
1. is coming to the conclusion that if Ukraine still had a nuclear arsenal there would not be Russian troops in the Crimea and amassing along their border.
2. feels vindicated in the pursuit of their own nuclear weapons.
In 1992 when Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union it had the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. Shortly after, Ukraine transferred those weapons back to Russia for dismantling, and became signatories to the non-proliferation treaty.
I can’t help but wonder how nuclear weapons would alter the current situation. If Ukraine still had its nukes, would there still be thousands of Russian troops in the Crimea?
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