To reflect on the period where the world now finds itself, we propose the term “cold hot war”, as this period has significant differences from the classical notion of the “Cold war”. Within the framework of the old Cold War, military confrontation between the two superpowers was always indirect. “Proxy” conflicts only emerged between their respective allies, when there was an intersection of interests in various regions of the world, but these never happened directly on the physical borders of the two blocs. Consequently, these conflicts could never really elevate to pose an immediate and existential threat to the survival of the two core superpowers, as they never had the power or intensity to draw the two superpowers directly into conflict with one another.
Importantly, this was never by accident but rather through a collision of strategic deterrence plans of the superpowers, always being cognizant of (and trying to avoid) the risk of direct confrontation. This was the case, for example, with the Korean war, when the United States, weighing all the pros and cons, abandoned the idea of using atomic weapons to achieve its local goals (Farley, 2017). Today, Russia is pursuing a special military operation in Ukraine to eliminate what it has voiced for several years as precisely such an existential threat emanating from the U.S. and NATO, which has to do with their deployment of major weapons as well as highly trained military personnel—indoctrinated with a strategic philosophy that puts Russia in the position of the grand enemy—into a culturally and historically connected territory that is right on Russia’s borders.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the ultimate threat of world war and a possibly ensuing nuclear annihilation proved to be an effective, albeit risky, strategy to de-escalate global tensions. Under what is now considered by historians as one of the most dangerous international situations ever, the leadership of the USSR and the USA were motivated not so much by the formal norms of international law as by a sober consideration of the consequences of a nuclear war and the damning responsibility of bringing about the apocalypse. It was the initial lack of such concern that led to the two sides entering the crisis. Yet, the awareness of catastrophic consequences, of being on the “edge of the abyss,” was what finally forced both sides to seek a mutually acceptable compromise.
Just as in 1962, there is now a critical need to call upon the common sense and rationality of the conflicting nuclear superpowers (Russia and the United States), both in terms of the amelioration of the current situation in Ukraine and in taking into account of Russia’s justified demands for its security guarantees. Such guarantees require that foreign powers not deploy strike systems near Russia’s borders, that NATO give up on its advance to the western borders of Russia and that the “defense” organization’s anti-Russian troops withdraw back to the borders of 1997, when it had encroached into what was once the Soviet domain (the former Baltic Republics, lacking serious potential for the production of conventional and nuclear weapons [unlike modern Ukraine], do not pose a serious threat to Russia).
These demands are seen by Russia’s political, diplomatic, and military leadership as not merely rational but philosophically aligned with the demands originally made by the U.S. when protesting the Cuban Missile Crisis. With these demands effectively neglected, it seems as if the Monroe Doctrine has been completely forgotten by the United States when it comes to its own behavior around Russia’s borders. Namely, deploying U.S. troops in Central and Eastern Europe and maintaining corrupt, anti-democratic, inept regimes (established at least partially because of interference and support given by the United States and the EU) on the border with Russia simply because they express anti-Russian views. This is apparently approved by the American elite because it is an efficient way of keeping Russia in jeopardy.
It would be interesting to observe Washington’s response today if Russia suddenly decided to revisit the Cuban Missile Crisis at some point in 2022, deploying offensive weapons systems and anti-American military groups along the southern or northern border of the U.S. Such brazen disregard for what Russia sees as an obvious diplomatic and military “double standard” causes great harm to international security, as it pushes Russia into a situation where it feels it has no choice but consider more radical initiatives, such as ones potentially fraught with scenarios of a world war. For Russia, this seems the only feasible option to safeguard its needs and to make sure that its imperatives be taken more seriously.
Some influential people in the U.S.—Congressmen, experts on Russia, journalists, and retired high-ranking military officials—are irresponsibly calling for a direct military confrontation with Russia (Fox News, 2022), without realizing that “flirting with nuclear war” means flirting with the destruction of humanity. However, these sentiments may not be sincere. Perhaps, the politicians in their “ultrapatriotic” statements are guided by cynical opportunism on the eve of midterm elections coming in the U.S. later this year. Perhaps, the military/national security industrial complex is guided by the desire to receive ever larger budgetary allocations for an incredibly lucrative arms race. Given such cynicism, it may not be so illogical to find out that there has even been a public call for the assassination of the Russian President.
During a prime-time appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, influential Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stated, “The only way to end the escalating crisis caused by Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine is if Putin's political allies killed the Russian dictator” (Baragona, 2022). It is interesting that this statement, coming from one of America’s most powerful and senior Senators, failed to generate any sensation or controversy in the U.S., while we can well imagine that had he uttered such a call towards his own president, it would have immediately resulted in his arrest and removal from office. It is this type of reckless irresponsibility—and public indifference to it—that must be overcome if rational and considered diplomacy between the two rivals is ever to return.
Not coincidentally and in a similar vein, there is potential for U.S.–China relations to rapidly destabilize because of this penchant. During a visit to Taiwan, former U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (one of President Trump’s most hawkish advisors) called for recognition of the island’s independence from the PRC: “It’s my view the U.S. government should immediately…offer Taiwan diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country” (Wu, 2022). It is not unthinkable to surmise that if this red line is crossed in Taiwan, then it will lead to China’s decision to ensure the unity of the country militarily. Once again, a potential world war clash emerges because of the American willingness to make statements that flaunt the security concerns of powerful countries with whom it should maintain a solid alliance. Instead, America seems more content antagonizing rather than aligning (Chan, 2022; Reuters, 2022). Consolidating this trend, China has even been threatened with punishment (Wu and Leonard, 2022) for its refusal to comply with US sanctions against Russia. (Asharq AL-awsat, 2022) In fact, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned Beijing that it would “absolutely” face consequences if it helped Moscow evade sweeping sanctions over the war in Ukraine. “We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country, anywhere in the world” (Shalal and Martina, 2022).
