Cold War II: Russia, NATO, and Avoiding a Nuclear Confrontation Over the ‘Near-Abroad’
“Are we in the middle of a new Cold War? Indeed we are,”remarked former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to TIME Magazine in an interview last December. I would take it one step further than Mr. Gorbachev, however, and throw my lot in with the growing number of analysts who warn that America’s newly rekindled tension with the Russian Federation might be the closest we have ever been to a nuclear war. In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists adjusted its infamous ‘Doomsday Clock’, a measurement of how close human civilization is to wiping itself off the Earth, forward to its current spot: three minutes to midnight. This is the highest level in a generation, on par with the state of alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Ronald Reagan’s ‘80s. What could possibly have created the same level of suspicion and danger as the most frigid days of the Cold War, especially when the ‘Reds’ have been gone for the better part of two decades?
If prompted, many observers would rightly point to the events surrounding the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine, the site of a bloody civil war between Russian separatists and the new pro-Western government that has engulfed the region since 2014. Reports arrive daily from Donestk and Luhansk about devastation on a scale not witnessed since the Nazi invasion during World War 2. Thousands are dead, food shortages are omnipresent, infrastructure in most towns and villages has been reduced to rubble, and the latest ceasefire along the frontlines is insufficient at best and futile at worst.
President Obama officially blames Vladimir Putin and his administration for inciting violence to keep Ukraine from joining the European Union. Ukrainian membership would mean Russia yields one of its key buffer states to the West, hence the desire to establish an independent “Novorossiya”, or “New Russia” in Donetsk and Luhansk. For this, Mr. Putin is further vilified by his many, many Western critics as an ambitious warmonger, a scheming bully who only seeks to recapture the glory of the Soviet years. And yet, while I firmly agree with criticism leveled at Russia’s growing authoritarianism and Mr. Putin’s indefinite iron grip on the Russian presidency, the American public must strive to remember that there are two sides to this increasingly bellicose narrative. Just like the last Cold War, the cost of barreling headlong into this one could be apocalyptic.
In defense of Russia – a phrase I hope will not land me on the bench at some political witch-hunt in the future – one must consider how ostensibly expansionist the U.S-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has acted over the last twenty-four years. Russian Foreign Minister of Affairs Sergey Lavrov has commented that the end of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 was seen by many in his nation as the potential start for a new era of cooperation with the West, as well as economic, political, and social reform domestically. President George H.W. Bush’s first two strategic arms reduction treaties signed in 1991 and 1993 additionally sought to temper the massive nuclear arsenals aimed at one another’s territory. This deal presumed America would always respect that Russia, while no longer the second global superpower, was still a great power with certain expectations for how its stances should be treated.
It should not be surprising that this optimistic spirit faded as NATO enlarged its borders into Russia’s perceived sphere of influence — the former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe, an area it often refers to as the ‘near-abroad.’ Nine countries from the former Warsaw Pact joined NATO between 1991 and 2013. From Lavrov’s perspective, a military alliance explicitly formed to combat Russia, has spent the peace years absorbing former constituents on its way to marginalizing and subduing the motherland herself.
Under Article 5 of its charter, all 28 member-states of NATO must come to the aid of any member attacked by an outside force. While impetuses for conflict between Russia and, say, Portugal are relatively few, the same cannot be said for Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, or the three Baltic states that have historically been controlled by Russia, and have ethnic Russian minorities. Putin has repeatedly expressed his willingness defend any Russians or Russian-speaking populations who request assistance, and cited this in the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, as well as last year’s annexation of Crimea.
While the autonomy of Crimea and the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are heavily contested by NATO, Putin’s foreign ministry usually responds by citing the Kosovo Precedent – the recognition by the United States and its allies of that breakaway state’s popular-independence movement from Serbia in 2008. If Kosovo can sue for freedom in such a manner, they say, Crimea and “Novorossiya” must surely be in the right as well. It does not help NATO’s case that America previously led the charge when it launched an intensive air-bombing campaign of Belgrade, Serbia in 1999 to stop the interethnic fighting in Kosovo. While I personally feel the prevention of further violence was a morally sound motive, this action was not conducted through the United Nations Security Council lest Russia veto it in support of Serbia. By such standards, one of my lingering questions is whether Putin is therefore being hypocritical by supporting the Ukrainian rebels in a similar manner. Whatever the case, it is worth noting that Putin was elected to the presidency a month after the conclusion of the Kosovo War, and vowed to modernize his nation’s military in the face of what he likely viewed as an increasingly untrustworthy counterpart willing to subdue a Balkan ally in the ‘near-abroad’.
