By Harlan Ullman
May 1st, 2016

Moscow, Russia: Despite having tens of thousands of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons pointed at each other, fierce ideological differences and numerous crises from Berlin to the Middle East that might have sparked a shooting war, détente was still possible between Moscow and Washington and East and West.  Today, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev warns of a “new cold war” breaking out.  And the most senior U.S. military officers including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declare Russia “an existential threat” to the U.S.

Why is this happening?  Is the world headed towards another geostrategic confrontation in which nuclear weapons still play crucial roles?  History is not kind if one believes—and I do not—in cyclical patterns.

A quarter of a century after World War I started in 1914, Hitler invaded Poland.  While it would take another fifty years for the Soviet Union to begin unraveling in 1989, about a quarter of century later with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Western fears about Moscow’s ambitions to change the rules of the post cold war world understandably surfaced.  Now, Russian military modernization, aggressive declaratory military doctrine with the use of nuclear weapons to de-escalate conflict; hybrid and cyber war in full display; and Russian harassment of NATO ships and aircraft in international waters, the bad old days of the Cold War are becoming altogether too familiar again.

From a Russian perspective, Washington and the West are to blame.  The expansion of NATO after the Berlin Wall collapsed was a very high priority of the Clinton Administration.  But never resolved was what to do ultimately about Russia.  The NATO-Russia Council was a default means to bring Moscow closer to NATO.  As more states have joined—Montenegro will be the latest—bringing membership up to 29, Russia asserts that NATO is encircling it.

The Bush 43 administration contributed to Russian anxieties over the West and NATO.  The unilateral decision early in Bush’s first year to abrogate the ABM Treaty, long the centerpiece in U.S.-Soviet-Russian relations, to pursue missile defense against North Korea and Iran did not go down well with President Vladimir Putin.  The intervention into Afghanistan after 9/11 spurned Russian advice—who, following a cataclysmic decade fighting there, understood the dangers better than the Americans.  And Bush ignored Putin’s warning not to invade Iraq in 2003.

President Barack Obama fared no better.  Seeking to “reset” relations with Russia with then President Medvedev, Putin’s re-election set both leaders on a collision course.  While Putin has behaved politely towards Obama, the latter’s setting of “red lines” and demands that Syrian President Bashar al Assad “must go” were empty threats clearly suggesting to Putin that the White House lacked the backbone befitting a true super power.  The intervention into Libya that removed Muramar Qaddafi was to Putin, the final display of American incompetence.  And the ensuing civil war has proven Putin (as opposed to presidential contender Hillary Clinton) right.

Russia was essential in removing chemical weapons from Syria coming to Obama’s rescue after the president made two decisions. The first was to attack Assad’s chemical weapons.  The second was to obtain Congress’s permission beforehand—which he did not get. When the European Union began negotiating with Ukraine and the revolution deposed Viktor Yanukovych, Putin saw the need to react. Crimea would become Russian again.  And as Syria was breaking apart in late 2015, Putin could not tolerate another Iraq or Libya and intervened.

The West of course rejects these views. Cyber attacks; incursions into Georgia and Ukraine; and belligerence and intimidation from Moscow are seen as serious threats.  And neither Washington nor Moscow has proposed means to moderate these tensions.

“What is to be done?”  Washington and Moscow are modernizing their strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.  NATO has a Readiness Action Plan underway to bolster its defenses against Russian threats and counter its hybrid tactics. And the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as defeating the Islamic State only appear to be worsening.

Because the conflict between Moscow and its neighbors is not ideological, cooler heads should prevail.  With the NATO biannual summit scheduled for Warsaw this summer, a stunning opportunity for a trifecta with Russia is in place.  NATO should take the first step.

What is needed is a summit to curb this new arms race; support the efforts for peace in Syria; and as the Incidents at Sea Agreement in 1972 mitigated the possibility of inadvertent crisis, prevent unwanted or accidental military interactions in the NATO Guideline area that could escalate.  Because NATO will have 29 members, representation should be much smaller.  However, this opportunity must be seized now if a new cold war is to be avoided.

Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and serves as Senior Advisor for Supreme Allied Commander Europe and at the Atlantic Council and at Business Executives for National Security (BENS) and chairs two private companies.  His last book is A Handful of Bullets:  How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace. His next book due out next year is Anatomy of Failure:  Why America Loses Wars It Starts.