Inexplicably, the U.S. response to Russian and Chinese security concerns (Ukraine and Taiwan are just the tip of an iceberg, pinpointing to other, much more serious issues) is apparently a means to suggest that they need to adopt anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies? How can one expect this line of thinking to achieve anything but an exacerbated conflict?
Certainly, nuclear conflict is not Washington’s ultimate goal. Still, the economic and political fealty of Russia and China is. Perhaps, if Washington could transform Russian interests so that they were more aligned with those of the U.S., it would be like turning Russia into a future equivalent of Ukraine, an agent for American deterrence, to pose a joint nuclear threat aimed at preventing China’s rapid rise. All these maneuvers are strategies meant to ensure American “influence dominance” even as the global community grows more complex with more powerful players entering the game. Is it possible the world can only hope America is right in thinking that no matter how pushed Russia and China can be against their own security interests, they will not press the nuclear option in desperation? It is scary but fascinating to see how much American policy rests firmly on Putin being both insane (justifying what is being done to stop him in Ukraine) and rational (not worrying about him starting a nuclear war) at the same time.
Recently, in January 2022, the permanent members of the UN Security Council adopted the “Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races,” in which they stated: “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” (The White House, 2022) While most people in Ukraine, Russia, and surrounding countries want a peaceful resolution to this armed conflict, it seems the West will not respond to Russia’s security concerns simply because those concerns operate against American elites’ self-interest. More concerning, this possible militaristic frenzy has the potential to lead to many decisions that will stimulate an arms race and make Europe much less safe than it is today. Security can only be mutual, based on relevant contractual obligations and real actions that create an atmosphere of mutual trust. To Moscow, Russian security will never be American security reimagined. Simply put, Russian security cannot be anti-Russian. Washington would do well to remember that.
The previous two world wars have shown that numerous conferences, mutual promises, treaty agreements and well-meaning international organizations—as such—do not save the world from waging wars. But how many times will we recklessly walk the conflict tightrope before humanity finally gets unlucky? Do we really want to find out the answer to this question? To date, many fundamental works have been written that point out the imperfection of the international security system. It is both possible and necessary to propose new legal mechanisms and diplomatic structures for regulating international relations in these new contexts of conflict. But this alone will not solve everything. Only by accommodating the true nature of socio-economic and political relations to the realities of the 21st century, by strengthening their socially-oriented and democratic components using a wide range of advanced technologies, will it be possible to avoid the threat of world war. It is true, we must not ignore the lessons of the past. But we must also free ourselves from the dogmas and paradigms of the past which push us into the same old relationships and same old mistakes. It is precisely because of such pressure from the dark pages of history that we are experiencing the Ukrainian tragedy today. Making it to a better future for humanity demands that we strategically innovate together instead of strategically against one another. This is the only way out of the current crisis.
Shalal, A., Martina, M. 2022. China faces consequences if it helps Russia evade sanctions over Ukraine – Sullivan. [online]. Yahoo!News. Available at: https://www.yahoo.com/news/white-house-adviser-discuss-russias-140252183.html [Accessed 13 March 2022].
Farley, R., 2017. Fact: The U.S. Military Considered Using Nuclear Weapons on North Korea and China. [online] The National Interest. Available at: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/fact-the-us-military-considered-using-nuclear-weapons-north-23222 [Accessed 13 March 2022].
Fox News, 2022. Tucker: This war could get much worse than it already is. [online] Fox News. Available at: https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/tucker-this-war-could-get-much-worse-than-it-already-is [Accessed 11 March 2022].
Baragona, J., 2022. Lindsey Graham Calls for the Assassination of Vladimir Putin. [online] Yahoo!News. Available at: https://news.yahoo.com/lindsey-graham-calls-assassination-vladimir-050143923.html?fr=sycsrp_catchall [Accessed 11 March 2022].
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Chan, M., 2022. How Beijing’s ‘red lines’ over Taiwan could lead to war with US. [online] South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3094177/how-beijings-red-lines-over-taiwan-could-lead-war-us [Accessed 11 March 2022].
Reuters, 2022. China diplomat says U.S. should not challenge China's red line on Taiwan. [online] National Post. Available at: https://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/politics-news-pmn/china-diplomat-says-u-s-should-not-challenge-chinas-red-line-on-taiwan [Accessed 11 March 2022].
Wu, D. and Leonard, J., 2022. U.S. Expects Chinese Tech Firms to Help Choke Off Russia Supply. [online] Bloomberg. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-01/u-s-expects-chinese-tech-firms-to-help-choke-off-russia-supply [Accessed 11 March 2022].
Asharq AL-awsat, 2022. China Will Not Join Sanctions on Russia, Banking Regulator Says. [online] Asharq AL-awsat. Available at: https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/3506861/china-will-not-join-sanctions-russia-banking-regulator-says [Accessed 11 March 2022].
The White House, 2022. Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races. [online] The White House. Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/01/03/p5-statement-on-preventing-nuclear-war-and-avoiding-arms-races/ [Accessed 11 March 2022]