When President Donald Trump met Angela Merkel last March for the first time, the German chancellor had Russia on her mind. Allegations about the Russian intervention on Trump’s behalf in the U.S. presidential election were swirling around Washington—and Trump had done nothing to allay the concerns of Russia’s neighbors that he planned to forge ahead with a new opening to Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin strongman he has so openly admired. He had never really backed away from his public bashing of NATO, either. The American security pact with Europe had survived for seven decades, since its creation in the aftermath of World War II as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union. But Merkel and many others now wondered if NATO could outlast the twin assaults of a Russian leader who had long viewed it as enemy No. 1 and an American president who publicly branded it as “obsolete.”
So Merkel came prepared. Briefed on Trump’s short attention span and his preference for visual aids over long written memos, she brought a handout to her Oval Office meeting: a map of the Soviet Union from 1982, with an overlay showing all the countries within those borders where Putin’s Russia is active today. “Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine—he is either trying to get those countries back into his realm or, if he’s not able to, he at least makes sure those countries are totally unattractive to the West,” said an official familiar with the German presentation. Those states, of course, were all part of the Soviet Union until its abrupt collapse in 1991—a seismic event that Putin has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel first met Trump in March in Washington, D.C., she brought a map that purported to show that Putin was trying to get former Soviet Union countries back or otherwise make them unattractive to the West. | Getty
The Germans’ theory, increasingly shared by most serious Western analysts, was that Putin wants to “go back to the good old days,” as the official put it. In his first few years in power, Putin had concentrated on restoring the Russian state inside its borders, but in recent years the onetime KGB operative who has now become Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin has decided to revisit the world outside those borders, seeking wherever possible to reassert Russia’s position as the undisputed heavyweight of its neighborhood. He has once again turned NATO into Russia’s nemesis, portraying its extension into Eastern European countries, like Poland and the Baltic States, that were a part of the Soviet bloc as the ultimate affront.
Moreover, Putin has shown he intends to act on his views, not merely proclaim them. Already, he has used guns and tanks in Georgia and Ukraine (where fierce fighting continues today in the country’s embattled east), and he has employed some combination of political destabilization, bribery, propaganda, cyberattacks and economic pressure in every one of the countries that were part of the Soviet Union or under its control in the Warsaw Pact. He has interfered opportunistically in the NATO countries, as well—including the U.S. presidential election. In the Middle East, Russia has intervened in Syria on the side of its longtime client Bashar Assad and provided covert aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan, in what seem like obvious echoes of 1980s-style proxy wars.
As the Germans told the skeptical American president on that March day in the White House, Putin is “back to fighting the Cold War,” even if we in the West are not.
Not quite nine months later, the New Cold War that Merkel warned Trump about appears to be hotter than ever. Year-end magazine cover stories feature Putin’s scowling face and lengthy expositions trying to figure out what the tough guy in the Kremlin wants—not to mention his puzzling relationship with the American president. “Putin is preparing for World War III—Is Trump?” warned a December Newsweek dispatch from a veteran correspondent in Moscow.
At least on paper, the answer is yes.
In fact, the official U.S. National Security Strategy, released this week by Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, contains exactly the kind of hawkish warnings about Russia that many Western allies like Merkel feared they would never hear from a Trump administration. Russia and China are “revisionist” powers, the document says, genuine geopolitical rivals to the United States that “challenge American power, influence and interests,” while “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” The tough words were followed by some real actions from Washington, including approval for the first time of lethal weapons sales to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed militias and the announcement of a new U.S. sanctions list that targets Russians such as the Kremlin-appointed strongman in Chechnya. Russia, for its part, quickly denounced the American strategy document as an “imperialist” relic of a delusional superpower that persisted in acting unilaterally on the world stage.
The war—at least of words—seemed to be back on.
But Trump himself still does not seem to be fighting it. In the days leading up to the strategy’s unveiling, he talked with Putin by telephone not once but twice—including in a White House-initiated phone call whose purpose seemed to be an ostentatious thank-you to the Russian president for publicly praising the performance of the Trump-led U.S. economy in 2017. In a campaign-style speech rolling out his national security team’s work, Trump never called Russia a “strategic competitor,” although aides, according to Bloomberg, had promised that he would. Instead, the president touted U.S.-Russian cooperation that foiled a terrorist attack in Saint Petersburg over the weekend, refused to mention the Russian election meddling and noted that it was still very much his desire to build a “great partnership” with Moscow—a partnership not mentioned anywhere in the nearly 70-page document. The recent lovefest provoked James Clapper, the sober-minded former director of national intelligence, to say this week that Putin’s blatant manipulation of Trump’s ego shows that he “knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president.”
