Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 4

Moscow exploits threats of a “new cold war” to silence Western critics

by Paul A. Goble

The frequently heard suggestion that any opposition to Russianpolicies will inevitably lead to a new cold war provides Moscowand its friends with a useful rhetorical weapon, trivializes whatthe real Cold War itself was about, and distracts attention fromthe kind of conflicts that Moscow’s recent moves seem certainto provoke.

Because no one in the West wants to go back to the bad old daysof the Cold War, Moscow has skillfully used the suggestion thatany Western, and especially American, objections to what Russiawants could trigger a new one. In the last month alone, Russianspokesmen have used the threat of a "new cold war" againstthose who want to expand NATO, against those who object to Moscow’sassertion of a right to use military force to defend its coethnicsin the former Soviet republics, and against those who object toRussian military actions in Chechnya. And these arguments havebeen echoed by many in the West who believe that any criticismof Yeltsin’s policy, regardless of how noxious, will only helphis nationalist opponents and that Russia can be quickly integratedinto Western institutions even if it is unwilling to play by Westernrules.

That Moscow should seek to use this device is no surprise–afterall, it works–but that so many in the West should accept it isremarkable – not only because of the immediate policy consequences,but more because of the extent to which such arguments about afuture cold war trivialize the real Cold War. That conflict wasprimarily an ideological one, a battle between two economic and,even more so, political systems; between democracy and freedomon the one hand, and totalitarianism and state socialism on theother. While geopolitical and national interests were very muchinvolved, to ignore the ideological dimension is to trivializeboth the West’s efforts and victory and the unique quality ofthat conflict.

Unless Moscow intends to launch a new ideological crusade underan internationalist banner, and unless it is prepared to arm itselfto the teeth again at the expense of the freedoms and economicprospects of the Russian people, the conflict of the past willnot be repeated.

But it is precisely the new aggressiveness of Russian statements,and Western unwillingness to challenge them lest they provokea new cold war, that points to a more serious, if very different,set of conflicts in three concentric circles:

–First, Russian efforts to dominate her neighbors, to hold outthe notion that the political reintegration of these states isa good a idea, is certain to backfire and in a bloody way. InSoviet times, it was possible to be both a good Ukrainian anda good communist. In a new Russian-dominated (and in the absenceof any other ideological foundation) nationalistic state, it wouldnot be possible for a Ukrainian to simultaneously be a loyal Ukrainianand a Russian nationalist. Quislings there may be, but the pressuresof this environment would quickly lead to new and bloodier explosionsas is already happening in Chechnya or to a Russian state so repressivethat it would inevitably sacrifice economic growth in an attemptto maintain itself.

–Second, Russian demands for an effective veto over NATO expansion,and for an exemption from current Conventional Forces in Europerestrictions, simultaneously increase the likelihood of instabilityand national conflicts within the still weak states between Moscowand Berlin–the breeding ground of the last two world wars–andundermine the integrity of NATO itself to the extent that theUnited States appears willing to agree to both. Thus, in the nameof not provoking a new cold war, we unwittingly set the stagefor a broader conflict.

–Third, Russian demands for equal standing on all internationalissues, and for membership in international economic bodies suchas the G-7 and the OECD – for which the Russian economy does notqualify – only reinforce those in Russia who believe that forcerather than democratic and economic change will be enough forMoscow to make its way in the world. That message is likely tohelp Yeltsin’s opponents far more than any Western criticism ofhim could.

Because the Cold War period dominated the lives of virtuallyevery policy maker in the world, there has been a tendency toforget both how unique that conflict was, and the very real antecedentfact that large countries were in conflict with each other longbefore there was a Stalin. Conflict is endemic to the internationalsystem; managing it is the task. But insisting that relationsbetween Moscow and the West are so fragile that Moscow must remainbeyond criticism denies this reality, gives Moscow an even moreeffective lever on Western policy than it ever had in the past,and sets the stage both for greater disappointments and greaterconflicts in the future.

Paul Goble is Director of Research at the Jamestown Foundationand Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor and Prism.