After Crimea: What Putin might do next

Russia's aggressive moves in Ukraine create a new East-West divide. But don't expect the tensions to usher in a new cold war. Here's why.

Alexei Druzhinin, RIA-Novosti/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, April 3, 2014.

It was a pound-the-shoe moment reminiscent of an era many thought long past. A Russian television anchor with close ties to the Kremlin recently excoriated the American response to Moscow's moves in Ukraine by reminding viewers that Russia is "the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust." He delivered the warning with a photo of a mushroom cloud as a backdrop.

Though it may have just been hyperbole, the diatribe was further evidence in some people's eyes that the bygone cold-war era is back. Newscaster Dmitry Kiselyov's words were, in fact, eerily reminiscent of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 warning to the West: "We will bury you." They reflected a level of tension between Russia and the West not seen since before the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago.

Yet as unsettling as the prospects of renewed instability in Europe and a revived East-West conflict have been, the United States and Russia do not seem headed for the kind of confrontation that dominated the postwar era for 40 years.

The dreams of an integrated Europe "from the Atlantic to the Urals," which Western European leaders have rhapsodized about for decades, may indeed be over. And the current tensions over Ukraine will surely test Moscow's and Washington's cooperation on other key geopolitical issues.

But many experts say that political realities and the tempering effects of a globalized economy should keep the current standoff from deteriorating into a full-scale economic war or completely derailing cooperation between the two sides on Iran, Syria, and other pressing matters.

"There's no question that relations between the US and Russia will be irreversibly changed, and that will be true as long as [President Vladimir] Putin is in power," says Charles Kupchan, an expert in US national security and diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "But I wouldn't go so far as to say that any hope of cooperation is gone."

Certainly the opportunities for cooperation are receding as a result of the crisis. On March 24, the world's seven largest industrialized democracies decided to exclude Russia from an elite club that in recent years became the Group of Eight with Russia's participation. The G7 will now hold a June summit that Mr. Putin was to host in Sochi in Brussels instead.

But that does not mean it is time to reopen the bomb shelter in the backyard. No less an authority than James Baker, the last secretary of State of the cold-war era, may have dubbed the intensifying East-West standoff "cold-war lite." But for other analysts, the new confrontation is not global in nature or a global ideological battle between two equivalent military powers. It is closely tied to Europe and is largely the result of Putin's intent to right what he sees as the wrongs the West dealt Russia in its time of weakness after the Soviet Union's demise.

The emergence in the post-cold-war era of a global economy – with which Russia, whether nationalist Russians like it or not, is intertwined – and increased globalization of social and cultural influences is likely to render a new cold war unrealistic. Russia is no longer America's military equal (except, as newscaster Mr. Kiselyov might interject, in terms of nuclear warheads). Its economy, although it may be the world's fifth largest, also remains far smaller than the US's and faces stiff challenges.

Still, with Vice President Joe Biden warning from Vilnius, Lithuania, recently that the snap annexation of Crimea sets Russia on a "dark path" of "political and economic isolation," there is little doubt that Russia and the West are back to a very cold peace, even if it's not a cold war.

"We need to get out of the cold-war mind-set, not fall into the trap of reviving it, but that's not to say we aren't entering a period of conflict and very difficult relations," says Fiona Hill, a former Russia and Eurasia officer with the National Intelligence Council who is now the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The cold war was fought across many fronts geopolitically, but this is a regional fight. It's all about Europe and the neighborhood."

Moreover, she says, it's about Putin's obsession with reconstructing Russian grandeur and empire – the world caught a glimpse of this at the recent Sochi Winter Olympics – and about the extended period of instability this Russian revanchism could portend for a Europe that thought it was past such days of upheaval.

"Much of what we're seeing today is Putin trying to push back against what to him was the West running roughshod over Russia at a tragic time of weakness," says Ms. Hill. Putin's domestic popularity has soared in recent months, she notes, as he has been seen at home to be "fighting back" against encroachment and encirclement by NATO and the European Union – two entities she says are widely viewed in Russia as proxies doing the bidding of the US.

• • •

If some people, especially contemporaries of the Berlin Wall or (in the US) get-under-your-desk atomic bomb drills, see shades of the cold war in Russia's aggression in Ukraine, it's because much about Russia's tactics appears to come from the cold-war playbook. Yes, Putin engineered a military occupation of Crimea, but he did not launch a "hot" military invasion to accomplish his aims, Russia experts note. He instead relied on ethnic Russians to portray Mother Russia as coming to the rescue of the people of Crimea.

And when Putin announced Russia's acceptance of Crimea's pro-Russia referendum and its annexation of Crimea March 18, he did it with a jeremiad against the West and its agents – NATO, the EU, even the old bugaboos of fascism and Nazism that still frighten and fire up a certain segment of Russians – that echoed the Soviet PR campaigns of old.

If anyone has an interest in reviving the cold-war mind-set, it's Putin himself.

"Calling this confrontation we're headed into a 'new cold war' may be exactly what Vladimir Putin wants," says Olga Oliker, associate director of the RAND Corp.'s International Security & Defense Policy Center in Washington. "The cold war was a standoff between two powers of essentially equal military might. The idea of a fight to the finish between two competing ideologies was a key element. This situation isn't much like that at all."

"[During] the cold war, the US and the USSR were incredibly important to each other," says Ms. Oliker. "Every action one side took was weighed against what the other would do." Now, she adds, there are issues of common interest, "but the reality is that Russia simply doesn't matter all that much to the US anymore."

Putin must be counted among the Russians who believe the US and the West lack respect for Russia. Indeed, Brookings's Hill sees Russia's Ukraine gambit in part as an effort to "teach the West a lesson that Russia cannot be disregarded and walked on without consequence." She notes that Putin's moves in Ukraine accelerated with signs that Kiev would seek to reach an association agreement with the EU – a move that in Moscow's view would threaten Russia's interests by bringing Western Europe to its doorstep and removing Ukraine from its sphere.

That kind of "zero-sum" cold-war thinking seeps into much of Putin's worldview, Hill says, even surfacing in his deep disappointment with what he saw as the West's dismissive take on the Sochi Games.

"Putin was extremely aggrieved about Sochi," she says, not just over how key Western leaders, including President Obama, snubbed the Games, but over the West's prediction that Russia "couldn't pull this off, it wasn't going to be safe – and then when it did, how there was no recognition."

Putin even took his cold-war thinking public, accusing the West at a televised public meeting in Sochi of employing the same "cold-war-style containment strategy" toward the Sochi Games that he said had been "aimed at restraining the development of the Soviet Union."

In Hill's view, Putin was not lamenting the West's approach so much as he was "calling it as he truly sees it," as a confrontation between two opposing mind-sets and "the US and Europe still pushing against Russia as they have all this time."

• • •

In the new confrontation between Russia and the West, both sides face constraints that will temper their actions. For Russia, it will be the limitations it faces from the global economy. And for the West, and the US in particular, it will be the areas where Washington, Brussels, and the other capitals of Europe will want to maintain Russia's cooperation, from the international negotiations aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, to Syria and the advances Mr. Obama hopes to make in nuclear disarmament and nuclear security.

The reality is that, despite their deep differences over Ukraine, both sides have keen common interests in other big global issues "from Iran and Afghanistan to nonproliferation," says Mr. Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations. "We may be imposing sanctions and downgrading the relationship, but we're not yet ready to throw out the baby with the bath water."

Nor does Russia seem prepared to cut off its cooperation with other world powers – not least because such a move would only confirm the US narrative of Russia's "isolation." As a US Treasury official noted as negotiations with Iran resumed the day after Crimea's vote to secede from Ukraine, Russia is likely to remain a participant in the nuclear talks with other world powers – even those like the US and European countries that had just imposed sanctions on Russia over Crimea – because it is in Russia's interest to do so. The Russians "have been involved in this because they have a shared interest in ensuring that Iran doesn't obtain a nuclear weapon," the official said. "We expect that interest hasn't changed."

Another limitation on the standoff will be the global economy, and in particular Russia's participation in it to a degree that just wasn't a factor for the former Soviet Union, which was essentially a closed economy. Today Russia derives about 40 percent of its gross domestic product from foreign trade – a substantial percentage of which is from oil and gas exports. And the West's sanctions on Russia, which at least initially focused on influential military and government officials, could eventually extend to the oligarchs of post-Soviet Russia who in many cases are key Putin supporters.

Of course, no one should be tempted to think that the economic "barriers" to a full-fledged confrontation will constrain just one side in this crisis. Any move beyond visa bans and asset freezes on individuals to broader financial sanctions on Russia's energy exports or banking system – something Obama and European leaders said on March 27 would be imposed in response to any "further incursions" by Russia into Ukraine – would hurt both sides.

"Imposing financial sanctions on Russia will impose costs on the US and Europe as well," Kupchan says. "It's a two-way street."

Western companies are telling their capitals to "tread carefully," while Russian companies are "telling the Kremlin the same thing," Kupchan adds. "The real estate markets in London and New York are full of Russian buyers. These things will serve as a brake."

Another factor that could slow the slide toward economic warfare is Western Europe's dependence on Russian energy. But some Western economists are insisting that the EU not allow itself to be cowed by energy-related fears: Western Europe has alternative energy sources to tap, they insist, while Russia has no energy markets on a par with the EU to which it could divert its energy exports.

If the EU imposes sanctions that cut off Russia's gas supply to Europe, "Russia would lose $100 billion or one-fifth of its export revenues, and the Russian economy would plunge into crisis," says Anders Aslund, an economist and Eastern Europe expert at Washington's Peterson Institute for International Economics, writing recently on the institute's website.

Indeed, some experts see Putin's brazen acts in Ukraine rooted not just in his vision of a restored grand Russia. They see him moving aggressively now because he understands that problems looming on the horizon – from threatened energy markets and economic stagnation to worrisome demographic trends at home – might curb his ability to impose his will in the future.

"Putin's got a window of opportunity to act now, and he is as aware of that as anyone," says Hill of the Brookings Institution.

What remains uncertain is if Putin will be satisfied with what Kupchan calls his "consolation prize" – Crimea. Or whether Putin will seize his "window of opportunity" to go further and attempt to take more of a Ukraine he covets. Will a leader who has long chafed at the "universal values" he sees as a Western imposition use this crisis to seek to construct a community of nations to rival the West? Will the Ukraine setback motivate Putin to double down on pursuit of a "Eurasian Union" he sees as a rival to the EU?

"We don't yet have the answers to a lot of the questions [Russia's incursion in Ukraine] has raised," says Kupchan. "What we do know is that this is the first time since the end of the cold war that we have seen this kind of naked aggression and all that it says about Russian ambitions."

For the better part of two decades the US and the West focused on integrating a post-Soviet Russia into their conception of international order and the international community. Now suddenly they find they have to regroup and consider how to address the new-old challenges Russia poses.

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