"Cold War II" reads the cover of Time magazine, hyping a case for Russian belligerency and a restart to the Cold War that ended in 1991. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is beating the same drum, saying the U.S. Department of Defense is reviewing "our own readiness models to look at things we haven't had to look at for 20 years." As he stated last week at the Aspen Security Forum, "[Russia] has made the conscious decision to use its military force inside of another sovereign nation to achieve its objectives."
But where exactly is the analogy with the Cold War? Today's Russia is not ideologically motivated by communism, or any other ideology, as it was during the Cold War days. It isn't preaching world domination, as it once did, and countries aren't in danger of falling into the enemy camp like dominos, as they once were.
Russia fears U.S. attempts to place missile installations near the Russian heartland, as the U.S. planned to do in Poland and the Czech Republic, and as it could do in Ukraine, which borders Russia and which has been in Russia's sphere of influence for centuries. Russian President Vladimir Putin's determination to keep Ukraine from joining the EU and NATO, which would make Ukraine a forward base for the West, is no different than President Kennedy's determination to prevent Cuba from hosting Russian missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently acknowledged that Putin is, in effect, striving to keep the status quo: "My own view is that Putin won't rest until he can at least prevent Ukraine from moving to the West," he told Charlie Rose on PBS.
Russia's support of Syria is also defensive. Syria, a Russian ally for decades, hosts Russia's sole naval base in the Mediterranean. If Syria's President Bashar Assad falls to Sunni rebels, Russia loses its last Arab ally.
Many point to Putin's 2008 invasion of Georgia as another instance of reckless aggression. Yet here, too, Russia's goal was to maintain a status quo. The war involved two ethnic enclaves — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. In 2008 amid ongoing hostilities, the Georgians launched a full-scale invasion to recover lost territory. Russia then entered the war to push back the Georgians. Russia did not acquire additional territory through its intervention, which it not surprisingly viewed as peacekeeping.
These few military adventures hardly suffice to brand Russia as a hellbent belligerent. In contrast, the U.S. in recently years has engaged in military conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Iraq.
Putin is no pussycat. He's a ruthless Russian nationalist who deplores his country's loss of influence following the Soviet Union's collapse, which he blamed on communism's inherent inability to compete economically. Since becoming Russia's leader, Russia has regained much of its former influence in the former Soviet republics through trade agreements, not through military force. The West is wrong to see him as a military expansionist.
Russia is also not a natural enemy of the U.S. To the contrary, the two countries collaborate in numerous areas — the International Space Station being the highest profile — and are allied in their fight against Sunni terrorism, as seen in Russia's repeated attempts to warn the U.S. of the threat posed by the Boston Marathon bombers. The West should tamp down talk of a new Cold War. Not only is it overblown, it is counterproductive to the West's security interests.