Putin’s Cold War II

The Russian leader is itching for a fight, but don’t expect the Obama administration to do much about it.

For many of us older Cold War veterans, watching Russia as it has evolved over the years has been a combination of a sick comedy and tragedy. Indeed, it has moved steadily from post-Cold War chaos back to the Russian “comfort zone” of pugilism, border expansion, total corruption and, more recently, renewal of the strategic nuclear competition, accompanied with blatant – and traditional Soviet-style – cheating on arms control agreements.

Even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned of a return to a cold war. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin tests NATO and the West’s resolve by accreting more and more of the Ukraine, blatantly violating U.S. and NATO airspace and pursuing bilateral relationships with radical and terror-sponsor Iran. And, rather than worry about a return to the bleak and corrupt days of communism, many Russians seem to embrace these moves in the name of patriotism and a resurgent nationalism. In short, Putin is now playing these various moves for both a domestic and world audience, especially the Chinese, with whom he imagines a “grand alliance” against the U.S. and the West.

At the same time, we seem to have all but forgotten the Cold War, and most of our senior staff (with few exceptions) in government today (e.g., the State Department, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council), weren’t involved in it at all. And if they were, they were on the wrong policy side of the issues during the 1970s and 1980s – i.e., that of multilateral and academic liberals who favored various accommodations (read: concessions) with the Soviets. This political klatch – which was at it’s absolute worst during the Carter administration – was proven wrong when the old Soviet Union imploded after eight years of unrelenting and carefully measured stress applied during the Reagan administration.

A few years ago, I wrote an op-ed characterizing Russian “president for life” Putin – he will be there until he is forcibly removed, Soviet style – as simply an old-fashioned KGB thug who was operating just as the Soviet apparatchiks had operated for 70 years, but under the guise of being a Russian “populist” leader. Now, of course, he’s using classic 19th-century Russian expansionist tactics to justify intervention into neighboring states based on a contrived response to the “oppression” of ethnic Russians.

And in this respect, my guess is that he will eventually take – without any real opposition – half of the Ukraine, up to the Dnieper River, which divides the country in two, before he’s done with his latest land grab.

What else will he do? Here’s just a partial list:

  • “Modernize” the Russian ICBM and intermediate nuclear force in total violation of the applicable START and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaties – this is already underway.
  • Continue aggressive cyber attacks against everyone, especially the U.S.
  • Revitalize all the Russian intelligence services, particularly those collecting information on the U.S. and our allies.
  • Facilitate Russian ethnic minorities to foment unrest in their respective East European countries and then justify Russian intervention therein, as in the Ukraine.

And there will be more – so what should we do about it?

Sadly, this is purely an academic question and will remain such for the remainder of the Obama administration. In short, the Obama administration will do little, if anything, to confront Putin’s aggressive acts and plans, irrespective of whether our new Congress is successful in reversing the decline in our ability to influence world events.

Putin clearly sees his competition with Obama as a form of personal combat to determine who is the most powerful man in the world – true to the gangster approach he learned in the KGB, Russia’s former secret police and intelligence agency. He believes he has won, and we can see it in the body language of the two whenever they are in the same room, as they recently were in China.

Not until the 2016 presidential election will Putin be challenged – even then, it will depend entirely on the leadership and political skills of our next two – maybe even three – presidents and whether they are able to sustain the challenge for the duration of what I am calling, “Putin’s Cold War II.” Why so long? Putin isn’t planning to go anywhere for the next 20 years!


This article appeared in the U.S. News & World Report at


Partner & Fellow Blogs