Cold War’s Tensions Unmatched in Putin’s Ukraine Fight

The tensions between Russia and the West, inflamed by the Kremlin’s land grab for Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, fall short of the Cold War that defined global politics for almost half a century.

While the Kremlin retains a large nuclear arsenal, Russia today is a shadow of its Cold War self by most other measures of power -- ideology, conventional military forces and especially economics. It also is more integrated with international trade and financial markets, which means it faces a price for President Vladimir Putin’s actions through strained business relations and economic sanctions.

Still, the failed talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, along with the Kremlin’s defiant moves toward annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, have fueled talk of a new Cold War. Some scholars of Russia are less inclined than politicians and commentators to revive that label.

“I don’t believe we are witnessing a renewal of the Cold War,” Jack Matlock, the last U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, wrote in a March 14 column in the Washington Post. “The tensions between Russia and the West are based more on misunderstandings, misrepresentations and posturing for domestic audiences than on any real clash of ideologies or national interests. And the issues are far fewer and much less dangerous than those we dealt with during the Cold War.”

Russian Weakness

“The days of the mighty Soviet Union are long since gone,” Jonathan Adelman, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, said in a phone interview. “Putin knows all that. This is not the Cold War, nor are they Nazi Germany.”

The changed circumstances facing Putin since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 are striking, said Adelman, citing at least five areas in which Russia is weaker than the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was.

“First of all, there’s no ideological gap here like between communist states and capitalist states in the Cold War,” he said. The Soviets’ Marxist ideology attracted a following in the Third World and in other communist states.

The Russians today, under Putin, “are basically conservative nationalists who are trying to maintain the status quo.” Without a rival ideology to promote, “they are simply one other nation-state,” he said.

Russian power is also numerically diminished. While the Soviet Union and its satellites had a population of about 400 million from Eastern Europe through Eurasia, today’s Russia has a population of about 143 million, he said.

Conscript Army

Russia’s conventional military forces, largely manned by two-year conscripts, isn’t nearly as intimidating as the old Red Army, particularly after its poor performance fighting insurgents in Chechnya. Adelman said he doubts that Putin will try to seize other parts of Ukraine at the risk of a war there “that could be a disgrace for the Russian army.”

Further, Russia has a $2.1 trillion economy compared with the $16.7 trillion U.S. economy and the European Union at $17.3 trillion, according to International Monetary Fund estimates for 2013. Russia’s per capita income, at $14,000, is a little more than a quarter of the U.S.’s $51,700, according to World Bank data for 2012.

Shortly before its dissolution, the Soviet Union had a gross domestic product that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimated was half the size of the U.S. economy. Even the current data showing Russia’s economy is one-eighth the size of the U.S.’s is misleading because it largely reflects Russia’s oil and gas exports, while manufacturing and other parts of its economy lag.

Export Dependence

Unlike the Soviet Union, which was largely a closed economy, Putin’s Russia is tied economically to the world economy. Even near the end, in 1990, exports and imports accounted for only about 8 percent of the Soviet economy, and much of that was trade with its de facto empire. Now, trade -- largely oil and gas exports -- accounts for about 40 percent of Russia’s GDP, according to CIA estimates for 2013.

Russia’s Micex index rallied today as investors bet the country will weather sanctions after the Crimea referendum. The index surged 3.7 percent after declining 18 percent this year through last week, and the ruble rose.

Even with Russia’s large nuclear arsenal, neither Russia nor the Western nuclear powers -- the U.S., the U.K. and France -- keep their forces on hair-trigger alert. Russia had 1,400 deployed nuclear warheads and the U.S. 1,688 as of Sept. 1, according to the State Department. In 1990, each side had more than 10,000 deployed warheads.

Russia’s Leverage

Russia isn’t without leverage of its own. Much of Europe remains dependent on Russia for energy because hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is still in its in infancy there and liquefied natural gas trade is limited. While the U.S. doesn’t need Russia’s oil and gas, it does need Russian cooperation in negotiations -- resuming today in Vienna -- to curtail Iran’s nuclear program and to seek an end to Syria’s bloody three-year civil war.

