Cold War 2.0

17 April 2018

Cold War 2.0

Foreign Affairs Minister Stef Blok's attitude to Russia in the Skripal affair is a symptom of a broader problem: the flaring up of Cold War 2.0. Despite the fact that no proof has been provided to back the British supposition that Russia was behind the poisoning of the double agent and his doctor, the Netherlands treats Theresa May's statements as gospel. Escalation is being pursued on the basis of secret information.

At the same time Britain's Foreign Minister Boris Johnson is once more under fire. Days after the decision to expel Russian diplomats, he announced that British investigators had confirmed that the nerve gas novichok was of Russian origin, This turned out to be untrue: no such finding had been reported. This and other developments have led many analysts to compare the situation to the Iraq War of 2003, when on the basis of pure lies a war was unleashed, a war which gave birth to ISIS.

It would have been intelligent to wait for the results of the investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) before issuing a condemnation and taking appropriate measures. These irresponsible actions raise the question of where the evident fear of the Russians, and the revival of the Cold War, have come from.

It would be naïve to act as if there were no threat from Russia and that everything in the garden is rosy. Russian military actions in Ukraine and Syria are wrong and it is right to condemn them, while the human rights situation and degree of political freedom in the country leave a great deal to be desired, as was once again illustrated by last month's presidential election.

Threats should not be exaggerated, however. The threat of cyber-warfare from Russia is real. But to equate Russian interference in the US presidential election with 9/11 and even Pearl Harbor in 1941 lacks substance. Such a comparison is all the more bizarre when historical research has demonstrated that the US has, in dozens of cases, attempted to influence other countries' elections, including in Russia itself. And such influence has been far from limited to internet trolls or their historical equivalents.

Rein Bijkerk and Christ Klep, authors of the recently published book De oorlog van nu (The War of Now – unfortunately not yet available in English), acknowledge that Putin is playing a crafty game, but note that Russia is a medium-sized power with an Italian-style economy. They warn against upgrading the country to something which it is not – an existential threat.

It is, furthermore, important not to lose sight of the historical roots of this rising conflict with Russia. Anyone who looks at the end of the Cold War will see that mistakes were made, mistakes whose bitter fruits are now being harvested.

The reunification of Germany in 1990 is crucial. Recently released archive material in the US has confirmed once again that western politicians time after time assured Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not be expanding any further eastwards after Germany's unification. This promise was broken when, in 1999, Poland, Hungary and other former eastern bloc states were accepted into the alliance. Later, ten more countries which had in the recent past come under the Soviet sphere of influence, or had even themselves been Soviet Republics, as was the case with the Baltic states, followed suit. During a NATO summit it was, moreover, stated that Georgia and Ukraine would become members in the future.

Former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently expressed strong criticism of this. The rapidity of the alliance's expansion and the promise of future membership to Georgia and Ukraine have contributed to Russia's aggressive attitude, he argues.

In order to achieve de-escalation, it's crucial that NATO back off. The promises to Georgia and Ukraine must be withdrawn. Further expansion eastwards cannot be maintained on the agenda, and a start must be made towards the demilitarisation of the border zone between NATO and Russia. As long as more and more weapons and soldiers are put there, from both sides, the risk of a disaster of global proportions will grow. That is something we cannot permit.

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