So is it a New Cold War or not? And does it matter?
The New Cold War isn’t just a 2017 catchphrase; it’s already been the subject of more than a decade’s debate, cropping up every few months with each new round of provocations and recriminations between Russia and the West.
Google the phrase today and some 260 million results pop up. “Cold War II” has its own Wikipedia entry. It has been the subject of distinguished lectures at Oxford and a whole shelf of weighty books, including Edward Lucas’s 2008 The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West and Mark MacKinnon’s 2007 The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections, and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union. Lucas and MacKinnon are two excellent former Moscow correspondents who were based there, as I was, during Putin’s first few years in power. Both wrote that he came to the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve 1999 with just this sort of restoration in mind, and in their books, little noticed by the politicians at the time, they trace the early signs of the new Russian revisionism right back to the beginning of Putin’s rule. In fact, George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier who has in recent years become the ultimate “globalist” bugbear of the ultranationalist right, issued a warning within weeks of Putin’s surprise elevation to the Kremlin. “Who lost Russia?” he pointedly asked in a 2000 essay in the New York Review of Books, accurately predicting that Russia, having squandered its post-Soviet “historic opportunity,” would soon revert to its authoritarian past.
Putin speaks on the phone with Igor Plotnitsky, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in the Luhansk region on Ukraine, and Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk region of Ukraine, from Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 15, 2017. | AP Photo
Many other Russia watchers date the beginning of this “new Cold War” to more recent events. In particular, they point to the Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, in the summer of 2008, after years of escalating tension over two Russian-backed breakaway enclaves. Or else there was Putin’s return to the presidency, in 2012, after an interlude as prime minister to avoid the Russian Constitution’s prohibition on serving more than two consecutive presidential terms (since lengthened to six years each). The graph of those Google searches for the phrase “new Cold War” is not a straight line, but a series of spiky ups and downs. It rises during moments of tension and then it inevitably slides back down, as Russia recedes from the front pages and different threats occupy the Western commentariat.
For much of Putin’s rule, it has often been hard to tell whether we were still burying the Cold War, or already busy resurrecting it. In fact, four consecutive American presidents, from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, took credit for finally killing it off. But while they were busy ending the Cold War all over again years after it had actually sputtered to a close along with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, others worried about its premature return—a debate that has tracked partisan political divisions in the United States as much as any new strategy by Putin.
At first, it was primarily the American left that worried about a new Cold War, fearing it would be caused not by Russia but by a reflexively warlike U.S. national security establishment. The idea, in effect, was that the Republican hawks who brought us to the brink of nuclear Armageddon in the first Cold War might trigger another go-round, simply by clinging to old habits and fears. Obama came to endorse a more sophisticated version of this thinking, even after his initial “reset” policy with the Russians ended in the usual hostile recriminations. Obama argued that Russia under Putin simply did not matter much anymore; it was now a second-rate regional power at best, rapidly being left in the dust by the rising Pacific might of China and the United States. So its revanchist troublemaking—in Georgia, say, or Syria—was hardly a major geopolitical concern.
The contending American views of Russia were clear in the presidential election of 2012, when Obama was still writing the Cold War’s obituary even as his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, was denouncing Obama for not taking Putin seriously enough. During the second general-election debate, the candidates clashed over Romney’s statement that Russia constituted the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States. Obama mocked him. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” he joked.
The debate point went to Obama, but Romney was vindicated by events. When Putin ordered Russian “little green men” into Crimea early in 2014, their armed takeover of the peninsula from Ukraine marked the first forcible annexation of territory in Europe since World War II. Ever since, no one has been talking about the great, historic ending of the Cold War anymore. Now the talk of Cold War redux is nearly inescapable, in Russia as well as in the United States.
“Welcome to Cold War II,” Dmitri Trenin, a well-connected Moscow security analyst, wrote in Foreign Policy right after the invasion of Crimea, summing up a view that is now prevalent in both Washington and Moscow:
“This will be the dawn of a new period, reminiscent in some ways of the Cold War from the 1940s to 1980s. Like with the two world wars, the failure to resolve the issues arising out of the imperfect peace settlement and the failure to fully integrate one of the former antagonists into the new system are leading to a new conflict—even if a large-scale war will again be safely avoided. This new conflict is unlikely to be as intense as the first Cold War; it may not last nearly as long; and—crucially—it will not be the defining conflict of our times.”
