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The New Cold War by Edward Lucas

Carlin Romano
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

A chilling look at Russia drifting backward toward a new Cold War.

The New Cold War

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Subtitle: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West
Author: Edward Lucas
Price: $26.95
Length: 272
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0230606121
US publication date: 2008-02

At what temperature does a cool alliance become a Cold War?

We might find out soon. Maybe it's just a coincidence that George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin met recently in Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. It's bracing to imagine how each would respond to The New Cold War by Edward Lucas, veteran Russian and Eastern European correspondent for The Economist.

The New Cold War powerfully argues that America and Europe's excessive focus on Iraq and Afghanistan has blinded them to a threat closer to home. Thoroughly informed, steeped in his subject's recent history, with a flinty, caustic style that usually sizes up political phenomena with exacting precision, Lucas reminds us why longtime foreign correspondents surpass rookies who parachute into a foreign hotspot.

Lucas pulls no punches in describing the darker side of Russia since Putin, former head of the KGB's successor agency, took over from Boris Yeltsin. In Lucas' view, the once and perhaps future president of Russia has engineered a Kremlin dominated by ex-intelligence agents marked by xenophobia toward the West, a desire to get rich by controlling private business, and a disrespect for democratic institutions.

Lucas believes Russia poses a "direct menace ... not only to its own citizens, but to outsiders. Twenty years after Mikhail Gorbachev started dismantling communism, Russia is reverting to Soviet behavior at home and abroad," a policy exhibited in "its contemptuous disregard for Western norms." Meanwhile, "Western public opinion and policy makers alike find it hard to focus on more than one or two problems at a time, which proved a costly mistake in the 1930s."

The New Cold War clarifies Putin's antidemocratic changes since he assumed power, among them state control of all TV news; politically motivated judicial attacks on companies that result in state seizure of their assets; elimination of gubernatorial elections; electoral rules that effectively ban smaller, opposition political parties from power; and legislation and manipulation of statutes that block dissidents and punish demonstrations.

Lucas also spotlights the Kremlin's continuing soft war against former Soviet republics that broke away to freedom by such methods as its withholding of fuel and gas from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine.

To his credit, Lucas, in old-fashioned "objective" journalist style, additionally reports the supposed upside of Putin's authoritarianism. "Unlike the Soviet Union," he states, "Russia is not riven by economic discontent and failure. On the contrary, investment is pouring in, and living standards are rising. Most Russians have never had it so good, and Putin's approval rating is consistently over 80 percent." In general, that instinct for balance makes The New Cold War a solid study. Yet as that example shows, Lucas, for all his expert analysis, occasionally succumbs to platitudes bandied about by Russia pundits. Many ignore, for instance, how double-digit inflation in Russia eats away the supposed rise in "living standards" achieved by Putin. Talk to ordinary workers in St. Petersburg, and they say living standards remain constant as salaries race to keep pace with inflation.

Similarly, the routine citation of Putin's popularity makes no sense in a society where, as Lucas admits, "judicial and bureaucratic harassment" have deterred "all but the bravest from speaking out or getting involved." His own old friends, he concedes, are "increasingly unwilling even to talk on the phone." People in such states do not tell pollsters the truth.

That noted, Lucas offers one of the best briefs on how Yeltsin's Wild West became Putin's chilly petrofascism, detailing the return of rigged elections, forced psychiatric medication, the use of natural resources as foreign-policy bludgeons, and the rogue nations that are once again Moscow's best friends.

In a final chapter, Lucas suggests "How to Win the New Cold War". The West, he begins, must face the political truth about Russia, not ritually join "a scramble to find yet more inducements for good behavior." The US and the European Union must forge a common Russia strategy.

Lucas argues, as only Sen. John McCain and a few prominent US officials have, that Russia might be expelled from the G-8, which is supposed to include only democracies.

Emphasizing economic levers the West enjoys, Lucas urges capital markets to examine whether Russia's now state-run giant companies, such as Gazprom and Rosneft, meet market rules respecting property rights and the rule of law. (Lucas believes Gazprom and Rosneft would be "immediately disqualified.") He thinks the UN Security Council should be marginalized as an organizer of world-crisis management, as it was when the Soviet Union's presence delegitimized its authority in the eyes of Western states.

Perhaps most ironically, Lucas writes that the "single most important thing the West can do right now to protect both itself and its proteges" from Russian "neo-imperialism" is to offer a so-called Membership Action Plan to Georgia to enter NATO. Just this past week, NATO's leaders, corroborating Lucas' judgment of their fear of Russia, voted against that move, out of fear of irritating the great bear to the north.

Ironically again, the chief NATO leader who argued adamantly in Bucharest for a green light to Georgia and Ukraine was none other than George Bush. Could he be experiencing a reborn view of his Russian peer as the clock winds down on his presidency?

One would like to listen in today. Chances are some folks will be doing just that.


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