The situation in Ukraine and Crimea over the past month has caused many to shout from the mountain tops that the West and the East are in the midst of a new Cold War. The BBC ran a piece that ticks off all of the many examples of Western media running headlines about this new Cold War. There are many reasons to look at this in terms of the old world order, after all, there are numerous people in the national security structure of the US who “miss the old Ruskies.” However, these individuals are going to be sorely disappointed because there is not a rekindling of the old Cold War nor is the Ukraine question the beginnings of a new Cold War.
For starters, to the extent that the US is locked in an ideological battle with another global power, the Russians are not part of it. The Russian Federation is no longer committed to the spread of global communism. Modern Russia is about one thing: crony capitalism centered around fossil fuels. What Russia is interested in exporting is natural gas and crude oil, not communism. Since the end of the last Cold War, Russia has wandered seemingly aimlessly in search of an economic stabilizer after roughly 75 years of the destructive forces of Marxism.
One of those stabilizers has been the pipeline that runs from Russia, through Ukraine, and to Europe. In previous years, Russia has demonstrated this economic power through shutting off the flow of natural gas to the West during the winter months because the people of these European cities suffer from bitter cold and the governments are quickly brought to heel. Each time Russia has shut off the natural gas, it has been done at the point where the pipeline meets Europe in Ukraine. Russia is not doing this because they seek to overrun Western Europe with tanks, but, because without much of Europe purchasing this natural gas, Russia’s economy and Vladimir Putin’s hold on power becomes extremely week.
The biggest threat to Russia is the Shah Deniz natural gas field in Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea coastal area. British Petroleum, Azerbaijan’s state energy company, along with numerous other entities are all looking to bring this vast amount of natural gas to the market via a pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan through Georgia (another former Soviet satellite state recently over taken by Russia) and Turkey and brought to the European market through the Balkans. This new line of natural gas could go a long way to decrease the hold Russia’s supply has on Europe.
Getting back to the prospect of Ukraine being part of a new Cold War for a moment. The West’s response to this issue has been the wailing about the threat to European peace from the NATO Secretary General and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s snarky remark about this being such a 19th century action. In light of this, Fareed Zakaria insists that the US is not, contrary to what Prof. Niall Ferguson said recently in the Wall Street Journal, in a state of decline and retreat from the global stage. Zakaria applauds the Obama administration’s behind the scenes efforts to bring the Ukrainian situation to a favorable close while not taking the spotlight off of the pro-Western protesters. However, this diplomacy effort has done nothing to prevent Russia from first taking an airport in Crimea and then finally taking all of Crimea militarily. The border between Crimea and Ukraine has become the scene of entrenching by the Russian army. And Putin knows that there will not be one soldier from a Western military whose blood will be shed in Ukraine.
The options for Europe and the US are few. The best way to roll back the Russian semi-invasion of Ukraine is to increase the production of natural gas through projects such as the Shah Deniz and the various fracking projects in the United States. Ukraine’s importance to Russia is rooted in its energy based economy. Without the ability to control the clients of Russia’s energy companies, Putin’s hold on power will be severely weakened and possibly open up the way for a new leader. It’s hard to imagine, but Putin has been in control of Russia in one form or another since 1999. He stands to the be longest serving ruler of Russia since Joseph Stalin. And he could easily be undone, not with bullets and bombs, but with natural gas from the Caspian region and the United States.
Russia is grasping for relevancy on the global stage. They have a very energy dependent economy and a very technologically lagging military (although it is pretty large). They are not seeking another Cold War with the West because they understand that it would not last very long.