More recently, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev endorsed the terminology. “One could go so far as to say that we have slid back to a new Cold War,” he said in February 2016, even as Russia was stepping up its intervention in the American presidential election. And since that election, Washington, too, has embraced the idea. In nearly two decades of closely following Russia, I have never heard so many American officials, in and out of government, use the language of a new Cold War. These days, whenever the subject of Putin comes up with America’s professional Russia-watchers, the word “war” inevitably follows.
But are they right? Is this really a new Cold War, one that appears to be escalating while we have an exceptionally inopportune president?
I remember only the latter stages of the first Cold War, when the Soviet Union was already terminally ill, though we did not know it at the time. I never had fallout drills at school or watched, terrified, as news anchors intoned about the imminent threat of nuclear war a few hundred miles offshore in Cuba. By the time I was old enough to experience the Cold War, it was the Reagan-era version, with its “evil empire” rhetoric and nuclear freeze protesters filling Central Park. We all watched “The Day After” on television and had nightmares of radioactive fallout, but soon enough even the fears of the scary-miscalculation-that-kills-us-all were basically forgotten, and we were instead glued to the television watching the Great Unraveling.
Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. | Getty Images
One fall day during my senior year in college, I went to my dorm room to take an afternoon nap, and when I came back downstairs a short time later I found the security guard staring in joy and amazement at the portable TV that had suddenly materialized on his desk. It was November 9, 1989, and the Berlin Wall had come down. The Cold War had ended while I slept. I don’t think I ever woke to better news.
My husband and I moved to Moscow as foreign correspondents for the Washington Post exactly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, arriving in 2001 during Putin’s first year as president while the country waited, unsure, to see what course he would take. At the time, it was still possible to construct a plausible case for Putin as an economic modernizer, eager to share in the benefits of globalization. But even then, it was clear that Putin intended to restore the centrality of the state in Russian life after 10 years of what he and others believed to be democratic “chaos” and “disorder.” He would signal that agenda in ways large and small his first year in office, from seizing control over the one independent national TV network ever to exist in Russia to restoring the Soviet national anthem (after a decade when Russia was so gridlocked over its national identity that its anthem had no words at all).
I remember well a conversation with Aleksander Oslon, the Kremlin pollster who had helped Putin in his first presidential campaign. Oslon told me that he and others saw the rise of Putin, or someone like him, as an inevitability in Russian life. The metaphor he offered was that of a river. “If you think about politics and culture as a huge river, and there is a person going against the tide, you can swim that way—but not for long,” he observed. Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader and the man responsible, as much as anyone, for the Soviet breakup, had flirted with a different, more democratic future. But this was artificial, Oslon told me in an interview for our book, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution, and soon enough, the river of Russian politics would go back to its natural course.
Left: President Vladimir Putin, second left, speaks to crew members aboard the Gepard nuclear submarine in Severodvinsk, 600 miles north of Moscow, in 2001. Right: Russian rocket launchers leave the South Ossetian capital in 2008 after Russian lawmakers recognized Georgia’s rebel regions as independent. | AP; Getty
Putin was that course correction, and he made it sooner rather than later, returning Russia to the long flow of its authoritarian past. Viktor Chernomyrdin, one of the many politicians who briefly became Yeltsin’s prime minister only to be dumped soon thereafter, had a famous line that even now is often quoted by Russians to capture the country’s perennially abortive efforts at reform. “We hoped for better,” he dourly said, “but it turned out as always.” In Washington, cold warrior-turned-Vice President Dick Cheney may have summed it up even more succinctly during this period, telling a visitor who asked what he thought of the new guy in the Kremlin that no matter how reformist-sounding the words, Putin would always be “KGB, KGB, KGB.”
By the end of Putin’s first few years in power, he had succeeded in taking control over virtually all rival power centers, real and potential. Those years saw the end of Russia’s independent media, the canceling of regional elections, the neutering of the federal parliament, and the renationalization of valuable oil and gas assets. Most grimly of all, they saw the ruthless and barbaric war against separatists in Chechnya.
