Does Putin want a new Cold War?
March 5th, 2014
02:10 PM ET

Does Putin want a new Cold War?

By Olga Oliker, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Olga Oliker is associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are her own.

Russian troops appear in control of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly said “the possibility still exists” that Russian forces could be sent deeper into Ukraine to defend the rights of protesting ethnic Russians. Russia’s much-voiced belief in principles of sovereignty, it seems, have been trumped by its long-held view that ethnic Russians must be protected, wherever they may live.

Two competing narratives are at work. In the narrative heard in the United States and Europe, democracy-seeking protesters forced Russia’s puppet president from office and are building a new government, which represents Ukraine’s Western values. In Russia’s narrative, a freely elected government was illegally deposed as a result of street violence encouraged by the United States and EU. Ukraine is in chaos, with ultra-nationalists threatening ethnic Russians throughout the country. Washington and Brussels saw Russia invade Ukraine. Looking from Moscow, Russian troops are trying to bring peace and stability to a neighboring state on the verge of civil war.

In an ideal universe, all sides could come to the table to hammer out a solution in which Russian troops leave Crimea (and certainly do not go elsewhere in Ukraine), Ukraine holds free and fair elections to select a new government that represents its people, and the rights of all Ukrainians are guaranteed to the satisfaction of all parties.

But if it were that easy, the situation would not have escalated to this point.

Some believe that the United States and EU should take strong steps, including possibly the use of force (or at least moving around some military equipment and personnel) to get Russia out. They argue that in Ukraine today, the United States faces a new Munich, with Crimea as the Sudetenland. But Western military action is highly unlikely: The United States and Europe have no commitment to defend Ukraine, not because the West didn’t think this could happen, but rather because it knew that it could.

Among the myriad reasons Ukraine is not a NATO member is the fact that Western leaders have known all along that were Russia to take military action against Ukraine, the members of the alliance did not want to be obligated to fight on Kiev’s behalf a war that stood the (small but real) risk of nuclear escalation. Thus, while the West wants Russian forces out of Ukraine, it will try to attain that through diplomatic and economic means, not by adding to the troops on the ground.

This is smart policy not just because of the threat of escalation. While Russia is genuinely nervous about what has happened in Ukraine, Putin’s decision to send troops is also a statement to the West that he will have none of its bullying, and that he is willing to stand up to any sort of pressure or punishment.  From a Western perspective, it makes little sense for Russia to seek to annex Crimea or East Ukraine. The occupation of the latter, at least, would over time prove painful and costly, and unless Russia moves quickly towards a political solution, it will have destroyed all hope of a reasonable relationship with the United States and the EU states going forward. But from Putin’s point of view, the deterioration of these relationships may not be such a terrible thing.

It’s possible that what Putin wants out of all this, aside from protection of Russian speakers the world over, is, if not a new Cold War, something very like one. After all, during the old Cold War, Moscow was strong, its interests respected, its prestige on par with that of Washington.

If this is indeed what Putin wants, the smart policy, and the long game, is to simultaneously show global anger at his actions while demonstrating that grabbing bits of Ukraine will not, in fact, get Russia global respect or influence.

That said, designing and implementing policies that effectively send these signals, and continue to do so over time, will be a challenge – Brussels and Washington must simultaneously avoid actions that let Russia feel it’s being treated as a dangerous enemy, but make it clear that it needs the West more than the reverse.

In the short term, it may not be possible to get Russian troops out of Crimea through economic sanctions, the freezing of assets, the exclusion of Russia from the G8 or other reasonable steps now on the table. In the long term, the United States has to make sure that the response to Russia doesn’t stop there. The United States and EU states should continue political, economic, and military cooperation with Ukraine, helping ensure that, even with Russia occupying Crimea, a new and representative government is elected, takes power, and moves forward with reforms, while respecting the rights of all ethnic groups and minorities.

