Reaching Russia

Hard Truths About the Third Cold War

Still talking, for now: Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Russia has turned away from the West and become imperial and suspicious. Europe must formulate a policy to deal with the new reality, the author says.

  • Facts


    • NATO has expressed concern about recent reports that Russia is increasing its military presence in Syria.
    • President Vladimir Putin says he wants to bolster Russia’s arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons.
    • The Nord Stream pipeline is one of the few examples of positive cooperation between Russia and Europe.
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NATO has said it is concerned about Russia expanding its operations in Syria. Vladimir Putin is blatantly backing Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, his old ally, in the face of Western opposition.

We are living in the Third Cold War.

The first phase of this war lasted from 1946 to 1968. The second was from 1978 to 1986. This final stage began in 2014. Since then, the relationship between the West and Moscow has been characterized by renewed conflict and confrontation.

We have so far managed to avoid escalating the Ukraine crisis – not least thanks to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But it is once more conceivable that there will be war in the heart of Europe. A look at recent history, and a closer study of how the previous Cold War tensions were handled, will help us learn how to avoid this conflict.

Mr. Putin will demand a price: a dialog as equals between two world powers.

Here are six conclusions:

First of all, we have to accept Russia as it is, just as the architects of détente did in the 1970s, and not try to turn it into something we want it to be. The truth is that Russia has abandoned its western orientation. It now seems to be a sort of imperial empire, without Leninism, but with nationalism, orthodoxy and a painful sense of loss over “lost territories.” Mr. Putin is formulating national interests and plans to build up this idea of an empire. That should no longer be a surprise to us.

Russia remains a neighbor of the European Union and also a world power, if only because of its nuclear weapons and its enormous natural resources. And Mr. Putin is most likely to remain in charge for a long time to come. And there is no sign that any successor of his would be more pro-Western. So we can’t be led by moral indignation but rather by an insight into the limits of our power in line with political realities. We need a modus vivendi that moves beyond disputes over civil rights or borders. That was also at the core of détente after 1968.

Détente worked in the 1970s because there was the recognition of the post war world order. This acceptance made the treaties of Warsaw and Moscow, as well as the Helsinki Accords, possible. At the same time, some topics were left off the table, most notably, the issue of the divided Germany. Even if we like the new realities of Crimea and Ukraine about as much as we did the barbed wire and Berlin Wall, the anger about it cannot be allowed to prevent a peaceful co-existence.

In 1968, NATO adopted the Harmel Report, named after the Belgian foreign minister at the time, Pierre Harmel. He said NATO policy towards the east should be built on two pillars: Adequate military strength and political solidarity to deter aggression, but also disarmament and building trust. NATO needs to commission Harmel II.

The natural gas pipeline deals between Bonn and Moscow stood at the start of détente in 1970. Pipelines became an anchor of stability: A vehicle of change through rapprochement. That’s why it’s good that Gazprom, Shell, E.ON, OMV and Wintershall have announced the joint construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline. This pipeline creates a much needed diversification of supply, but also an interdependence between nations and energy security. The Russians are just as dependent on the sale of their gas to Europe as we are in getting it. The energy partnership strengthens peace.

And finally, Barack Obama now has the chance to put relations with Russia in order after Cuba and Iran. Mr. Putin sent him a message on the Fourth of July of this year, saying Russian-American relations remain the most important factor of international stability and security. Both countries should try to “base their relationship on the principles of equality and respect for each other’s interests.” This message should be understood as an invitation to high level talks and must be responded to.

U.S. leader Ronald Reagan and Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev met in October of 1986 at the Reykjavik summit at the height of the Cold War to discuss dismantling intermediate range missiles. Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama should also meet, primarily to seek solutions to issues such as Ukraine, Islamic State, Syria, Libya and proliferation. But Mr. Putin will demand a price: A dialog as equals between two world powers.


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