Stumbling into a New Cold War

U.S. expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders and last year’s U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine have drawn reactions from Moscow and now counter-reactions from Washington, including a plan to preposition U.S. military hardware in the Baltic States. But is that the best option, asks ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The U.S. Department of Defense reportedly has plans to place tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other heavy weapons in the Baltic countries and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It is easy to see what this is about. It is an attempt to send a signal, a warning, of sorts, to Russia amid the continued tensions that events in Ukraine have heightened.

The type of signal was chosen to be strong enough to be reassuring to East Europeans who are looking for reassurance and to meet domestic demands to be seen standing up to Vladimir Putin, while being restrained enough not to prod the Russians into making some destructive response.

President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Ukraine, on the South Lawn of the White House, July 29, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Ukraine, on the South Lawn of the White House, July 29, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

If this positioning of military equipment was the middle option on an options paper, the alternatives bracketing it were the weaker option of limiting policy toward Russia to non-military measures, or the more provocative one of stationing U.S. troops and not just equipment in those Eastern European locations. In other words, a half measure, similar to how economic sanctions are often seen as a compromise between doing nothing beyond a diplomatic demarche or sending in the Marines.

Military moves as signals have long been a part of international relations and of deterrence, but we still ought to ask about the strategic wisdom and rationale of the proposed equipment deployment. Even a mere signal loses its meaning and effectiveness if it is disconnected from material implications and consequences.

The positioning of materiel sounds like some familiar U.S. moves in Cold War-era Europe, but it actually is different. U.S. troops in Europe became the prototypical “trip-wire” of the Cold War, with an attack against them being widely assumed to bring full U.S. engagement in any war in Europe. An attack against stored U.S. munitions, however, is not the same in that regard as an attack that kills U.S. soldiers.

Prepositioning of equipment in Germany was another staple of Cold War logisticians, but that was part of a serious effort to facilitate U.S.-led resistance to any attempt by the Red Army to overrun Western Europe. The total stocks being considered for positioning in Eastern Europe would be about enough for a single brigade.

Each of the three Baltic republics would be the location for equipment that would outfit a company of about 150 soldiers. It is hard to think of that in the same terms as the Cold War prepositioning. Probably one of the first things that would happen if Russia got aggressive against the Baltic states would be Russian capture of the prepositioned supplies.

Russia has issued its own warnings in response to the reported U.S. plans. That is to be expected, but it may be only the first step toward a local arms race. Do not be surprised by Russian deployments along border areas that would make quick capture of prepositioned U.S. supplies all the more feasible if Russian troops were to cross more borders. A Russian general already has said as much.

A fundamental and longstanding question underlying all of this is exactly what the United States would be willing as well as able to defend in response to any Russian aggression, or to serious military moves dressed up as something other than aggression.

Questions were asked during the Cold War about whether Americans would be willing to risk New York or Washington to save Bonn or Paris. Such questions become all the more difficult to answer reassuringly when the subject is Riga and Tallinn rather than Bonn and Paris. The Article Five commitment in the North Atlantic Treaty still exists, but the imagined circumstances in which it could apply today, which might begin with little green men sneaking across a border, are far different from an imagined pouring of Red Army hordes through the Fulda Gap.

Closely related to all this is how attitudes toward NATO obligations have evolved within member countries. In a new Pew poll, when asked “If Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighboring countries that is our NATO ally, do you think our country should or should not use military force to defend that country?” majorities in three of the most important European allies, Germany, France, and Italy, responded “should not.”

This amounts to a repudiation of the Article Five obligation to consider an armed attack against any one member state as an attack against all. In the poll, Americans expressed the most intent to live up to that obligation, with 56 percent saying “should.” But 37 percent of American respondents said “should not.” In light of such alliance-wide attitudes, it is fair to ask what NATO stands for today.

That question, and the prospect of possible new arms races along the Russian borderlands, are embedded in the story of how one of the Cold War alliances did not end when the Cold War did. It is impossible to prove what European affairs would look like today under an alternate history in which NATO was not retained and enlarged eastward as a kind of unending victory lap for winning the Cold War.

