Roland Paris is director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an associate fellow of Chatham House.
Welcome to the post-post-Cold War era. It doesn’t have a name yet – that will come in time. But Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has already upended Europe’s post-1989 security order, and what follows may be even more dangerous than the Cold War.
The question that dominated strategic deliberations from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s was how to avoid a cataclysmic war between two nuclear-armed powers: the Soviet Union and the United States. This question seemed irrelevant after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but it has suddenly returned.
The immediate risks of escalation are obvious. U.S. President Joe Biden has rightly warned that imposing a NATO “no-fly zone” over Ukraine could lead to “World War Three.” Although he and other leaders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, including Canada, have insisted their troops will not fight Russians in Ukraine, public calls for stronger action will likely intensify as Russian forces continue their attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilians.
But a wider conflict could also emerge from less deliberate choices. If Russian troops advance into western Ukraine, they will approach NATO forces based in Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. An isolated cross-border attack – say, on military supplies destined for Ukraine – or an accidental clash could quickly escalate.
What if Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to retaliate against Western sanctions by ordering major cyberattacks on banks in Europe and North America? If this resulted in serious damage, pressure on NATO countries to launch a counterstrike would be acute. How would Mr. Putin then respond? Tit-for-tat escalation creates its own momentum.
Western leaders face a real dilemma. Failing to support Ukraine’s people and their democratically elected government would be shameful, and might encourage Mr. Putin to look beyond Ukraine in his apparent quest to re-establish Russian control over parts of its old empire. The lessons of the 1930s seem newly relevant. If other countries had stood up to Nazi Germany before it absorbed Austria and Czechoslovakia and then attacked Poland in 1939, they might have avoided the Second World War and saved millions of lives.
But there are other lessons from Europe’s tragic 20th century. If major powers had exercised greater restraint during the July crisis of 1914, when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo quickly escalated from a local conflict into a continental crisis, they may have avoided the First World War and saved millions of lives.
We know with hindsight how these episodes ended, but today’s leaders must make decisions with incomplete information. Neville Chamberlain thought he was acting shrewdly when, as British prime minister, he negotiated “peace for our time” with Adolf Hitler in 1938. Former U.S. president George W. Bush seemed to sincerely believe that invading Iraq in 2003 would set in motion the liberation and democratization of the Middle East. Recklessness can take the form of inaction or action, depending on the circumstances.
These dilemmas will persist. However the war in Ukraine unfolds, NATO-Russia relations will almost certainly remain tense, if not hostile. Sanctions and economic warfare may continue as long as Mr. Putin retains power. Russian troops might never return home from their “training exercises” in Belarus, a country that Mr. Putin has effectively transformed into a Russian puppet. Their presence threatens Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all members of NATO. The Western alliance has already begun to rearm and reinforce.
These trends point toward a new kind of Cold War, more perilous than the last. In its original form, the Soviet and Western blocs used various devices to constrain their competition within certain bounds. Arms-control agreements limited certain weapons and permitted both sides to inspect each other’s compliance. The lines dividing the Soviet and Western blocs were relatively clear.
These measures helped prevent the Cold War from becoming “hot,” but most have now faded away. The only major U.S.-Russian arms-control agreement still in force – the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – is due to expire in 2026. Close encounters between NATO and Russia in the air have also become more common. Last month, a Russian Su-35 jet fighter reportedly flew within two metres of a U.S. Navy P-8A surveillance plane in international airspace over the Mediterranean Sea.
Whereas Russia and NATO countries were largely disconnected during the Cold War, both sides are now vulnerable to each other’s cyberweapons, heightening the risks of real-world confrontation during a period of increased tensions. Nor can Russia truly be isolated if China continues to serve as its economic lifeline. And the war in Ukraine may continue for many more weeks or even months, right on NATO’s borders.
The good news is that Western democracies have shown remarkable unity in the face of Mr. Putin’s aggression. Now they must prepare for what could become a long confrontation with Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere, without inadvertently triggering another “war to end all wars.”
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