The Little Cold War? By Barry Rubin

It is fascinating to compare the new phase of Russia-U.S. relations with what happened at the end of World War Two. As varied sources, including recently published Soviet documents, show, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted to take more territory—at a minimum what later became the satellite states of Eastern Europe, possibly Turkey, Iran, Greece, and other countries—yet feared dependency on the West given the post-war weakness of the USSR. He wasn’t trying to conquer the world but Stalin’s response grew from a combination of expansionism and fear of the West.

Stalin’s belief that the West was hostile was driven by ideology of course, and he could mention such exaggerated grievances as Western help for the Whites in the civil war, though actually that was only minimal and brief. Britain, France, and the United States decided they were quite ready to let the Bolsheviks win and live with a Communist USSR. They never made a real all-out effort to bring down the regime. Stalin was also angry that he felt the war was won by his country and there wasn’t a lot of post-war economic aid being given him.

Today, things are different but parallel. Once again, Russia is weak vis-à-vis the West. Instead of gaining territory, as the USSR did in the war, Russia has lost both its foreign empire and large parts of the USSR. And once again there is a dictator, albeit not officially in office right now, who combines fear of the West with an ambition to regain parts (or all) of the USSR and a sphere of influence over some (or all) of the former satellite states.

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There is no communism today fueling this attitude but there is the more recent grievance of belief that Russia was tricked out of Communism and its empire by a West that promised more help and didn’t deliver it. Putin and many of his countrymen as in Stalin’s day see themselves as badly treated. In his famous telegram of 1946, George F. Kennan referred to a, “Traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” We don’t need to find it traditional or instinctive, but that phenomenon is certainly present right now.

For these reasons, along with the usefulness of xenophobia as a control device, Putin like Stalin—whose reputation by the way he is rehabilitating—is likely to follow a hostile policy toward the United States. This doesn’t mean violent conflict, or even the level of antagonism seen during the Cold War. Call this the little Cold War or Cold War 2.

Of course it will be argued that the problem is that Russia hasn’t been given sufficient respect, that a failure to observe Russia’s sphere of influence—the “near abroad”—is the cause of the problem. But what does this mean in practice? Less likely is to give Russia some primary say on what happens in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, or the Czech Republic or Slovakia. But this cannot be ruled out. Or it might merely require a Russian reabsorption of Belarus and the Ukraine, a heavy-handed dictate over the Baltic states, and the seizure of parts of Azerbaijan and Georgia, and so on.

Which states do the advocates of making Putin feel respected are the advocates of this strategy willing to sacrifice? And even then will, as they used to say during Cold War days, the bear’s appetite be sated?

In the Middle East, my concern at least is that Russia will increasingly emerge as an ally of Iran and Syria, the radical states. Moscow is certainly not cozying up to the moderate Arabs. Syria is a big client for arms’ sales; Iran is getting a nuclear reactor and protection from sanctions. Money, which Russia desperately needs, is a big factor in this equation.

There is a lot of evidence for the above analysis which space prevents from being listed here. But the theme of this note is that the factors driving Russia into opposition to American policy are not all that different from those that produced big problems in the past. And if one feels that the cause is Russia’s understandable desire for security and respect, plus resentments over previous treatment, well that’s how Stalin thought about it, too.

What the West does matters. At a 1947 dinner party, Stalin remarked that the USSR should have occupied Finland after the war but, “We were too concerned about the Americans, and they wouldn’t have lifted a finger.” A little more than two years later, after a U.S. policy statement had left South Korea out of the area which was deemed under American protection, Stalin supported a North Korean invasion of that country leading to a three-year-long war.

Four decades later, after the U.S. government was eager to convince Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that it wouldn’t defend Kuwait, he invaded that country, setting off a war.

When you show an aggressive dictatorship that you won’t defend their neighbor, you not only jeopardize the neighbor you are unintentionally increasing the chances of crisis, war, and bloodshed. That point applies to Russia today and also to Iran and Syria. One hopes Western policymakers remember that lesson.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To subscribe to Gloria Center publications for free, write [email protected].