West reluctant to admit new Russian Cold War, and Putin's counting on it

While many may cringe at even the mention of a Cold War, Russia has no problem carrying out the policies that allowed the Soviet Union its breadth of influence in the last century: From Europe to the Arctic to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, the Russians have embraced full-on Cold War tactics, while the U.S. struggles to play catch up. The Russians have been doing this for years.

First there was Moldova, where just days after independence in 1992 Russian troops decimated the tiny and massively overmatched Moldovan military. Today over 1,500 Russian troops and hundreds more so-called Russian “peacekeepers” occupy Transnistria, a region Russia conveniently calls a legitimate separatist region, which also happens to share a border with NATO ally Romania.

Sound familiar? It should.

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Russia used the same tactics when invading Georgia in 2008, referring to Georgian sovereign territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as legitimate separatist regions.

The pattern continued with the grand prize for Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense & National Security — US delivers written response to Russia Don't let Putin close his new Iron Curtain Briefing in brief: Biden committed to naming Black woman to Supreme Court MORE: Ukraine — an invasion, followed by an annexation and yet another push further west.

All of these Russian ventures left a trail of death and destruction. Yet the response by the West has never been quite enough to thwart Putin’s ambitions, largely fueled by blackmail and extortion.

When the Biden administration came into power, it was forced to deal with a cascade of high-profile cyberattacks and espionage on both critical infrastructure and even the U.S. government. Cyber “rules of the road” were the name of the game when Biden sat down with Putin in Geneva, and Washington hoped the digital campaigns would cease, or at least slow. Barely a month afterwards, it was clear that the attacks were not stopping, and that the Kremlin was doing little to curtail these cyber privateers. Only late in the year did Washington launch some cyber operations to block and punish ransomware actors in Russia.

Now as Russia builds-up its forces for a possible massive new offensive in Ukraine and with the intervention of troops in Kazakhstan to prop-up the regime, its propaganda network spins up new messaging to aid in the efforts. From publishing misinformation designed to give the appearance of a coming NATO invasion of Russia to trotting out classic claims that the West is secretly fomenting revolution anywhere there are protests, reality is easy to ignore when the Kremlin is pursuing its more aggressive interests.

Many in the West would like to think that the specter of retaliation after the fact will be enough to thwart Putin’s latest threats of Armageddon — but the track record for follow-through by the U.S. and its Western partners has been abysmal, and Putin knows it.

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This latest round of stop-or-else admonitions are based on the mistaken assumption that these alone will convince Russia to behave better. That only has a chance of working if the administration can persuade Moscow that the threats are real.

Energy side of how far Putin is willing to go

Nord Stream 2 — Russia’s crown jewel pipeline — was never just about Ukraine. It is about Russia’s goal of monopolizing Europe’s gas market from the Baltics to the Balkans. Putin’s answer to the Biden administration’s decision to forego new Nord Stream 2 sanctions was to squeeze the Europeans. While the world’s leaders gathered in Glasgow for the climate summit, Russia, the world’s largest leaker of methane, was busy blackmailing Europe by reducing natural gas deliveries. Russian gas giant Gazprom did the minimum on contracts and kept Gazprom-controlled storage facilities empty.

The object was to press Germany and the European Union to certify Nord Stream 2, force European countries to return to long-term contracts with Gazprom and “convince” the EU to change its energy legislation, making it favorable to Europe’s dominant gas supplier, Russia.

A master in the art of turning Europeans against each other, Russia used the gas crisis to do precisely that. Gazprom’s contracts are infinitely more favorable to Germany than those for Central and East European countries.

Focusing just on de-escalation is not enough

There are winners and losers on the global stage. NATO succeeded and the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact failed because they were not sustainable. The ill-advised cacophony of Western voices suggesting that NATO enlargement is the cause of Russia’s horrific behavior is the worst sort of victim blaming.

Despite Putin's revisionist view of the world, the United States did not go shopping for new NATO members. NATO enlargement occurred because the East Europeans and the Baltics had little faith that Russia would ever really change its ways. And they were right. If Russia was not such a bully, there wouldn't be a waiting list to get into NATO.

No one should be fooled that this week’s meetings will mollify or more importantly deter Russia.

The lack of tangible actions by the West preceding the talks, which at a minimum should have included forward military deployments to Poland, Romania and other NATO allies, emergency weapons reinforcements to Ukraine and shutting down Nord Stream 2 once and for all, will strengthen those in Moscow who claim that Western threats are hollow.

Make no mistake. Russia has far more in its sights than just Ukraine and the countries it believes it has a right to control in its neighborhood. Putin wants NATO to go away — and short of that, to sharply constrain and curtail what its members living closest to Russia can and cannot do to defend themselves. These talks are not going to stop Russia from falling back on its well-honed tactics of interference, invasion and annexation.

That is why there must be no daylight, no discernible difference between what is conveyed by the United States, Germany, and France in their talks, and what is said by every other member of NATO.

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For Putin, splitting and pitting some of NATO's oldest members against its newest who have to live in the Russian high-crime neighborhood, would be a huge victory in and of itself. Even an inkling that the lives and security of people in Berlin or Washington or Paris are somehow more worthy than those in Bucharest or Warsaw or Vilnius would be a strategic and irreversible mistake.

Debra Cagan is the Distinguished Energy Fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network and worked as a career State Department diplomat and Defense Department official from the Reagan to Trump administrations, including serving as deputy assistant secretary of defense for coalition, peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief where she headed coalition operations for Iraq and Afghanistan; senior director of European, Russian and Eurasian security issues; special adviser for strategic and nuclear policy for Europe; and senior adviser to U.S. and NATO military officials.

John E. Herbst is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan.