Cold Water on the Neo-Cold War Hysteria

Official Washington’s neo-Cold War hysteria over Ukraine, including predictions of an imminent Russian seizure of the east, has prevented a cold-eyed appreciation of what is actually happening as Russian President Putin keeps signaling a willingness to negotiate, ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Over the past several weeks of the Ukraine crisis, there has been much commentary in the United States to the effect that the West and the United States in particular has been letting Vladimir Putin run amok. The commentary has been a sub-theme in a larger theme about Washington supposedly exuding weakness.

To the extent such criticism has been linked to specific alternative policy proposals, the proposals usually include some combination of being quicker in imposing more extensive sanctions on Russia, making threatening military deployments, and giving lethal military aid to the Ukrainians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a crowd on May 9, 2014, celebrating the 69th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Crimean port city of  Sevastopol from the Nazis. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a crowd on May 9, 2014, celebrating the 69th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Crimean port city of Sevastopol from the Nazis. (Russian government photo)

Over the past few days, Putin’s policy on Ukraine has taken shape in two important ways.  First, he has not embraced the “referendum” organized by dissident leaders in the restive eastern portion of Ukraine.  Before the vote he called for it to be postponed; after the vote his government did not respond to dissident talk about accession to Russia, said it respects the “will of the population” of the eastern regions but did not recognize the result of the vote, and called for the whole matter to be resolved through negotiations with the government in Kiev.

Second, despite ominous military moves near the border, he has not used Russian military forces to invade eastern Ukraine.

Both of these developments are subject to varying interpretations. Perhaps Putin could do more to influence the behavior of dissidents in Donetsk and Luhansk than he wants us to believe, the White House, based on its public statements, seems to think so, but this is not clear. Neither do we really know what Putin’s intentions were for the military forces that had been conducting maneuvers near the border.  Maybe he did not know himself.

But both of these developments are significant. Not doing something can represent a decision, and not doing something can be just as important as doing it.

Maybe I’ve missed something, but there does not seem to be any surge of commentary taking account of these developments, from the same sources that had been wailing abut how we had been letting Putin kick us around. Why has there not been acknowledgment that maybe the best way to deter additional undesirable behavior isn’t to start firing away with more sanctions whether the behavior occurs or not, and that threatening military actions isn’t necessarily the best way to get results when what we are threatening is a war that everyone knows we would rather not fight? Why hasn’t there been more updating of the scorecard on policy regarding Ukraine?

I hasten to add two caveats to these observations, lest the observations exhibit some of the same deficiencies as the subject commentary. First, not everything that the Russian government, or any other foreign actor, does can be attributable to the influence of U.S. policy. Much that happens is beyond the influence of the United States, and that includes many of the good things that happen as well as many of the bad things.

Second, this whole story is far from over. Any assessment of policy is necessarily only an interim assessment. Russian forces could invade Ukraine tomorrow, and the scorecard would need to be revised again.

Most of the criticism about a supposed U.S. policy of weakness giving free rein to Putin has ignored these two realities. It vastly overstates the ability of the U.S. government to shape events, particularly in an area where U.S. interests are less than those of Russian interests. And it includes grand judgments as if they will be the final word of history, when really they are only the perspective of a single point in time.

The criticism also is like much commentary on other subjects in that it pays inadequate attention to non-events. Non-events can include wars that are not launched, terrorist attacks that do not occur, or unconventional weapons that are not built.

Non-events are the other side of the same coin as events in their impact on U.S. interests. They constitute important data points in assessing which policies work well and which ones do not. The tendency to score policy performance only in terms of what has happened, without paying attention to what has not, produces an incomplete and biased scorecard.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “Cold Water on the Neo-Cold War Hysteria

  1. F. G. Sanford
    May 14, 2014 at 16:57

    The IMF represents the pinnacle of privatized government for corporate profit. What used to be financed by governments as “foreign aid” is now a concession leased to private corporate financiers. It’s the financial equivalent of the multinationals in the armaments industry – like General Electric profiting from Nazi Germany’s A.E.G. or Dupont Chemical profiting from Nazi Germany’s I.G. Farben or General Motors profiting from Nazi Germany’s Opel. Neocons are fond of those “win-win” situations. Instead of using international diplomacy to work out financial relief, the cartels get the concession to lend the money, the financial oligarchs tailor it to maximize financial leverage, the interest payments enrich private investors, and NATO serves as the collection agency enforcer. It’s kinda like Mussolini meets Hitler, but without the spiffy uniforms.

    Americans didn’t get to watch the recent Nazi torchlight parade through Kiev with posters of SS collaborator Stepan Bandera. It just wasn’t “newsworthy”. With the full realization of what “austerity” is all about, those Nazi foot soldiers may not be too happy. And, its not like they don’t know something about getting even. You gotta hand it to Nazis. They think big.

    What if they decide they don’t like austerity after all? Will they blame those, ahem, “international finance parasites”? Is NATO up to the task if a little Bandera Blitzkrieg breaks out in, say, Warsaw, or Prague, or maybe even Brussels or Vienna? How about Frankfort or Paris? Those drones won’t help much in the Paris suburbs, even a dump like Montmartre would suffer.

    And if any of that comes to pass, who they gonna blame? Putin? Neo-fascist solidarity groups all over Europe are cheering their renewed legitimacy. Norwegian, Swedish, German, Italian and Greek factions are puffing with pride. Odessa and Mariupol were just a little good, clean Nazi fun…kinda like an SS welfare and recreation weenie roast…you know, to build team spirit. If things get too bad, the IMF could ask Victoria Nuland to beg Putin’s forgiveness. Maybe she could bake him some cookies. Christine Lagarde could dress in one of those French Maid outfits and offer to clean his apartment…or something. Putin must be loving this. The IMF and NATO finally got burned at their own game. They’ll be lucky to get two cents on the dollar for their investment. It’s a good thing Putin is a serious guy. If he laughs himself to death, we could all be in trouble. But hey, why worry about stuff that didn’t happen yet?

    • Joe Tedesky
      May 15, 2014 at 00:34

      Yeah, and after that Nuland can go to Vietnam Nam and hand out more cookies to the Anti China Protesters!

  2. Boris M. Garsky
    May 14, 2014 at 12:52

    Putin is giving the west time to cool its heels. I have no doubt that he has set up the machinations to bring the Ukraine down if the west persists. In the end, the west will not gain the Ukraine. Time is on Russia’s side, since each day of the standoff is costing the west hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, something the west cannot afford.

  3. Michael Gillespie
    May 14, 2014 at 12:07

    A few weeks ago in an e-mail to friends I praised the restraint shown by the Russian government after Victoria Nuland and company incited the violent overthrow of the corrupt but elected regime in Kiev by Ukrainian neo-Nazis. An old friend protested that she was aware of no such Russian restraint, and, to the contrary, was “amazed at the restraint of the West at Russia’s obvious attempts to disguise Russian soldiers as protesters and take over every police station and facilities in eastern Ukraine.” Sensing that she is not open to other points of view, I replied that I was happy to agree to disagree, at least until the missiles fly. She – who claims that Putin knows no restraint – replied confidently, “I don’t think the Russians will do that.” I find it very strange that some who claim to recognize no restraint in Russian actions and the lack thereof regarding the U.S.-incited crisis in the Ukraine seem, at the same time, to be willing to bet EVERYTHING on, well, Russian restraint!?!

  4. May 14, 2014 at 10:06

    “Perhaps Putin could do more to influence the behavior of dissidents in Donetsk and Luhansk than he wants us to believe — the White House, based on its public statements, seems to think so”

    First they complained that the dissidents were under his control, now they are complaining that they aren’t.

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