by Janusz Bugajski
April 07, 2021
The Russian government is escalating its confrontations with the West in order to test the Biden administration’s resolve.
Contrary to some assertions, however, we are not witnessing a second Cold War. The Cold War was essentially a stalemate until the Soviet empire imploded. Instead, President Vladimir Putin is engaged in an intimidating international offensive to regain world stature, reconstruct a Muscovite empire, and divide the West.
Russia is reinforcing its military deployments along Ukraine’s borders and raising the prospect of another invasion. It has increased its maritime presence in the Arctic and persistently provokes its Western adversaries through overflights of U.S. and NATO ships in the Baltic and Black seas and close to Alaskan airspace. Such actions have three main objectives: to demonstrate that Russia is a global power, to probe for soft spots in Western defenses, and to distract attention from growing internal turmoil in the Russian Federation. The danger is that Putin’s strategists and generals will miscalculate and precipitate an armed conflict that will rebound against Russia.
The Cold War was a frozen conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain across Europe demarcated respective spheres of influence, and neither threatened to seize territory outside their domains. The Soviets sought to expand their influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America by supporting communist movements, while the U.S. endeavored to stem them. But both sides avoided direct military confrontation even while Moscow crushed anti-communist revolts in Europe’s east.
Putin now presides over a revisionist regime in which the consequences of conflict between Russia and the West are less predictable. Moscow does not recognize the independence or integrity of neighboring states that were liberated from its previous empire. The situation is reminiscent of the struggles 100 years ago, when dozens of nations sought independence from the collapsing tsarist empire. The Bolshevik regime launched wars to reverse the imperial disintegration.
In rebuilding its dominion, Moscow propagates the notion that Russia was “humiliated” when the Soviet empire collapsed. In reality, the liberation of independent nations ended their humiliation at the hands of the Kremlin and sealed their determination to avoid future subservience. Although the Cold War division of Europe is obsolete, Putin’s officials are applying immense pressure on all former Soviet republics to abandon their Western aspirations and rejoin the “Russian world.”
Western officials claim there is no zero-sum competition with Russia over the allegiance of any European country. In reality, the fundamental conflict persists between the
freedom to choose one’s international alliances and Moscow’s insistence on subordination. Putin denounces Western integration as conflicting with Russia’s own historical, cultural, and geostrategic claims. He demands that the post-Soviet countries remain outside all Western alliances. This would not only extinguish national sovereignty but threaten the democratic freedoms of ordinary citizens.
A credible transatlantic alliance that marshals the strength of NATO and the European Union must be geared toward ensuring the freedom of wider Europe. If these states fall under the control of the Kremlin’s imperial kleptocracy, the vulnerability of the West will also increase. It is imperative for Washington to grasp a leadership role here, just as it did during the Cold War. European policy remains divided and is perceived as weak and indecisive by Moscow. In addition to providing the spine in the NATO alliance, the U.S. must intensify its cooperation with its allies and partners to counter Kremlin subversion in all key domains, whether cybersecurity, disinformation, political corruption, or energy blackmail.
Putin becomes especially offensive when public support is slipping, the economy is stagnant, and members of the elite question his leadership. At such times, he needs a foreign victory to help subdue any political alternatives. However, by setting Russia on a permanent war footing, the Kremlin risks pushing the country toward economic ruin and state disintegration, similarly to the Soviet leadership 30 years ago. By defending its allies, principles, and interests, Washington can signal that this implosion will be the ultimate price of Putin’s foreign escapades.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is titled Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.