A New ‘Cool War’ With Russia Is About to Begin

Washington and Moscow have already crossed a point of no return: Get ready for retaliatory moves across the globe.

An armed man, believed to be Russian serviceman, patrols outside an Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye on March 17, 2014. The United States and Europe aimed sanctions directly at Vladmir Putin's inner circle Monday to punish Russia's move to annex Crimea, deepening the worst East-West rift since the Cold War. The move came hours after the Ukrainian regime voted to join Russia in a referendum the West deems illegitimate and as Crimea embarked on the next political steps to embrace Kremlin rule. 
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Michael Hirsh
March 17, 2014, 8:52 a.m.

The United States and Rus­sia have both crossed a Ru­bicon in the Ukraine crisis, and Wash­ing­ton must now con­front the like­li­hood that if the stan­doff con­tin­ues, it will dra­mat­ic­ally al­ter re­la­tions on a much lar­ger map than East­ern Europe, in­vit­ing Rus­si­an re­cal­cit­rance in crisis zones as far afield as East Asia, Ir­an, Syr­ia, and Afgh­anistan.

While hit­ting Mo­scow with sanc­tions that a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial de­scribed Monday as “by far” the most severe since the Cold War, it is clear the White House is aware of the per­ils. Seni­or of­fi­cials stressed that Pres­id­ent Obama was de­term­ined to leave the way open to Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin to back down from an­nex­ing Crimea fol­low­ing Sunday’s ref­er­en­dum, in which 97 per­cent of voters ap­proved se­ces­sion from Ukraine.

In re­sponse to what it called an il­le­git­im­ate, Mo­scow-or­ches­trated vote, the ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced it was freez­ing and block­ing the U.S. as­sets of sev­en seni­or Rus­si­an of­fi­cials whom U.S. of­fi­cials de­scribed as “clearly people who are very close to Pres­id­ent Putin” and “the key ideo­lo­gists and im­ple­menters” of his Ukraine policy, in ad­di­tion to seni­or Ukrain­i­ans, in­clud­ing ous­ted pro-Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych.

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion spe­cific­ally avoided tar­get­ing the Rus­si­an lead­er him­self. “We have the abil­ity to rev up our pres­sure,” said a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, “or to de-es­cal­ate. “

Obama, after speaking about the situation in the Crimea region of Ukraine. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images) Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. of­fi­cials said they hoped a peace­ful dip­lo­mat­ic res­ol­u­tion was still pos­sible. Even so, they said a newly re­vealed Rus­si­an pro­pos­al to cre­ate a fed­er­ated re­pub­lic out of Ukraine, giv­ing each re­gion con­sid­er­able autonomy, was un­ac­cept­able be­cause the in­ter­im gov­ern­ment in Kiev is already de­cid­ing it­self on the coun­try’s fate, in­clud­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion. Obama, after speak­ing about the situ­ation in the Crimea re­gion of Ukraine. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

“The days are long past when world powers meet and make de­cisions about the fu­ture of demo­crat­ic coun­tries,” one seni­or Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said. Non­ethe­less, he ad­ded, “there is a space here for a dip­lo­mat­ic dis­cus­sion on these is­sues.”

Putin is ex­pec­ted to speak to a joint ses­sion of the Duma, Rus­sia’s par­lia­ment, on Tues­day af­ter­noon, and the Duma may con­sider form­ally an­nex­ing Crimea by week’s end.

Putin faces a very real crisis of eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al isol­a­tion. This is es­pe­cially true after a vote in the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil in which 13 coun­tries con­demned the Rus­si­an moves, and China, which has been Mo­scow’s long­time fel­low trav­el­er on many oth­er is­sues, ab­stained in a re­buff to Putin. The European Uni­on also said it would freeze as­sets of and ban travel for 21 of­fi­cials in Rus­sia and Ukraine. “These are by far the most com­pre­hens­ive sanc­tions ap­plied to Rus­si­ans since the end of the Cold War,” a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion said in a tele­phone call with re­port­ers, stress­ing that they are far more severe than those ap­plied after Rus­sia in­ter­vened in Geor­gia in 2008.

