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Preventing a New Cold War: A Proposal for Resolving the Ukraine Crisis

A new Cold War is rapidly taking shape. Relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated dramatically this past year as the result of the unfolding civil strife in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accepted and then rejected a trade agreement with the European Union, resulting in popular unrest that led to Yanukovich’s overthrow. Russia then initiated a military occupation and annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a violent conflict has been unfolding within Ukraine between the new government and Russia-leaning separatists in the country’s eastern regions outside Crimea. Both the United States and Russia have responded to this strife by increasing their military presence and activities in Europe and elsewhere, while cooperation between Russia and western powers has been drastically reduced.

This new hostility between the two great powers with the world’s two largest arsenals of nuclear weapons has created a very dangerous situation for both the United States and Russia, as well as many other countries. Relatively small confrontations between these two countries’ militaries have proliferated in 2014 and have the potential to spark a larger conflict, given the current tense situation. Lowering tensions and achieving a more stable American-Russian relationship is imperative. Such a de-escalation of the conflict might well be possible through complex diplomacy that would involve the central players: Russia, the Ukrainian government, the separatists, Europe (both EU and NATO nations), and the United States. These diplomatic negotiations would offer all of them incentives for accepting a negotiated settlement over further confrontation.

Given the understandable suspicion with which many Americans view Russian President Vladimir Putin, the prospect of a diplomatic deal with Russia might seem naïve. A deal that offers incentives to Russia might seem to be rewarding Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Both of these concerns are reasonable. Nevertheless, when the events of the past year are viewed from Putin’s perspective—and placed in the larger context of US-Russian relations over roughly the last 20 years—the Russian president’s actions become understandable, if not justifiable. Appreciating how Putin and other Russians view American actions will illustrate why diplomatic compromise is, for all its shortcomings, a more promising approach than steps such as increasing American military forces in Eastern Europe, offering security guarantees to Ukraine, or even trying to bring Ukraine into NATO.

Ukraine has a special significance for Russia. The two countries have a common Slavic, historically Orthodox Christian culture and a long historical association (with Russia in a dominant position for most of that history). Ukraine is important for the Russian economy, offering access to the Black Sea through its ports and transit for Russian natural gas shipments to Europe. Above all, Ukraine provides Russia with a defense against military ground attack from western powers: the Carpathian mountain range in western Ukraine is a natural obstacle to an invader. If Ukraine were in the hands of an anti-Russian power or allied itself with such a power, Russia would be much more vulnerable to an invader. Given Russia’s historical experience of being invaded from the west—two such invasions took place within the last 100 years, with devastating effects on Russia—Russian leaders would understandably be wary of again becoming vulnerable to such an invasion.

For these reasons, dominance over Ukraine is vitally important to Russia. Russian actions over the last year have been attempts to maintain this dominance in the face of closer EU-Ukraine ties, Yanukovich’s overthrow, and a new, unfriendly Ukrainian government. Meanwhile, American responses to Russia’s actions—denunciations, sanctions, an increased military presence in Eastern Europe—appear to confirm the view that Russia is facing hostile powers in the west and must protect itself.

This view did not originate during the events of the last year, either, but is consistent with American actions, as understood by Russian leaders, over the 22 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. An array of US policies in the interim can quite plausibly be interpreted as forming a pattern of threatening and humiliating Russia.

First, NATO, which was originally created as a military alliance directed at Soviet Russia, has gradually expanded since the end of the Cold War to include Eastern European states formerly part of Russia’s sphere of influence: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This historically anti-Russian military alliance now extends all the way to the Russian border. Further, this expansion may be perceived by the Russians as a blatant violation of an understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union, reached in the last days of the Cold War, that NATO would not grow to include Eastern Europe.

Second, the United States has repeatedly attacked or threatened nations with which Russia has had friendly relations: in 1999, President Bill Clinton bombed the Serbs, another Slavic, Orthodox people; in 2003, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, a long-time Russian ally; in 2013, President Barack Obama seriously threatened to bomb Syria, another Russian ally, and this year actually has bombed Syria. To be sure, the 2014 bombing is aimed at rebel groups opposed to the Syrian government, but that has not prevented Putin from condemning the US bombing campaign in Syria.

