Historian predicts that 'this new cold war will be far worse than the first'
A Cold War historian and author predicted in a sobering New York Times editorial on Tuesday that “Russia’s invasion [of Ukraine], regardless of its outcome, portends a new era of immense hostility with Moscow — and that this new cold war will be far worse than the first.”
Dr. Mary Elise Sarotte, a professor of historical studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, contended that the days of bellicose saber-rattling and proxy wars are over. This is because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly aggressive incursion into Ukraine, which Sarotte believes has the potential to “provoke” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into a direct confrontation with his country’s world’s-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
“Russia’s vastly larger military — along with its stifled domestic political opposition, free press and free speech — means that there will be few checks on Mr. Putin’s carnage beyond what the outgunned Ukrainians can bring to bear,” Sarotte wrote. “And if his conduct in Chechnya — a territory Russia mauled militarily in the 1990s — is any example, a potential occupation of Ukraine will be bloody and brutal, with additional spillover risks.”
The costs of a miscalculation – or worse, a knee-jerk decision – would impact every person on the planet.
“Nor should observers watching war unfold from afar assume they are safe. In addition to the economic consequences for the West — increased oil prices, possible stagflation — there are worse scenarios,” Sarotte continued. “Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow still control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads — more than enough to devastate most life on earth. The missiles that deliver those warheads have the ability, through their immense speed and reach, to shrink the world into a very small place. Mr. Putin has already put his nuclear forces on high alert and made veiled threats about using them if the West intervenes in Ukraine.”
There are other risks for escalations too, according to Sarotte.
“Picture this scenario: Many modern Western aircraft can detect an enemy aircraft acquiring a target. If they encounter a Russian pilot in acquisition mode — for instance, while flying in contested airspace over the Black Sea — they may conclude that they’ve become the target and act accordingly, leading to a potential incident with casualties,” she explained.
“If treated as a violation of NATO’s Article 5 — which deems an attack on one NATO member as an attack on all — such contact and potential casualties could draw the alliance, and therefore the United States, into the conflict,” Sarotte said. “Of course, the alliance could choose not to view the incident as a violation, or to pursue only a minimal response. But that could call NATO’s resolve into doubt, frightening frontline allies and emboldening Mr. Putin.”
The abdication and dissolution of atomic arms treaties is another factor that has supercharged the prospects of a catastrophic clash between Russia and the West:
In recent years, however, both sides rashly shed many of these accords, seeing them as outdated and inconveniently constraining. The New START Treaty is now the only restraint on the number and types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons — and it expires in 2026, with little hope of renewal. Already gone are the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which George W. Bush abrogated in 2002, and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, from which Mr. Putin ‘suspended’ Russian participation in 2007. And, most relevant to today’s crisis, in 2019 President Donald Trump abrogated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty over U.S. claims of Russian violations and Chinese arms buildup (though China was not a party to the treaty).
Signed by President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated that class of weapons entirely. Now that it is no more, Mr. Putin claims to fear that the alliance could deploy such weapons on Ukrainian territory against Russian targets. He has cited that possibility, along with denying that Ukraine is a separate country, among his motivations for invading Ukraine.
Even if Moscow can be brought back to the negotiating table, which seems highly unlikely for the foreseeable future, it would take years of painstaking talks to resurrect these treaties. Their disappearance is especially grievous in light of other losses — of military-to-military communication, expelled embassy and consulate staff members — and the development of new forms of weapons, such as hypersonic missiles and cyberwarfare. Two of the world’s largest military powers are now functioning in near-total isolation from each other, which is a danger to everyone.
The cultural shifting away from the looming threat of nuclear war also needs to be taken into account. The days of air raid and duck-and-cover drills, nuclear weapons testing, massive troop deployments, and one nation working tirelessly to outgun the other have been relegated to the icy past, Sarotte noted. But then Putin stormed into Ukraine.
“The Russian president has now definitively put an end to the post-Cold War era, which rested on an assumption that major European land wars were gone for good,” she wrote. “It is abundantly clear from his invasion that Mr. Putin is not going to hold the geopolitical equivalent of a constant airspeed, altitude or course. If, following his reckless lead, his pilots again veer toward NATO aircraft or provoke any of the four NATO member-states bordering Ukraine — whether through showboating or on command — it could drag the West into combat. And not just in a limited way.”
This is due to the geopolitical tensions between the United States, North Korea, Iran, and China.
“For that reason, Western troops, already trained in and acutely aware of the way that tactical incidents can have strategic implications, must continue to avoid inadvertent escalation,” Sarotte cautioned. “And Washington needs to communicate clearly with not only its allies but also the American public on the risks involved if spillover from Ukraine into Article 5 territory verges on a casus belli — an event that provokes a war.”
Thus, Sarotte thinks that the world has entered a new era.
“I am now deeply afraid that Mr. Putin’s recklessness may cause the years between the Cold War and the Covid-19 pandemic to seem a halcyon period to future historians, compared with what came after,” she concluded. “I fear we may find ourselves missing the old Cold War.”
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