Authors: Matthew Crosston and Evgeny Pashentsev
We propose the term “cold hot war” to denote the period in which the world now finds itself and which has significant differences from the previous “cold war.” Within the framework of the old Cold War, military confrontation by the two superpowers was always conducted indirectly. These “proxy” conflicts were between their respective allies where there was an intersection of interests in various regions of the world, but never directly on the physical borders of the two blocs themselves. Consequently, these conflicts never really could elevate to represent an immediate existential threat to the two main superpowers’ survival, as in, they never had the power or intensity to draw the two superpowers directly into conflict with one another. Importantly, this was never by accident, but rather a collision of strategic deterrence plans of the superpowers, always taking into account (and trying to avoid) the risk of direct confrontation. This was the case, for example, with the Korean war, when the United States, weighing all the pros and cons, abandoned the idea of using atomic weapons to achieve its local goals. (Farley, 2017) Today, Russia is pursuing a special military operation in Ukraine to eliminate what it has voiced for several years as just such an existential threat from the United States and NATO, namely the bringing of major weapons and highly trained military personnel (indoctrinated with a strategic philosophy that views Russia as the prime enemy) into a culturally and historically connected territory that is right on Russian Federation borders.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the ultimate threat of world war via possible nuclear annihilation proved to be an effective, albeit risky, strategy in the de-escalation of global tensions. Under what is now considered by historians as one of the most dangerous international situations ever, the leadership of the USSR and USA were motivated and inspired not so much by any formal norms of international law as by a sobering consideration of the consequences of a nuclear war and the damning responsibility of bringing about the apocalypse. It was the initial lack of such concern that led to the two sides entering the crisis to begin with. Yet the awareness of catastrophic consequences, of being on the “edge of the abyss,” was what finally forced both sides to seek a mutually acceptable compromise.
Just as in 1962, there is a critical need to call upon the common rational sense of these conflicting nuclear superpowers (Russia and the United States), both in terms of the amelioration of the current situation in Ukraine and in taking into account Russia’s justified demands for its security guarantees. Those guarantees include the requirement that foreign powers not deploy strike systems near Russian borders, to exclude NATO’s advance to the actual Western edge of Russia, and to withdraw the anti-Russian “defense” organization’s troops back to at least the borders of 1997, when it had encroached quite a ways into what was once Soviet domain (the former Baltic Republics, which are absent any serious potential for the production of conventional and nuclear weapons [unlike modern Ukraine], do not pose a serious threat to the Russian Federation). These demands are seen by the political, diplomatic, and military leadership of Russia as not just rational but aligned philosophically with the demands originally made by the United States when protesting the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rejection of these demands makes it seem like the Monroe Doctrine has been completely forgotten by the United States when it comes to its own behavior around Russia’s borders. Namely, deploying US troops in Central and Eastern Europe and maintaining corrupt, anti-democratic, inept regimes (established at least partially because of interference and support given by the United States and the EU) on the border with Russia simply because they hold anti-Russian views. This is apparently approved by the American elite because it is an efficient way of keeping Russia in jeopardy. It would be interesting to observe Washington’s response today if Russia suddenly decided to revisit the Cuban Missile Crisis circa 2022, deploying offensive weapons systems and anti-American military groups along the southern or northern border of the US. Such brazen disregard for what Russia sees as an obvious diplomatic and military double standard not only causes great harm to international security: it pushes Russia into a situation where it feels it has no choice but to consider more radical initiatives, ones potentially fraught with world war scenarios, in order to have its needs and imperatives taken more seriously.
A number of influential people in the US (including many congressmen, so-called Russian experts, journalists, and retired high-ranking military men) are irresponsibly calling for de facto direct war with Russia (Fox News, 2022), not realizing that flirting with nuclear war means flirting with the destruction of humanity. However, maybe these sentiments are not sincere. Perhaps the politicians in their “ultrapatriotic” statements are guided by cynical opportunism on the eve of midterm elections in America later this year. Perhaps the military/national security industrial complex is guided by the desire to receive ever larger budgetary allocations for an incredibly lucrative arms race. Given such cynicism, maybe it is not illogical that there has even been a public call for the assassination of the Russian President. During a prime-time appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, influential Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stated, “the only way to end the escalating crisis caused by Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine is if Putin’s political allies killed the Russian dictator.” (Baragona, 2022) It is interesting that this statement from one of America’s most powerful and senior Senators did not generate any sensation or controversy at all in the US, when the fact is that if he had said the same statement towards his own president, it would have immediately resulted in his arrest and removal from office. It is this type of reckless irresponsibility (and public indifference to it) that must be overcome if rational and considered diplomacy between the two rivals is ever to return.