Meanwhile, cooperation with Russia in other areas, including those touted as examples of the importance of the partnership, such as transport routes in and out of Afghanistan, can be scaled down wherever feasible. At the same time, actions that can be interpreted in Moscow as escalatory and that suggest that Russia poses a true threat should be avoided.

Ultimately, the door to improved relations, following the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, should be left open. No iron curtain should be allowed to settle over Europe. Instead, it behooves Western leaders to show Putin that the invasion of Crimea is not in his, or Russia’s, best interest.

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Topics: Russia • Ukraine

soundoff (71 Responses)
  1. THORN

    Reagan invaded Grenada to "protect" American students at its medical school, St. Georges' University. If Cuba tried to assert sovereignty over Guantanamo what would be our reaction? C'mon now, be honest. Right now, this minute, Russias actions have been within the same parameters as those used by the good old US of A.

    March 5, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • USMC1369

      Thank you, THORN. You're right on the money! The very arrogance and self righteousness of most ignorant Americans is truly repulsive and that makes us the most hated nation in the world today!

      March 5, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Reply
      • Steve

        Putin has just united the West, he clearly didn't think this one through long-term. Nothing like a common enemy to put petty differences aside. Welcome to the new world order....

        March 5, 2014 at 6:42 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      No doubt, the US under previous presidents had made mistakes in the past. Although Obama also has made mistakes, he still wants to be a correct player. Putin is a gambler and opportunist. He saw the weakness in Kiev – economic collapse – after the Yanukovich's fall and took advantage of it to advance his nationalistic goal – to re-incorporate Crimea into his country. He raises the stakes, every time he spots an opportunity to make small gains.

      March 6, 2014 at 11:25 am | Reply
      • susiejoe

        Your perspective makes for a good movie. Sadly they are NOT reality. Russia's economy is closely connected to the Ukrainian economy. Putin is not taking advantage of anything. He is reacting to the mess our government and the EU have created where the Ukraine is closer to financial collapse than it has been.

        March 7, 2014 at 11:30 am |
      • Amanda.Bon

        Do you actually believe in what you just said? Obama only pushes democracy and diplomacy when it's in his own interests, and disregards international law in all other cases.

        There has been evidence that the US financed the Ukranian revolution and brought chaos and separatism onto the country. Putin is defending his national interests, and so far his troops HAVE NOT HURT a single person! Now compare this to the bloody "Obama democracy". Shameful double standards..

        March 7, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
      • sam pisani

        you sir are correct . I just wish some one would have the balls to call his military bluff. He doesn't want to be toast either.

        March 22, 2014 at 12:57 am |
    • janelasdedeus

      Come to think of it... the Mexicans are presently invading our Southwest and because national sovereignty is such an outdated 20th Century concept for progressives, we tolerate and even welcome this assertion of Mexican rights over their near abroad. So why is Obama upset about the Russian exerting a little control over an area of historical national interest. After all, the US pracitcally stole Califonia from Mexico. Maybe we should give it back. Ah... but then we'd have Californians steaming across the borders to Oregon, Nevada and Arizona.

      March 6, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Reply
      • tallaman87

        Don't lump all Hispanic immigrants into one singular cast of being Mexican. A lot of other nationalities in there too.

        March 7, 2014 at 11:04 am |
      • sam pisani

        no wait maybe mexico should send troups and tanks here first and demand it back by a vote. Lets see do we give it back oh yeah and Texas too .. matter of fact give manhatten back to the Indians cuz we screwed them out of it with blankets and whisky lol

        March 22, 2014 at 1:01 am |
    • Nico van Duyvenbode

      Yes , that was exactly the response of Chamberlaine's supporters in 1938 when he made peace in our time and gave Hitler Czechoslovakia. Some people just never learned from History and prefer to live in ignorance and ape easy convential slogans. Yes the US is not perfect and sometimes makes mistakes. But thank God that there is an America to defend freedom loving people and democracy, the most imperfect political system that guarantees that we and our neighbors will not be ruled by tyrants and aggressors. Or do you have a better suggestion Thorn?

