Raging Toward the Abyss with Russia

Raging Toward the Abyss with Russia

In our outrage over Russia’s bloody assault, very few in the West believe we should seek ways to end the conflict short of the Kremlin’s capitulation. But unless we do, we are unlikely to find ourselves in a new Cold War. We may instead be in a very hot one. 


As Russia’s unconscionable invasion of Ukraine has brought the “post-Cold War” period to a violent close, many are convinced that we have entered a new age of cold war with Russia. Few have welcomed this, but most seem confident the West will prevail.

After all, we know the story of how the first Cold War turned out. The West safely contained Communist power behind the Iron Curtain. John Kennedy went eyeball to eyeball with Nikita Khrushchev over Cuba, and the Kremlin blinked. Ronald Reagan stood up to the Evil Empire, freedom proved superior to tyranny, and sensible reformers eventually came to power in Moscow. Our fears of global annihilation never materialized.


But we are not in some modern revival of that imagined morality play. We are in an intensifying escalatory spiral with a bitterly aggrieved nuclear power that, under the pressures of a stumbling military campaign and asphyxiating economic sanctions, may soon face a choice between accepting national humiliation and doing something we have long thought to be unimaginable: directly attacking a NATO member or even the United States.

Soviet leaders never faced such a dilemma. Contrary to popular myth, Kennedy did not simply force Khrushchev to back down in 1962 by threatening him with the prospect of American military attacks on Soviet missile installations in Cuba. He coupled that threat with a willingness to strike a face-saving bargain. The two leaders ended the crisis by trading the removal of those Soviet missiles for withdrawal of American medium-range missiles in Turkey and Italy, coupled with a U.S. pledge never to invade Cuba.

After the near disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War was played according to a set of mutually accepted rules that helped to manage and stabilize East-West rivalry. The two sides had widely divergent political ideologies, values, and national interests. But they shared a common recognition that, in the nuclear age, war between them would be catastrophic for both, and therefore they had no choice but to establish rules of the game and draw security redlines neither would cross.

We have no such understandings today. Nearly all the Cold War-era arms control and crisis management accords have disappeared, and new ones adapted to today’s changed conditions have not emerged. BBC Moscow correspondent Farida Rustamova has reported that Vladimir Putin believes the West has destroyed all the old rules of the game and that Russia is now in a fight uncircumscribed by any agreed boundaries. Putin’s recent directive putting Russia’s strategic nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty” suggests she is correct.

The center of gravity in Western media and popular opinion has shifted substantially since the Cold War. There has been no significant American constituency for any kind of détente with Moscow for at least a decade. Few regard nuclear war with Russia as a serious possibility, and nearly all seem to assume that the United States cannot not be drawn into direct warfare with Russia against its will. Justifiably outraged by Putin’s attack on Ukraine, our media commentators and Twitter warriors are focusing on how to ensure that Russia is defeated, and Putin removed.

But the advent of the cyber age has made the chances of escalation into direct East-West conflict much greater than during the Cold War, while doing little to reduce its potential destructiveness. Our dependence on nearly defenseless digital infrastructure makes the United States far more vulnerable to foreign attacks than it was only a few decades ago. Putin has publicly warned that Western economic sanctions constitute war against Russia. How might we react if Russian cyber combatants retaliate by disabling American power plants or disrupting trades on Wall Street? Once the sides begin attacking critical infrastructure, might they be tempted to target military and intelligence satellites on which each side’s ability to detect and respond to nuclear strikes depends?

We cannot know how these disparate factors may combine to shape events in the coming weeks. But it is fair to say that we are venturing onto terra incognita, not into some strangely reassuring replay of a regulated Cold War competition that ended happily, at least for the United States and its allies. The dangers we face today are not unmanageable, but they are certainly unprecedented.

At least one Cold War dictum retains its relevance in these new circumstances: that the leaders of superpowers must not force each other into situations where they must choose between losing face and launching nuclear war, which Kennedy said was the chief lesson of the Cuban missile crisis. What can we do—and what must we refrain from doing—to avoid putting either the Kremlin or ourselves in such a corner?

Washington’s recent decision to activate military deconfliction channels with Russia was wise, as was NATO’s choice not to pursue a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would have required direct engagement with Russian aircraft and air defenses. We must be careful, however, not to allow our goal to slide from deterrence and punishment of Russia into regime change, which would be more likely to provoke Putin’s retaliation than his removal.

The United States also needs to resist the temptation to cut off diplomatic contacts with Moscow. We can and should ensure that Russia does not win this war. But we must recognize that Putin can make everyone else suffer horrifically if Russia must lose. Diplomacy is our only way out of this dead end. To encourage the Russians to end the fighting, we must face the painful reality that they need a viable path toward a future in which sanctions are eased and NATO is not in Ukraine, while at the same time safeguarding Ukraine’s security.  

In our outrage over Russia’s bloody assault, very few in the West believe we should seek ways to end the conflict short of the Kremlin’s capitulation. But unless we do, we are unlikely to find ourselves in a new Cold War. We may instead be in a very hot one. 

George Beebe is Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He is a former director of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency and author of The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.