A NEW COLD WAR?
May 10, 2022
THE CHANGE IN THE CHARACTER OF THE UKRAINIAN WAR
As the character of the war in Ukraine shifts from what everybody expected, first a walk-in to Kyiv of the Russian forces or, later, a pulverization of the Ukrainian forces in the Donbas, to a true war with uncertain outcomes, many have come to believe that the world is moving back to a new Cold War, very much like the one that plagued the international order in the second half of the twentieth century.
Under this view, the war in Ukraine would play a role very much like that played by the Korean War of the early 1950s: a hot conflict that defined some of the borders between the participants in a new world order that was emerging—which, in that case, lasted from the end of 1939-1945 World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. This new order was the Cold War. A closer inspection, however, suggests that the current world looks much more like the 1930s and the war in Ukraine looks much more like the 1936-39 Civil War in Spain—which preceded World War II—than the Korean War—which accompanied the full instauration of the Cold War.
When making a comparison like this, one must be very careful when defining the features that betray the likeness one is focusing on, which is, in our case, the role that a specific local conflict is playing in a change of world order. The comparison of Ukraine and Korea makes the nature of the likelihood of Ukraine and Spain very clear. Korea was an on-the-fringe adjustment to a new world order that had been born in World War II, complete with implicit rules of the game, the identification of the principal contenders, and a new language of diplomacy that everyone understood. In Europe, the areas of influence had been clearly defined by the armies that invaded the countries that had been previously invaded by the Nazi armies and sealed at Yalta. There was, however, some ambiguity regarding the areas of influence in other parts of the world. This was the role of several conflicts, like the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis, which left it very clear that the West would not allow the communist powers to cross some lines. The 1948 air supply of West Berlin when the Soviet Union closed its accesses played the same role.
The role that the Ukraine war is playing in our times is very different to that. There is no doubt that it is taking place in between two global orders, but, while the Korean War was an adjustment to one that was just emerging, the Ukrainian War seems to be the opening move in the struggle that would define a new order that still has not emerged. That is what makes the Ukrainian War so scary and so crucially important for the definition of the twenty-first century. If a Cold War is in our future, it won´t happen if not preceded by something that would settle the relations between the powers that would frame the new century. This settlement could be peaceful or a hot war, not a cold one. In the two previous centuries the identity of these powers was established by people sitting around a table—the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and the Yalta Conference in 1945. Yet, who would sit in those tables had been defined in world-impacting wars—the Napoleonic ones and the two world wars, which really were just one, with an intermezzo of 21 years.
As in the late 1930s, the world is facing one of the worst moments in its history, much, much more threatening than the rebirth of a Cold War. We’d better prepare for this. Putin, with his Hitler-like egomania, is pushing the world to its most dangerous moment in history.
The similarities between the Ukrainian War and the Spanish Civil War go much beyond this. Of course, the Spanish War was a civil one while the Ukrainian one is in the category of a nineteenth-century war of aggression for territorial gain. But, in both cases, they have become battlefields for global conflicts that will create the new global order. In Spain, while the Spaniards defined the outcomes of their war, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany participated in an anticipation of what World War II would become. They went much beyond what is happening today. They sent their air forces, participated in bombings and battles, in addition to providing weapons and other resources to the warring factions. Today, the NATO powers have provided weapons and training to the Ukrainians but not more. Yet, they seem to be changing the character of the war. NATO seems to be developing a strategic role for it that goes much beyond what any of the foreign participant powers did during the Spanish War.
As noted by Frank Ledwidge in an article published in The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/ukraine-nato-and-the-us-aim-to-destroy-the-russian-military-it-looks-as-if-they-may-have-the-means-to-do-it-182255
“For some time the US and Nato spoke of defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. On April 25, in a speech pledging to defend the “rules-based international order”, Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, announced that the US wanted Russia “weakened to the point that it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”. There should be no ambiguity about this. It is now US (and therefore NATO) policy to damage the Russian armed forces to a degree from which it will take a very long time to recover.”
NATO actions are going in the same direction—its help to Ukraine is becoming more explicit and new ways of aid are being opened, including much stronger intelligence and ordnance. These actions seem to be following the realization that Ukraine is just the place where a new Hitler-like threat can be stopped. Nothing had been really planned ahead of the war. An idea surged from the observation of the weakness of the Russian armed forces and economy, which make it possible to maim it in a long-term way.
THE NEUTRALITY OF THE NUCLEAR THREAT
Of course, the main question is, would Russia allow NATO to do that, given that it has a large armory of nuclear weapons?