      March 6, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Reply
      • you are dumb

        Grow up and turn off the john wayne movies

        March 6, 2014 at 10:48 pm |
      • Theresa Beshara-Cox

        If history is not remembered. history will repeat itself. plan and simple. Thats exactly what is happening here, now. It should be required reading for every highschool senior to read Ayn Rand, the Fountain Head and Altas Shrugged. It seems that the Baby Boomers and there children are ignorant to Pre and post revolutionary hx of Russia. US government has had such weak leadership since the Baby Boomers matured into places of power, all that can be hoped for is that they retire and the next generation is wiser. Baby Boomer 1962.

        March 7, 2014 at 11:45 am |
    • valwayne

      Hey you an Obama think exactly alike!

      March 6, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Reply
    • susiejoe

      Why isn't the press screaming that the US has invaded Cuba? We have troops in Guantanamo. Russia "invaded" the Crimea 200 years ago and has had troops there since. This is pathetic.

      Wake up Americans. You have watched as the US just supported a coup d etat of a democratically elected government in Kiev, and has pretended that neo-facists militants were not among the selected ones "appointed" to lead the new government. Haha, so the neo-fascists now control the Ukrainian military and the police. So last week they fired 3 Ukrainian Generals for resisting giving commands to neo-fascist militant groups. We watched as their Chief Admiral over their Navy defected and joined the "CRIMEAN MILITARY. We have been glimpses of demonstrations in the western Ukraine that have seized government buildings and raised Russian flags. We have been shown pictures and videos of all these "unidentified soldiers" marching around the Crimea and western Ukraine. Putin keeps trying to tell the idiots in Washington and the EU that the Ukraine is on the verge of a civil war. As if we know that area better than Putin does.

      Wake up Americans. We have idiots in Washington and idiots swell our press who know nothing about the cultures and politics in that area. The Ukraine REALLY is on the verge of a civil war.

      March 7, 2014 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • Jimmy

      Thorn – I think we still have 50 stars on the flag. Genada never made it. So bad line of thought.

      March 14, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • Moth

      So since there are ethnic Russians in Poland, Uk, France, Germany, o yes and the millions that have ran to America for a new life and safety now Putin will decide to hit there next. Putin seems like he is making a strong case that is his plan with all the military actions and Nuke war statements/threats. The whole world knows Russia is a nuke power, why with the threats. If some one says they are going to punch you in the face you dont trust them any more Right.

      October 31, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  2. matslats

    Wow RAND Corporation there's no need to partisan when both parties are identical.
    Here's my question. Do the US & NATO, by encircling Russia and China and stealing all the oil & minerals it can, and demonising everybody else, do they want a hot war?

    March 5, 2014 at 6:45 pm | Reply


    Cubin LEAKS.



    March 5, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  4. Matt

    It is all about intent, you have to look at the time the eastern block countries joined NATO. The same arguments for not allowing Ukraine or Georgia a few years ago would be applicable. Comes back to the intent of western European countries. Their intent would be not admit them, so it is questionable if the would fight to protect them. NATO is dying a slow death.

    March 5, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  5. johnny

    Putin must know by now that he has made a mistake in Ukraine. EU leaders have become united in the sanction against Russia, which would surely shutdown Russia's sole important economic life line – Oil and gas.

    March 5, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • optoshield

      Putin's actions are nothing out of the ordinary, ongoing turmoil in Ukrianie has been exploited beyond the agreements between West Yanukovich and maidan protesters. And to hear from Kerry a lecture about invasion in light of his vote for Iraq war? And to hear from Obama that referendum is against the law, while legitimizing a coup in Kiev?

      March 6, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  6. Kyle

    I think its the other way around, USA wants a new Cold War.

    March 5, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  7. Danro

    No, he does not. He wants to build his Eur-Asia Union. There is no mention of Soviet, Socialist, Communits or anything of the like. He intends to build an new Russia civilization which is a bridge between rich Europe and the soon to be rich China/ Asia. He wants his new Russia to be the heart of this new European/Asian mega economy. Therefore is he cannot afford a Cold War . It is strategic and capitalistic but its failure is that it is based on nationalism and not democracy and free association such as the EU.