It was a terrible and disheartening spectacle. The overthrow of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union did not deliver the democratization of Russia, of which so many had dreamed and for which so many had suffered. But it is important to remember that Putin’s first few years in the Kremlin, dispiriting as they were, were largely concerned with domestic affairs. Even those who saw clearly at the time where his strong-state rhetoric and security-services cadres would lead the country were not at all convinced that a nastier regime inside Russia would inevitably lead to a more aggressive posture abroad.
Looking back now, I believe that to have been Putin’s plan all along. But it did not seem likely at the time. A return to confrontation with a hostile West? Much of the early bombast about a new Cold War seemed improbable and irrational, not to mention a potentially suicidal course for Russia to take. Putin appeared to want the benefits of economic growth, openness to the West, and globalization, not to shun them. He seemed to channel Russians’ desire to join the family of nations—to become, as the mantra went, a “normal, civilized country” at last. I have never been anywhere in the world where the word “normal” took on such a longing and loving tone—where it was an aspiration, not an insult. When we got to Moscow in 2001, it was still negotiating for Soviet debt relief and climbing out of the economic hole wrought by the ruble crash of 1998, when many Russians, already traumatized by years of political instability and the economic dislocations of the end of communism, lost whatever meager savings they had managed to accumulate.
So we didn’t exactly see it coming. Putin’s authoritarianism was a lot easier to predict than his appetite for foreign adventures, and while his rhetoric always tilted nationalist, when we arrived in Russia there were still regular meetings of the NATO-Russia friendship council and chatter, no matter how far-fetched, that maybe one day Moscow might even join the alliance. No surprise then, that I viewed the arms negotiators who still came to Russia from Washington as living anachronisms, with their 1980s-style jargon of nuclear throw weights and their Strangelovian fixation on nuclear weapons that absolutely everyone knew would never be taken out of their increasingly rusty silos.
The debate over the new Cold War, like the use of the term itself, has come and gone several times. But even those who promote the idea have usually adhered to the view that today’s Cold War is less deadly than the original: It may be dangerous, but it could never lead to actual war. This view combines alarm with reassurance. I must confess that, these days, it looks to me like a state of denial. Increasingly, I find myself wondering about the logic of the belief that since war is unthinkable, it cannot happen. Modern history is littered with unthinkable things that came to pass.
Others argue that the new Cold War is not like the original Cold War because it lacks an ideological dimension. In this view, the current tension between the United States and Russia is a Seinfeldian fight about nothing: Putin has no ideological goal beyond the elevation of the Russian state, ruled by him and his clan; he is not seeking adherents in the West, and therefore has brought about no great contest between two systems. In the second-time-as-farce analysis, the new Cold War is just a corrupt, hypocritical re-enactment, not at all comparable to John F. Kennedy’s “long twilight struggle … defending freedom in its maximum hour of danger.” After all, Putin does not preach worldwide revolution, which was a key doctrinal element of Soviet communism. While he has sought out like-minded fellow travelers with his talk of traditional values, his homophobia, and his clash-of civilizations blasts at the jihadist hordes waiting at the gates of Europe, he is not offering them anything beyond the comfort of shared enemies and Internet trolling. At least not yet.
However, there is also another school of thought, according to which today’s Cold War may be even worse than the original. This is not so much because it could end in nuclear annihilation, but because the world in which we now live is more dangerously interconnected, increasing the risks of crisis between the two powers and multiplying the possible fields of confrontation. It is certainly the case that our technological environment has created massive new vulnerabilities, and new possibilities for mischief and accident. Election tampering with targeted Facebook ads might even be the least of it; what about a drone attack of mysterious origin gone awry in some Mideast flash point, or a Russian-led cybersecurity company that just happens to be spying on thousands of U.S. government computers? Those aren’t even theoretical new problems but real ones ripped from today’s headlines; just imagine the ones that could arise. In our world, worriers do not lack for reasons.
Wherever the confrontation is headed, there is increasingly little doubt that Putin and his Kremlin advisers see today’s multipolar field of play as a great opportunity to compete with, to defy, to scorn, and even to humble the American superpower. A generation after what they view as their humiliating Cold War defeat, the Putinists have found the political and geopolitical opportunities to work off their anger and their resentment. Look at how many different fronts they have already opened up in this new competition—not least the digital anti-democratic front, in which they have assaulted the integrity of the election process in a variety of Western countries, including our own. This time the Russian goal seems to be not domination but chaos. The objective is not destroy us, but to weaken and confuse us.