Third, the United States has pursued an anti-ballistic missile defense system that could counter the deterrent effect of Russia’s nuclear arsenal; President Bush even went to so far as to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the Soviet Union and United States agreed to in 1972 — along with NATO expansion, this is another instance of the United States apparently breaking its word to Russia. Despite his efforts to “re-set” the US relationship with Russia, President Obama has continued deployment of an anti-missile system.

Given both this history of apparently anti-Russian policies and Ukraine’s importance to Russia, closer economic ties between Ukraine and the EU could reasonably appear to Putin and other Russian leaders as the next step in a strategy by the United States and its European allies to threaten vital Russian interests. Pressuring Ukraine to cancel the EU trade deal, supporting Ukrainian separatists, and annexing part of eastern Ukraine are all strategically understandable, though morally unjust, measures to prevent this important Russian neighbor from falling under anti-Russian influences.

To repeat, none of this justifies or excuses Putin’s actions, nor does it make the Russian president anything other than a ruthless autocrat. This context does make his actions understandable in terms of Russian economic and military self-interest, however, and strongly suggests that attempts by the United States to extend its influence into Ukraine—even if the intention is simply to protect Ukraine from Russia—will be met by further hostile Russian actions. Recognizing this and trying to avoid escalating tensions is not “appeasement” but simply prudence.

The prudence of a less confrontational approach to Russia becomes clearer if we consider a relevant historical parallel. Over 50 years ago, a pro-American ruler of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista was overthrown and replaced by a regime led by Fidel Castro that forged links to the United States’ leading superpower rival, the Soviet Union. The prospect of an anti-American, pro-Soviet nation only 90 miles from the United States led to overt and covert American attempts to undermine the Castro regime, including an attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961. These efforts to overthrow Castro were not justified, whatever American fears of Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere might have been. Nevertheless, the real American aggression toward Castro’s regime did not make the Soviets wise or prudent in placing nuclear missiles in Cuba in the autumn of 1962. Such a policy only aggravated international tensions and brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.

The conflict over Ukraine is not yet as serious a situation as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the situations are similar. The United States should be very sensitive to the risk of playing a role analogous to the Soviets in 1962 and provoking a further escalation of tensions. High international tensions already present one significant danger that parallels what happened in the earlier crisis over Cuba.

While neither Russia nor the United States and its allies seem likely to intentionally initiate a full-fledged war over Ukraine, local confrontations between Russian and western military units—or other incidents that appear threatening—when they take place within an overall context of heightened tension and hostility, could spark a larger conflict before decision makers in Moscow or Washington can assert control over the situation. The historian John Lewis Gaddis has described how in the crisis atmosphere during October 1962 the Soviet Union and the United States came close to war because of a number of small-scale incidents that could easily have been misinterpreted or spiraled out of control: missile tests that could have been mistaken for nuclear attacks; hostile planes confronting each other; and other incidents. As Gaddis notes, “in that highly charged atmosphere, there were numerous ‘close calls’ as unexpected results created, or could have created, the impression that a Soviet attack was under way.”

In the same way, many such volatile encounters involving the United States and Russia have taken place since the Ukrainian conflict began. The European Leadership Network (ELN), a London-based think tank, identified almost 40 confrontational incidents between Russian and western security forces that took place from March to October of this year: “violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs and other dangerous actions…over a very wide geographical area.” Of these incidents, the ELN characterized three as having serious potential to cause “casualties or a direct military confrontation between Russia and western states”:

  • A near-miss took place between a civilian SAS airline flight from Copenhagen to Rome and a Russian reconnaissance plane that did not identify its position. The near-miss took place on March 3, only a few days after Russia sent troops into Crimea.

  • Russian agents abducted Eston Kohver, a member of the Estonian security service, from a border post on Estonian territory on September 5. The Russians subsequently charged Kohver with spying.

