Three questions: (1) Are we in a new cold war? (2) Could we have prevented it? (3) How to handle it?

Harvard’s Stephen Walt sees no cold war, just bad U.S.-Russian relations. Granted, messianic Marxism-Leninism has expired. Two blocs do not nervously face each other in the center of Europe. Now Russia is junior partner to China, whose Belt and Road Initiative aims to integrate Eurasia.

But there are worries. In February, Russian mercenaries attacked an oil site in northern Syria and ran into U.S. special operators, who killed dozens. Such a direct clash came close but never occurred during the Cold War. Conflict in cyberspace will not stay there.

“Inherent bad faith” — our inability to trust one another — has returned. Moscow now swears that it has no ground forces in Ukraine or Syria, has transferred no nuclear technology to North Korea, conducts no disinformation campaigns, never meddled in U.S. elections and poisoned no Russians in Britain. Eventually, one doubts their veracity. Both intervene in the other’s politics, but the Russians have done a better job.

Was hostility inevitable? Authoritarian dictatorships have an Orwellian need of an outside enemy to hate. Putin no less than Stalin needs the fear of American encirclement. Tehran gets thousands of Iranians shouting “Death to America.” North Korea portrays a bloodthirsty U.S. in order to build nukes amid starvation. Chinese schoolbooks teach hatred of America. Hard to deal with regimes based on fear and loathing of you.

Could we have avoided Russian hostility by not expanding NATO? Secretary of State James Baker seemed to promise — there was no written agreement — no expansion as the USSR crumbled, but within a few years all former Soviet satellites plus the Baltic states demanded NATO membership. Understandably, Moscow felt threatened.

Expansion yielded new problems, but could we have avoided it? Outside of NATO, East Europe feared Russian domination again. Should we have just stood by? The Warsaw Pact could, theoretically, have been neutralized into a buffer zone, an old geostrategic device. It worked with Finland and Austria, but they were on the losing side in World War II, and neutrality was better than Soviet occupation.

Russia always sought a protective shield to its west — whence it has been invaded many times — and would not have been satisfied with mere Polish neutrality. Whether NATO expanded or not would not have assuaged Moscow’s territorial anxiety. Stalin achieved the shield with the satellitization of East Europe from roughly 1946 to 1989, but few East Europeans liked it.

A strictly worded neutrality treaty — “introducing any foreign military forces in one buffer state voids the whole agreement” — would be quickly violated, possibly by all parties, including the neutralized states. Military confrontation would return. Mearsheimer argues that all major powers try, in the name of security, to dominate their neighbors. We do it best.



More broadly, hostility and fears lead to arms races. No one dares fall behind. Stalin, whose spies informed him of the Manhattan Project, knew he needed nuclear weapons and tested his first in 1949. Khrushchev’s missile inferiority — we outnumbered Soviet missiles 17-1 — pushed him to put missiles in Cuba. (Note how Kennedy’s 1960 campaign insistence that we were inferior shows the U.S. side of this tendency.)

Now Putin boasts of nuclear-powered cruise missiles and long-range nuclear torpedoes that can blow up any U.S. harbor. Be skeptical here: Khrushchev boasted of “turning out rockets like sausages,” but his Potemkinism — an old Russian device — faked power to hide fear and weakness. (Increasingly, the Soviets couldn’t turn out sausages, either.)

What should be U.S. strategy? Here again we can take a cue from the Cold War: Keep things steady until economic weakness undermines Russian power. The Russian state commands the economy and simply exports commodities. State-linked oligarchs and siloviki (strong men) cache their gains abroad rather than invest them in Russian enterprises.

When oil topped $100 a barrel, benefits trickled down to average Russians, but at half that, living standards fall. Our most potent long-term advantage is having world oil production slightly higher than demand. A 1-percent surplus will do. U.S., Saudi and, heck, even Iranian and Venezuelan oil production serves this function, as do electric cars.

Corruption is high, and Russians and Chinese know it. Beijing tries to rein it in, probably in vain. Russia doesn’t even try, as capital flight keeps oligarchs loyal. Both populations are aging. Most Russians and Chinese like the security of one-man rule — they fear chaos and foreigners — but it is long-term weak.

Human rights are not trivial. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act settled Europe’s borders, which Moscow took as a triumph. But Helsinki also included political freedoms, which East Europeans used to chip away the Communist monopoly, leading to the dramatic upheavals of 1989.

A Chinese Party member once told me that the U.S. should emphasize Beijing’s sorry human-rights record, that the regime quietly pays attention. How to communicate this to the current White House?