Chill Out: The New Cold War
For the past few years, most every sentient being west of Smolensk has been aware that something very bad is happening in Russia. They don't elect their governors anymore. There are no major television stations that are free from Kremlin influence. The Duma always seems to do what the President wants. Edward Lucas, the Central and East European correspondent for the Economist, is here to tell us that, in fact, things are much, much worse than that. In The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West, Lucas makes a powerful case that Russia hasn't simply lost its way or stumbled on the path to modernity; it has reignited the same intercontinental struggle Americans thought they'd long won.
The New Cold War is intelligent, thoughtful and overflowing with footnote-laden accounts of all the terrible things Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants have been doing since the former KGB agent took power on New Year's Eve, 1999.
While many of the details are known, Lucas offers the first comprehensive compendium of the Kremlin's major (and not so major) crimes against Russians and non-Russians alike. There's the 2003 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismemberment of his Yukos oil empire. There's the 2007 alleged cyberwar Russia launched against Estonia in the wake of a flap surrounding a Soviet war memorial.
Lucas details a 1984-style "History According to the Kremlin" now being taught in classrooms, according to which Josef Stalin, the greatest mass murderer in history, was a patriot who did what had to be done to defeat fascism. And he also examines the Kremlin's repeated use of its ample energy resources to threaten its Western-oriented neighbors. Most troubling is what Lucas calls "pipeline politics" — Moscow's plans to build the Nord Stream gas pipeline from the Shtokman Field in the Barents Sea to the German city of Greifswald; and its attempts to derail Western plans to install a pipeline connecting the Caspian Sea and Baumgarten, Austria. That project, the Nabucco pipeline, would circumvent Russia by bisecting Turkey, and would give Russia's neighbors far more bargaining power when negotiating with Gazprom, the state-run gas company.
All these sundry violations — of any democratic sensibility or common sense — are not simply side effects of a resurgent Russian authoritarianism. They're indicators, Lucas argues, of a more threatening development: the re-emergence of the battle for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Baltics — the whole former Soviet space. While Europe sleeps, he suggests, Moscow's secret police are infiltrating foreign governments, establishing a transcontinental energy monopoly and exploiting divisions between Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and Tallinn. Exacerbating all of the above is the fact that no one is doing much to counter this angry, revanchist Russia.
"The West is losing the New Cold War," Lucas writes, "while having barely noticed that it has started. Mr. Putin and his Kremlin allies have seized power in Russia, cast a dark shadow over the eastern half of the continent, and established formidable bridgeheads in the main Western countries. And the willingness to resist looks alarmingly feeble."
This is all troubling stuff, and Lucas has done an excellent reporting job. And therein lies the problem. This is a reporting job, not history, and a certain perspective is missing. It lacks the cultural-historical context that a book on a struggle pitting Russia against the West demands. A book about a new cold war is really a book about a new geopolitics. Alas, The New Cold War doesn't read like a book about anything so monumental or metaphysical as a cold war. Instead, it comes across as a series of news stories on an unfortunate turn of events in the former Soviet Union.
It's premature to call the still-unfolding rivalry a cold war. No doubt, Russia and the West have divergent interests. According to the Russian worldview, everything good that happens in the West is bad for Russia. Worse yet, Moscow seems willing to do almost anything to achieve great-power (if not superpower) status.
Still, we're far from a Manichaean showdown. Russia is too weak to wage a cold war. Outside Moscow, St. Petersburg and a handful of other cities, most Russians live in Khrushchev- and Brezhnev-era hovels. The economy is diversifying but not diversified; for now, the oil and gas markets largely decide how much money flows into the Kremlin coffers. And the military is a wreck; Lucas points out, for instance, that the navy now has just 20 seaworthy surface ships.
Most importantly, Russia lacks a clear political identity. Beyond its economic and strategic concerns, Russia doesn't know what it wants to be. This is an ideological, even ontological lassitude. The reason the postcommunist world is so unstable is not that Russia is on the verge of repatriating old turf. It's that Russia is navigating between two ideas of Russia: its former Soviet self and its current shadow of that former self — a cartoonish, hopelessly upside-down mythology versus a dispiriting reality. Russia will not transcend this dichotomy until it begins building a truly original future instead of trying to cobble together a distant past.
Lucas is right that the West should set aside its differences and resist Russian aggression. But we should be clear about the nature of this aggression. The new cold war, thankfully, has yet to break out.