Maxim Malinovsky / AFP / Getty Images

Cold War 2.0 bodes ill for Europe

Putin’s war in Ukraine has redivided Europe, to almost everyone’s detriment

March 16, 2015 2:00AM ET

Berlin — On the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s breach, Europeans hoped to celebrate the continent’s liberation from the onerous strictures of the East-West conflict. But instead they woke up to a redivided Europe and a costly, debilitating new Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power play in Ukraine has put an abrupt end to a quarter-century of relative peace and cooperation among major European powers. It is virtually inconceivable that Russia will return Crimea and pressure separatists to cooperate with Kiev. As such, for the foreseeable future, a divided Europe will prevail, to the detriment of just about everyone except the world’s arms manufacturers.

The new Iron Curtain

The fronts of Cold War 2.0 run through Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, where Russia or Russian proxies have captured and occupied parts of those states. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union stand on one side, with Russia and the Moscow-led Eurasian Union on the other. The blocs and the borders may not be as rigid or forbidding as the days of the Iron Curtain, but the ongoing confrontation, distrust and zero-sum tactics look strikingly familiar. Now trade, travel, diplomacy and security in Europe will all happen in the context of a divided continent, with every move calculated in terms of strategic one-upmanship and with one side’s loss being the other’s gain.

A year ago free trade became the first victim in the aftermath of Crimea’s annexation. The escalating economic and financial sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States (we can use the term “the West” once again) have exacerbated Russia’s economic slump and hastened the ruble’s dramatic fall, even if crashing oil prices are the chief culprit. Despite being Russia's biggest trade partner, the EU remains a united front. The Russian economy now faces weaker direct investment and soaring capital flight — indirect consequences of measures that could stay in place for years to come.

In retaliation, Putin barred imports of produce from the EU, the U.S., Canada, Australia and Norway. Food exports from the EU to Russia are worth about 11.8 billion euros annually — nearly 10 percent of the bloc’s agricultural exports. Moreover, by forcing farmers to find substitutes for their largest non-EU export market, the embargo has pushed down the price of many agricultural goods.

Free movement is an inevitable casualty when borders become bulwarks. The first round of sanctions slapped travel bans on top Russian businessmen and Putin’s cronies. Russia responded in kind barring U.S. politicians — including House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as other senators and government officials. Complicated visa requirements and unpredictable frontier controls are an easy way to harass visitors, businesspeople and dignitaries. On March 2, for example, Moscow refused to allow Polish and Baltic politicians into the country for the funeral of slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov.

The kind of border skirmishes, invasion of airspace and tit for tat that characterized the post-WWII hostilities between East and West could become part of everyday life again.

The defining and most perilous characteristic of the first Cold War was the superpowers’ arms race and militarization of front-line states with nuclear weapons. The post-Cold War era initially brought peace dividends as nuclear arsenals were scaled back and defense budgets slashed. While nuclear weapons remained on European soil, they were no longer pointed at one another.

Germany undertook a full-scale overhaul of its armed forces because it no longer saw a threat to its security in Europe. It turned its military into a small volunteer army friendly to women and families, which it outfitted not for defense but for humanitarian missions on other continents.

But things are different now. Military expenditures in Europe will go up at the expense of social, environmental and humanitarian programs. French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s weak negotiating position in Minsk, Belarus, last month put the EU’s military inferiority to Russia on display. It was painfully obvious that their demands lacked clout. The two leaders could threaten Moscow only with further sanctions in order to pressure Putin to withdraw support for the Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine. The option of the U.S. arming Ukraine, which American lawmakers have floated recently, will not change this equation and may in fact trigger a much more forceful response from Russia.

In light of the Ukraine crisis, Germany is rethinking its defense doctrine and the profile of its army, the Bundeswehr. For example, plans to reduce its tank force from 350 to 225 units have been canceled. It ordered 121 light-wheeled tanks last year at the cost of 620 million euros. Germany is now reconsidering the military’s shrinking budget and a planned reduction of its army from 250,00 to 185,000 personnel. Berlin may finally be taking NATO’s admonitions to heart that it increase its military spending to 2 percent of GDP. (Germany currently spends 1.4 percent.)

Poland and the Baltic states are arming at a much faster pace. Poland’s distrust of Russia never waned in the post–Cold War years. With a border with Ukraine and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to its north, Poland sees itself as a front-line state. Warsaw wasted no time last year announcing an extraordinarily ambitious 10-year $42 billion military overhaul, which includes a missile shield and anti-aircraft systems, armored personnel carriers, submarines and combat drones. If Poland acquires cruise missiles, as suggested by some Polish policymakers, the country’s air force could reach targets in Russia without leaving its bases.

Furthermore, NATO has finally rediscovered its raison d’être after years of roaming the wilderness in Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the first Cold War’s security alliance is emerging as a main player in the second: It has reinforced its presence in Central Europe with squadrons of fighter jets as a show of force and strategic tripwire to reassure nervous allies. The strident tone of NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is not foreign to those who lived through the postwar decades. He has called for a credible NATO deterrent in the form of a rapid deployment force of several thousand troops that would remain in a permanent state of high readiness and could act within two days. 

Cross-border hostilities

A Russian invasion of the Baltics or Central Europe is unlikely. But Rasmussen does not rule it out. “This is not about Ukraine,” he told the British press last month. “Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power. There is a high probability that he will intervene in the Baltics to test NATO’s Article 5.” Article 5 is the solidarity clause that underpins collective security.

Still, the kind of border skirmishes, invasion of airspace and tit for tat that characterized the post–World War II hostilities between East and West could become part of everyday life again. In September, for example, Russian security operatives crossed into Estonia and seized a security service officer, who was paraded on Russian television as a spy and imprisoned. The abduction, which took place two days after a visit to Tallinn by President Barack Obama, was the kind of stunt the superpowers pulled in Berlin and Vienna during the first Cold War to flex muscle and send messages of displeasure.

An energy crisis could make things worse. Germany gets more than 35 percent of its oil and gas from Russia. Italy is highly dependent on Russian energy. The Baltics states are fully reliant on Russia for gas.

One element of the first Cold War that doesn’t exist now is the host of emergency security measures, such as the “red phone” that provided direct communication between the Kremlin and the White House, which was in place to check a sudden escalation in tensions. This makes the current standoff even more threatening.

“In the Cold War, we created mechanisms of security,” former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said recently. “A huge number of treaties and documents helped us to avoid a big and serious military crash. Now the threat of a war is higher than during the Cold War.”

The latest contest may not degenerate into a full-blown conflagration. But critical global issues and programs such as climate change, migration flows, nuclear nonproliferation, anti-terrorism and others will suffer from diverted funds and attention. These are cross-border threats that demand transnational cooperation.

In hindsight, the last 25 years will probably look like a unique period when such issues could have been addressed to everyone’s benefit. They weren’t, and it’s history now.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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