It is reasonable to conjecture, however, that under such an alternate history, in which the Russian nation was embraced as a co-victor for throwing off the Soviet yoke, we would not only not have so much discomfort about treaty obligations but also less need to think about the Russian-Western relationship going in directions in which those obligations might be invoked.

But that was a road not taken, and it should not be surprising that sustaining and expanding a Cold War alliance has helped lead to circumstances in which we talk about a new Cold War, even without all of the ideological trappings of the old one.

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.)

9 comments for “Stumbling into a New Cold War

  1. Anonymous
    June 18, 2015 at 17:23

    What strikes me as the salient view, in the aggregate, is that we all pretty much agree. So what we gonna do about it?

    • Anonymous
      June 20, 2015 at 08:01

      Keep hammering the truth — what other choice is there unless a person just doesn’t care — and if that is the case, why bother being informed — just go out and grab all one can in the free-for-all Americans call “life” and party on out of this world like it’s 1999…

  2. Michael I Kl.
    June 17, 2015 at 05:54

    “Russian aggression” is exactly the same as a tube with “chemical weapons” from Iraq. All this can only be regarded as very unfair competition USA against Russia with the use of all low-lying mechanisms, such as misinformation, provocation and much more. It’s absolutely clear that Russia is the largest country in the world and it doesn’t need any new territory. Currently the world have to afraid only US politicians who because of their immense greed is ready to destroy half of the world, but far from the borders of USA. Follow the money…

  3. Brad Owen
    June 17, 2015 at 05:51

    I’d like to see a lot more press about that “road not taken”. Just because it wasn’t taken at the first passing of that “fork-in-the-road” doesn’t mean we can’t back-track and take it now. Just adopt a policy of “we’ve made a mistake in following advise from misleading Counsel”. On Tarpley’s website, he saved a very long talk that he gave, on CSPAN, pointing out the instrumental support Russia gave to Lincoln’s Federal USA against The Confederacy, causing the British, and French Empires to drop their plans to join in, with The Confederacy, to tear apart and re-conquer the USA, turning it into a group of colonies for various European Empires (like what happened to Africa, with the same hellish consequences that occur in Africa to this day). It implies the long, de-facto ALLIANCE between Russia and USA, SPECIFICALLY against the constant machinations of the, then, British Empire (the Crimean War happened just before our Civil War, where we declined an offer to join in, against Russia). What Tarpley’s talk pointed out, is our long-standing enmity to the British Empire (we actually had war plans for resisting a British invasion, through Canada, up through the 20’s and 30’s, with naval war threatening during this time), and Russia’s anti-Brit enmity too, hence the natural, de-facto Alliance between us (Russia sold us Alaska for a “song-and-a-dance” so as to keep it out of Imperial Britain’s hands via Canada). The Anglophobe councilors were “run out of town” in the late 40’s/50’s by the Wall Streeters via their Red Scare/Cold Warrior Anglophiles…the “White-shoe crowd”. It’s THEIR turn to be “run out of town” now, this Wall Street/City-of-London cabal, to reap what they have sown (namely; impoverishment for themselves)…and the BRICS crowd to be embraced.

  4. James O'Neill
    June 17, 2015 at 01:54

    “In light of such alliance-wide attitudes, it is fair to ask what NATO stands for today.” What it has always stood for: a vehicle through which the US can exercise geopolitical, military and economic dominance over its “allies”. The lengths they will go to in pursuit of this objective can be found in an examination of the original Gladio and what some are calling the new Gladio B, this time using “terrorist” groups as the preferred false flag to justify assassinations, colour revolutions; economic sabotage and the undermining of unfriendly governments. The one great continuity is the use of narcotics trafficking, mainly heroin, by the CIA to finance its operations free from congressional scrutiny.

  5. Zachary Smith
    June 16, 2015 at 23:14

    “It is an attempt to send a signal — a warning, of sorts — to Russia amid the continued tensions that events in Ukraine have heightened.”

