I prepared the text below for remarks to the annual US-Russia Forum in Washington, DC, held in the Hart Senate Office Building (though not under official auspices) on June 16. Obliged to abridge my text to the time allocated to speakers, I have restored the deletions here and spelled out a number of my impromptu comments. In addition, I refer to a few subsequent developments to illustrate some of my themes.—S.F.C.
We meet today during the worst and potentially most dangerous American-Russian confrontation in many decades, probably since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The Ukrainian civil war, precipitated by the unlawful change of government in Kiev in February, is already growing into a proxy US-Russian war. The seemingly unthinkable is becoming imaginable: an actual war between NATO, led by the United States, and post-Soviet Russia.
Certainly, we are already in a new Cold War, which escalating sanctions will only deepen, institutionalize and prolong—one potentially more dangerous than its US-Soviet predecessor, which the world barely survived. This is so for several reasons:
§ The epicenter of the new Cold War is not in Berlin but on Russia’s borders, in Ukraine, a region absolutely essential in Moscow’s view to its national security and even to its civilization. This means that the kinds of miscalculations, mishaps and provocations the world witnessed decades ago will be even more fraught with danger. (The mysterious shoot-down of a Malaysian jetliner over eastern Ukraine in July was an ominous example. The military threats in August surrounding Russia’s humanitarian convoy sent to the Donbass cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, and Kiev’s simultaneous attempt to take those cities, are others.)
§ An even graver risk is that the new Cold War may tempt the use of nuclear weapons in a way the US-Soviet one did not. I have in mind the argument made by some Moscow military strategists that if directly threatened by NATO’s superior conventional forces, Russia may resort to its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. (The ongoing US/NATO encirclement of Russia with bases, as well as land- and sea-based missile-defense weapons, only increases this possibility.)
§ Yet another risk factor is that the new Cold War lacks the mutually restraining rules that developed during the forty-year Cold War, especially after the Cuban missile crisis. Indeed, highly charged suspicions, resentments, misconceptions and misinformation both in Washington and Moscow today may make such mutual restraints even more difficult. The same is true of the surreal demonization of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin—a kind of personal vilification without any real precedent in the past, at least after Stalin’s death. (Henry Kissinger has pointed out that the “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” I think it is worse: an abdication of real analysis and rational policy-making.)