Yes, It Is a New Cold War. What Is To Be Done?


What a Cold War looks like depends to some extent on where you sit. From where I sat on the State Department’s Soviet desk during the early 1980s, it looked like telling Shirley Temple that she could not invite the Soviet consul general in San Francisco to her home for Thanksgiving. During the low points of a Cold War, not much is going on between the countries involved except the enforcement of reciprocity, which boils down to treating the other country’s diplomats the same way they treat yours.

I had the job of enforcing U.S. reciprocity toward the Soviet Union. Our open society made it tough to go toe-to-toe with the closed Soviet society. Ambassador (ret.) Temple had phoned me because she knew (courtesy of the Consul General himself, who had, no doubt, also given her my telephone number) that she lived in an area closed for travel by Soviet diplomats, closed in reciprocity for the many areas the Soviet Union forbade our diplomats from accessing.

As I explained our policy and the reasons for it, my staff, aware of who was on the other end of the line, gathered about my office door to see whether I would be my usual hard-nosed self. I should have said no to the request unless the Soviet foreign ministry allowed a reciprocal visit to a closed area for one of our people, which I knew Moscow would not do. But it was Thanksgiving, and she was Shirley Temple.

My present-day counterparts at the State Department have been drawing up lists of who to expel, what to close, and how to sanction, just as we did in the early years of the Reagan presidency. And, just as during those years, there is precious little going on in the relationship besides tit-for-tat reciprocity, mutual accusations and dueling propaganda efforts. It looks like a Cold War to me — although, as history tends to do, it is repeating itself in a different way.

The Cold War nadir of the early Reagan years soon gave way to negotiations that led to historic reductions in nuclear weapons, an end to the subjugation of eastern Europe, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the possibility (still unrealized) of a different kind of relationship with a newly independent Russia. In some ways, it should be easier now than it was in the 1980s to move toward a more productive relationship. Russia and the United States are not locked in a worldwide struggle for ideological and military dominance. But there are other obstacles. For one, Putin is no Gorbachev and Trump is no Reagan. For another, there is no mutually accepted agenda to serve as a basis for negotiations.

The U.S. agenda of problems that would have to be dealt with includes Ukraine, electoral interference, violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and Syria. These are all legitimate subjects for negotiation, but this agenda either does not address issues of concern to Russia or, when it does, requires Russia to unilaterally change its behavior if relations are to improve. That is not a recipe for productive negotiations – and unfortunately, it is not a new problem. For reasons that date back to the end of the Cold War, the United States has become accustomed to pressing Russia on U.S. concerns, while failing to engage substantively on issues of concern to Russia. A broader negotiating agenda, encompassing NATO expansion and Ukraine, arms control, and state sovereignty and interference in internal affairs, would have the dual merits of engaging Russia on some of its major concerns and promoting America’s fundamental interest in a more stable international system.

The End of the Cold War and Putin’s Push for Equality

During the 1989-90 negotiations on German reunification, the U.S. team led by Secretary of State Jim Baker, brilliantly (and correctly) persuaded Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev that Soviet interests would be better served by a united Germany situated securely within NATO than by a neutral Germany that might decide to become a nuclear power. Gorbachev also agreed to the principle that a united Germany, as a sovereign state, had the right to choose its own security alliances. These agreements, along with a series of Soviet concessions on arms control issues, ended the Cold War, but they also contained within them the seeds of future misunderstandings.

In the 1990s, during the chaotic presidency of Boris Yeltsin, the United States became accustomed to advising Russia – at the time, facing economic collapse and uncertain of its place in the world – on its national interests and domestic policies. Internationally, this frequently amounted to convincing Russia that its interests were served by supporting American policies such as the Dayton Accords and UN peacekeeping in Bosnia. Domestically, it led to a well-intentioned, but corrupt and ineptly managed voucher privatization program that put enormous wealth in the hands of a small group of oligarchs while most of the population suffered from rampant inflation, unpaid salaries and pensions, and lost savings.

Unlike his two predecessors, Vladimir Putin falls rather squarely into a standard Russian leadership pattern: reform imposed from the top; a tendency toward increased authoritarianism over time; a desire for Russia to play a significant role in world affairs. He spent much of his first decade as leader attempting to develop a cooperative, but equal relationship with the United States.

When he talks about that relationship, Putin still regularly mentions that he wants his country to be treated as an equal. This demand for equality must be understood in a Russian cultural context, since Putin is well aware that Russia is not the economic or military equal of the United States, except in its nuclear capacity. Russians’ expectations of relationships differ greatly depending on whether they are authority-based, in which one party is completely dominant and the other completely submissive, or not authority-based, in which case strict equality is expected and demanded. Putin considers the bilateral relationship in the 1990s to have been one of authority, with the U.S. dominant and Russia submissive, reflecting an international system that the United States dominated as well. Having, from his perspective, failed to obtain the respect for Russian interests that equality demanded, his goal has been to change the terms of the relationship, in part by growing the Russian economy and reinvigorating its military, in part by resisting, subverting, and destabilizing U.S. policies that he sees as hegemonic.

