There will be no Cold War

March 19, 2014


Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea has enraged the West. His lack of openness to any compromise has forced it to launch a — weak — sanctions regime. Putin finds this ‘unacceptable’ and threatens retaliation. 


In yesterday’s speech — which many noted might have been his most important ever —, Putin hit a markedly anti-Western tone. Partially rewriting history, he bemoaned the West’s hypocrisy, double standards, and mingling in foreign countries; this time, ‘crossing a line’, in Russia’s sphere of interest. We have a Russia-West situation; we have hostility. Yes, it looks like a new ‘Cold War’.


But it won’t get to that. It can’t get to that, because there is a huge disparity in power. Russia is weaker, the West stronger than it looks. Russia is an authoritarian state dependent on energy exports, suffering from mismanagement and endemic corruption. Its massive armed forces are hard to mobilise: morale is low, peacetime mortality is high. Its firepower so badly maintained that, according to one study, the engines of as many as 40% of all military vehicles would not start at any given moment. But Russia is also fully integrated into the global economy. International isolation has already hurt, with the commodities market falling by one-fourth since the beginning of the year. Further isolation and economic sanctions will see immense capital flight and a plummet of the rouble — hitting the Putinist middle class hard.


What convinced Putin that he can now pursue an imperialist agenda with only minor risks has been Washington and Brussels’ peace politics. Obama was elected on the promise of ‘ending wars, not starting them’, and he dreads the demon of Bush Jr; he wants to keep to that. His policy of a ‘reset’ with Russia has yielded no results and, to Putin, has further signalled America’s weak benevolence. The EU is to a large extent dependent on Russian energy, and has been a marginal foreign policy actor, struggling to forge a common policy — also no game for him.


But it seems that trouble unites the EU and stiffens America. NATO is now conducting exercises on the Russian border in Finland: it will proceed with others in the Baltics. The EU and the US are considering the next phase of sanctions, possibly hitting key players in Putin’s entourage and introducing trade restrictions. Putting 5 million barrels of crude oil up for sale, America sent the price below the $100 benchmark, at which Russia vegetates.


The West has to come to terms with the failure of its peace politics, America’s ‘reset’ and Europe’s partnership ambitions. They have to put on the boxing gloves; they can knock Russia out in the first round. It will not be painless, but it will be worth it.


Because, even if the Ukrainian conflict is contained in its current state, Europe’s political and security landscape has been arbitrarily re-written, understandably worrying the EU member states of East Central Europe. The Crimean adventure, seasoned with a large amount of the usual disinformation, has occasioned a huge rise in Putin’s popularity — much like the last time in Georgia. He now has the recipe.


But the situation in Ukraine is bound to escalate. It will not come to a Cold War — but it looks like Putin is dead set on testing the limits.



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