Why the West should be pushing for a stable cold war with Russia

[Following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at UC Berkeley on Monday, November 23, 2015.]

Much has been written recently about whether the United States and Russia are once again in a “Cold War.” Somewhat more optimistically, the question is often rendered as “Can the United States and Russia avoid another Cold War?”

I suppose one could treat these as invitations to make a purely historical comparison between the current US-Russian relationship and the US-Soviet relationship during “The Cold War”? But I don’t think that is what most people have in mind when they raise the issue. Rather, I suspect that what most people want to know is how adversarial are U.S-Russian relations today, how dangerous is the relationship, is the high level of tension between the two countries likely to last, and what are the costs of hostility going to be over the long run?

It therefore strikes me that to answer the implied questions, one needs to break the problem up into at least four parts, as follows.

(1) What do we mean by the term “cold war”? (That is a conceptual problem about a category of events or states – hence no initial caps.)

(2) Are we already in a cold war with Russia? (This is a descriptive or empirical problem about whether the current relationship meets the definitional criteria.)

(3) How is the US-Russian relationship likely to evolve over, say, the next two years? (This is a predictive problem that will likely produce different answers depending on the forecast period – say five years instead of two.)

(4) Is there a way to return to a genuinely cooperative relationship in the foreseeable future? (This is a prescriptive problem in which it is perfectly possible to argue that such and such should be done but it is very unlikely that it will be.)

There is a fifth, implied, question: “How did we get to where we are today?” (Or to put it differently, “Who is to blame?,” or perhaps “Who is primarily to blame?”) That is an explanatory problem, which was addressed by Professor Breslauer. But it is important to appreciate that as in medicine, where explaining how one contracts a disease (its etiology) is not the same as figuring out to cure it, assigning blame doesn’t tell us what to do going forward.

On the meaning of “cold war”

At the risk of being a little pedantic, then, let me start with the first sub-question, which is what is meant by the term “cold war”?

Typically the noun “war” is used to connote a sustained, large-scale, violent conflict, although just how sustained, large-scale, and violent is variable. In the well-known “Correlates of War” (COW) database, it is defined as a conflict with more than 1,000 battle-related fatalities within a twelve month period. Using that definition, a “cold war” would be an oxymoron.

However, we also use the term “war” to connote a prolonged but non-violent (or mostly non-violent) struggle or campaign, as in the notions of a “war on drugs” or “war on poverty.” This is clearly the intent when someone refers to a “cold war.” The reference is to a prolonged and mostly or entirely non-violent struggle between states that falls short of a “hot war.”

I should add that as in the U.S.-Soviet cold war, there can be violent proxy wars, or wars where one side is involved but not the other. There just can’t be enough direct violence to qualify as regular war.

So that is what I mean by a “cold war” in what follows.

Are we in a cold war with Russia today, and if so is it likely to last?

Does the current U.S.-Russia relationship meet the criteria for a “cold war?” (I will focus on U.S. relations with Russia, but most of what follows can be said of Russian relations with “the West” in general.)

My answer, in brief, is a definite yes.

By any measure, the relationship is mutually hostile. Happily, to date there has been no direct violence, so no hot war, but there have been three conflicts that qualify as proxy wars in the past seven years – Georgia in 2008, Ukraine since early 2014, and now in Syria.

Indeed, Ukraine and Syria qualify as more than simple proxy wars, since Russia was directly, albeit not openly, involved in the Donbas war, while both Washington and Moscow have open combat operations underway in the Syrian conflict.

That, I should add, never happened during the U.S.-Soviet cold war. Participation by Soviet pilots and other specialists in combat operations in the Korean War, Vietnam War, and 1973 October War was always covert.

Moreover, at the heart of the current tensions between Russia and the United States are disagreements over security matters, to the point that the political and military leadership of both sides believe that there is a significant risk of a hot war, and both are making force disposition decisions accordingly.

Finally, the hostile relationship has already lasted for some time – certainly at least since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, but arguably even earlier. Indeed, I would say that despite many ups and downs, the relationship has been on a downward trajectory since the mid-1990s. (The notable exception was during the “reset” from 2009 until Putin’s return to the presidency in early 2012.)

More importantly, the relationship is almost certainly going to remain hostile, to one degree or another, for some considerable period of time (more on that in a moment).

Is there a way to return to a more cooperative relationship with Russia in the foreseeable future?

To answer this next question, let me distinguish between two types of cold war – what I will call an unstable cold war on the one hand, and a stable cold war on the other hand.

An unstable cold war is where (1) the rules of the game between the hostile parties are unclear and contested; (2) the territorial limits of core spheres of influence are unclear and contested; (3) there are no – or at best few – arms control agreements limiting the risk of a hot war; and (4) there is little or no transactional cooperation between the parties – that is, no or very little cooperation in specific areas of mutual interest, particularly but not only in economic relations.

This, I would argue, characterized the U.S.-Soviet relationship between 1948 and the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when both sides concluded that they had come uncomfortably close to a catastrophic nuclear war and needed to take steps to avoid destroying each other.

