The news that the Israeli Defense Forces are stepping back from the fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and that a three-day cease-fire has been extended, is not only a promising move toward negotiations in the region but also points to other national tragedies that need similar attempts at peacemaking.
The global list of civil wars is disturbingly long: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Central Africa, the Xinjiang region of China. The most challenging of them all to global comity, however, is Ukraine. The winter coup that chased out the elected government quickly led to a contest of surrogates representing the U.S. and its NATO allies on Kiev’s side and Moscow and its Donbas-region separatists on the other.
Ukraine’s civil war can best be regarded as a naked power struggle between Moscow and Washington in much the same way the Cold War’s civil wars in Eastern Europe, Korea, Congo, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia and Central America were surrogate battlefields.
I confer often with NYU’s Stephen F. Cohen, a professor of Russian history, and Cohen has long argued in depth that we are witnessing a new Cold War between Moscow and Washington. Of all the military contests occurring worldwide, the escalating struggle in Ukraine between the two nuclear-armed global powers surely looks to be the most perilous.
At the same time, the breakdown between Moscow and Washington offers possibilities for large-scale solutions that are both promising and challenging.
Russian peace plan
The Kremlin is preparing a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East that will combine all of Moscow’s extensive alliances and relationships. Over the last several years, Moscow has strengthened its long-standing support for Tehran and Damascus as well as its strategic relationship with Turkey.
What is new this past year is that Moscow has carefully developed a working relationship with the newly elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt as well as maintaining a confident dialogue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Moscow also speaks of its conversations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and a recent visit by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought an understanding of the common interest to confront the anarchy of the Islamic militants.
Combining all these points of view, Moscow looks to be in a strong position to develop a regional armistice between the two major adversaries, Riyadh and Tehran. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long used the surrogates of the Al Nusrah front to battle Tehran’s surrogate, the Assad regime in Syria. The Islamic Republic of Iran has long used its Al Quds Force agents of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah militants to bedevil the kingdom. Tehran also boasts financial and military support of Hamas against both Israel and Egypt.
The Ukraine crisis has created a global standoff as well, so that the two superpowers are now actively enlisting allies just as they did in the 20th century Cold War.
Moscow is the one member of the United Nations Security Council that can bring all these state and non-state actors to the peace table. Moscow has already demonstrated its bona fides in successfully demobilizing Syria’s chemical weapons.
New Cold War
By contrast, Moscow cannot manage to advance a peace plan for Ukraine that is acceptable to the Obama administration. President Barack Obama says he wants a local diplomatic solution that starts with Russia breaking off its military support for the separatists. President Vladimir Putin says he wants a local diplomatic solution that starts with the U.S. breaking off its support for Kiev, which now includes $27 million in military aid for the “national guard” attacking Russian separatists in cities of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
Despite the grave enmity now obvious between the superpowers, Obama denies this is a new Cold War, or, as Time magazine’s headlines writers argue, Cold War II.
“What it is,” Obama argued after his most recent telephone exchange with Putin, “is a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path.”
Recent U.S. allegations that Russian is violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and recent doubts about cooperation in space, indicate that the present dispute is about far more than Ukraine – just as Vietnam’s civil war was about far more than Ho Chi Minh’s revolution.
The Ukraine crisis has created a global standoff as well, so that the two superpowers are now actively enlisting allies just as they did in the 20th century Cold War. The U.S. holds onto NATO with funds and promises. Russia is busy assembling allies in the Middle East and Latin America while gathering its BRICS partners closer. Escalation and confrontation are the hallmarks of Cold War competition: the US and EU sanctions program has now beenanswered by Moscow with a sanctions program against Western companies.
Cohen argues convincingly that the present escalation between Moscow and Washington is taking us closer to global war than at any time since the end of the Soviet Union. Putin is by no means the militarist within the Kremlin, where strong anti-American voices have been growing since what the Kremlin sees as American deceptions in the Libyan civil war. The U.S. allegedly promised that Muammar Gaddafi would not be removed and that there would be a diplomatic solution to the crisis, in exchange for Russia not using its veto in the UN Security Council.
I have written repeatedly that Kremlin officials are working closely with counselors for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Europe feels pulled apart by the hawks of Moscow and Washington.
What worked during the worst of the Cold War in the 1960s was for Moscow and Washington to find a way to start peace talks not just about regional civil wars but also about the absence of trust in the adversary’s worldview.
President Lyndon Johnson, in despair in March 1968, took the bold risk of announcing a cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam in preparation for starting the Paris peace talks. The Obama administration is not showing readiness to follow a course of de-escalation in eastern Europe as the Johnson administration did in Southeast Asia five decades ago, albeit in a much more violent war.
Meantime, while Washington dithers, Moscow is ready to seize the international stage by proposing what looks to be a policy of detente in the Middle East.