Middle Israel: The return of the Cold War

The great schism that haunted the Cold War international system is staging an improbable comeback, albeit with different motivations, aims, tactics, and also an entirely different Israeli role.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Russia’s fear has befallen all,” wrote a bewildered David Ben-Gurion in his diary 60 years ago next month, as the Cold War, the 20th-century scourge that is now staging a strange comeback, reached yet another boiling point.
Global, mercurial and potentially cataclysmic, the rivalry between Washington and Moscow had by then been about a decade old, and Israel suddenly found itself at its crux.
Responding to terrorism from Gaza and a naval blockade of Eilat, the IDF had stormed across Sinai when Soviet prime minister Nikolai Bulganin wrote his Israeli counterpart plainly: “Israel is playing with the fate of peace” and “placing a question mark upon Israel’s existence.” The letter was read as a threat to nuke the Western country that had just trespassed on the Eastern sphere.
The Russian admonition soon morphed into a diplomatic pincer movement, when president Eisenhower warned Israel that if it would not retreat, it would lose all American financial and diplomatic support, even if Israel were to be expelled from the UN.
As Cold War dynamics often unfolded, almost everyone was involved and everything was affected.
France and Britain, which had joined Israel’s attack on Egypt, received Soviet warnings and American admonitions of their own, while further east Budapest was ablaze with an anti-Soviet revolt.
Such crises animated the First Cold War, which traveled along the years from the Korean conflict through the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis to multiple wars from Vietnam and the Mideast to Angola and Afghanistan.
So fierce was the First Cold War’s gravity that when its rival superpowers joined forces against their respective satellites, there was no standing in the two’s way.
That is what happened in 1956, when the joint American-Soviet ultimatum immediately made Israel, France and Britain sheepishly retreat, and that is what happened in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in the 1980s, when the US let the USSR impose itself on its proxies. The threat of nuclear war repeatedly made the Cold War’s protagonists back off, the way Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did in Cuba in 1962.
All this seemed to have come to its happy end with the USSR’s dissolution in 1991. Well, it didn’t.
Judging by recent weeks’ events, a Second Cold War is under way. The great schism that haunted the postwar international system is staging an improbable return, albeit with different motivations, aims, tactics, and also an entirely different Israeli role.
WITH RUSSIA’S warplanes slaughtering Syrians, reducing Aleppo to rubble and making a mockery of a cease-fire signed with the US; and with Washington threatening new sanctions while accusing Moscow of cyber-attacking America’s political process, Russia went to the attic and retrieved the First Cold War’s rhetoric.
“Offensive behavior toward Russia has a nuclear dimension,” said last week Dmitry Kiselyov, a Putin mouthpiece who heads the Rossiya Segodnya news agency, alluding to reports that the US was preparing to attack the Syrian Army. State-owned NTV concurred, urging Russians to learn the nearest atomic fallout shelter’s location.
Meanwhile, as Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov headed from Norway to Syria, escorted by two destroyers, a submarine, a nuclear-powered battle cruiser and five more battle-ready vessels – Vice President Joe Biden threatened Russia with a cyber attack.
“Their capacity to fundamentally alter the [US presidential] election is not what people think,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press, but then warned that “to the extent that they do – we will be proportional in what we do.”
To be sure, the unfolding Second Cold War is very different from last century’s First Cold War.
The most glaringly missing element is the messianic faith that drove the Soviet Union. Today’s Russia does not believe it has a better economic idea than capitalism, nor does it claim to bear any social gospel to the rest of mankind.
Moreover, post-communist Russia lacks the USSR’s global sway.
The Soviets commanded a network of satellites and allies that stretched from Cuba to Mongolia through Central Europe and the Balkans. Today’s Kremlin can claim no such following. A major strategic ally, India, has long veered west, and former proxies like Poland, Hungary and Romania are now members of the EU and NATO, as are even the three Baltic republics that belonged to the USSR itself.
Even so, the Kremlin is once again on a Cold War footing.