And modernize the military he has, with 5.52 trillion rubles spent on equipment and training troops over the last two years alone. Putin is intent on bulking up what is now the third most-funded force in the world after the U.S and China. These assets are ideally for deterring another perceived sleight against Russia. Pity the price for arming and supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine has been several crippling rounds of economic sanctions and a recession that will only antagonize his countrymen’s popular opinion the longer it lasts. With both sides growing more hawkish and prideful by the day, it seems the prevailing theory espoused by our liberal, conservative, and Putin’s state-run medias is that the next flashpoint in the ‘near-abroad’ might include direct conflict. Where will the next flashpoint be? It is nearly impossible to predict, but one of the likeliest bets is the Baltic.
This year, Lithuania alone has been subjected to a record number of airspace violations by reconnaissance flights from the Russian-owned Kaliningrad enclave to its southwest. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė says these posturing exercises in Kaliningrad are reminiscent of 1940, when Russia invaded and annexed Lithuania into the Soviet Union. Both she and President Obama have publically sworn that they will not allow such a loss of sovereignty to reoccur, hence why there are US troops in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania right now operating within a 30,000-strong Rapid Response Force. It is boasted that this force can deploy to any NATO member in Eastern Europe in 48 hours. This force is comprised of soldiers from across the alliance, but the US still leads in total military contributions by far.
The Russians have taken note. In March, exercises along the entirety of their western border minus Belarus included 76,000 troops, 65 naval ships, 15 submarines, and more than 200 aircraft. America responded in April by openly stationing units in Ukraine to ‘advise’ the pro-government forces on the conflict, a few hundred miles from the Russian frontlines. At this point, it is difficult to discern if these moves are calculated strategies or knee-jerk reactions by two sides bound to complex treaties and mutual defense agreements. As of July, Russian troop levels on the Ukrainian border are the highest of the year and rising. We have planned more than 300 exercises of our own for 2015 barring a diplomatic thaw, unlikely considering all the cries of ‘Neo-Nazi’ and ‘Warmonger’ being tossed back and forth. While our military spending remains seven times higher than Russia’s, the greatest risk is that a small-scale escalation may finally unleash the same prospect of mutually assured destruction that haunted the last century.
A single bullet in the ‘near-abroad’ ignited World War I and the globe lives under the shadow of what just one much larger projectile could do today. Despite Obama’s 2010 NEW START-Treaty, a renewal of our mutual strategic arms reduction, as of July 2015 Russia still has 1,582 strategic nuclear warheads on direct-standby. Thousands more are in storage or awaiting dismantlement.
These combined hoards of ballistic missiles, ground-based launchers, and strategic bombers contain a mind-boggling 90% of all nuclear weapons on the planet, certainly enough to destroy it many times over. Documents obtained in April by the British press hint that Putin may be willing to utilize his ballistic missiles based in Kaliningrad, Siberia, and the Black Sea if any incidents at the border go wrong. Putin must be just as wary of NATO retaliating via installations in Germany, Turkey, Romania, and Poland, as well as our ballistic-missile cruisers and nuclear submarines in the Mediterranean. The favorite analogy of Russia’s analysts is that this 21st century imbroglio is a kind of heftier, prolonged Cuban Missile Crisis-style of brinkmanship, albeit centered at the edge of their borders instead of ours. I am struggling to find reasons to disagree.
So what steps must the United States and the Russian Federation take to avoid Cold War 2 from becoming World War 3? It will take the coordinated efforts of many people smarter than myself to find out. My optimistic side knows sanity has triumphed once before, and that humanity can do so again. The pragmatist in me acknowledges the situation will probably look much worse before it gets better. I can only hope to watch a glossy documentary about the whole mess on whatever the equivalent to the History Channel is with my grandchildren when I am old.
For now, I suggest that everyone avoid mindlessly swallowing too much pro-war rhetoric. Both sides have legitimate grievances, flaws, and fears. Conduct more research into the situation. Examine each candidate’s foreign policy in the upcoming 2016 US presidential election before you cast your vote. Discuss and debate everything you find, and remember that we all stand to gain much more by reestablishing ties and cooperating against the myriad ways our species may go extinct that do not involve mushroom clouds.
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