A stable cold war, then, is the contrary of an unstable one. It is where (1) the rules of the game are mostly clear and respected; (2) the territorial limits of core spheres of influence are mostly clear and respected; (3) arms control agreements reduce the risk of a hot war (but don’t eliminate it, since eliminating that risk would mean no war, cold or otherwise); and (4) there is episodic transactional cooperation, particularly but not only in the economic arena.

Again, that is how I would characterize U.S.-Soviet relations, for the most part, after the October Missile Crisis until the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991.

So that gives us four types of relationship: (1) a hot war; (2) an unstable cold war; (3) a stable cold war; and (4) a cooperative relationship.

One could break this latter category up further, of course, but for our purposes let me leave it at four basic relationship types.

My belief is that we are unfortunately not only in a cold war with Russia today. We are also, even more unfortunately, in a dangerous unstable cold war with it.

Obviously one’s judgment about how long the current relationship will last is in part a function of the forecasting period, but my take on the probability of various outcomes over the next two years is something like this.

A hot war: 3%

A continued unstable cold war: 70%

A stable cold war: 25%

A genuinely cooperative relationship: 2%

With respect to the hot war possibility (so a direct conflict that leads to at least 1,000 battlefield deaths in a 12 month period), any such war would likely be contained and remain below the nuclear threshold. But it very well might not. Which is to say, in my view there is a non-negligible risk of a nuclear war with Russia, and likewise a non-negligible risk that a tactical nuclear exchange escalates to the strategic level.

A non-negligible risk of catastrophe is not a risk one wants to live with for very long.

I should also note that there is a pretty broad range of probabilities within the “continued unstable cold war” category. To unpack that category further, I would distinguish between a “nothing really dangerous happens” category – which is where we have been so far, for the most part – and a “something really dangerous happens” that gets us very close to a hot war and scares everyone sober. So something like the Cuban Missile Crisis, although it would not have to be quite that scary to qualify.

I would put the “nothing really scary” happens probability at 35%, and the “something really scary happens” at 35% as well. That is to say, I think there is a significant risk that we will come close to a hot war with Russia over the next two years, as well as a non-negligible risk that we will cross the threshold to war itself.

How, then, should the U.S. manage this very unfortunate and very dangerous situation?

In my view, we should do at least the following.

  1. Carefully enhance deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank without provoking a war, and also counter Russian efforts to destabilize West European countries, undercut the Atlantic Alliance, and undermine the European project.
  2. Work to move from an unstable to a stable cold war relationship by focusing above all on the military dimensions of the current conflict, including at least the following.
    1. Reinitiate arms control negotiations, particularly but not only regarding conventional force dispositions, and including some kind of compromise on European ballistic missile defense, as well as return to all of the confidence building measures that we earlier worked out with the Soviet Union.
    2. Enter into negotiations with Russia over limiting further NATO expansion (see below).
    3. Look for opportunities for transactional cooperation.
  3. Signal Moscow that the United States is open to a genuine partnership in the long run but that we need to stabilize the security relationship first.

With luck, determination, and leadership, that might get us from an unstable to a stable cold war in, say, five years. That is what happened with the Soviet Union after the Cuban Missile Crisis – it was a long process before we got to détente and the Helsinki Accords of 1975.

In effect, we would be signaling Moscow that we will treat Russia the way we treated with the USSR, with a measure of fear and respect along with a realistic understanding that we see the world very differently and have different interests as well as different values. On the other hand, we would be signaling that we want a stabilized relationship that reduces the risks of war in the short run, and that we hope for genuine improvement in the relationship in the long run.

My sense is that is pretty much how the Kremlin and the Russian political elite want us to treat them, and I think that Moscow would respond favorably.

Two final points before I conclude.

First, with regard to reaching a compromise with Russia on NATO enlargement, my view is that all parties would be much better off – including but not only Ukraine and Georgia – if Russia and the United States agreed to respect the permanent neutrality of at least Ukraine and Georgia, and ideally Belarus and Finland and perhaps Sweden as well.

Each of these “buffer zone” countries would remain “neutral” in the sense that none would be allowed to join any organization that entailed a collective defense guarantee. (This, I should note, would require a modification of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, which includes a little-known provision on mutual defense. for “neutral” countries that are members of the union or that join the union in the future.)

The neutral countries would also not be allowed to have foreign troops on their soil, permanent or otherwise.

On the other hand, each could develop its own defenses as it saw fit (or better under the terms of a broad arms control regime), including with foreign assistance.

An arrangement like that, I believe, would go a very long way toward overcoming the security dilemma problems we are facing with Russia now.

If you interested in reading more about my take on this question, take a look at my blog post, “Why the West should be pushing for a buffer zone between Russia and NATO” (June 1, 2015).

My second and final point, very briefly, is that I don’t think it is the least likely that Syria is going to prove to be an opportunity for transactional cooperation with Russia. On the contrary, I think the Russian intervention there makes cooperation much less likely and has greatly increased the risk of a military clash or some kind of incident, as in the “scary” version of the unstable cold war option.

Again, if you are interested in my views on this, take a look at my post from a couple of weeks ago, “Why diplomacy and foreign military intervention won’t end the Syrian war anytime soon.”