    March 5, 2014 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  8. Ferhat Balkan

    I suspect that Putin wants to maintain the agreement set between Yunukovich and Russia for the Black Sea fleet to remain in Crimea until at least 2042 (this was met with significant opposition and disapproval in Ukraine). The previous agreement was set till the year 2017 by former president Yushchenko. Since Yanukovich fled Ukraine, Putin may be worried that the agreement will be placed in jeopardy by the new gov't there. This was reason enough for him to send troops there. If Russia annexes Crimea, they'll have an indefinite naval presence there. Also, if Ukraine somehow manages to establish a successful democracy there, what's to stop the same from happening in Russia?

    March 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm | Reply
    • iouri

      To Putin: Vova you are good supporting the Krim; you need the base. Now West will huff and puff and try to isolate Russian Federation.
      This is an excellent opportunity to focus on domestic problems: persuade Russian born investors to return to RF, learn from North Korea they have a family physician sitting in the kiosk almost at every corner(male life expectancy is too low), keep Ukraine in check militarily.
      And as soon as you disengage from the West they will run back knocking at your door, let the nationalism bloom it will make wonders- also you will be less susceptible to outside forces(look at China)
      Good luck Vova.

      March 6, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Reply
  9. Donald Berrian

    Putin has intervened before to protect Russian ethnics left behind by the end of the Soviet Union. His actions are neither new nor surprising and so far much less deadly than any US intervention in the last 30 years. This article and its ilk are simply shameful. We certainly don't live up to the standards we seem to apply to others. How do we justify our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and our attacks on Libya? If we do it, it is OK, but if Russia does it, it isn't???

    March 5, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Reply
    • FauxPolitics

      Thank you, Donald. I couldn't agree more.

      March 7, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  10. Jackie

    USMC1369, the reason we are the most hated nation today is because the global world is unipolar. No one else but us have even the ability to try and save nations from the worlds cruel injustices. It is the hard hand we drew, not the arrogance of your fellow Americans that make us the most hated nation, but also the most beloved.

    March 5, 2014 at 10:50 pm | Reply
    • Quigley

      Please Jackie, this web page is no place to post that kind of a joke such as yours above. On the other hand, we can all use a laugh now and then. We're talking about Putin here and America's sticking ii's nose where it doesn't belong! No wonder the rest of the world hates us so!

      March 6, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Reply
      • John Savard

        Just ignore the above, Quigley. This Jackie's obviously an ignorant Tea Partier who never got past the 4th grade!

        March 6, 2014 at 5:37 pm |
      • FauxPolitics

        My my sensitive aren't you... have to resort to juvenile insult tactics instead of actually use knowledge, facts, etc to refute a claim. Being isolationist and inhuman to the plight of the rest of the world is often what goads our leaders into action in the first place. Why do you think the politicians spend so much time and energy on rhetoric that is meant to get us pumped up about doing it for the right reasons? No one really gets excited about diving into something for purely cut and dry economic or political reasons. No one really wants to know or cares to understand military strategy or positioning... most are often too busy just wholesale attacking the military blindly for this or that. Telling the population that we're sticking our nose in other peoples' business because what happens there impacts our economy and we'd love a reason to keep a closer eye on someone we deem an enemy... well that isn't ever going to go over well. You couldn't even really spin such a thing the literal DAY OF some traumatic experience when most of the population is lapping up the patriotism juice by the gallon.

        We stick our nose where we want because when we don't, we are accused of inaction. We stick our nose where we want because by doing so we can have a direct hand in how things play out for our best interest. We are a selfish nation, as we should be, so getting huffy about sticking our nose in the wrong spot is just pointless. Plus... well... that's exactly what Russia did right? Shouldn't you be equally condemning then instead of just pulling the usual traitor rhetoric for a hearty laugh? Too many big words for you?