  • In late October, Sweden engaged in a search for a possible submarine intruding into Swedish waters. This search might have been prompted by a Russian submarine, although Russian authorities denied responsibility for the incident. If a Russian vessel had been present, however, and the Swedes had followed through on one military officer’s threat to use “armed force” to bring the vessel to the surface, the incident could have become a significant confrontation.

These three incidents might have been, in ELN’s judgment, the most potentially serious confrontations between Russia and western powers, but numerous other disturbing incidents can be listed:

  • Russia tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), designed to carry a nuclear warhead, on March 4, the day after the near-miss with the SAS flight.

  • A US destroyer went on a patrol of the Black Sea in early April and a Russian fighter jet repeatedly flew close to the ship, in an action a Pentagon spokesman called “provocative and unprofessional.”

  • A Russian fighter jet flew very close—within 100 feet—of a US reconnaissance plane over the Pacific in late April.

  • Two Russian bombers flew close to the north coast of Scotland in late April, causing British fighter planes to scramble to intercept the bombers.

  • Russian warships passed by the French and British coasts in early May and were tracked and escorted by those nations’ navies. On the same day that the warships passed through the English Channel, Russia tested three more ICBMs.

  • Two nuclear-capable Russian bombers came close to the coasts of Alaska and California in early June, causing US fighter planes to scramble to intercept the bombers.

  • The Russians conducted yet another ICBM test on September 10.

At another time, many of these incidents would be unremarkable. The March ICBM test was scheduled before the Crimean intervention, for example, and the United States knew of the test beforehand. Russian planes and ships passing by the United Kingdom are routine. The US destroyer’s Black Sea patrol in April was also routine. When these routine incidents occur at a time of great Russian-US tension, however, they can be misinterpreted as unusually hostile moves. Pilots and naval commanders can make bad judgments and violence can ensue. This kind of great power friction is extremely dangerous. Given that the Ukraine conflict has led to both an increased NATO military presence in Eastern Europe and increased Russian military activity as far as the western hemisphere, —moves that both sides are likely to interpret as threating—these kinds of incidents may only increase in number.

Given the risks of prolonged Russian-US hostility, some kind of diplomatic solution that can ease tensions is necessary. An appropriate solution would address Ukrainian and western concerns about further Russian military action in Ukraine and Russian concerns about countering threats from western powers and ensuring its interests in Ukraine. A diplomatic agreement would likely emerge out of negotiations among Russia, the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian separatists, European powers, and the United States and cannot be precisely described beforehand. Some general points that could provide an opening for negotiations among these players and shape the broad outlines of an appropriate diplomatic solution can be identified, however:

1. Russia guarantees the independence and current borders of Ukraine (the annexation of Crimea cannot be remedied at this point but at least further violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity can be prevented).

2. The United States and the rest of NATO guarantee that Ukraine will never be permitted to join NATO. The European Union offers similar guarantees about EU membership. These western powers also pledge not to give any military aid to Ukraine. Russia pledges not to give any military aid to the separatists. Both NATO and Russia agree to withdraw any forces currently in Ukraine.

3. The new Ukrainian government offers a new degree of local autonomy to the Russia-leaning eastern regions of Ukraine, allowing them to use Russian as their primary language and pursue closer trade or other economic ties with Russia.

4. Following up on the trade treaty that, after Yanukovich’s previous rejection, was finally concluded between the new Ukrainian government and the European Union, the United States and European powers should provide a substantial economic aid package to the new Ukrainian government. Such aid might compensate for understandable Ukrainian discontent over points 2 and 3 of this diplomatic deal.