A Russian T-14 Armata tank drives through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over a huge Victory Day parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet win over Nazi Germany, amid a Western boycott of the festivities over the Ukraine crisis. | Getty
Still, the historical analogy that most resonates with Putin, I think, is not the bipolar world of the Cold War, but the imperial great-power competition of the 19th century. Throughout his presidency, Putin has invoked tsarist-era symbols of Russian greatness as much as he has peddled Soviet nostalgia, and he has fashioned himself as a sort of realist truth-teller on the international stage much more than an ideologue in the Bolshevik mode. His fondest ideal is not to be the reincarnation of Stalin as much as the modernized avatar of the Romanovs. This is suggested by the imperial palace in Saint Petersburg that he renovated for himself early on, and by the myth-like narratives of Russian greatness that he offers his public.
A few years ago, I interviewed Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s formidable foreign minister. Lavrov repeatedly and somewhat surprisingly invoked as his role model a now-obscure 19th-century Russian foreign minister, Alexander Gorchakov, a once-legendary figure in Europe who had managed to reassert Russia’s great power status after the humiliation of the Crimean War. “Russia is not sulking,” he wrote in a memorable diplomatic circular. “She is composing herself.”
Lavrov’s message was clear, in hindsight at least: Russia was done composing herself after the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. In our interview (which he terminated abruptly, by walking out), he described Putin’s Russia as a restored Russia. It was now ready for a new and much more “assertive” foreign policy. “It is a very different country now,” he said. “And of course, we can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests in the areas where we were absent for quite some time after the demise of the Soviet Union.”
The areas he mentioned were Africa, Latin America, and Asia—basically, the entire rest of the world. Although I found it chilling and ominous at the time, I did not realize the extent to which I was hearing the enunciation of a new doctrine. The conversation took place in the winter of 2013, in the minister’s private conference room on the seventh floor of the old Stalinist-era tower in Moscow that is the home of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The invasion of Crimea would take place almost exactly one year later.
The events of 1989, when the Wall came tumbling down and the Soviet bloc crumbled, ushered in a period of great optimism. Graduating into such a world, as I did, it was easy to carry the sense of freedom’s unbroken march into the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Today, in the Trump era, we are living in a heartrendingly different time. Now our conversations are about conflict and confrontation—about closing, not about opening. Russia’s short-lived experiment in freedom has ended, the march of democracy has been reversed, and Putin this fall even surpassed Leonid Brezhnev’s long Cold War tenure in the Kremlin. A new era of Russian chauvinism and aggression has begun. With no end to Putin’s rule in sight, and another sham presidential election set to take place in March, he will have every chance to continue his campaign to restore the lost empire and return Russia to the great-power status he believes is its birthright.
How should America respond? For a start, it should define the threat properly and describe geopolitical reality with precision. Trump’s weakness for authoritarians in general, and for Putin in particular, will not clarify or steady our course. A best-case scenario (or least a best-we-can-do scenario) may well be a return to the containment policies of a previous generation. We can work with and through our European allies, shoring up NATO, supplying arms to the battered front-line state of Ukraine. And this in many ways is exactly the policy proposed and promoted by Trump’s emerging national security team—though hardly, it is clear, genuinely supported by the president himself.
Besides, even if Trump were to be converted to the far more dire view of Russia held by his advisers, he and the America he leads would be unlikely to do much about it. His is an “America First” foreign policy for an inward-looking American political moment, and even those who warn about Russia’s geopolitical return from their perches in Berlin or Brussels, or from the besieged bowels of Trump’s bureaucracy for that matter, have no sweeping new plan for countering Putin to offer. Their proposals—even should they be genuinely and vigorously endorsed by the American president who up till now has had naught but praise for his Russian counterpart—amount to little more than holding the line.
So make no mistake about it: A full generation after the first Cold War ended, we are back to buying time. Back to shrugging our shoulders about what happens on Europe’s eastern borders and consigning Russians to their fate. Integrating Russia with the West was the cornerstone of American policy since 1991. It has failed. There is no new plan.
Instead, there is a conflict that is everywhere and nowhere, and no one can say for sure that we are even in the fight. When I think of the millions dead in Stalin’s purges and those who were later shot and killed trying to escape the Berlin Wall, it seems wrong to call this new confrontation by the same name as the old one. But the point is not its name. The point is its reality.