For us Gen Y-ers, children of America’s “unipolar moment,” it is nearly impossible to relate to the Cold War zeitgeist of desk drills, space races, and Daisy Girls. Except for some brief, frenzied moments in 2001-2, the jihadists lurking between the cracks of 21st century state authority have never seemed to threaten our collective existence; from where we stand today, the threat of Chinese ascendancy is distant and mostly economic.
On the news of a Russian takeover of Crimea in the wake of a pro-Western revolution in Kiev, American commentators have been abuzz with speculation that thanks to Vladimir Putin’s megalomania and Russia’s timeless complexes, the Cold War never genuinely ended. To be sure, the current crisis in Ukraine represents a definite nadir in U.S.-Russia relations—a nightmare scenario that Western policymakers, convinced that Russia could be domesticated into a peaceful Euro-Atlantic order, more or less assumed would never come.
Though ensuring Ukraine remains free from Russia’s orbit is by no means a vital American interest, Moscow’s violation of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty ought not to be taken lightly. Our NATO allies to Ukraine’s north (skipping, of course, over Kremlin-bound Belarus) and west have fair reason to be concerned: standard-fare Russian bullying is to be expected from a regional power, but territorial revisionism at the expense of sovereign states is a clear repudiation of international consensus.
For the sake of Ukraine’s integrity, Western powers should work doubly hard to weigh against Russian aggression with financial guarantees and veiled threats—though nobody can pretend Washington has as much skin in the Ukrainian game as Moscow, narrowing the gap will do much to shore up trust in the global order.
All things considered, however, we must drop the pretense that a new Cold War is brewing in Maidan Square and Simferopol. True, it seems at this point that the Obama administration’s reset policy, which I treated optimistically in my article at the Harvard Political Review in 2010, has no legs: few great powers have successfully opted for strategic partnership over competition. But the lesson to take away from Kiev is not that Russia will be Russia, or that the fall of the wall has been undone. Rather, it is a reminder that no matter how pure the intentions of liberal internationalists, great powers will be great powers.
Regardless of whatever in particular emerges from the standoff in Ukraine, the United States and NATO must rewrite their Russia policies around the expectation that Moscow, like Washington, will seek to dominate its near abroad regardless of how much diplomatic pressure is brought to bear from afar. No need to divine any Tsarist or Soviet legacy in Crimea, Ossetia, or Transnistria—consider for a second: how many times has the United States, ostensibly guided by a liberal vision of the world, invaded and occupied lesser states in its own backyard?
We should stop short, however, of concluding that Russia acting like the Eurasian power that it is is entirely bad. While the struggle over Ukraine does indeed pit Western interests against Russian interests however one slices it, America should recognize that Russian realpolitik, when its strategic goals intersect with ours, is a force to be harnessed, rather than repelled altogether.