A diplomatic deal with these characteristics would be unsatisfactory in many ways. From a western and Ukrainian perspective, it has the disadvantage of not punishing Putin for the annexation of Crimea and rewards his aggression by offering concessions. From a Russian perspective, it would not eliminate the EU-Ukraine trade deal, it would increase Ukraine’s ties to western powers, and it does not address larger concerns about American power in Europe and the world. Nevertheless, a solution based on these four points would at least offer all the players certain benefits. The Ukrainian government, the European powers, and the United States would receive a guarantee that most of Ukraine would remain an independent state. Russia would receive a guarantee that Ukraine would not become a platform for western threats to Russia. The separatists would receive some degree of autonomy. Such a solution certainly offers more hope than indefinitely prolonged threats, military activities, and great power hostility. It is a step well worth taking.

Photo by Emelia Unchigwa

End Notes:

Sergei L. Loiko, “Russia, 2 European Nations Expel Each Others’ Diplomats,” L.A. Times, November 17, 2014,; Reuters, “NATO Suspends Cooperation with Russia over Ukraine Crisis,” April 1, 2014,

See the discussion of how empathy can be applied to US-Russian relations in Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001), 64-73.

George Friedman, “Ukraine: On the Edge of Empires,” Geopolitical Weekly, December 17, 2013,

For information on NATO expansion and other provocative actions listed below, see Blight and McNamara, Wilson’s Ghost, 85-87; Stephen F. Cohen, “Cold War Again: Who’s Responsible?” The Nation, April 1, 2014,; and Jack F. Matlock, “Who Is The Bully? The U.S. Has Treated Russia Like a Loser since the End of the Cold War,” Washington Post, March 14, 2014,

Karoun Demirjian, “Russia Condemns U.S. Airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria,” Washington Post, September 23, 2014,; David Nakamura, “U.S. Criticizes Russia for Preventing Formation of Coalition for Possible Military Action in Syria,” Washington Post, August 30, 2013,

Reuters, “Putin Says Annexation of Crimea Partly a Response to NATO Enlargement,” April 17, 2014,

John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 272-274.

Ibid., 274.

Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa, and Ian Kearns, Dangerous Brinksmanship: Close Military Encounters between Russia and the West in 2014 (London: European Leadership Network), i,

Ibid., 2-3; Associated Press, “Submarine Hunt Sends Cold War Chill across Baltic,” Washington Post, October 20 2014,; Terry Atlas and David Lerman, “Russia’s Military Encounters Risk Clash in Europe: Report,” Bloomberg, November 9, 2014,

Reuters, “Russia Test-fires ICBM amid Tension over Ukraine,” March 4, 2014,

CBS News, “Russian Jet Makes ‘Provocative and Unprofessional’ Pass at USS Donald Cook,” April 14, 2014,

Associated Press, “Pentagon: Russian Fighter Intercepted US Plane,” Seattle Times, June 2, 2014,

Ewan MacAskill and agencies, “RAF Fighter Jets Intercept Russian Bombers off Coast of Scotland,” The Guardian, April 23, 2014,

Sam Webb, “The Bear in our Backyard: Return of the Cold War as Royal Navy Confronts Russian Aircraft Carrier Group in the English Channel for the First Time in Years,” Daily Mail, May 8, 2014,

Leon Watson, “USAF Jets Scrambled TWICE as Nuclear-capable Russian Bombers Go on Practice Run off Alaska...Then Fly within 50 Miles of Californian Coast,” Daily Mail, June 12, 2014,

Reuters, “Russia Successfully Tests Nuclear Missile, More Planned: Navy Chief,” September 10, 2014,

Associated Press, “Russia Expands Bomber Patrols to Reach into Gulf of Mexico,” Tampa Bay Times, November 12, 2014,; BBC, “US and NATO Troops Begin Ukraine Military Exercise,” September 15, 2014,; Reuters, “Ukraine Crisis Forces U.S. to Bolster Europe Forces,” June 20, 2014,; Reuters, “U.S. Troops to Remain in Baltics, Poland Next Year,” November 23, 2014,

This proposal owes a great deal to proposals made in Cohen, “Cold War Again: Who’s Responsible?”

Andrew Higgins and David M. M. Herszenhorn, “Defying Russia, Ukraine Signs E.U. Trade Pact,” New York Times, June 27, 2014,


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