Welcome to the Cool War

Moving toward a new standoff.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

No less an authority than Mikhail Gorbachev is worried that, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War will return. It is hard to disagree: With confirmation that heavy convoys moving through Eastern Ukraine in recent days crossed from Russia, the fighting there looks set to restart in earnest.

The post-1989 goal of building a Europe "whole and free," including Russia, is not lost. It's just not imminent. So, for now, welcome to the Cool War. Unlike during the Cold War, the threat is regional, not global, and the chance remains for reconciliation, however remote that may seem at the moment.

To deal with this reality, U.S. and European leaders should consider reviving some of the Cold War-era mechanisms that once kept regional confrontations -- and there were many in the decades when the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off as the world's two superpowers -- from escalating.

Ukraine is not the only potential flashpoint today: They exist across the former Soviet Union. A recent report by the European Leadership Network also details 40 "near miss" incidents between Russian and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces over the past eight months, from a Russian plane that nearly hit an airliner taking off from the Copenhagen airport to a jet buzzing a Canadian frigate so closely, the ship locked its radar on the plane. Three of the incidents involved a "high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation." On Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he planned to extend long-range bomber patrols as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

Russia–NATO Close Encounters in the Baltic and North Seas. Red=High Risk; Yellow=Serious; Blue=Near Routine.
Source: European Leadership Network.

This kind of opposition and probing was commonplace in the Cold War (in 1961, Soviet planes entered West German airspace 38 times in a single month), and sometimes led to aircraft getting shot down. But U.S. and Soviet military commanders had ways to prevent escalation. Pilots and naval captains knew from long experience how to read each other's behavior. For example, when a Soviet submarine entered the Swedish archipelago (as a Russian one is suspected to have done recently), both sides understood that a line had been crossed. So when the Swedish military dropped depth charges on the sub, the Soviets knew not to react. Today, neither side knows what to expect.  

What's most important is to re-establish direct military-to-military communications: The NATO-Russia Council formed in 2002 was designed to promote partnership between the two, not contain conflict, and in any case has been defunct since April. The renewed contacts should aim to agree on procedures to keep surprise and the potential for accidents to a minimum, and manage fallout. It's also worth supporting efforts to strengthen the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (already playing a role in Ukraine) to help define agreed rules of engagement.

None of this would encourage a return to a Cold War. It would just do what's necessary to reduce risk.

In addition, the U.S. and Russia should step up talks on their nuclear disarmament treaties. The U.S. suspects Russia of testing (though not deploying) weapons that breach the intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Agreement, and some on Capitol Hill are advocating that the U.S. respond by withdrawing from the treaty and building equivalents. Yet a new arms race at this point would not make the U.S. more secure.

Putin himself, in a recent speech that was otherwise virulently anti-American, made a point of saying he is open to nuclear talks. He should be taken at his word -- not least because he can neither afford nor win an arms race.

This is not about appeasing Putin. NATO members still need to boost their defense budgets, and the alliance should go on creating a deterrent against any attack on its lightly defended Eastern members. A new escalation in Ukraine will need to be met with further sanctions. But if China and Japan can agree on steps to reduce risks surrounding their dispute in the South China Sea, and the U.S. and China can agree on mechanisms for handling situations where their military assets come "a little too close for comfort,” so can NATO and Russia.

There is no guarantee Putin would cooperate. Yet it's worth trying to persuade him to help contain a new stand-off between nuclear powers.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.