Welcome to the New Cold War

Russian troops entered eastern Ukraine on Monday, but the war started in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. For the past eight years, a low-grade war has simmered in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, which border Russia. Russian-backed rebels have proclaimed their independence from Ukraine and the formation of two “people’s republics.” The war has killed some 10,000 people and displaced more than 1 million Ukrainians. As Western media breathlessly announces the “start” of the war in Ukraine, Ukrainians might respond, welcome to the party, pal.

In 2012 I argued that, despite the end of the Cold War, the United States should still see Russia as a hostile great power. I cited the 2008 invasion of Georgia, said that we should “look for the sequel in Ukraine,” and argued that Putin would be happy to let a foreign crisis spiral dangerously to win nationalist plaudits at home. In 2016, I highlighted that “US and Russian interests clash most clearly in Eastern Europe—especially the Baltics and Ukraine.” Later that year I imagined a scenario in which Putin provokes a militarized crisis in Eastern Europe (I suggested Latvia) to test whether NATO was still a meaningful alliance or not.

Nor was I alone. It was not terribly hard, especially after 2014, to understand where all this was going. Putin has been pretty clear about what he wants, and anyone paying attention could see, if not the exact location and timing, at least the outlines of how Putin was likely to play his hand.

Which makes it all the more frustrating to review the history of American and European responses to Russia over the past decade. President Barack Obama mocked Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign for saying Russia was our principal geopolitical foe. “The 1980s called and want their foreign policy back,” he said. I’m sure his speechwriters congratulated themselves for such a quippy line. In fact, compared to what we have gotten, I’d be delighted to have some 1980s foreign policy.

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