Will Vladimir Putin turn the Second Cold War into a burning war?
Last Wednesday, the United States and NATO delivered their written responses to Russian security demands, offering Moscow what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as a diplomatic exit from a dangerous escalation to war.
On Friday, Putin chaired a meeting on national security. But again, the Kremlin gave only an innocuous read and published a brief excerpt of Putin discussing a new foreign policy document.
While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made some brief assessments of the letter – saying the Russians had “no positive reaction” to the main sticking point, the Kremlin’s call for a halt of NATO’s eastward expansion – it was clear that the world would have to wait for a fuller response from Putin.
And Putin can wait. While Western leaders have wept over the Ukraine crisis, Putin is a man who faces very little domestic political pressure. His political opposition has been brushed aside or jailed, he has a docile state media and doesn’t have to think about a re-election campaign in the near future. He does not have to consult an unruly parliament on foreign affairs.
That makes him the man to talk to. French President Emmanuel Macron had a phone call with Putin on the Ukraine crisis on Friday, with the Elysée saying that Putin had told Macron that “he was the only one with whom he could have such an in-depth discussion”.
The summary of the Kremlin appeal signaled Putin’s displeasure with the US and NATO responses, saying the letters “disregarded Russia’s core concerns such as preventing expansion of NATO, the refusal to deploy strike weapon systems near the Russian borders, as well as the return of the military force and the infrastructure of the [NATO] bloc in Europe to 1997 positions,” but the statement said little about how and when Putin planned to respond officially.
On Monday, State Department officials said they had “received a written follow-up from Russia”, but on Tuesday the Kremlin said there had been “confusion” over the issue, insisting that Russia had not yet sent its “main response” to the United States.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s correspondence “dealed with another topic. The main response…has not been delivered, it is still being prepared.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made a separate offer to engage Putin, inviting the Russian president to attend a summit and offering to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. The Kremlin said Putin had agreed, subject to the resolution of the “epidemiological situation”, and no date was set – although Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters on Thursday that he had been informed by the Kremlin that it would be after Putin returns from the Beijing Olympics which begin on February 4.
So, does Putin have all the cards in hand? Will he bide his time until the Winter Olympics, where he will be the guest of Chinese President Xi Jinping? Is he an expert tactician or a poor strategist? Guessing Putin’s master plan may be a pastime for pundits, but the Russian president has made his intentions very clear for a very long time.
There is no need to read Putin’s mind. His words speak for themselves.
In 2007, Putin aired his main grievances at the Munich Security Forum. His argument? The enlargement of the NATO alliance to include former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic States was an act of aggression directed against Russia.
“I think it is obvious that NATO enlargement has nothing to do with modernizing the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe,” he said. “On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation which reduces the level of mutual trust. And we are entitled to ask ourselves: against whom is this expansion intended?
And then there was the stationing of US missile defense assets in Europe. In Putin’s view, missile defense – which Washington touted as a way to counter rogue states such as Iran and North Korea – was actually designed to undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent.
More ominously, Putin said: “I am confident that future historians will not describe our conference as the one at which the Second Cold War was declared. But they could.
This conflict – call it Cold War Lite, or Cold War 2.0 – has gradually escalated since then, through successive crises: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Donbass; the Kremlin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015; Russian interference in the 2016 US elections; the 2018 Salisbury poisonings in England; etc
Putin also constructed a rationale for the war this summer when he published a landmark 5,000-word essay claiming, in essence, that Ukrainians and Russians were one nation. Independent Ukraine, according to him, was an “artificial division” of two peoples – and therefore not a real state.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov said Putin and his government “will not rush to judgement”. Now that Cold War II threatens to turn into a very hot war, the world must wait to see if Putin’s next move signals a turn for the worse in world affairs.