Cold War II
The Russo-Ukrainian war offers insight into the likely emergence of a new Cold War
As the war in Ukraine grinds into its third month, it is not too early to start asking what lessons we might take from the conflict. One set of lessons focuses on the tactical—how man-portable precision-guided munitions appear to have reduced the value of large-scale armor formations. Another perspective focuses on the lessons flowing from the risks and rewards of NATO expansion over the past two decades. Pulling further back, looking at the conflict from the perspective of the entire international system, the Russo-Ukrainian war provides essential information about the likely emergence of a new Cold War.
For the past decade, pundits and serious analysts alike have questioned whether or not the U.S.-led liberal system is becoming locked into a zero-sum bipolar conflict with a Chinese-centric system
For the past decade, pundits and serious analysts alike have questioned whether or not the U.S.-led liberal system is becoming locked into a zero-sum bipolar conflict with a Chinese-centric system. The competition would be between a loose collection of authoritarian states led by China and a network of alliances and trade agreements between the systems’ liberal democracies. The autocratic side would include Russia, not as a spoiler but as a central figure in the competition between the international system’s two leaders—the United States and China.
The Korean War of 1950-1953 provides a useful comparative case to understand better how the Russo-Ukraine War is transforming the international system. The transformation is not so much material but in the form of a significant shift in Western beliefs about Russian and Chinese intentions. Before the North Koreans invaded South Korea, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a National Press Club Speech, stated that Asian countries were on their own to a significant extent. Moreover, America’s Asian friends could not count on the United States to come directly to their assistance. While the Secretary’s intentions remain disputed, it is clear he did not lay down an unambiguous deterrent statement.
The North Korean invasion changed Truman’s mind and also that of the people in his administration and the Republican leadership all at the same time
The North Korean invasion changed Truman’s mind and also that of the people in his administration and the Republican leadership all at the same time. For example, the policy document NSC 68—earlier that year laid out a vision that the Soviets and international communism were on the march. In this view, the United States needed to significantly increase its defense spending and become much more aggressive in confronting communism and global aggression. But at the time, it had been seen as far too provocative. The North Korean invasion essentially made that policy document - NSC 68 - come to life.
Before the North Korean invasion, there had been a debate between those supporting the continuation of FDR’s somewhat apologetic policy of engagement and accommodation towards the Soviets and those like George Kennan, who advocated a less conciliatory containment policy. The North Korean invasion quickly created a consensus regarding Soviet intentions. When the war between the North and South in Korea ended, the border had not shifted. An observer looking at the world in 1949 and 1953 might have concluded that nothing had changed. But everything having to do with ideas or beliefs about each side’s intentions towards the other had shifted dramatically.
That shift in beliefs regarding Soviet and Chinese intentions produced the consensus that the East and West, communists and capitalists, totalitarians and democrats, were engaged in an existential struggle. That struggle came to be accepted and known to all as the Cold War. The United States never demobilized significantly again until the mid-1990s. The Korean War led to 45 years of enhanced military mobilization and sustained aggression of the U.S. and its NATO allies toward the Soviet Union. Absent the Korean War, the trajectory of the Cold War might have been very different. Why? Because it was the Korean War that generated the bipartisan consensus regarding Soviet and Chinese intentions. Today, the war in Ukraine is having the same sort of effect on western beliefs about Russian and Chinese intentions.
If we look at U.S. politics, aside from the far left, which has traditionally been solidly anti-war, and the far-right, traditionally isolationist, we now see a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. and NATO should support as necessary the Zelensky government. This is an amazing development. Anyone following American politics will observe historically extreme partisanship and political polarization over the past few years. This emergence of a centrist consensus that the United States needs to support Ukraine and directly confront Russia is something most would not have anticipated three months ago.
If we look at arms transfers, they are increasing, not decreasing. The U.S. has now transferred fully one-third of its entire Javelin stock to the Ukrainians. We have transferred roughly one-quarter of our total Stinger missile stocks to the Ukrainians. Over the past week, the shipment of some 80 155mm howitzers and close to 200,000 artillery shells accompanying them represents an important escalation. Unlike the man-portable missiles sent to this point, these 9,000-pound crew-served weapons systems require substantial logistical support.
