Hot War Today, Cold War Forever?

4 min
Anti-tank buildings on the position of fighters of the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine, the military reserve of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, on Independence Square in Kiev

How easy it is to be glued to Twitter and satellite television, angry and bewildered by the human tragedy playing itself out in Ukraine. The brave resisters miraculously holding out against the Russian aggressors, the democrat Zelenskiy versus the criminal and mad dictator Putin, refugees streaming across borders, the dead bodies piling up and cities destroyed. Help for the beleaguered Ukrainians is finally on the way from a West that is slowly adjusting to a Russia that can no longer be dealt with in the old way. Yet will a vast arsenal of promised weaponry still be of any use to the Ukrainian forces by the time it arrives?

The race is on. Russia has badly blundered in the opening round of its invasion, but it is now entering a second round and we can only speculate what the third will look like. Having amassed an enormous invading army, Moscow has so far been unwilling to totally commit it. But is this about to change as Russia escalates the violence and turns to Chechen thugs, Wagner Group mercenaries and the Belarusian Army to break the back of the Ukrainian resistance?

So far it has not been clear to anyone, least of all it seems to the Russians themselves, what they hope to achieve. Is their goal to seize the whole of Ukraine or only part of it? And what do they intend to do with it once they’ve got it? In the meantime, will Ukraine’s government avoid decapitation and continue the fight if Kyiv falls? Will the border with NATO countries remain open and military supplies continue to cross it? If Russia tries to cut off the supplies will this escalate to a military confrontation with NATO?

One hopes the Russian leadership will see the futility of their actions, stop and turn tail. Unfortunately, hope is a poor guide to rely on. Thousands more deaths are certain as the conventional war transitions into a long, bloody guerilla conflict, with casualties rising into the tens of thousands. What remains of Ukraine’s increasingly weakened army will continue the struggle but it will be the popular resistance that principally carries on the fight.

As Russian losses mount with no end in sight, with NATO forces building up on the borders, increasing diplomatic and physical isolation from the West, economic sanctions taking their toll, and domestic opposition growing, how desperate will Putin become? Nuclear threats have already been issued. There should be little illusion Russia’s military leaders would carry out orders for limited nuclear use, particularly for demonstrative purposes, perhaps at sea or in Ukraine itself, though anything that seriously risked nuclear retaliation would probably lead to a coup in Moscow.

Despite the threats, any prospect of nuclear use is still premature. The Russian military advance has been temporarily blunted but the Ukrainians show no sign of going on the offensive themselves. Captured territory will not be recaptured anytime soon. The West has drawn a line beyond which it will not fly, nor provide air defense. Diplomatically and economically Russia has suffered a body blow, yet it retains the firm support of China. The governments of India and Brazil also remain supportive, for now at least. In order to undermine the anti-Russia coalition, propagandists and 'useful idiots' on the far right and far left continue pushing absurdist claims of Ukraine developing nuclear weapons, Ukrainian neo-Nazis committing genocide, and NATO as an aggressive military bloc threatening Russia. If the lies are amplified sufficiently, perhaps they may yet succeed in swaying Western opinion. 

What we are witnessing was not supposed to happen. It was simply beyond our comprehension. Surely Putin was rational and would not wage a reckless war based on conspiratorial delusions. Surely the threat of sanctions would deter him. As we witness the horrors unfolding on our smartphones and psychologically try to get to grips with the new reality, how easy it is to be seduced by the idea that this is all a bad dream and that we will shortly be returning to normality. Peace will return, the dead will be buried, the refugees will return, Ukraine’s cities will be reconstructed, and all will be normal again as the rest of us concentrate on recovering from the Covid pandemic, and our governments go back to dealing with climate change, the rise of China, and all the other countless challenges our societies face.

Attractive as it may be, it is impossible to deny the new strategic reality and pretend it doesn´t exist, or that it can´t get even worse than it is now. Following its earlier aggression in 2014, the EU responded with limited economic sanctions and NATO began to focus on a limited defense of its eastern flank. Otherwise, business continued as before. Within a week of its latest, and much more deadly aggression, a fundamentally different situation has arisen. In the months and years ahead, the West is almost certain to massively bolster its defenses, to include larger military concentrations permanently stationed close to the borders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Germany´s recent policy shift on defense spending is a harbinger of this transformation. Should Finland join NATO, the Alliance would then share an even longer border with Russia. The long-term implications of this crisis are developing faster than our ability to comprehend them. Russia is now literally cut-off from the West. With the shock of Russia’s aggression providing the necessary impetus to get previously unthinkable policies approved, it will take an even greater shock to roll them back.

Although it may seem premature, policymakers need to think about what it will take to eventually normalize relations with Russia. Will anything less than Putin’s removal from office, a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, and payment of reparations suffice? Can Russia get away with its aggression without a serious penalty? What would it take for the West to no longer feel threatened by the prospect of Russian aggression and cooperate again? Though progress in nuclear and conventional arms control is now needed more than ever, what little trust that existed before Russia´s invasion has now evaporated completely. If Russian leaders cannot be trusted, then how to re-establish any sort of cooperative relationship? Answers to these hard questions should serve as the basis of Western policies rather than be deferred to a more convenient time. In the absence of clearly defined policies, fissures will inevitably arise, Western unity in opposition to Russia’s actions will be undermined, opposition within Russia will crumble, and the security crisis will continue in perpetuity.

Jeffrey Michaels is a IEN Senior Fellow at Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals