This is not a Cold War anymore
The expression ‘cold war’ risks putting us to sleep: the situation in Europe is perhaps almost worse – writes Nicolas TENZER
.The term ‘Cold War’ is often used to characterize the threat that Putin’s Russia poses to Europe. However, as is often the case, historical comparisons prevent us from perceiving the reality of the present moment and, under the guise of dramatizing the dangers, end up having the opposite effect: minimizing them. The reference to the Cold War suggests a return to one of the darkest periods of post-war history, but also leads to a weakened perception of the Kremlin’s major destabilization enterprise.
To stick to the facts, the Cold War was in many ways worse than the current situation. The risk of a nuclear confrontation, now forgotten by public opinion, was far from zero. This Cold War was also largely hot: Korea, Vietnam, Angola in particular. Finally, it was marked by the absolute domination of the USSR over formerly independent countries (Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) or their de facto integration into the Soviet system, any hint of independence leading to fierce repression (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland). These countries gained their independence and, for many, joined the European Union and NATO. Since then, most of them have also experienced a form of economic miracle, largely thanks to European funds. When some describe this era as ‘stable’ and ‘legible’, they are using a misplaced nostalgia: this system was first and foremost one of oppression of the people and of security and ideological control. Only a Putin can express regret about this.
The situation today is quite different, but by a paradox that has not been emphasized enough, it conceals dangers, some of them more serious, that an analogy with the Cold War does not allow to perceive.
The first is linked to a double misjudgment. The first is ideological. Many consider that the end of the Cold War is the end of the doctrinal confrontation between the liberal democracies and the communist system, and they deduce, in a risky way, the end of any opposition of this type with Moscow. This was true during the Yeltsin interlude, but more and more pronounced since the Putin system established its yoke, a syncretic ideology has been built whose aim is instrumental. This ideal-typical model of ideology has become an instrument of war against the liberal political principles of the West. The second misconception is linked precisely to the illusion of an absence of total confrontation. Some go so far as to say that the Russian regime is a lesser danger than the former USSR and that, therefore, NATO would be ‘obsolete’ or would not have to point to the present Russia as the most immediate threat. This attempt to ‘normalize’ the regime and our relationship with it is the logical result of our blindness to the doctrinal component of the Kremlin’s action. The Soviet regime intended to convert the world to communism; Putin’s regime intends to destroy its foundations in the greatest silence. The former, however monstrous and criminal it was, was pleased—even if it was largely formal—to claim to respect the rules of the international system; the latter no longer seeks to save appearances: it intends to destroy them.
A second set of dangers comes from Putin’s revisionism. During the Cold War, the USSR intended to win regimes to its cause and to bring down ‘dominoes’, which the United States hoped to prevent. But it reigned over a form of empire which, with some approximation, is said to have been established at Yalta. The current Russian regime intends to challenge not only the dissolution of the USSR, which Putin has described as a ‘catastrophe’, but also to reinstall what the fall of the Wall had abolished: zones of influence. On the one hand, Moscow is pursuing a classic policy of influence, notably in Africa (Central African Republic, Mali in particular) and in Latin America (Venezuela), but with the aim of destabilization rather than ideological control; on the other hand, it intends to dismantle the liberal principle of freedom of peoples—hence its attack on Georgia and Ukraine and its support for Lukashenko in Belarus. This leads it to wage a hot war—14,000 dead in Ukraine—and to practice a policy of chaos and massive war crimes as in Syria. It was even able to carry out the first change of borders by force in Europe (Crimea) since the annexation of the Sudetenland by Hitler.
The third danger is that of destabilizing the West by supporting extreme right-wing groups, ‘buying’ the support of certain seemingly more moderate politicians and encouraging disorder. Here too, there are similarities and differences with the USSR. The latter, within the framework of the Comintern, supported communist movements and some self-proclaimed ‘peace movements’. It also maintained agitation according to the old technique of ‘agitprop’, even helped terrorist movements, and financed agents of influence. Putin’s regime continues to do so, but in the name of a project that is in many ways more destructive: it is no longer about converting, but about creating chaos and intimidating all those who oppose this goal. The new power of social networks and the Internet amplifies this message and democracies have been too slow to react.
This observation obliges us to be serious with Moscow, because in fact we have not been, for more than 15 years. We have let it happen on the pretext of not provoking the regime, which has not only strengthened it, but has also given it the possibility of setting the agenda. We have, at best, reacted, but we have not acted.
This requires putting a definitive end to the illusion of any re-engagement with today’s Russia, and putting away the narrative that this regime could help us in some major crises. Whether in Syria, Ukraine or Belarus, or even the fight against terrorism, it is the problem, not the solution. Even limited cooperation in specific areas (environment, health, culture, etc.) are ways for the regime to legitimize itself. We have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
Secondly, we must massively support all those who fight for freedom: the Syrians who oppose the criminal regime of Assad supported by Moscow and Tehran, the Belarussians kept by Russia under the control of Lukashenko, the Georgians and Ukrainians who fight for the integrity of their country. Let us not be afraid to take sides with the Russian opposition: let us dare to interfere against a regime that does not hesitate to do so.
Finally, even if they are not the whole solution, sanctions must be considerably extended. This means stopping large-scale economic projects with Moscow, first and foremost Nordstream 2, but several others as well. Let us find an agreement of all democracies to raise our anti-corruption measures and also to develop our investigative and legislative apparatus on interference in our countries. Let’s also prevent that, by means of so-called SLAPPs (Strategic lawsuit against public participation), like the one targeting Catherine Belton, author of the outstanding book Putin’s People, in the United Kingdom, those who warn about Russia are not subject to legal proceedings.
We have lost time. Tomorrow, if we do nothing, Moscow will have won. We must reverse the course of events that made it win: it must lose.