Just as the Korean War did, the Russo-Ukraine War is leading to shifts in attitudes on nuclear weapons and their possible use
Just as the Korean War did, the Russo-Ukraine War is leading to shifts in attitudes on nuclear weapons and their possible use. Concerns about the constraining effects of New-START—the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks agreement signed in 2010-11 by the Obama administration—have led to planning for new deployments of tactical nuclear weapons and delivery systems. New-START did not cover tactical or short-range nuclear weapons nor advanced conventional weapons systems like Hypersonic glide missiles. While the U.S. dismantled most of its tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles, the Russians did not. While the U.S. delayed development and deployment of hypersonic missiles, the Russians and Chinese did not.
Russian comments on possible nuclear escalation and the reported use of hypersonic missiles in attacks on Ukraine are leading to significant concerns that the U.S. and NATO may have put themselves in a difficult spot due to that treaty. We see this with the United States planning to deploy sub-kiloton nuclear weapons to Great Britain, where they can be mated with existing F-35s. This redeployment of nuclear weapons to Great Britain is, again, a significant shift in policy.
Recent comments by a Russian general in the past week suggest that Russian intentions are eventually to control the entire southern tier of Ukraine to Transnistria. This implies Russian war aims far broader than liberating Russian-speaking people in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Similar shifts in the Biden administration’s stated policy are equally stunning. Secretary of Defense Austin explained that U.S. war aims now include degrading Russian military capabilities to the point where they cannot again threaten their neighbors. Secretary of State Blinken similarly stated that the U.S. will continue to support Ukraine and “weaken the Russian Government’s position and further isolate them from the world until Russia ends its unprovoked and unjustified war on Ukraine.”
NATO seems highly likely to expand again to include Finland and Sweden. This is a policy shift whose impact is almost impossible to underestimate. It represents a reversal of a 70-year neutrality policy for both the Swedes and Finns. By joining the alliance, Sweden and Finland will enhance NATO capabilities and improve the alliance’s ability to defend the Baltic States. The irony here is that it was NATO expansion that fueled Russia’s grievances towards the west in the first place. By invading Ukraine, Russia has locked in the single Western policy it hated most.
Moreover, other NATO states are now working sincerely towards meeting the alliance’s defense spending expectations. For the first time, Germany is now willing to ship armaments to its neighbors. These are enormous policy shifts that two or three months ago would individually have been unanticipated, collectively unimaginable.
The combined weight of the war and the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by Europe and the U.S. are starting to batter the Russian economy. Initially, and in part, the sanctions were largely symbolic and in part why deterrence failed. No more. Over the next few months and years, we will see a substantial decoupling of Russia from the Western economy. At the same time, China’s unwillingness to join in the isolation of Russia and Iran signals their intentions regarding increasing confrontation and competition with the western democracies versus more accommodation and integration.
The war’s impact on the U.S. and the world’s economy will be significant and long-term, just as the Korean War was through the 1950s. Today, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the United States and global economies are heading towards a recession. Former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers pointed out last week that in the previous 70 years, there is only one example of the U.S. Federal Reserve being able to contain inflation without at the same time inducing a significant recession. Given that the inflationary pressures of the war have not been fully absorbed yet by markets, we are likely to see substantial interest rate increases over the next few months both in the United States and in Western Europe. The impact of this on government debt, much of which currently carries zero or negative absolute interest rates—well, we are in uncharted territory.
Politically, just as the Korean war ushered in a republican administration after over twenty years of democratic leadership, the upcoming mid-term elections may signal the coming of a sustained period of a Republican majority. If this occurs, it will lead to extraordinary policy shifts as we look to the future. As was the case during Cold War I, we can expect to see energy linkages between the Europe Union and Russia continue to disentangle over the next few years. Declining interdependence may ironically provide a substantial boost for green policies and politics and nuclear power in western Europe, an approach many in France have supported for decades.
To conclude, if we look at the future tension and competition between the liberal unions of American and European states and the authoritarians led by China and Russia, a new Cold War is emerging. This Cold War II will turn on geographic, economic, and nuclear competitions. The physical boundaries will be sharpest along the fault lines between NATO and Russia in the west and China and its nine-dashed line in the east. These edges will likely sharpen, not blur, as the nature of the new Cold War II becomes increasingly apparent. China’s intentions to develop a dual-circulation system are hints in that direction.