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In the Ukrainian crisis, the imminent threat of a new cold war

MOSCOW — Vladimir Pozner was an English-language Soviet propaganda editor in Moscow in 1962, a job that gave him rare access to American newspapers and magazines. This allowed him to follow the Cuban Missile Crisis outside the Soviet media filter and sense a world on the brink of war.

Mr. Pozner, a longtime Russian television journalist, says he now feels something similar.

“The smell of war is very strong,” he said in an interview on Friday, a day when shelling intensified along the front line in eastern Ukraine. “If we talk about the relationship between Russia and the West – and especially the United States – I have the impression that it is as bad as it was at any time during the Cold War, and perhaps, in a certain sense, even worse.”

Contrary to 1962, it is not the threat of a nuclear war but that of a major ground war which now hovers over Europe. But the sense that Russia and the United States are entering a new version of the Cold War – long postulated by some commentators on both sides of the Atlantic – has become inescapable.

President Biden alluded to it Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, promising that if Russia invades Ukraine, “we will rally the world to oppose its aggression.” Russian President Vladimir V. Putin brought the matter home on Saturday, when he oversaw a test launch of nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles that can evade US defenses.

“We are entering a new phase of confrontation,” said Dmitry Suslov, a specialist in international relations at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. “After this crisis, we will naturally be much more explicit and open in recognizing that we are enemies, we are adversaries, with all the consequences that come with that.”

For now, no one knows exactly how the world will emerge from the crisis – whether Mr Putin is staging an elaborate and costly bluff or whether he is really about to launch the biggest military offensive in Europe since 1945. But it seems clear that Mr. Putin’s overarching goal is to revise the original Cold War outcome, even if it comes at the cost of deepening a new one.

Mr Putin seeks to undo a European security order created when his country was weak and vulnerable after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and recreate the kind of geopolitical buffer zone that Russian leaders over the centuries have felt the need. He signals that he is prepared to achieve this through diplomatic means, but also through the use of force.

The crisis has already brought Mr. Putin tactical victories as well as perilous risks. Since he first mounted a menacing troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders last spring, he has managed to capture Washington’s attention – a goal for a Kremlin that, as in the Cold War, views the confrontation with the United States as its defining conflict. But his actions have also boosted anti-Russian attitudes and further united Europe and the United States against Russia – something that should worry the Kremlin given the still far superior global economic and political power of the West.

Daniel Fried, a retired US diplomat who dealt with Moscow in both Soviet and Putin times, said he had a message for wartime-yearning Russians cold when their country, in their opinion, was respected by the United States. After all, the Soviet Union lost the first Cold War.

“You can just get that back,” Mr. Fried said in an interview. “And it won’t go well for you.”

Unlike the Soviets, Mr. Putin is not trying to wage a global ideological struggle, nor is he – for now – bankrupting his country in a costly arms race. Russia is much more embedded in the global economy, a reality that some still hope will help the world avoid such a deep and protracted confrontation between East and West. And for the United States, it is China – not Russia – that now appears to be the most serious long-term strategic adversary.

But for Mr Putin, the fight to reverse his country’s defeat in the first Cold War has already lasted at least 15 years. He declared his rejection of an American-led world order in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, warning of the “unexploded ordnance” left over from the Cold War: “ideological stereotypes”. and the “double standards” that allowed Washington to rule the world. world while hampering the development of Russia.

This weekend, in one of many worrying developments in recent days, Russia is skipping the Munich conference – an annual meeting where Western officials have been able to sit down with their Russian counterparts throughout the tensions. prior to Mr. Putin’s regime.

Instead, the Kremlin broadcast footage of Mr Putin in the Kremlin Situation Room directing test launches of its modernized arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles from bombers, submarines and launchers terrestrial. It was a careful reminder that, as Russian TV recently told viewers, the country can turn American cities “into radioactive ashes.”

And Mr Putin has massed a monumental force in the north, east and south of Ukraine to signal that the Kremlin views the former Soviet republic’s pro-Western turn as such a serious threat that it is ready to fight a war to stop it. The confrontation is in some ways reminiscent of the Berlin Crisis of 1961, when the Soviets demanded that Western forces leave Berlin, and East Germany eventually built the wall that separated East and West. For some Russians, the fact that Ukraine is much closer to Russia than Berlin is what makes the New Cold War even more dangerous.

“At the time, the border was through Berlin,” said Moscow analyst Mr Suslov. “Now the border goes through Kharkiv” – a Ukrainian town on the Russian border that is a day’s drive from Moscow.

The Cold War can also offer parallels to what might happen in Russia in the event of war. Analysts predict an even more authoritarian swing from the Kremlin and an even more ruthless hunt for internal enemies allegedly sponsored by the West. Mr. Pozner, a Paris-born state television host raised partly in New York and moved to Moscow in 1952, posited that Russia’s enemies in the West might even quietly hope for war, because that might weaken and discredit the country. .

“I’m very worried,” Mr. Pozner said. “A Russian invasion of Ukraine is a disaster for Russia, first and foremost, in the sense of Russia’s reputation and what will happen to Russia as a result.”

Some Russian analysts believe that Mr. Putin could still defuse the crisis and come away with a tactical victory. The threat of war has sparked discussion in Ukraine and the West about the idea that Kiev might disavow NATO membership. And the United States has already offered talks on a number of initiatives of interest to Moscow, including placing missiles in Europe and limiting long-range bomber flights.

But Mr Putin is making it clear that he wants more than that: a far-reaching, legally-binding agreement to reduce NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe.

The intensity of the crisis that Mr. Putin has engineered is evident in the harsh language that the Kremlin has used. Standing alongside French President Emmanuel Macron in the Kremlin this month, Mr Putin said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had no choice but to implement a 2015 peace plan that Russia was pushing: “You may like it, you may not like it – get it on your own, sweetie.” Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov, in a joint press conference with his visiting British counterpart, Liz Truss, said their discussion had been like a “mute person with a deaf person”.

“Sometimes the discussions were rather heated between the Soviet and American leaders,” said Pavel Palazhchenko, a former Soviet diplomat. “But probably not to this extent and not as publicly as now. There really is no parallel.”

Mr Palazhchenko, who translated for Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev during his summits with US presidents, describes the language as a consequence of Russian frustration over the country’s security concerns being ignored. During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow agreed to historic arms control agreements. During Putin’s era, little of this happened.

“This is a clear emotional and psychological reaction to the years, if not decades, of the West and the United States rather dismissing Russian security concerns,” Palazhchenko said.

Doug Lute, former US ambassador to NATO, rejects notion of past disrespect for Russian interests, especially since Russia’s nuclear arsenal is ‘the only existential threat to the United States in the world’ . But like Mr. Palazhchenko, he also sees the lessons of the Cold War to get out of the current crisis.

“We may be settling into a period where we have radically different worldviews or radically different ambitions, but even despite this political competition there is room to do things in our mutual interest.” , said Mr. Lute. “The Cold War could be a model for competing and cooperating at the same time.”

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