Not coincidentally, there is potential for US-China relations to also destabilize rapidly because of this penchant. During a visit to Taiwan, former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (one of President Trump’s most hawkish advisors) called for recognition of the island’s independence from the PRC: “It’s my view the U.S. government should immediately…offer Taiwan diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country.” (Wu, 2022) It is not unthinkable to surmise that if this red line is crossed in Taiwan, then it will lead to China’s decision to ensure the unity of the country militarily. Once again, a potential world war clash emerges because of the American willingness to make statements that flaunt the security concerns of powerful countries with whom it should maintain a solid alliance. Instead, America seems more content antagonizing rather than aligning. (Chan, 2022; Reuters, 2022). Unifying this trend, China has even been threatened with punishment (Wu and Leonard, 2022) for its refusal to comply with US sanctions against Russia. (Asharq AL-awsat, 2022) In fact, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned Beijing that it would “absolutely” face consequences if it helped Moscow evade sweeping sanctions over the war in Ukraine. “We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country, anywhere in the world.” (Shalal and Martina, 2022).
Inexplicably, the US response to Russian and Chinese security concerns (Ukraine and Taiwan are just the tip of an iceberg of much more serious problems) is apparently to just tell them that they need to adopt anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies? How can one expect this line of thinking to achieve anything but an exacerbation of conflict? Of course, nuclear conflict is not Washington’s ultimate goal. But the economic and political fealty of Russia and China is. Perhaps if Washington could transform Russian interests so that they were more aligned with American ones, it would be like turning Russia into a future equivalent of Ukraine, ie, a de facto agent for American deterrence, creating a joint nuclear threat aimed at preventing the rapid power emergence of China? All these maneuvers are strategies meant to ensure American “influence dominance” even as the global community grows more complex with more powerful players entering the game. Is it possible the world can only hope America is right in thinking that no matter how pushed Russia and China can be against their own security interests, they will not press the nuclear option in desperation? It is scary but fascinating to see how much American policy rests firmly on Putin being both insane (justifying what is being done to stop him in Ukraine) and rational (not worrying about him starting a nuclear war) at the same time.
Recently, in January 2022, the permanent members of the UN Security Council adopted the “Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races,” in which they stated: “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” (The White House, 2022) While most people in Ukraine, Russia, and surrounding countries want a peaceful resolution to this armed conflict, it seems the West will not respond to Russia’s security concerns simply because those concerns operate against American elites’ self-interest. More concerning, this possible militaristic frenzy has the potential to lead to many decisions that will stimulate an arms race and make Europe much less safe than it is today. Security can only be mutual, based on relevant contractual obligations and real actions that create an atmosphere of mutual trust. To Moscow, Russian security will never be American security reimagined. Russian security simply cannot be anti-Russian. Washington would do well to remember that.
The previous two world wars have shown that numerous conferences, mutual promises, treaty agreements, and well-meaning international organizations do not by themselves save the world from war. But how many times will we recklessly walk the conflict tightrope before humanity finally gets unlucky? Do we really want to find out the answer to this question? To date, many fundamental works have been written that point out the imperfection of the international security system. It is both possible and necessary to propose new legal mechanisms and diplomatic structures for regulating international relations in these new contexts of conflict. But this alone will not solve everything. Only by accommodating the true nature of socio-economic and political relations to the realities of the 21st century, by strengthening their socially-oriented and democratic components using a wide range of advanced technologies, will it be possible to avoid the threat of world war. It is true, we must not ignore the lessons of the past. But we must also free ourselves from the dogmas and paradigms of the past which push us into the same old relationships and same old mistakes. It is precisely because of such pressure from the dark pages of history that we are experiencing the Ukrainian tragedy today. Emerging into a better future for humanity demands that we strategically innovate together instead of strategically against one another. This is the only way out of the current crisis.