In Ukraine Crisis, the Looming Threat of a New Cold War

MOSCOW — Vladimir Pozner was an English-language Soviet propaganda editor in Moscow in 1962, a job that gave him rare access to American newspapers and magazines. That allowed him to follow the Cuban Missile Crisis outside the Soviet media filter, and sense a world at the brink of war.

Mr. Pozner, a longtime Russian television journalist, says he now feels something similar.

“The smell of war is very strong,” he said in an interview on Friday, a day when shelling intensified along the front line in eastern Ukraine. “If we talk about the relationship between Russia and the West — and in particular, the United States — I feel that it is as bad as it was at any time in the Cold War, and perhaps, in a certain sense, even worse.”

Unlike 1962, it is not the threat of nuclear war but of a major land war that now looms over Europe. But the feeling that Russia and the United States are entering a new version of the Cold War — long posited by some commentators on both sides of the Atlantic — has become inescapable.

President Biden hinted at it on Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, pledging that if Russia invaded Ukraine, “we will rally the world to oppose its aggression.” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia drove the matter home on Saturday, when he oversaw a test launch of nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles that can evade American defenses.

“We are entering a new stage of confrontation,” said Dmitry Suslov, an international relations specialist at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “After this crisis, we will naturally be much more explicit and open in acknowledging that we are enemies, we are adversaries, with all the ensuing consequences.”

For now, no one knows just how the world will emerge from the crisis — whether Mr. Putin is staging an elaborate, expensive bluff or is truly on the verge of launching the biggest military offensive in Europe since 1945. But it does appear clear that Mr. Putin’s overarching aim is to revise the outcome of the original Cold War, even if it is at the cost of deepening a new one.

Mr. Putin is seeking to undo a European security order created when his country was weak and vulnerable after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and to recreate the sort of geopolitical buffer zone that Russian rulers over the centuries have felt they needed. He is signaling that he is prepared to accomplish this by diplomatic means, but also through the use of force.

The crisis has already brought Mr. Putin some tactical wins as well as perilous risks. Since first mounting a threatening troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders last spring, he has managed to seize Washington’s attention — a goal for a Kremlin that, as in the Cold War, sees confrontation with the United States as its defining conflict. But his actions have also spurred anti-Russian attitudes and further united Europe and the United States against Russia — something that should worry the Kremlin given the West’s still-far-greater global economic and political might.

Daniel Fried, a retired American diplomat who dealt with Moscow both during the Soviet era and the Putin era, said he had a message for Russians who long for the Cold War days when their country, in their telling, was respected by the United States. After all, the Soviet Union lost the original Cold War.

“You may just get that back,” Mr. Fried said in an interview. “And it will not go well for you.”

Unlike the Soviets, Mr. Putin is not trying to wage a global ideological struggle, nor is he — for now — bankrupting his country in a costly arms race. Russia is far more intertwined in the global economy, a reality that some still hope will help the world avoid as deep and long a confrontation between East and West. And to the United States, it is China — not Russia — that now looms as the more serious strategic adversary in the long term.

But to Mr. Putin, the fight to roll back his country’s defeat in the original Cold War has already lasted at least 15 years. He declared his rejection of an America-led world order in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, warning of “unexploded ordnance” left behind from the Cold War: “ideological stereotypes” and “double standards” that allowed Washington to rule the world while crimping Russia’s development.

This weekend, in one of the many ominous developments of recent days, Russia is skipping the Munich conference — an annual meeting at which Western officials have been able to sit down with their Russian counterparts throughout the prior tensions of Mr. Putin’s rule.

Instead, the Kremlin released footage of Mr. Putin in the Kremlin’s situation room, directing test launches of its modernized arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles from bombers, submarines and land-based launchers. It was a carefully timed reminder that, as Russian television recently told viewers, the country can turn American cities “into radioactive ash.”

And Mr. Putin has massed a monumental force to Ukraine’s north, east and south in order to signal that the Kremlin sees the former Soviet republic’s pro-Western shift as such a dire threat that it is willing to fight a war to stop it. The confrontation in some ways evokes the Berlin crisis of 1961, when the Soviets demanded that Western forces leave Berlin, and East Germany eventually built the wall that divided East and West. To some Russians, the fact that Ukraine is much closer to Russia than Berlin is what makes the new Cold War even more dangerous.

“Back then, the frontier ran through Berlin,” said Mr. Suslov, the Moscow analyst. “Now the frontier goes through Kharkiv” — a Ukrainian city on the Russian border that is a day’s drive from Moscow.

The Cold War may also offer parallels for what could happen within Russia in the event of war. Analysts predict an even more authoritarian swing by the Kremlin, and an even more ruthless hunt for internal enemies purportedly sponsored by the West. Mr. Pozner, a state television host who was born in Paris, grew up in part in New York and moved to Moscow in 1952, posited that Russia’s foes in the West could even be quietly hoping for war because it could weaken and discredit the country.

“I’m very worried,” Mr. Pozner said. “A Russian invasion of Ukraine is a catastrophe for Russia, first and foremost, in the sense of Russia’s reputation and what’s going to go on inside Russia as a result.”

Some Russian analysts think Mr. Putin could still de-escalate the crisis and walk away with a tactical victory. The threat of war has started a discussion in Ukraine and in the West about the idea that Kyiv may disavow NATO membership. And the United States has already offered talks on a number of initiatives that Moscow is interested in, including on the placement of missiles in Europe and on limiting long-range bomber flights.

But Mr. Putin is making clear he wants more than that: a wide-ranging, legally binding agreement to unwind the NATO presence in Eastern Europe.

The intensity of the crisis that Mr. Putin has engineered is evident in the harsh language that the Kremlin has deployed. Standing this month alongside President Emmanuel Macron of France at the Kremlin, Mr. Putin said President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine had no choice but to carry out a 2015 peace plan that Russia was pushing: “You may like it, you may not like it — deal with it, my gorgeous.” Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, in a joint news conference with his visiting British counterpart, Liz Truss, said their discussion had resembled that of a “mute person with a deaf person.”

“Sometimes discussions were rather heated between Soviet and American leaders,” said Pavel Palazhchenko, a former Soviet diplomat. “But probably not to that extent and not as publicly as now. There is really no parallel.”

Mr. Palazhchenko, who translated for the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in his summits with American presidents, describes that language as an outgrowth of a Russian frustration with the country’s security concerns being ignored. During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow came together over landmark arms control agreements. During the Putin era, little of that has happened.

“This is a clear emotional and psychological reaction to the years and even decades of the West and the U.S. being rather dismissive of Russian security concerns,” Mr. Palazhchenko said.

Doug Lute, a former American ambassador to NATO, rejects the notion of past disrespect for Russian interests, especially given that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is “the only existential threat to the United States in the world.” But like Mr. Palazhchenko, he also sees lessons in the Cold War for emerging from the current crisis.

“It may be that we settle into a period where we have dramatically different worldviews or dramatically different ambitions but even despite that political contest, there’s space to do things in our mutual interest,” Mr. Lute said. “The Cold War could be a model for competing and cooperating at the same time.”


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