Crimea Crisis: Lessons from the first Cold War

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The Cold War  1961
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Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the U.S. Embassy during their summit meeting in Vienna, 2nd June 1961. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The second Cold War is upon us, or so reporting from Kiev, Brussels, Moscow and Washington leads us to believe. There has been no shortage of ideas for how the West should respond to Russia’s takeover of Crimea — from imposing wide-ranging sanctions on Russian political leaders and oligarchs to inviting Georgia to join NATO. Any accurate recollection of the original Cold War seems to be forgotten. The first Cold War was not all about bluster and one-upmanship. Compromise, trade-offs and skillful, patient diplomacy were a big part of U.S. policy then. U.S. actions were guided by a long-term strategy rather than dueling tweets. If we are in a new Cold War, some lessons of the first one should apply today. We should act accordingly.

Compromise and de-escalation were part and parcel of our policy in the darkest moments of the first Cold War — during the Cuban missile crisis, when the United States agreed to withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union removing its missiles from Cuba. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s resolve to place intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in response to Soviet missile deployments was paired with a serious commitment to find a compromise with Moscow that would avoid further escalation.

Throughout the first Cold War, and especially after the Cuban missile crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union avoided deliberately provocative steps and were careful not to trespass on each other’s important interests. There was plenty of misunderstanding, but the United States would not intervene in 1956, when Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian Revolution, or in 1968, when they suppressed the Prague Spring. Even when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States avoided direct involvement and countered with a covert program. Despite its outrage at the Soviet Union’s actions, U.S. interests did not justify the risks of a more active involvement in those countries.

Our national discourse about the crisis in Ukraine has focused almost exclusively on two objectives: punishing Russia for its takeover of Crimea, and getting it to back down and return Crimea to Kiev’s control. We have engaged in this pursuit even though the odds of either outcome appear to be slim to none. The numbers are well known by now: We do $40 billion worth of trade a year with Russia. Our European allies do 10 times that much. Without the allies, our sanctions will be an empty gesture well suited for election year politics but little else. The allies have made it clear they have no appetite for sanctioning Russia. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration failed to convince Europe not to buy Russian gas from a pipeline then being built from Siberia. What are the odds of changing Europe’s mind now, after two decades of expanding trade and investment in Russia?

Russia is even less likely to return Crimea to Kiev’s control in response to threatened sanctions. Russian presence there is welcomed by a majority of the population. Russian troops control the situation and have encountered little organized opposition. The Russians in Russia approve of their government’s actions. According to a recent poll, more than 70 percent believe that their government should actively defend the rights of Russian-speakers in Crimea. The March 16 referendum on the future of Crimea may be the final step in its reincorporation into Russia.

But if there is still a chance to preserve Crimea within Ukraine, a diplomatic strategy is needed. President Barack Obama’s opening to Russia that would enhance Crimea’s autonomy within Ukraine in exchange for Moscow pulling back its troops is perhaps the last chance at a diplomatic solution before the March 16 referendum in Crimea. If accepted by Russia, it could open doors to negotiations about a comprehensive solution to the crisis in Ukraine leading up to the G8 summit in June, which otherwise is certain to be canceled. It is tempting to cancel the G8 summit now, but why not use it as an opportunity to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin with a tough but pragmatic offer to resolve the crisis? Why not make it a G7&1, where the leaders of the seven industrialized democracies will act in unison and drive a hard bargain with him?

There is no shortage of ideas of what an offer to Russia could look like — from a pledge of no NATO membership for Ukraine (joining NATO was never popular there) to adopting a neutral status to turning it into a federal state that would provide its diverse regions a good measure of autonomy and assure them that local rights would be protected. In exchange, Russia should be asked for a pledge to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. An urgent diplomatic effort to bring the G7 countries together and develop such an offer should be at the top of our policy agenda in the time remaining until the summit in Sochi.

Even more important is helping Ukraine’s economic recovery. The list of what ails its economy is long — corruption, excessive government spending, inefficient energy sector, etc. Unless its economy is reformed, Ukraine’s next 10 years will bring about little more than disappointment and frustration, just as the 10 years since the Orange Revolution have done. If living well is the best revenge, Ukraine’s commitment to shed its crony capitalist past and present and to rebuild its economy is its best weapon.

Eugene Rumer was the senior analyst for Russia and Eurasia at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence until last January. He is currently director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

 

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