Scratching their heads, diplomats and pundits ask what went wrong. After all, for some two decades, under the leaderships of both Vladimir Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, post-communist Russia was generally harmonizing with the West and mostly minding its own business.
Well, what went wrong is that the West ignored Russia’s hurt pride, military resolve and economic depth, all of which underpin Moscow’s thirst not for world domination but for global respect.
SEEN FROM Washington and Brussels, the Second Cold War erupted in 2014, when Russia entered Ukraine’s fray, first by backing local rebels, then by annexing Crimea.
The Russian view – though never formally stated – is that military harmony with the West ended earlier and elsewhere, when NATO snatched Libya from Moscow’s orbit. The aerial bombardments that ended in Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall were, from Russia’s viewpoint, not about emancipating an oppressed nation – as Western governments thought – but about shrinking Russia’s already downsized global reach, by depriving it of its major African client.
This was on the military front. On the diplomatic front, Russia saw its original loss of the Soviet Union’s Baltic, Balkan, and Central European outposts potentially expanding to Ukraine at its western doorstep and Georgia at its southern belly, as the two courted, respectively, the EU and NATO.
Russia crossed its Rubicon in 2008, when it invaded Georgia. That should have signaled to the West that the Kremlin is under new management, one which unlike the original post-communists was inspired by historic Russia’s geographic breadth and imperial quest.
This thinking was overlooked by the Obama administration and underestimated by Angela Merkel’s Germany, which led Europe to a fateful waltz with Ukraine. From Moscow’s viewpoint, Ukraine belongs in its orbit even more than Canada belongs in Washington’s.
This is where the Second Cold War’s roots lie. That is why Russia invaded Georgia and Ukraine, and that is why it responded to Libya’s downfall by circling its wagons around Bashar Assad’s regime.
The Second Cold War began with what the Russians saw as a strategic defensive, even if tactically it entailed attacks.
Russia was not out to expand its turf, only to preserve it.
The sanctions it faced following Crimea’s annexation further intensified Putin’s conviction that Russia is under attack.
Meanwhile, America’s hesitation in Syria made Moscow move from defense to offense. What began with securing Syria was soon followed with a renewal of Russian arms sales to Egypt, for the first time since Anwar Sadat’s defection from East to West in the 1970s.
Even so, strange as it may sound to Western ears, the overarching context of Russia’s fighting in Syria is defensive.
Russia feels it is a wounded lioness protecting its cub.
The West underestimated not only this emotional factor and the military determination it fueled, but also Russia’s economic depth.
Yes, the sanctions battered the ruble and shrank Russia’s GDP. Yet Russia at the same time expanded its arms sales and, even more tellingly, became the world’s leading wheat exporter, surpassing the US.
In stark contrast to the First Cold War, when poorly managed farms turned the Soviet Union into a grain importer, the Second Cold War features a privatized Russian agriculture whose $20 billion worth of exports last year – 15% more than the previous year – surpassed the arms industry as Russia’s lead exporter.
The Russian economy, then, is not Libya’s or Iran’s. It cannot be effectively sanctioned, because it can easily feed itself, it has more natural resources than anyone else, and its industry can produce anything others won’t sell it.
SOONER OR LATER, Western governments will understand this and seek ways to climb down the Russian tree they have climbed, through a formula that will map Russia’s place in the world, whether before or after the genocide in Syria finally comes to an end.
Ironically, the first Western country to appreciate Moscow’s motivation, resolve, and clout is the one that 60 years ago appreciated them last: Israel.
Jerusalem has been careful to remain neutral while Russia wrestled with Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, Europe and America, and also when its arms resurfaced in Egypt and its warplanes emerged in Syria. With Sukhoi jets seconds away from its air space, Israel ignored the Western sanctions and actually intensified its dialogue with Putin and its coordination with his generals.
Others may have forgotten the First Cold War, but Israel recalls it all too vividly; well enough to stay clear of its elephants’ path.