    This may be entirely correct, but my first thought about the tiny & vulnerable weapons stocks was Tempting Easy Target. In other words, an open invitation for the Russians (or a clever ‘false flag’ outfit) to attack. One wonders whether the weaponry to be put into these depots will be first-line stuff, or expendable junk overdue for the scrap yard.

    All the Imperial maneuvering suggests some sort of convoluted plan. For it to go into full force it seems to me that the Russians have to be drawn into some kind of military action. Something which the “liberal media” can hype as a Pearl Harbor event. Something like the shootdown of that airliner, but much worse.

    Putin & Co. have avoided any significant reactions so far, but one thing Russia cannot ignore is the wholesale slaughter of other Russians. The Imperial efforts in Eastern Ukraine have failed to have the desired effect because there are too many competent folks shooting back. So what’s left? Western Ukraine. Transnistria is supposed to have 150,000 Russians, and 1,500 Russian soldiers. Odessa has many Russians as well. Recall that the ruthless Mikheil Saakashvili was recently installed as the leader of the Odessa region. He has everything to gain and nothing to lose by raising all kinds of hell in the West. That’s a region Russia cannot easily reach without crossing (Invading!!) Ukraine. If a slaughter begins in West Ukraine, all bets are off, for Russia will HAVE to respond.

    My first guess is that something of the sort is being prepared by the neocons and their Nazi buddies.

    • Peter Loeb
      June 17, 2015 at 07:19


      One way of viewing the “crisis” in the Ukraine/Russia (etc.) is by examining
      power relationships.

      A second way of analysis is the marginalization of US-Israeli aggression
      in Palestine, the uncountable numbers of murders,state terrorism by
      US-ISRAEL, murders of children, dispossession, and so forth. As has
      been pointed out previously, the effects of the US-Russia-Ukraine
      “crisis” are very real indeed for the world. This situation is also a
      perfectly designed way of distracting the entire world from the
      crimes which have taken place over the decades but which continue
      to take place daily. Nothing is said. Not a word. One can see
      photos of destruction, beatings etc. by Israel but nothing is said.
      It is a horribly deafening silence. (Perhaps there is an election in
      progress in.the US. There almost always is!)

      A third way of analyzing the situation is to see its meaning for the
      three giasnts in the weapons industry in the US. McDonnel Douglas
      and Boeing combined to make “McBoeing”. Lockheed and Martin
      Marietta merged to make “LockMartin”. Raetheon and Hughes Aircraft
      merged to make “RayHughes”. They are all desperate for markets
      to sell their weapons politically manufactured in many states(in the US)
      since there is no World War currently. They want to sell (and
      produce) abroad. Sometimes they give away weapons at a discount,
      sometimes almost free, often with (tied?) loans to nations which
      do not have the cash to pay. NATO is a good consumer.For details
      see William Greider’s FORTRESS AMERICA…

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • June 17, 2015 at 14:29

      Non-violence and peace are fine ideals, and we should certainly practice them in non violent and peaceful worlds.

      But, we do not live in a nonviolent and peaceful world.

      When confronted by certain types and degrees of violence, there is usually little choice… you stand and fight or you die. Sometimes both!

      But, stand and fight, or lie down and die, is a personal matter and a personal choice, only if it affects only you… but if you have a family, a wife, a husband, children or neighbors with whom you identify, then you have little choice.. and your unresisting death will serve or help no one but the oppressors.

      God did not create all of us fools. You Go Russia!

  6. Abe
    June 16, 2015 at 21:28

    The 1997 agreement on mutual relations, cooperation and security between NATO and the Russian Federation expressed commitments to the principles of:

    — “refraining from the threat or use of force against each other as well as against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence”

    — “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples’ right of self-determination”

    The so-called “color revolutions” of the early 2000s are viewed by Russia as a new form of US and European-instigated warfare.

    Russia’s responses to the February 2014 coup d’etat in Kiev are entirely rational from this perspective.

    Far from stumbling, the US and NATO recently have shifted their pace jogging to sprinting into a new cold and potentially nuclear hot war.

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