This question must be framed within another one: what would push Russia more closely to unleash its nuclear forces? Showing force or showing weakness?
Like Hitler, Putin is driven by a sickened will to power that is enmeshed with the ambition to pass into Russian history as the Great Man who re-established the Russian Empire. He does not seem to respond to anything that the West could do to stop him—either condoning what he is trying to do or opposing it. In either case, he would keep on trying with growing anxiety what he is trying to do, in its entirety. If this were the situation, the nuclear threat would be neutral for the decision of what to do. He will keep on using it if he sniffs weakness or if he is threatened with words or actions. As a threat that would exist in any case, it could be taken out of the decision.
In fact, condoning Putin’s actions, or letting him attain what he is looking for, would be more dangerous, as the Hitler precedent shows. If his actions are condoned, he will keep on moving the goalposts. Nothing short of global domination would stop him. If the West delivers Ukraine to him, the nuclear war risk would most certainly increase because this would encourage Putin to keep on increasing his demands until he reaches one that would be undeliverable—and then, Armageddon. Like Hitler, he would have reached the point of unleashing a world war.
There seems to be no way out of a one-dimensional confrontation between two enemies that will not cede the right of way in a street with only one lane. But maybe there is a multidimensional solution to this problem, one in which a third party may help to eliminate Putin’s threat.
THE WORLD AT THE TIME OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
There was another similarity of the times of the Spanish Civil War with our times: in those days, there were more than two runners competing for global hegemony—Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States (which didn’t want it but was naturally becoming the strongest). Japan wanted just a part of it, Asia and Oceania. In our days, we have two: the West and China, which can operate globally, and Russia, which cannot but shares with the other two (and an increasing number of countries), the ability to destroy it. The facts of World War II knocked off one of the three and left the Cold War in the hands of the other two. Tellingly, the war began with the alliances reversed. Days before the German invasion of Poland that started World War II, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a pact of non-aggression to split Poland among them. The Soviet Union changed sides when Hitler attacked it on June 1942 in what probably was Hitler’s worst mistake. This event changed history and defined who would be at the commanding table that would lead the cold war that followed World War II.
THE MULTIDIMENSIONAL OPPORTUNITY TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM
A change of alliances may change the destiny of the world in our times as well. At the time of this writing, that between China and Russia seems to be firming up. China is meeting with Russia to design an international payments system and other mechanisms to survive a western boycott. Through this road, China seems to be following its destiny—an Eastern power joining forces with an enemy of the Western world. This, however, does not have to be like that. China is making the wrong choice of ally for the twenty-first century. A cold war was as much a war as a shared responsibility to keep the world in order. There were conflicts at the margin, but whenever the heat reached a certain dangerous level, the two countries found ways to avoid falling from the cliff. We have to remember that the Cold War framed a world order. The question is, which of the two, Russia or China, would be preferable as a rival for the West in the new Cold War?
Russia would be a poor partner as a rival-cooperator in such a world order. Paraphrasing Senator McCain, Russia is little more than a gas station with nuclear missiles. In the Ukrainian War, it has proved that it lacks the discipline necessary to be a superpower and this proves that high economic efficiency is still long in the future. Their sense of responsibility for the global order is nil.
Of course, China is much more powerful than Russia, so that, naturally, China would emerge as the chief rival to the West. Furthermore, if China were to share with another power the world of the twenty-first century, it should rather do it with the West than with a poor, disorganized country like Russia. The same is true of the West. Certainly, China has serious problems as a partner, of course, but it is a more serious country than Russia; it is also infinitely stronger, and for this reason is better to have it within the reach of the new western international order. It does not have to resort to nuclear weapons to defend itself. It is more likely to help in the control of the new, risky states that are acquiring nuclear weapons. It is difficult to believe that it would end up with a leader like Putin. The same can be said of the West. China would be better off working with the West, finding a sustainable international framework in a new conception of the Cold War, one in which the limits of confrontation could be reasonably established while maintaining whatever level of cooperation could be worked out. If that framework is well designed, and China is willing to be pragmatic, China could obtain many advantages from participating in the western globalization. That would be the best option for China and the West.
If this is likely to happen anyway because of the higher potential of China, then, why not shifting alliances right now, avoiding a crisis that would benefit nobody? In the shortest term, it is improbable that China would be happy with its population running away from a radioactive cloud produced by a nuclear war unleashed to satisfy Putin’s delirium of greatness. This is what would eventually happen if China keeps on supporting Putin.
If China realizes this, and a shift of alliances takes place, defeating Putin in a peaceful way would be much easier. The West should be working on this. I would be surprised if they are not.
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