Cold War redux

Over the final stages of World War II, the United States received multiple pleas to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the rail lines from Hungary leading to them. The government declined them all, citing the need to focus on targets aiding the Nazi war effort. Defeating the enemy war machine, officials said, was the prime objective of Allied operations, not rescuing people. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews (among the last in Europe to be deported) were exterminated.

Another calculation has been playing out for the US over the killing fields of Ukraine. As Russian forces have devastated cities and the populations within, the US has resisted calls for more direct confrontation to reduce Ukraine’s human and physical suffering. Has it been the right call? The realpolitik answer says yes. Beyond billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and defensive military equipment, an escalation to no-fly zones, fighter jets, weaponised drones or ground troops would risk a wider war with a nuclear-armed country that has shown no distinction between killing soldiers and civilians.

There is an equally important, though less obvious, reason for the same answer, and it mirrors the US experience of the last world war. At some point, the fighting in Ukraine will end, ushering in a new Cold War that will require the US to recalibrate its relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin upon a geopolitical landscape vastly changed by the war.

The post-World War II Cold War was essentially defined by each country’s growing nuclear capacity, their geographical spheres of influence and a mutual wariness based on mistrust and fear. The new US-Russia relationship will embody much of the same, but with the added contours of a Russia weakened by economic sanctions, diminished as a world trading partner and widely regarded as a pariah state. Its isolation will be acute, leaving Putin few allies beyond China, North Korea, Belarus and Syria. He will also face the opposite of what he anticipated before his Ukraine invasion. Instead of a divided NATO, the alliance has held strong, now buoyed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election and with more countries – Finland, Sweden, Moldova among them – expressing interest in NATO membership. Already, the UN General Assembly has suspended Russia from the Human Rights Council.

But for all the frostiness of a Cold War Redux – a chill marked by mounting evidence of war crimes and the possibility of America in Putin’s backyard to help rebuild Ukraine, as it did Germany after World War II – the US will still need Russia as a reliable partner in critical policy areas like arms control, climate change and fighting global terrorism, even as the occasional eruption of hostilities elsewhere may drive the two superpowers into their more familiar adversarial roles.

“The United States should play both sides,” Charles A Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The New York Times. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a fundamental breach with the Atlantic democracies, yet the West cannot afford to completely turn its back on Russia; too much is at stake. As during the [post-1945] Cold War, Washington will need a hybrid strategy of containment and engagement.”

There’s no timetable for how or when this all develops if it develops at all, given America’s stated policy goal to “weaken Russia” as the war continues. Experts predict peace negotiations may be months off, Western antipathy toward Putin building all the while. As the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters after he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv in April: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

From the US perspective, the shape of new US-Russia relations will depend on President Joe Biden and the mood of the country. He would doubtless take a hardline approach to Russia, more like Ronald Reagan than, say, Donald Trump, whose apparent reverence for Putin is viewed by critics as some form of appeasement and a bewildering break from normal diplomacy. Putin’s prospective outlook towards the US is less predictable, perhaps dependent on the terms of peace in Ukraine and whether he can sell the results as a “win” to his public. He might assume a softer posture toward the West if he recoups enough Ukraine territory to satisfy his wanderlust or a harder line if he gains nothing and imbues the relationship with petulance and grievance. Or maybe vice versa.

For now, Biden is winning high marks in the US for managing the response to the war. His actions regarding weapons, sanctions and NATO relations have been applauded by most Americans and nearly all members of Congress, apart from a noisy pro-Putin faction that occupies the fringe of the Republican right. In truth, these members take issue with just about anything Biden does. But their reaction to the war in Ukraine has an added cynical edge, insisting that America has no real stake in the hostilities and that Democrats are using support for Ukraine as a means to expand Western power and liberal ideology. It’s a theme, exploited by Fox News, that plays well in Russia, where Putin and his compliant media use anti-Biden sentiment in the US to help paint America as the true instigator of the war. Ineffective as these right-wing arguments may be in influencing US policy, they are persuasive among the Republican base still loyal to Trump, and helpful to Putin in Russian disinformation campaigns designed to undermine US elections and confidence in American democracy.

Huge economic costs are also riding on the nature of future US-Russia relations. Through the early days of the war, hundreds of western companies either suspended their operations in Russia or abandoned the country altogether. A team of researchers at Yale University has tracked over 750 such businesses, including nearly 250 US companies and 65 based in the UK. Given Russia’s population of 144 million (12m in Moscow) many of the companies may be eager to return. Shon Hiatt, an associate professor at the University of Southern California business school in Los Angeles, said food companies like McDonald’s and Pepsico, plus other consumer goods businesses, are the most likely to lead a first wave back to full-scale operations – feeding the consumer appetite for western goods which was established through the post-Soviet years. Large industrial firms in the energy, industrial and financial services sectors are more likely to lag or remain out in the foreseeable future, he said.

“Many companies anticipated this would be quick: two or three weeks, Ukraine gets taken, there’s some sort of forced treaty, a puppet government gets installed, then it’s business as usual,” Hiatt told me. “Unfortunately, this has dragged out much longer, with no end in sight. Of course, it’s day to day; the big question is if atrocities continue to build with massive harm to civilian casualties, that could inflict repetitional harm on some of the companies that still want to operate there.”

So much of the US-Russia future depends on how the two countries see themselves after the war – as enemies, rivals, nuclear-powered equals or something else. Biden has been dealing with Russian issues for decades, from his 36 years in the Senate, eight as vice president under Barack Obama and now as president. In a meeting with Putin in 2011, he famously said, “I’m looking into your eyes; I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin’s response, according to Biden: “We understand one another.” No doubt those attitudes linger, with their mistrust now amplified by the war. Both Biden and Putin recognise each other’s goal of expanding global influence – a prime motivation for Putin since the demise of the Soviet Union and a major concern for Biden as authoritarian forces strengthen in a growing number of countries. The US has the additional challenge of maintaining productive relations with China as a bulwark against closer ties between Russia and China.

That does not mean Biden and Putin could not collaborate on common goals, but it would require each to dial back incendiary language, compromise on disagreements and recognise the threats that could harm both countries. “Mr Putin has just sent history into reverse,” Prof. Kupchan wrote. “The United States should seek to foil and punish Moscow’s aggression, but Washington also needs to be pragmatic to navigate a world that, even if more unruly, is also irreversibly interdependent.”

Biden seems to get it. Putin, who knows? Plus, it’s unclear how long Biden will remain president. He’s 79, a decade older than Putin, and says he’s running for re-election in 2024. That’s a political lifetime away, and anything could happen by then, including a Trump Redux. In that case, all bets are off.

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times


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