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The New Cold War

Published: April 4, 2014 (Issue # 1804)


Russia and the West entered February surrounded by uncertainty — frustrated and angry with the other side but still ready to explore an admittedly fraught path forward. They exited March unexpectedly locked in a new cold war, the ambiguity gone, and the other side transformed into an undisputed adversary with plans underway to deal with it as such. Russian aggression sent them reeling into this other world, but over the years they had prepared the way together.

The new cold war will be different from the original. It will be a cold war between Russia and the West, not a global affair, though it will profoundly affect the entire international political system. It will not have the last one's ideological impulse, although the political animus now congealing will substitute. And it — let's hope — will not play out under the dense shadow of nuclear Armageddon.

Some will add that, unlike the original Cold War, it also will not really matter, given Russia's fundamental weaknesses and relative insignificance compared with a surging China and the scale of other challenges facing the U.S.

They are wrong.

Dealing with the ­Russia-West relationship in fundamentally adversarial terms will contaminate nearly every critical dimension of international politics, seriously warp U.S. and Russian foreign policy and exact a heavy price in lost opportunities.

Rather than redefine NATO to better address new security challenges, the old NATO will be reinforced and pressed closer to Russia's borders. Despite its economic limitations, Russia will answer in kind. Defense planning in Washington and Moscow, which were both in the process of adjusting to more modern, 21st-century threats with diminished resources, will come under irresistible pressure to spend on old threats that are driven by fears copied from the original Cold War.

Any thought of salvaging a crumbling arms control regime in Europe, reducing tactical nuclear weapons, cooperating on missile defense or taking the next steps in controlling strategic nuclear weapons — let alone, the first steps toward managing an increasingly unstable multipolar nuclear world — now becomes pure fantasy.

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