Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Russian Aggression: The Path Toward a Thawed Cold War Period

By Leor GinzburgPublished November 11, 2015

Untamed by often weak and reactionary penalties of the West, Russia pursues its campaign of territorial expansion and aggressive statesmanship under the guise of humanitarianism. Slowly but surely, Russia has begun to build a transcontinental empire while concurrently seeking out ways to undermine the West.

By Leor Ginzburg 11/11/2015
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    Imagine a game of Monopoly where both you and another player land on the "Go to Jail" space, except while your token sits idle for one turn, your opponent is free to move across the board, gaining a immense level of monopoly power usually acquired over several prosperous turns. You may want a rematch, but at least you're competing over paper money.

    If only the same could be said about stakes in the international arena, where Russia consistently remains just a step ahead of its Western counterparts. As Europe and the United States hesitate to inflict more than an economic slap on her wrist, Russia moves forward, meticulously overtaking the board with every turn.

    At first glance, many would simply forecast another Cold War: an intense yet largely uneventful stare-down between the East and West. However, taking Russia's history out of the equation and assessing only her recent behavior would point us in a different direction. The Cold War was foremost a war of ideologies, a struggle between the doctrines of capitalism and communism for global influence. During this period, the Soviet Union promoted communist revolutionaries and established puppet governments across the globe, while the United States countered by sponsoring the dissemination of democratic principles worldwide.

    Today, the Kremlin is on a new mission altogether, "absorbed in territorial expansion, the destabilization of neighboring countries, and ultra-nationalistic rhetoric." President Vladimir Putin strives for a "new Russia," respected as a major political and economic force in the international community. Putin wants to raise Russia's standing to that of the United States, the European Union, and China. Untamed by often weak and reactionary penalties, Russia continues her campaign of territorial expansion and aggressive statesmanship, resembling a tactic closer to that of Germany leading up to the Second World War than that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    Strikingly similar to the rationale Adolf Hitler provided for invading the Sudetenland, Vladimir Putin claimed that Russian armed forces invaded and ultimately annexed Crimea in order to reunite Ukrainian ethnic-Russians with their motherland and their motherland with that which is rightfully hers. Yet, as history shows, the Crimean Peninsula is not the end goal but rather will be the first step in a strategic sequence of events should the Russians be permitted to continue playing this dangerous game. Indeed, the Russian Defense Ministry is building a 6,000-square-meter military complex to "house 3,500 soldiers, warehouses for rockets, artillery weapons, and other munitions" in Valuyki, a village only 15 miles from Ukraine's border. In World War II, the conflict did not end with Czechoslovakia, Austria, or Poland. In the current tension, the conflict will not end with Crimea.

    And just as the story goes, Russia has been escalating military action in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Seregei Lavrov openly stated, "We have always been frank regarding the presence of our military experts in Syria who help the Syria army in training and learning how to use the equipment." He goes on to suggest that "if further steps are needed, we will stand ready to fully undertake those steps." Although Moscow cites defeating the Islamic State as its genuine objective, it can be speculated that Russia's actions "are the tactics of authoritarian regime holding desperately onto her remaining levers of power" in the Middle East. Some believe that Russia hopes to target Free Syrian Army rebels who may be working for the U.S. government during her stay in Syria.

    Russia's intentions could not be any clearer if Putin smeared two black streaks under his eyes. But just in case they aren't clear, intelligence reports claim that Russia deployed many of the same brigades into Syria that were used in the Ukrainian "dirty war," including the Black Sea Fleet known to have played an active role in Russia's military takeover of Crimea eighteen months earlier.

    Most recently, the Pentagon disclosed that Russian submarines and spy ships are "aggressively operating near vital cables that carry almost all global Internet communications." More specifically, Admiral Mark Ferguson said the intensity of Russian submarine patrols had risen almost 50 percent over the last year. Senior American and Allied military and intelligence officials fear that Russia may resort to cutting such lifelines during times of conflict or tension, severing the flow of $10 trillion a day and more than 95% of daily communications.

    Admiral Ferguson suggested that such cable cutting would align with Russia's so-called hybrid warfare, which "involves the use of space, cyber, and information warfare designed to cripple the decision-making cycle of the alliance." Closest to home, the Russian spy ship Yantar, equipped with cable-cutting capabilities, approached one major data cable near the American naval station in Guantanamo Bay.

    Following Putin's decision to launch airstrikes in Syria and thus heightened tensions between the West and Russia, NATO has finally dispatched British troops in the Baltic states as "part of a more persistent presence by NATO forces" in former Eastern bloc nations according to UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon. A greater shift from reactionary to preventative measures would enable the West to curb Russian aggression and safeguard the sovereignty of fragile states. For such a shift to take place, it is crucial that the United States and the European Union separate Moscow's blunt words from their true motives and recognize the individual acts of Russian aggression as calculated moves in an international game. For without such counter-plays, this time around may not be as "cold" as the last.