Commentary Magazine

So Don’t Call It a Cold War

In July 2009, a group of 22 distinguished Central and Eastern European intellectuals and former government officials published an open letter to the recently inaugurated Barack Obama. Offering their gratitude to the United States for supporting their freedom “during the dark Cold War years,” the letters’ signatories—among them former Czech president Václav Havel, former Polish president Lech Walesa, and former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar—noted that they had been America’s most enthusiastic partners in “promoting democracy and human rights around the world.”

Eleven months earlier, Russia had invaded its small neighbor Georgia, and the shock waves from that attack and the subsequent occupation of Georgian territory (which continues to this day) were still reverberating. In its wake, the letter-writers warned, a rising generation of European leaders, lacking either a personal connection to the United States or experience in the transformative changes of 1989, might weaken the transatlantic bond. Meanwhile, “Russia’s creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de facto neutralization of the region,” they noted.

The signatories welcomed the administration’s “reset” with Russia, announced earlier that year by Vice President Joseph Biden and aimed at repairing relations between the two countries, which had hit a low point in the aftermath of the Georgian War. Situated so close to Russia, they wrote, Central and Eastern European nations would find that it was in their interest for Moscow to develop a better relationship with the West—provided that “too narrow an understanding of Western interests does not lead to the wrong concessions to Russia.” America had become complacent about the future security of Europe, they cautioned, and was falsely assuming that armed conflict was inconceivable on a continent so devastated by the horrors of war, for “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.”

Today, the 2009 letter from Central and Eastern European eminences looks eerily prescient, right down to the assessment—belatedly acknowledged by the Obama administration—that Putin is behaving like Tsar Alexander II. Yet, at the time the letter was published, many Western pundits and policymakers derided it as a paranoid missive from Cold War-obsessed Eastern Europeans—who, however well intentioned, were incapable of seeing Russia rationally because the traumas of living under Soviet Communism had irreparably clouded their judgment.

“Strip the letter of its flummery, politesse, and throat-clearing, and the message was pretty clear: the Obama administration was betraying Central Europe,” wrote a dismissive Jacob Heilbrunn in the National Interest. One signatory, former Czech defense minister Alexandr Vondra, recently recalled a dressing down he received at the White House, shortly after the letter’s release, from Michael McFaul, then a member of the National Security Council who would eventually travel to Moscow as Obama’s ambassador. Vondra and his cohorts, McFaul said, were “men of the 20th century and we’re living in the 21st century.”

Just as the president and members of his administration have repeatedly assured the American people that “the tide of war is receding” with respect to international jihadism, so have they repeatedly scolded those who speak of an emerging, “New Cold War” between Russia and the West. After 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s “number-one geopolitical foe,” the president and his surrogates unleashed a torrent of snarky abuse. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama quipped during one of the presidential debates. Romney, Vice President Biden said, saw the world through a “Cold War prism.” Other partisan figures heaped scorn on the Republican nominee, whom they painted—much as they had done with the signers of the 2009 letter—as a retrograde pseudo-nostalgist.

Fast-forward five years, to the week of March 2. Following a popular revolution in Ukraine that drove its pro-Russian president into exile, Moscow invaded the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and announced plans for a snap “referendum” that would put legalistic gloss on a blatant land grab. An outraged and genuinely surprised Secretary of State John Kerry declared: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

Except that Vladimir Putin just had.

In his 2009 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Obama stated that “alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War,” by which he presumably meant NATO, “make no sense in an interconnected world.” Today, with Russian aggression on the European continent highlighting NATO’s indispensability more acutely than any crisis since the 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring, the president’s 2009 statement is worse than naïve. Even more disturbing, Obama delivered it just a week after his White House announced it had decided to scrap an anti-ballistic missile shield, based in the Czech Republic and Poland, designed to shoot down Iranian missiles. The cancellation of the shield had been undertaken largely as a goodwill gesture to assuage Moscow’s complaints, despite the fact that both parties knew that it was not designed to undermine Russia’s deterrent. In so doing, the administration confirmed the fears of the letter’s signatories, who had specifically mentioned the planned defense system as “a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region.”

To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, the West may not be interested in a new Cold War, but the new Cold War is interested in the West. This painful fact has been clear for some time. John Schindler, a former National Security Agency analyst, recently wrote that “Western counterintelligence noted major upswings in aggressive Russian espionage and subversion against NATO members as far back as 2006.”

