October 23, 2008

The Second Cold War

The favourite sentence of Western diplomats is that nobody wants a Cold War, neither we nor the Russians. We for sure are not looking for it, but what about the Russians?

The favourite sentence of Western diplomats is that nobody wants a Cold War, neither we nor the Russians. We for sure are not looking for it, but what about the Russians?


Jüri Luik

The Second Cold War

The favourite sentence of Western diplomats is that nobody wants a Cold War, neither we nor the Russians. We for sure are not looking for it, but what about the Russians?

When the First World War was brought to a close by the Peace Treaty of Versailles, hundreds of millions of people believed that it had been – as US President Woodrow Wilson put it – a war to end all wars. But the winners made a number of mistakes in the Peace Treaty of Versailles, mistakes so grave that they later became the catalysts for the Second World War. Before the start of the Second World War, the first one was obviously simply called the World War. Before the Second Cold War, the first one was simply the Cold War. Now we know that Cold Wars are like World Wars, one follows another. It might seem like splitting hairs, but I would rather not use Edward Lucas’s term ‘new Cold War’ – the word ‘second’ should be used because we should emphasise both the temporal dimension and the fact that although every war, even a cold one, is different, it still has a strong connection to the one that occurred before it.
Sceptics will ask whether the Second Cold War has actually started. One of the differences between a Cold War and a ‘hot war’ is the difficulty of registering its beginning. Considered separately, each incident after the end of the Second World War was highly worrisome, but only some very insightful people managed to reveal the full scope of the Cold War. Let us not forget that it was Winston Churchill who took the first, widely criticised step to expose Stalin’s motives in his 1946 Fulton speech, saying inter alia that an iron curtain had descended across Europe. After this speech Churchill, not Stalin was labelled by many in Europe and America as a warmonger. At that moment, the establishment of NATO was still three long years away, years, which gave Stalin a window of opportunity to strengthen his influence over Central and Eastern Europe.
Even today hardly anyone is interested in the Cold War topic. Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War is the only book of some international standing that deals with this issue. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has provided a penetrating analysis of the August attack by Russia and its impact on the international world order. According to President Ilves, the attack caused a paradigm shift that dismantled the world order of the post-Cold War era, which was characterised by a gradual cessation of the use of force and by a belief that the future of international relations would lie mostly in soft power, particularly in the field of economy. The shattering of these illusions has led to a major shift in international politics, the consequences of which are far greater than those of the Russia-Georgia war.
Georgia has indeed become the real starting signal for the Second Cold War, if the definition of a Cold War includes both pressure and counter-pressure, not just unilateral pressure from Russia. It arose primarily in connection with mutual conflicts, not angry speeches, like the situation after the Second World War. One such conflict was the non-recognition of the sovereign Polish government in exile by Stalin and the continuing recognition of it by Roosevelt. Despite these real (not rhetorical) confrontations, Europe was dominated by a naive wishful thinking which prevented many from noticing the start of the First Cold War. Even the famous journalist and one of the coiners of the term ‘Cold War’, Walter Lippmann, was critical of the need to confront Russia. Still, the current favourite sentence of Western diplomats is that nobody wants a Cold War, neither we nor the Russians. We for sure are not looking for it, but what about the Russians? Can a Cold War be prevented, if one side wants it, but the other one does not? Or would it then be more like a surrender which, despite all the hardships, the West managed to avoid during the Cold War? Georgia has forced the West to face all these real, not abstract choices. Now, however, it seems that after considerable hesitation the West will decide in favour of a Second Cold War, not a silent submission.
The root causes of the Second Cold War lie in the end of the First Cold War. The West was the undisputed winner of the Cold War. The enemy disintegrated and democracy prevailed, or so it seemed. According to the firm belief driven by the lessons of the First World War that affected the political consciousness of the West during the post-Second World War era, the humiliation suffered by a defeated enemy after a war will leave the embers smouldering and will later allow nationalist forces to seek revenge. It was and still is a widely held view that national humiliation helped Hitler to power. After the end of the Second World War, the West tried not to make the same mistake again and managed to democratise Germany, establish the European Union and invite Germany to join NATO. The winners of the Cold War applied the same model to Russia, rendering absurd the essentially noble idea of war prevention. In the case of Germany, a crucial component of the model was the radical transformation of the social consciousness of the German people; in the case of Russia, nobody paid any attention to it.
