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A new Cold War without rules: U.S. braces for a long-term confrontation with Russia

The United States and its allies are girding for a long-term confrontation with Russia, a contest of wills reminiscent of the Cold War, triggered by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, current and former U.S. and European officials say.

With Putin showing no sign he is ready to pull back Russian troops shelling Ukrainian cities, and with the United States and Europe vowing to arm Ukrainian forces and wage unlimited economic warfare on Russia, there is no end in sight to the emerging duel between the West and Russia.

“I think we are going to have to face it as something that we’re going to have to deal with for quite some time and be quite resolute and creative about confronting it,” said Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who served in George W. Bush’s administration.

Like the Cold War, countries are being forced to choose sides in a clash that President Joe Biden and European leaders describe as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, between the rules-based order set up after World War II and the “law of the jungle” where might makes right.

“Any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association,” Biden said in his State of the Union address last week. 

His speech carried echoes of past presidents during the Cold War, who also vowed to lead the “free world” against the threat from Moscow. And Biden’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, also employed similar rhetoric that recalled the Cold War years.

“With this brutal invasion, we, our European allies and partners and people everywhere are being reminded of just how much is at stake. Now, we see the tide of democracy rising to the moment,” Secretary of State Blinken said on Friday in Brussels. 

March 4, 202201:19

Mary Elise Sarotte, a historian of the U.S.-Soviet conflict who recently published the book “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Stalemate,” said she is stunned by how quickly the ground has shifted in a matter of days, and the many parallels with the Cold War. 

“It’s kind of shocking how fast this has happened. This new Cold War has ramped up really quickly,” Sarotte, who is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said. “This is a major breaking point in history.”

After Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, European leaders rallied in a united front, marking a historic shift. Germany and other European governments recast their foreign policies to begin sending weapons to Ukraine and enact unprecedented sanctions on Russia that would have been unthinkable two weeks ago.

Unlike the Cold War, Moscow cannot rely on a large bloc of countries in its camp, or a communist ideology that had resonance for many around the world who saw it as an attractive alternative to capitalism or colonialism.

The wild card is how China will respond as the crisis drags on. So far, Beijing seems ready to support Russia and to buy its fossil fuels. But economic sanctions could force China to choose between trading with the developed world, or trading with an isolated Russian economy, some analysts say. 

Putin’s Russia is arguably in a weaker position than the former Soviet Union, and unlike its economically closed predecessor, vulnerable to international sanctions, experts said. 

A campaign of intense economic pressure against Russia is a distinguishing feature of this new showdown with Russia, an option that could not have worked against the old Soviet state that was mostly closed off from global markets.

“There wasn’t anything we could really do during the Cold War that was going to really punish the Russian economy. Well, now there is,” Cohen said.

Even so, Russia is “unquestionably dangerous, and it’s unquestionably deeply malevolent,” he added.

The Cold War emerged more gradually than the current crisis, and over time the two sides developed de facto codes of conduct and, eventually, elaborate arms control treaties, according to Sarotte.

But the current stand-off represents uncertain territory without mutually accepted “rules of the game,” and a volatile Russian leader ready to flout international norms.

“There were times during the Cold War that were more stable than we see today,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution think tank. 

“This feels like a very dangerous moment, especially given the personality of Putin. That might be the biggest difference” between the current crisis and the U.S-Soviet contest, Wright said. “So much of this seems to be about Putin personally.”

Putin almost certainly will retaliate for the sweeping financial sanctions imposed against Russia, Wright said. “I don’t think he is just going to let our response unfold on our terms. He’s likely to try to escalate and put pressure on us.”

Not since the Soviet Union dissolved has the world had to contemplate the unthinkable, a potential clash between the world’s foremost nuclear superpowers.

“This is clearly an unprecedented situation,” said Tara Drozdenko, director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I can’t think of another event other than the fall of the Soviet Union in my lifetime that has been so consequential when it comes to nuclear weapons.”

Despite the current tensions, Drozdenko said it’s crucial the two superpowers renew arms control talks to lower the risk. The New START treaty, the sole remaining arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia, expires in 2026. 

The presence of  U.S. and Russian forces in close proximity around Ukraine raises the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could spark an armed conflict between NATO and Russia. To try to avoid an unintended clash, the Pentagon announced Thursday it had set up a hotline between U.S. and Russian military top brass to “deconflict” forces in the area.

“You could imagine all kinds of ways in which this could get out of hand and suddenly become a NATO-Russia confrontation,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense in Barack Obama’s administration. “And in that instance, if that escalates, then the nuclear shadow becomes much more real.”

After the U.S. and the E.U. unveiled punishing financial sanctions on Russia following the start of the Russian invasion, Putin announced he had put his nuclear forces on alert. 

Russian military doctrine openly embraces the idea of “escalating to de-escalate,” promoting the idea of invoking the nuclear arsenal to force an adversary to back off. “I think this is the first time we’re seeing Putin actually put it into practice,” said Flournoy, now co-founder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors, a consulting firm.

Instead of responding in kind, the Biden administration made it clear the United States was not placing the nuclear deterrent forces on higher alert, and even canceled a scheduled test launch of a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile to make it crystal clear that Washington was not interested in escalating nuclear tensions. 

In what could be a long struggle ahead, the U.S. would do well to draw on the lessons of the Cold War, including the need to support resistance fighters against troops sent from Moscow, said Sarotte.

Historians say the U.S. won the Cold War by containing the Soviets, building a more prosperous economic model and by cultivating a vast network of alliances. 

To prevail against Putin’s Russia also will require maintaining solidarity among allies, even when economic blowback from Moscow inflicts some pain at home, former officials said.

“The main thing is you just have to steel yourself for what’s going to be a long, difficult time,” Cohen said. “That’s not something that comes completely naturally to us. We would rather things that were short, decisive, get it over with and move on to the next thing. Well, that’s not going to be our world, and we just have to accept that.”