Nato’s organising principle, until the events of 1989-91, was the Soviet threat. However, today’s risks and threats are much less well-defined and unregulated. It is ‘Cold War II’ without the global doctrine of communism, but rather old-fashioned power play and brinkmanship.
While in the Baltic Russia and Nato have signalled that fundamental rules will still be observed and distances both tested and respected, revolutionary dynamics are at work in the Middle East, where deterrence is all but absent. In eastern Europe, a form of hybrid warfare is being waged.
Nuclear weapons provide deterrence of sorts, including self-deterrence. But this is not true of unregulated forms of warfare such as cyber-war, information war, or war by proxy, currently being waged in eastern Ukraine. The long nuclear peace that limited the Cold War is all but over.
Nato’s expansion after the Soviet Union’s collapse presumed a benevolent environment in which Russia was moving towards democracy, the rule of law and a liberalised economy. Little attention was paid to timely warnings. Crimea was Russia’s answer to a question on which the West never seriously reflected: how to organise a concert of Europe without the victors and vanquished.
Vladimir Putin needs external conflict to justify internal repression and vast spending on Russia’s state intelligence service and military. Moreover, Western sanctions against Russia have highlighted a dilemma. Rather than forcing a more co-operative modus operandi, sanctions have helped Putin rally old-fashioned patriotism around the vision of Mother Russia. Ever since the turbulent years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, democracy in particular and the West in general have had a poor reputation in Russia.
The wars of succession were not long in coming after the Soviet Union imploded. Nato expansion was only part of the answer. Russian leaders thought in geopolitical terms and dreamed of reorganising the neighbourhood under the name of the ‘near abroad’. The West argued that having Nato on the other side of the border was good for Russia.
Russia remained unconvinced. There were elements of convergence – non-proliferation and counter-terrorism, drugs and piracy, as well as the September 2001 attacks on the US. But these were not sufficiently strong to call a new global system into being, as suggested by the sole surviving superpower. Russia’s answer, on display in Sochi two years ago, was ‘New order, or no order!’
The risk of ‘hot’ confrontation – by accident, design, or a combination of both – is greater than it has been since the height of the Cold War. New forces are at work. New and unexperienced leaders are oblivious to the second world war or the risk of nuclear confrontations horrible enough to impose, through fear and reason, a rough balance on the superpowers.
Both sides are relying on asymmetric arsenals. Russia uses military hardware and software where it feels strongest, maskirovka (the military doctrine of surprise through deception) and cyberspace. The West imposes sanctions without fully understanding that they are equally peaceful and war-like. Both sides follow the inherent logic of escalation to a greater or lesser extent. Neither side seems to heed the Clausewitzian advice that war fighting must never get out of political control.
Things are likely to have to get worse before they get better and some form of stable balance is restored. In this new ‘great game’, nobody knows the distance between brinkmanship and Armageddon.
Michael Stürmer is chief correspondent of Die Welt, a former adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.