A Way Forward: Expand the Agenda

For the U.S.-Russia relationship to improve, Russia needs to change its behavior on Ukraine, electoral interference, INF treaty violations, and Syria. There are, however, also issues on the Russian side of the ledger: NATO expansion, U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and U.S. interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Russia has had great difficulty in engaging the United States substantively on these issues. It sees the problem as rooted in a U.S. refusal to accept a relationship of equality. I see it as a pattern of negotiating behavior that the United States became accustomed to during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin periods, a pattern that has not been adjusted to current realties.

NATO Expansion and Ukraine 

Russia made clear its concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion throughout the 1990s, including under Yeltsin. The Western response to Russia’s worries was threefold: 1) There had never been a commitment not to expand NATO into eastern Europe; 2) NATO expansion aligned with Russian interests; and 3) Every sovereign nation has a right to choose its own security alliances. The West brushed aside Russia’s disagreement with the first two assertions. The third eventually became a trope repeated each time a new country sought NATO security guarantees. The United States continues to hold out the possibility of Ukrainian admission into NATO on these grounds, as well as that of additional countries in the post-Soviet space.

The issues of NATO expansion and Russian intervention in Ukraine are inextricably intertwined. To begin unwinding the Ukrainian conflict, the United States needs to make a formal, public statement that it will not support NATO membership for Ukraine. That would mark the long overdue burial of the misused talking point that countries have a right to choose their own security alliances. A country may have the right to seek whatever security guarantees it considers in its interests, but it does not follow that providing such guarantees is in the interests of the putative guarantor. A commitment to go to war for another country should be made only if the vital interests of the guarantor are at stake. The United States has no such vital interests at stake in Ukraine (or Georgia) and should not bind itself by providing NATO membership, with its Article 5 security guarantee, to those countries. Membership was not a badly timed idea; it was a bad idea period.

Taking NATO membership definitively off the table will allow the United States to play a more effective intermediary role between Russia and Ukraine by lessening Russian suspicions about its real motives. It could also provide an opening for the European Union to engage seriously with both countries about its economic relationship with each. In 2017, Russia became the third-largest exporter to and fourth-largest importer from the European Union, while also reclaiming the place it had lost a year earlier to the European Union as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. Negotiations among the three will be difficult, since major economic interests are at stake on all sides, but that should come as no surprise to Europeans who have worked through years of difficult European Union negotiations. The Minsk agreements provide a reasonable basis on which to unfreeze the conflict in Ukraine, but have been bogged down since 2015 in mutual accusations of bad faith. Trilateral negotiations on economic relationships may provide a venue separate from American efforts for persuading both countries to live up to their commitments.

Arms Control

Russia’s concerns about U.S. missile defense programs date back to the Star Wars era and were intensified by the American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. The Russians believe that through a combination of technological breakthroughs and superior resources, the United States may be able to nullify Russia’s missile deterrent, exposing Russia to a potential first-strike nuclear attack. These are not trivial concerns. Underlying them is a growing difference between how the United States and Russia seek to maintain nuclear deterrence. Russia remains fully committed to mutually assured destruction, which seeks to assure stability by ensuring that no country has an incentive to launch a first strike against another since the launching country would suffer an unacceptable level of damage from the ensuing retaliation. To maintain mutually assured destruction, Russia has responded to U.S. missile defense efforts by attempting to ensure its missile systems are able to penetrate any such defenses.

The U.S. also relies primarily on mutually assured destruction, but is adding a defensive component to its strategic posture that is gradually becoming larger and more effective. Its response to Russian concerns about such systems in eastern Europe has been to say that they are misplaced, since the systems are not aimed at Russian missiles. Such assurances do not allay the Russians’ concerns – indeed, they would not allay American concerns if the tables were turned. As Putin put it:

while the number of carriers and weapons is being reduced [because of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty limitations on weapons and delivery systems], one of the parties, namely, the U.S., is permitting constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality, and creating new missile launching areas. If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential. Meaning that all of our missiles could simply be intercepted.

This disconnect has set the stage for a new arms race. The United States has the resources to match any Russian advances in missile numbers or design, while simultaneously pursuing defensive systems. Future arms control negotiations will have to deal simultaneously with offensive and defensive systems. To ensure that the introduction of defensive systems does not destabilize deterrence, the United States should seek agreement with Russia on how such systems can gradually and mutually be introduced into each country’s strategic mix – rather than simply building them up unilaterally. If bilateral progress on these matters can be achieved, the negotiations would have to be broadened at some point to include other nuclear powers.