Like the Cold War of old, this new conflict was initiated by Russia, which cannot tolerate independent and sovereign states along its borders. Unlike the last conflict, however, and fortunately for us, the ideology of the Russian state under Vladimir Putin evinces none of the international appeal that Communism once boasted. Putinism, such as it is, stands for little other than Russian chauvinism. Few people outside of Russia are running to the barricades to advance the Russian cause, aside from a motley crew of ideologues on the far left and right (who can often be seen alongside one another, united only by their hatred of the Western liberal order, on RT, the Kremlin’s international English-language propaganda network). 

Russia, moreover, is nowhere near as powerful as it was at the height of the Cold War. Yet this does not mean that it does not pose a threat to Western interests, or that its baleful role in world affairs should be accommodated, rather than vigorously opposed. It is difficult to find an issue, from the Arctic to Venezuela, in which Russia is not attempting to stymie the United States and its allies.

Before devising ways to confront the threat posed by this new Cold War, it is necessary to acknowledge that such a confrontation exists. Even now, after Putin has launched the first seizure of territory on European soil since World War II, Obama has resisted framing the problem in such terms. To the contrary, he has repeatedly renounced the comparison. “Understand as well this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into,” he said in Brussels in March, in a speech designed to solidify the transatlantic bond in the face of the new Russian aggression. Weeks earlier, speaking about the crisis in Ukraine as well as the ongoing civil war in Syria, where Russia has been propping up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Obama said that he did not view either situation as squares on “some Cold War chessboard.” Washington’s blunt policy disagreements with Moscow did not amount to a “competition between the United States and Russia,” he elaborated. “I think this is an expression of the hopes and aspirations of people inside of Syria and people inside of the Ukraine.”

Put aside, for the moment, the president’s apparent denigration of his own country’s role during the last Cold War, which was very much about realizing the “hopes and aspirations” of people around the world resisting the yoke of Communist totalitarianism. The president spoke as if Ukrainian self-determination was mutually exclusive from Russian and American involvement in that country, when it has been the policy of the United States and its European allies to support such aspirations—and the clear and unambiguous policy of Russia to thwart them. Obama’s attempt to downplay the notion that the struggle over Ukraine is indeed an existential one ignores a crucial, ineluctable fact about Putin. With its annexation of Crimea, “Moscow is signaling that it wants officially to do away with the idea that countries are free to choose their alliances,” Kadri Liik, an Estonian defense expert, wrote for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It wants to make everyone explicitly accept and agree that some countries are not.”

Putin forever erased any doubt that we had entered a new Cold War in a March 18 speech to the Russian Federation Council, the parliament’s upper body, delivered two days after a sham election he orchestrated in Crimea showed an improbable 97 percent of citizens there voting for union with Russia. With Stalinist gusto, he spoke of “a fifth column, this disparate bunch of national traitors,” supported by outside forces aimed at weakening Russia from within. He justified the invasion on the lie that “neo-Nazis” who had initiated a “coup” in Kiev were oppressing ethnic Russians in Crimea, whose lives Moscow was duty-bound (by what legal instrument, Putin left unsaid) to protect (a series of international agreements to which Russia was actually party be damned). Deriding the break-up of the Soviet Union and the arrival of democracy in Eastern Europe—one of the greatest advances of freedom in human history—as a “sovereignty parade,” he declared: “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

Let that sink in. If the “Russian nation” had been wrongly “divided by borders,” then presumably it must be the solemn duty of Russia to reunite it. With this momentous speech, whose full import we have yet to fully appreciate, Putin codified his demolition of the post-Cold War order. According to him, Russia now has the right to intervene wherever it likes—overturning legitimate governments, installing puppet regimes, and annexing territory—if it deems the rights of ethnic Russians to be in danger. A European leader recently speculated to me that, by Putin’s own logic, Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach may be considered Russian territory.

This remark was made in jest, but the point stands. Given what he has done in Georgia and now Crimea, there is no logic preventing Putin from attempting to make similar incursions into other former Soviet republics, all of which have sizeable Russian minorities whose welfare Putin could conceivably claim to protect if he feels like it.1 The only thing preventing Russia from doing so will be armed deterrence.

