We tend to see new events as a continuation of past ones. The first automobiles were called “horseless carriages”. So the worsening of relations between Western Europe and Russia is called a “new Cold War”, whereas actually it is an old fashioned conflict between nations which would be recognizable to a 19th Century statesman. The term “Cold War” was coined in 1947 by the Presidential adviser Bernard Baruch, and it was specific, referring to the worldwide conflict in which there is no shooting.
So rather than insist that this is a new confrontation with little resemblance to the Cold War, it might be helpful to take the accepted paradigm and note the significant differences.
The Cold War was an ideological struggle between Communism on the one side and on the other capitalist democracies and their allies. It was a conflict of ideas as well as a political and military one. Today Communism has disappeared. There is no such thing as Putinism. No one argues, in student bars or intellectual revues, about whether the Western system of government is superior to that in present-day Russia.
Subversion is not an issue, at least not from this side of the confrontation. There are no Putinist parties in Western countries and no fear of subversion on behalf of Russia. In the early days of the Cold War particularly, Communist subversion or insurrection was the principal fear, in Western Europe and elsewhere.
Today’s is not a worldwide conflict. Russia, like any power, seeks friends where it can find them, but there are not two camps. The old Cold War was waged on every continent. Both sides used subversion to win countries into their camp: in central America, the Congo, Afghanistan, Indonesia. There is no parallel struggle today. President Obama can give a warm handshake to Cuba’s President Castro because the Communist camp, of which Cuba was a member, no longer exists, its tents blown away by history.
In Europe, NATO does not confront the Warsaw Pact, a bloc of Communist nations; it confronts only Russia. In fact, some former members of the Warsaw Pact, and even some countries which were once constituent parts of the Soviet Union, now line up with the Western European powers. One similarity with the old Cold War is that NATO, having been involved in exotic missions in Afghanistan and Libya, is now taking up the mission for which it was created, defending Western Europe against a threat from the East.
The balance of forces on the ground is different. Once NATO faced numerically superior armies, and kept them at bay with the threat of a nuclear response to an attack. Today NATO forces are vastly superior but less so on the ground in Europe. NATO’s only nuclear forces in Europe are 180 nuclear bombs in five countries to be carried by aircraft.
The most important difference between today and the Cold War era is a worrying one. The Cold War went on for a long time, and a mutual understanding grew up between the adversaries. Both sides knew what was and was not acceptable behavior, what would and would not provoke a crisis.
Both appeared to accept the idea of a nuclear threshold, that once this was crossed by the use of any nuclear weapon anywhere, there was no clear stopping point this side of a nuclear holocaust. National frontiers were fixed. The rules of the game were locked in place by MAD, the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction.
Today the situation is uncertain. National frontiers Europe are not fixed, but subject to argument. The Crimea was supposed to be part of Ukraine but Putin decided otherwise. He has raised questions about Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, and may raise similar questions in the Baltic states.
Most importantly, there is no mutual understanding. Putin regularly sends aircraft into other countries’ airspace and submarines close to their coastline. He reminds us that Russia has nuclear weapons. In the Cold War, you did not brandish nuclear weapons, because that was dangerous talk, and you did not try to intimidate the other side because an anxious enemy was a dangerous one.
Does President Putin understand the danger of violating national frontiers? Does he accept the danger of even talking about nuclear weapons? Is he as terrified of nuclear war as both sides came to be in the Cold War? Does he accept the concept of a nuclear threshold?
He talks tough. Is he interested in mutual understanding? Does he accept the mutual interest that Russia and NATO share in stability and the avoidance of conflict?
We do not know the answers to these questions. The uncertainty about President Putin’s cast of mind, and his attitude to conflict with NATO, are causes for worry.