        March 7, 2014 at 4:23 pm |
      • Drive Spring

        Thank you FauxPolitics, for pointing that out.

        April 7, 2014 at 5:27 am |
  11. John Savard

    The new Cold War began when underhanded tactics were used to interfere with Gary Kasparov's election campaign, and it was beyond doubt when Georgia was invaded. NATO should now have its troops in Georgia, the Ukraine, and the Baltics, so that Russia knows nuclear escalation would be the likely result of any future escalation – and then ethnic Russians should be expelled from the Baltics because of the way they've been used as pretexts. That, and a total trade embargo, will show Russia what its actions bring.

    March 5, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Good grief John, you sound like another hillbilly Tea Partier from the South. First of all, back in 2008 the Georgians opened fire on a group of South Ossetians, killing 10 or 12 Russian soldiers in the process. The Russians had every right to retaliate. Besides, I never seen you post anything about the obscene butchery in Afghanistan and Pakistan carried out by those cowards operating those ungodly drones from some air conditioned office here in the U.S.

      March 6, 2014 at 11:31 am | Reply
    • Beijing expat

      I believe the Russians have already prepared for this contingency. Like the Chinese all new buildings parking garages double as bomb shelters. I am not aware of any plans to protect the mass of citizens from nuclear war in the west.

      March 10, 2014 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  12. Muin

    I don't think it matters to west what Putin wants. New cold war already started because of Putin's direct interference on syria. So, this will continue. Strategically Putin is not well position to win the long game.

    March 6, 2014 at 4:29 am | Reply
  13. William

    Olga, Seriously? You're that naive? "New" Cold War? The Cold War was never over, it merely took on a different shape after the USSR break-up.

    March 6, 2014 at 7:46 am | Reply
  14. sallyedelstein

    Cold War fears of Soviet aggression are coming out of the deep freeze.
    Despite protestations by President Obama that "this is not the cold war," the big chill between Obama and Putin sure feels like the cold war might be reheated. Having caught a cold war chill I never could quite shake, the current frosty relations between Obama and Putin send a shiver down my spine, as childhood memories of the cold war are quickly defrosted. A visual look at truth, lies and the cold war

    March 6, 2014 at 11:33 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      What most Americans need to do, sallyedelstein, is to lose their ignorance over Russia and learn more about their culture. This kind of fear only plays into the hands of the right-wing thugs in Washington!

      March 6, 2014 at 11:38 am | Reply
    • Amanda.Bon

      Putin's Russia did not physically participate in any international conflicts of the past decades.. while the US was involved in like a dozen. So who is the real evil? It would be stupid for Putin not to step into the Ukranian conflict and defend his national interests, if people see it as "Cold war threat".. well, too bad.

      The US is too greedy, they shouldn've messed with Russia through finansing the Ukrainian extremists.. It is the US who brought the "cold war" onto the world

      March 7, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  15. Joseph McCarthy

    Does Vladimir Put want another Cold War? Of course not, but the right-wing thugs in Washington do! For some of them, the Cold War never ended.

    March 6, 2014 at 11:33 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Sorry folks for the misprint above. I meant Putin, not Put.

      March 6, 2014 at 11:35 am | Reply
    • John Savard

      Good post, Joseph. I agree.

      March 6, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      The situation is indeed getting dire. The MIC may eventually be faced to pick a war with another country that Russia and China have no real interest. Once the Ukraine crisis calms down, I suspect the contingency will be to initiate a war somewhere in Africa or South America.

      March 7, 2014 at 9:23 am | Reply
  16. janelasdedeus

    Mr. Putin appears to act tactically, but not strategically. He never thinks of the long term consequences of his actions... and thus the prospect of a Cold War never really enters his mind. After all, if it did, he would recall that the Soviet Union lost that conflict precisely because it could not keep up with modern technological developments as a totalitarian state. That requires openness and creativity. The only creativity that occured in the old Soviet Union was the writing of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn... whose work Putin has never read.

