Not Your Father's Cold War

Blog Post
Wednesday, May 18, 2022

This week on Facing the Future, we focus on the ongoing war in Ukraine. Already the war  has taken the lives of thousands of innocent civilians, contributed greatly to rising energy costs, and may bring dramatic shifts in US foreign policy, energy policy, and strategic alliances that could impact our economy and federal budget for decades. We were fortunate to have as a guest this week Dr. Adam Stulberg, Sam Nunn Professor and Chair in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech University.   Concord Coalition policy director Tori Gorman and national field director Phil Smith joined me for the conversation.

Our discussion focused on the differing perspectives that Russia, the United States and its NATO partners have on the post-Cold War security order, why Americans should care about the war and what constitutes “victory.” For starters, Dr. Stulberg says the tensions that led to the current conflict have been building for 30 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and very different visions of what that meant.

“Our view of course is that we won the Cold War, and with that victory comes the expansion of the liberal political and economic order on the security front that is manifested by the expansion of NATO, as well as our market and democratic systems,” Stulberg said. “From the Russian view, and not just the Kremlin’s view or Putin’s perverted views, but the Russian strategic community sees that Russia too was a victor in the collapse of the Soviet Union where Russia cast off the yoke of the distorted communist ideology, and was then poised to work with the West to fashion a new Euro-Atlantic security architecture, that would not just be an expansion of the Western liberal order.”

Stulberg says the American and European view sent the signal over time that the west still viewed Russia as a threat. The domestic politics of this played right into the hands of Vladimir Putin who claimed Western moves were an attempt to undermine and weaken Russia.   Stulberg also points out that fundamental differences between how we define conflict and war vs. how Russian leadership views those terms explain Russia’s reaction to the imposition of Western sanctions against Putin’s government.

“In the United States, we generally think about sanctions as an alternative to war. We use them as a signal, to put pressure on a state as opposed to using our military force. Once we escalate from sanctions to the use of kinetic force, then we consider ourselves at war,” said Stulberg.  “Since 2012 the concept of war has morphed in Russia, where war is not just about military violence.  To them, war can be waged through information technology, cyberwar–they have blurred the concepts of peace and war. They see that using economics, access to energy, information technology are all instruments of war in this broader context. When we issue sanctions on Russia, they see it in the context of already being at war, and therefore they may respond not necessarily reciprocally through sanctions. They may escalate their use of cyber, information warfare, or potentially kinetic warfare in other parts of the world.” 

As the war has progressed, American and European policy makers have tried to leverage the poor performance of the Russian military to  aggressively arm the Ukranians and force a grand strategic defeat for Russia that will weaken that country militarily and economically for decades.

Stulberg says pursuing such a policy is not only short sighted, but is in essence just buying time for another war with Russia at some point down the road.  And, he says we need to adjust our thinking about what a victory looks like in this war, and that includes whatever designs Russia may have on Crimea or other Ukrainian territory.

“The differences between Russia, Ukraine, and Western interests are not reconcilable.  They are absolute. But the nature of the conflict is really ongoing,” said Stulberg. “At some point, the parties are going to need a more relative understanding of what victory is. How much territorial integrity is Ukraine willing to accept? How much of the cost of securing territory and bolstering these manufactured historical claims is Russia willing to promote? How much of the weakening of Russia is the United States and NATO willing to accept in return for a stable situation on the ground in Ukraine and trying to address the 30 year problem of a Euro-Atlantic security architecture where Russia – no matter who is in the Kremlin – has a stake in that.”  

Stulberg says Americans need to care about this war and how it is ultimately resolved because there are vital economic and strategic consequences.

“We have a lot at stake here,” he said, “because the international order is undergoing transition and many of the old rules and institutions that we had in place worked well for a previous era but are being taxed and arguably, maybe, are not appropriate.”

“The boundaries are not clear and we are in an interdependent world and we were facing these trends toward inflation and already having supply chain problems going into this crisis.” 

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.