There was no democratic revolution in Russia, only a change of power or the collapse of the old regime. The Communist system destroyed itself by making an ill-advised move of selecting Mikhail Gorbachev as its leader. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the downfall of the Communist Party were induced by in-fighting, not by a democratic revolution. Yes, the Soviet Union vanished into thin air, but the mentality prevalent in the Soviet Union with its myths, its Communist ideology and its undemocratic regime did not disappear and nobody made any special efforts to eradicate it. Thus the foundation for the Second Cold War was laid.
Many were guilty of cultivating the Soviet mentality. Obviously, the primary culprits are not the Western leaders, but the Russian democrats. They were actually in power for the first – and probably the last – time, yet they were not brave enough to tell the people the truth. Russia had not been humiliated after the Cold War, but the Russian democrats still preferred to act the way the democrats did in the Weimar Republic. Nobody among the then democratic German politicians was willing to take a stand against Prussian militarism; nobody even tried to explain to the people why Germany had lost the war. The same happened in Yeltsin’s Russia. The reformation process was based on the Marxist idea that the transformation of the economic order into a market economy would effect sufficient changes in the social order which would, in turn, make it possible to break free from the past. As it turned out, it did not suffice to achieve a breakthrough and, in the end, the clinging to the inflexible Soviet mentality even frustrated all efforts to make the transition towards a market economy.
The list of things left undone is unbelievably long. Let me point out only a few of them. The most serious omission is that nobody has been convicted of the murder of tens of millions of Russian people, not to mention other nationalities. Yeltsin had no problem with cooperating with those Communists who changed their colour at the right moment. Only one person among those who orchestrated the August putsch in 1991 was convicted, but he received a pardon very swiftly. Even Lazar Kaganovich was never subjected to questioning, although he died as late as July 1991, having been responsible for the deaths of millions.
The inhumanity of the Communist ideology (even Lenin is still on Red Square), the wider context of the Second World War, the history of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and many other great myths have never been systematically analysed. Nobody paid any attention to the independence of the judiciary or the media and, most importantly, no efforts were made to dismantle the KGB, the Russian Gestapo. Quite the contrary, many democrats were themselves rather enchanted by the KGB and they used its agents willingly. Legends about the honesty, faultlessness and reliability of former agents began to circulate. A famous Russian democrat, Anatoly Sobchak, once brought a certain unknown security service man into the wider political arena. This man was Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin.
Western leaders paid absolutely no attention to all this. There was no real external pressure to implement reforms. They were content with the illusion of a virtual democracy created by the new Russian leaders. Of course, such an illusion was necessary insofar as it stopped the Western parliaments from asking annoying questions about the volume of aid resources allocated to Russia. The principle of non-humiliation was carried to the extreme, so that Russia did not receive honest criticism, but instead was praised without merit. The culmination of this policy was the inclusion of Russia in the G8. Instead of tangible reforms, Russian society began to drift back to its usual course. By the time of Putin’s rise to power, Russia was ready to turn back the democratic reforms. But even when Yeltsin had left the scene, the Russian people would probably not have elected Putin president; they would have voted for someone else, for some well-known politician. Yet Yeltsin had named his candidate.
Many Soviet myths were retained inside the country, but Russia’s influence on the international arena had disappeared. Consequently, the domestic restoration went much more smoothly than the international restoration. Putin cannot repeat the achievements of the Soviet era foreign policy makers. Putin cannot change – even in theory – some realities in favour of Russia. If the West stands united, its resources exceed those of Russia by far. But is the West united?
Let us now compare the circumstances and operating principles of the First and the Second Cold Wars. The unity of the West was of crucial importance during the First Cold War; the same will apply to the Second Cold War. Today, we have essentially similar problems: several West European countries wanted to have a special relationship with Russia, using the US nuclear umbrella to further their aims, but at the same time presenting themselves as seekers of ‘reasonable’ compromises between the two great powers. This annoyed the Americans then and it annoys them now. Europe, however, has changed by now. It has become more unified and it handles many foreign policy issues via the European Union. The EU mechanism is quite transparent, providing limited opportunities for the conclusion of secret agreements.