    March 6, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Reply
    • Amanda.Bon

      Mr Putin is a brilliant ex-KGB agent, and he is clearly thinking long-term, this is precisely why he would never let go of the Ukraine.

      The fact that you don't see how he is acting strategically shows how far ahead of you he is in his rationale

      March 7, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Reply
  17. Joe Balderrama

    Enough it`s time to put an end to Puttin and Russia , ""FIRE "" Half of our " ICBM`S " and lets see what Happen . We can not afford another Cold War , save the other half for China if need Be. But Enough ,if obama does not have the frame of mind move him over and let the Military Defend this county from this " BULLY ":

    March 6, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • Joe Balderrama

      Sorry folks, I didn't post that stupid comment above. It looks like somebody's trying to make me look like an idiot. Even a three year old knows better than that!

      March 6, 2014 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  18. valwayne

    Putin doesn't want a new cold war and he doesn't think anything he has done will lead to one. Putin has Obama's number. Obama surrendered and gave up middle defense and got nothing for it. Obama surrendered lifted the hardest sanctions on Iran counting on Putin to help end their nuclear program and Iran will soon have NUKEs. Obama drew a RED LINE in Syria, surrendered, got played by Putin and is now guaranteeing Assad the mass murderer stays in power. Putin knows how truly weak, inept, and INCOMPETENT Obama is. He's played him for a complete fool for over 5 years and hold him in complete contempt. Putin knows he can play Obama and win, even while giving him "THE FINGER" in front of the entire world. And Putin is right. Obama isn't going to do anything serious, and Obama last week told us he wants to gut the military to levels we haven't seen since the start of WWII. Even if Obama found a backbone he is gutting the military to a level where we could never sustain a cold war. Putin has won folks. He's beat Obama hands down.

    March 6, 2014 at 9:29 pm | Reply
  19. Joe Balderrama

    No, Vladimir Putin doesn't want another cold war but the right-wing elite politicians in Washington do. They're using this situation in Ukraine in order to scare the American public and generate more money for the war machine while getting their kickbacks. Does anybody here know that the city of Detroit has gone bankrupt to the tune of $18B and all these idiots can do is scream about the Russian "threat"!!!!!!!

    March 6, 2014 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  20. tallaman87

    "during the old Cold War, Moscow was strong"...
    Wrong. During the cold war, Moscow appeared to be strong but the whole Soviet Union failed because it was not strong, it was all a facade. Moscow wants to project strength, but strength comes from a strong economy, worthy ideals, support of the people, international trade and so on. Russia will get traction now because of the way the liberal leftists in America have weakened the US. The US should learn a lesson from what happened to the USSR, but are following the same path to dissolution – the US will cease to exist in its current state because of its weak economy, socialist ideals, policies that do not have the support of Americans, and eventually protectionism. Thanks Obama for that. 20 years from now the US will be trying to exert influence, like Putin is now, where the US does not have actual power.

    March 7, 2014 at 11:02 am | Reply
  21. FauxPolitics

    These anti-Russian rants are starting to get old. What a bunch of idiots!

    March 7, 2014 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  22. Amanda.Bon

    This is the end of the American domination on the world stage of politics. Welcome to the bipolar world!

    March 7, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, Amanda. Now let's all hope you're right.

      March 8, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  23. Evy Wilson

    Since when is the massacre of over eighty protesters and civilians okay? And exactly how is it justifiable (at the behest of the architect of this crisis, the corrupted and deposed former President) that Russian troops invade their country? Russia, as all free countries around the globe today, has the right to negotiate diplomatically with their neighbouring countries – something welcomed by the Ukrainian nation. If that purpose fails, still other options may be explored. This approach is known as modern civilized society.

    March 8, 2014 at 9:49 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said, Evy. Unfortunately, these are those right-wing nut jobs in Washington like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who believe that only murder solves all problems!

      March 8, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Reply
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