America’s most immediate vulnerability to Russian pressure may be in the same place that helped spell the end of the Soviet empire: Afghanistan. As the U.S. withdraws forces and heavy equipment from the country, the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia is the only practical alternative to routes through Pakistan, which are shorter but have been closed periodically by the Pakistanis to protest American drone strikes. The only remaining option, airlifting supplies, is very costly at a time when the U.S. is trying to reduce defense spending.

‘Key Similarity’

Stephen Sestanovich, a scholar of Russia and Eurasia at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said that while comparisons to the Cold War are often overblown, “there’s one key similarity. Way back when, the West feared that the Soviet Union would extend its power through a combination of military force and an ability to subvert neighbors from within. That’s exactly our fear about Putin today,” he said yesterday in an e-mail.

For his part, Putin has accused the West of advancing toward Russia’s borders through new members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization such as Poland and the Baltic nations, which had been Warsaw Pact allies, and of planning missile defenses in Europe that jeopardize the Kremlin’s nuclear deterrent. In February, Putin said early criticism of the Sochi Olympics was part of a Cold War-style containment strategy.

Containment Theory

“Back in Cold War times, the theory of containment was created,” Putin told a televised public meeting in Sochi. “This theory and its practice were aimed at restraining the development of the Soviet Union,” and “what we see now are echoes of this containment theory.”

Putin has taken this view even as the West has sought to expand economic ties with Russia. The U.S. has tried to reassure him that the anti-missile system is designed to defend European allies from a possible ballistic missile attack from Iran and doesn’t have the capability to diminish Russia’s nuclear posture.

President Barack Obama said last month that, while he certainly has differences with Putin over matters from Ukraine to Syria, his approach “is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.”

Terrorism, Iran

U.S. officials, including Kerry, say Russia has reason to continue to cooperate in areas of shared concern, such as fighting Islamic terrorism and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, just back from Ukraine, said yesterday that the tension with Putin “does not mean re-ignition of the Cold War.” It does mean “treating him in the way that we understand an individual who believes in restoring the old Russian empire,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

Putin’s Soviet-era training as a KGB officer was “shaped by the zero-sum calculus of the Cold War, in which a win by the adversary meant a loss for the KGB and the Soviet Union,” Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, wrote in an analysis posted yesterday on the Brookings website.

Kerry has said that part of his message to Putin is that Ukraine can be a “win-win” situation because an economically stronger Ukraine trading with the EU would also be a stronger trading partner for Russia. There’s no sign that his message is persuasive, and the U.S. is unsure how far Putin is planning to push the current confrontation, said a U.S. official authorized to brief reporters on the condition of anonymity.

NATO Umbrella

Since the end of the Soviet era, Putin has seen NATO, the West’s Cold War military alliance, move closer to Russia’s borders as Moscow’s former Warsaw Pact allies -- including Poland, Romania and the Baltic states -- moved under NATO’s mutual-defense umbrella as members. That has cost Russia some of the strategic depth that figured in its homeland defense posture.

The new Western-oriented leaders of Ukraine, which borders Russia, have said they have no plans to seek NATO membership. Still, the U.S. has moved to bolster NATO’s forward defenses with a dozen F-16 fighter jets and 300 mainly support troops to Poland and an additional four F-15s to Lithuania to conduct air patrols over the Baltic region.

No ‘Hot War’

“There is not going to be a hot war between East and West, and if relations should come to resemble a Cold War, the biggest loser will not be the United States or the European Union but Russia itself,” Matlock wrote on his website.

While Putin is clashing with the West, he may be underestimating the domestic consequences of his actions in and adjoining Russia. He may face more wary neighbors, and restive minorities in Russia’s majority Muslim regions may wonder why they are denied the breakaway votes that Putin demanded for ethnic Russians in Crimea.

“If Russia continues on its current course in Ukraine, the greatest damage to its interests will occur not because of any sanctions or ostracism foreign leaders impose, but the repercussions along Russia’s long and vulnerable borders,” Matlock wrote.

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