It would be wrong, however, to blame Obama for Putin’s invasion of Crimea, as some critics have. To do so vastly underestimates Putin’s own dark vision of the world, and the role he sees a resurgent Russia playing within it—as well as the difficulty any American leader would have in coping with Putin’s lightning-fast efforts to create a fait accompli in Crimea. After all, the 2008 invasion of Georgia occurred on the watch of George W. Bush, who sent the world a message by invading two countries as a response to the aftermath of 9/11. Georgia and Ukraine are not exact parallels; in the former, a long-running conflict (marked, at one point, by actual civil war) had been brewing for years, and Russia has never formally annexed the country’s two separatist provinces (which only makes Putin’s meddling in Ukraine all the more blatant). The Bush administration and its European allies should be held to account for their weak response to the Georgian War; their lack of resolve in punishing Russian aggression signaled to Putin that he could get away with territorial land grabs. The current president’s critics need to acknowledge that there is a paucity of options at any president’s disposal once the tanks start to roll.

But from the announcement of the incredibly sanguine “reset” policy some five years ago, the Obama administration has rarely signaled to Russia that its aggressive behavior would ever be deterred. In January, a report in the New York Times revealed that the United States had disclosed to its NATO allies that Russia had possibly been violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty since 2008, before Obama even became president and proposed his own arms-limitation agreement, New Start. “If the Russian government has made a considered decision to field a prohibited system, then it is the strongest indication to date that they are not interested in pursuing any arms control, at least through the remainder of President Obama’s term” said Franklin C. Miller, a former defense official at the White House and the Pentagon. The administration fought tooth and nail to resist passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act; named after a crusading Russian lawyer who was tortured to death by Russian officials, this is a measure subjecting Russians involved in human-rights abuses to visa bans and asset freezes. (The administration declined to add new names to the list as late as this past December.) In March 2012, the president was overheard on a live microphone telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would be able to exercise “more flexibility” in dealing with Russia once the American election campaign season ended, to which Medvedev replied that he would relay the information to “Vladimir”—who had just won a third term to replace his hand-picked successor, whose succession he had evidently tired of.

The president’s failure in the summer of 2013 to enforce his own “red line” in Syria, allowing Bashar al-Assad to use chemical weapons on his own people despite Obama’s promise that “consequences” would result from such a decision, was surely seen by Moscow as an invitation to further mischief. Putin’s clever decision to insert himself into the middle of the action by brokering a deal to arrange for the transfer of Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile out of the country—absurdly portrayed by the president’s supporters as rescuing American diplomatic success from the jaws of defeat—was an abject humiliation that allowed Assad to continue his brutal war by other means. Speaking about the crisis in Syria last summer, Obama wallowed in the sort of self-pitying regard all presidents surely feel at some point, but usually don’t share in public. “A lot of people think something should be done,” he said, “but nobody seems willing to do it.”

So it must have sounded familiar to Putin when, as he was amassing troops on the Ukrainian border, President Obama declared that “there will be costs” for a military incursion into Ukraine. “Rarely has a threat from a U.S. president been dismissed as quickly—and comprehensively—as Obama’s warning,” a news story in the Washington Post reported. Hours after Obama’s words, Putin won unanimous approval for the invasion from his rubber-stamp parliament. When Ukraine’s president visited Washington seeking basic military aid such as ammunition and night-vision goggles, he was sent home with a pledge that Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were on their way to Kiev instead (and even those were slow in delivery). Various other administration officials have telegraphed weakness to Russia at crucial moments. “Even if assistance were to go to Ukraine, that’s very unlikely to change Russia’s calculus or prevent an invasion,” deputy national-security advisor Tony Blinken told CNN’s Candy Crowley, when asked if Washington was considering sending military aid to the beleaguered Ukrainians. “The American people are not going to war with Russia over Ukraine, full stop,” an unnamed senior administration official told the New York Times.

In an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick earlier this year, Obama dismissed the need for what Remnick referred to as a “grand strategy,” saying, “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.” The trademark Obama style was all there, from the self-assuredness to the bravado. But Obama could do a lot worse than replace his shiftless response to Russia’s aggression with some newfangled form of containment. “Many American officials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all and that they could ‘check the box’ and move on to other more pressing strategic issues,” the signatories to that fateful 2009 letter observed. As Russia rears its tyrannical and expansionist head again, their warnings have come back to haunt us. We must heed the words of those wise individuals, and steel ourselves for the struggle ahead.


1 It is important to mention here that the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians is really just a cover for the acquirement of strategically important territory, natural resources, and the like. It is shameful that Kerry and Obama have cited the pretext as though it were a serious national policy concern for Russia that the United States needed to take at face value.

About the Author

James Kirchick, based in Berlin, is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to the New Republic.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.