State Sovereignty and Interference in Internal Affairs

The two nations also need to address a deep-rooted disagreement about intervention in the affairs of other countries, which will require the United States to take a look at its own behavior. The Russian government’s effort to influence the 2016 elections is currently the most neuralgic issue in the U.S.-Russian relationship. It is Exhibit A in making the case that the United States needs to engage with Russia, and other countries, on setting ground rules for cyber activities.

The underlying problem, however, is deeper. The international system lacks agreed norms regarding when, how, and why a country may involve itself in the internal affairs of another. Consequently, as Thucydides long ago chronicled, the strong do what they can and the weak bear what they must.

Honesty requires us to recognize that the United States has contributed more than its share to this state of affairs. Formally, it stands for a rule-based international order. In practice, during this century, it has engaged in diplomatic, clandestine, and/or military interventions in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine, among others.

Russia’s position, in principle, is that state sovereignty is absolute — a country can only engage in those activities within another country that the host government authorizes and permits. Fyodor Lukyanov, a respected Russian analyst, refers to Putin’s views on state sovereignty as “Westphalian.” He views the violation of state sovereignty in the name of protecting human rights as contrary to international law and a recipe for chaos and destruction. Russia justifies its activities in Syria on the grounds that its help has been requested by the legitimate government. On Crimea, on the other hand, it cites the right of self-determination in support of its actions, pointing out that the United States intervened in Kosovo in the name of that same principle. In Putin’s own words: “Why is it that in one case white is white, while in another the same is called black? We will never agree with this nonsense.” As its military activities in Ukraine and Georgia, and its cyber activities around the world amply demonstrate, however, Russia’s practices fall short of its principles.

If the United States wants to put boundary conditions around this anarchic state of affairs, it needs to take the lead in engaging with Russia and other key actors on the question of state sovereignty and interference, broadening the agenda beyond just electoral interference. It is not clear that it is ready to do so. On the one hand, as the strongest country in the world, the United States benefits in some ways from an element of anarchy. On the other hand, in any system the benefits of stability flow disproportionately to those at the top. The U.S. interest in a stable international system is not furthered by the current state of affairs.

Paradoxically, Russian cyber activities during the 2016 elections may provide an opportunity for serious discussion of these issues. While a public mea culpa is unlikely, Russia may decide that its interest in not being targeted for cyber warfare warrants bilateral or multilateral discussions about what constitutes acceptable cyber intelligence activity. Again, this assumes the United States is willing to accept limits on its own activities. As in arms control, progress on this issue could provide a framework for dealing with it in a multilateral forum. There is an obvious need for technical as well as political discussions about creating rules of the road in this area.


Sanctions and other forms of negative signaling have an appropriate place in diplomacy. This is particularly the case in dealing with Russia, where the cultural expectation is that failure to object means acquiescence. As an example, rotating small NATO forces to the Baltic states following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine helped to ensure there were no miscalculations about NATO’s security guarantees to its members. However, punishment will not bring Russia to the negotiating table. Negotiations will require an agenda that addresses major issues on both sides.

Dealing with issues on the Russian side of the ledger would not be a concession, but rather serve both short- and long-term American interests. U.S. security is not improved if the introduction of defensive systems destabilizes nuclear deterrence, if it continues to provide security guarantees to countries in which it has no vital interests, or if the only limitation on interference in the internal affairs of other countries is the might of the intervener.

Underlying the deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship is the question of how to improve the stability of a multipolar system. If there was a post-Cold War American unipolar moment, it is over. The Napoleonic wars and World Wars I and II suggest that stability in the multipolar systems that emerged required that no major power consider itself alienated from the system. This history indicates as well that stability is enhanced by institutions and norms that seek to limit conflicts and the means used to pursue them — assuming the major powers are participants and adherents.

Russia believes its efforts to participate meaningfully in the post-Cold War system that the United States established have been rejected. It sees a potential alternative alliance structure built around others countries that the system has rejected — Syria, Iran, —and countries such as China, Venezuela, and potentially Turkey. The best way to avoid the destabilizing effects of such efforts is not to further isolate Russia, but to open negotiations on issues that concern both countries.

The issues that divide the United States and Russia today are not as fundamental as the ideological and military rivalries that divided the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. On the other hand, the political obstacles in the United States and the level of distrust in Russia are higher today. Reagan’s reputation as a staunch anti-communist gave him negotiating credibility that the current president, widely seen as “soft” on Russia, does not share. Putin, for his part, lacks Gorbachev’s optimism about forging a new relationship with the West. He is unlikely, therefore, to make the kinds of unilateral concessions that attracted Reagan’s attention. While we are waiting for this Cold War logjam to break up, we could probably use a few more Shirley Temples inviting a few more Russians to dinner.


Dr. Ray Smith spent more than 30 years at the State Department working primarily on Soviet/Russian affairs and arms control. He is the author of Negotiating with the Soviets, The Craft of Political Analysis, and numerous foreign affairs articles.

Image: Larry Koester/Flickr