In the past, noth­ing has in­censed Putin more than what he deems in­ter­fer­ence in his in­tern­al af­fairs in­volving the tar­get­ing of Rus­si­an of­fi­cials, es­pe­cially those close to him; and the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent is un­likely to re­treat any time soon. The gravest danger now re­mains that, in threat­en­ing to an­nex Crimea, Putin will feel pres­sured to fol­low up by send­ing Rus­si­an forces in­to oth­er parts of east­ern Ukraine. The Krem­lin knows that without Crimea, eth­nic Rus­si­ans amount to a dis­tinct minor­ity in the rest of the coun­try.

Un­less he doubles down with more mil­it­ary pres­sure, Putin could thus upend his own strategy of co-opt­ing Ukraine in­to a Euras­i­an Uni­on, in­stead mak­ing it easi­er for the rest of the coun­try, dom­in­ated by eth­nic Ukrain­i­ans, to vote to join the European Uni­on and NATO. While the West is not con­sid­er­ing mil­it­ary force, U.S. of­fi­cials are already mak­ing “sig­nal­ing” moves by send­ing more fight­er jets to Po­land and Lithuania. Rus­sia’s re­sponse, as com­mu­nic­ated by a TV an­noun­cer over the week­end, was to re­mind Wash­ing­ton that Rus­sia is “the only coun­try in the world cap­able of turn­ing the U.S.A. in­to ra­dio­act­ive dust.”

Judging from his past ac­tions, it should be ex­pec­ted that Putin will, at the very least, re­tali­ate by ob­struct­ing U.S. ini­ti­at­ives in oth­er places. Be­fore the crisis, the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent was already work­ing hard at deep­en­ing ties with China, form­ing a Euras­i­an Uni­on to counter European com­munity, and de­liv­er­ing coun­ter­moves to West­ern ini­ti­at­ives in the Middle East.

The Krem­lin may well de­cide it has a lar­ger stake now in sup­ply­ing the mil­it­ary forces of Putin’s ally, Bashar al-As­sad, in Syr­ia’s civil war, and it’s no sur­prise that the Syr­i­an dic­tat­or has re­spon­ded by launch­ing new mil­it­ary of­fens­ives against the rebels. Putin has already made his sym­pathy for oth­er auto­crats in the re­gion known, for ex­ample by en­cour­aging Egypt’s junta lead­er, Field Mar­shal Ab­del Fat­tah al-Sisi, to run for pres­id­ent.

It would be sur­pris­ing if Mo­scow did not also find ways to delay or even sty­mie the nuc­le­ar talks with Ir­an be­ing con­duc­ted by five per­man­ent mem­bers of the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, which in­clude Rus­sia, and Ger­many. Mo­scow had already planned to help Tehran build sev­er­al nuc­le­ar re­act­ors. Un­til now, Rus­sia has also been more co­oper­at­ive than not in ac­ced­ing to the sup­ply of U.S. and NATO forces in Afgh­anistan; that could quickly change, as well.

The up­shot is that the crisis over Ukraine is likely to re­order glob­al re­la­tions in a sig­ni­fic­ant way. The U.S.-Rus­sia rivalry that was be­ing vo­ci­fer­ously de­bated as re­cently as the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, when Pres­id­ent Obama mocked GOP nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney’s ar­gu­ment that Rus­sia had be­come Amer­ica’s “No. 1 geo­pol­it­ic­al foe,” is today quickly be­com­ing con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in Wash­ing­ton.

A kind of “cool war” between the two coun­tries — one that is not quite yet “cold” — may already be emer­ging. While this is clearly noth­ing yet like the great ideo­lo­gic­al struggle and arms race of the Cold War, U.S. of­fi­cials may soon need to con­sider a new strategy in­volving the con­tain­ment of Rus­si­an coun­ter­moves around the world.

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