The most important topic is, of course, war and peace. Let us be honest: the Cold War had many positive aspects too, for example the successful prevention of a ‘hot war’. The massive concentration of conventional weapons together with combat-ready nuclear weapons created a situation in which the opposing sides avoided even the smallest provocations. At the moment, we have no such deterrence. This has increased the risk of minor clashes where the stakes are not high enough to invite overwhelming retaliation from NATO. It might seem absurd, but it is a fact that the risk of a small-scale armed conflict between Russia and NATO is today higher than it was during the Cold War.
A special feature of the First Cold War was the division of the world into competing blocks. The Soviet Union had allies all around the world. Of course, most of them –Central and East European countries – were forced into an alliance relationship, but the Soviets also had profit-hungry allies in Asia and on other continents. Russia’s current allies are not allies in the Cold War sense of the word. These states prefer to have good relations with the Western countries, relations which Russia cannot control. The Kazakhs, for example, are keen on participating in NATO exercises. The same applies to the Armenians who are doing so together with their enemies – the Azerbaijanis. In addition, Russia cannot force its current allies to act against their national interests. The last striking example of this was Russia’s pressure to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Not a single CIS member state did – not even Belarus which, as a result of Russia’s aggression, decided – oddly enough – to free political prisoners and to try to unfreeze its relations with the West.
The First Cold War absorbed considerable resources on both sides and when the Soviet Union no longer had sufficient resources, the war came to an end. Today, Russia does not have huge political or economic resources to wage a Cold War. In its present condition, Russia is still linked sideways to the global economy which means that armed conflicts, like the attack on Georgia, could do significant damage to the Russian economy. The Russian population that can be used as a source of separatism has also been considered an important resource. First, however, it is almost impossible to use this resource in a situation where the Russian population living outside Russia does not feel threatened, but more secure than it would feel in Russia. Second, as it turned out, the separatist card was strong only in theory. In reality, it forced – as stated above – even the most faithful allies to abandon Russia. In short, the card has lost much of its magic after the events in Georgia. The energy war card also fell in ranking because Russia did not dare to use it.
Finally, let us discuss ideology. The First Cold War was an ideological debate; the Second Cold War will not involve a similar debate. The aggressor in the First Cold War – the Soviet Union – used Communism, which had been created in European universities and salons, as an ideological weapon. Today, there is no all-encompassing belief system of a similar nature. It is true that Russian spin doctors have tried to develop a new ideology of guided democracy, but it has no appeal to universities, the media and the general public. The only ones who are interested in this ‘ideology’ are state leaders who do not like elections. The new Cold War is based on nationalism, on undisguised brutal force. I know the research institutes and the media landscape in the USA quite well. Not a single US analyst sees anything positive in the current behaviour of Russia. Liberal analysts are even more critical of Russia than others because they hate nationalism in its bare form. There are, of course, the so-called pragmatists too (for example former Secretaries of State Kissinger and Baker) but their voice will not be strong enough, if Russia keeps up its provocative behaviour.
What will happen now? Russia has essentially three options. The first one is to return from the path leading to a Cold War in order to continue calmly its Western-oriented development. The second option is to maintain the status quo, to recover from setbacks and to proceed down the same old road of confrontation. The weakness of such an approach is, as the events in Georgia demonstrated, Russia’s excessive vulnerability. The third option is to start serious preparations for the Second Cold War. In order to do that, it is necessary to put more emphasis on the arms race (which Russia is doing already), to stir up strong emotions in the Russian population living abroad (which it is also doing), to tighten the screws domestically (which it is also doing) and to try using all the means necessary to get itself the allies it craves for. All in all, the signs are ominous.
The tactics employed by Western countries must, of course, pose a counterpoint to Russia’s tactics. This would entail the making of certain political and financial sacrifices, so the first thing we must do is to admit the existence of a serious problem. Then we can work out a policy to exert counter-pressure on Russia. If we stick to this policy firmly, we might even be able to stop the Second Cold War. If not, we must learn to survive it.

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