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Are we entering a new Cold War era?

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 21, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 21, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Ukrainian ambassador Kristina Kvien says the horrors of Russia’s war against Ukraine are forcing some terrible scenarios.

“We’re trying everything we can to make sure it doesn’t lead to World War III, but ultimately that depends on the actions of president Putin.”

The U.S. has been here before. The Cold War was defined by the fear of mutually-assured destruction.

“Each action that we took raised the prospect that it might escalate with the Soviet Union into a nuclear war,” President John F. Kennedy reflected on the threat of nuclear war.

Today, On Point: Does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signal a new Cold War?


Mary Elise Sarotte, post-Cold War historian. Professor of historical studies at Johns Hopkins University. Author of Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. (@e_sarotte)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

William Braun, professor of practice, national security strategy and policy at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

Transcript: Lessons From The Cold War

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And today I’m joined by Jack Beatty, On Point’s news analyst. He’s with me in the studio. and Mary Elise Sarotte joins us as well. She’s a professor of the history of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. And we are talking about whether the world has entered already, perhaps, a new Cold War. And my mind just goes back momentarily to the quote from George Orwell’s 1945 essay that I read earlier. And he talked about a Cold War, largely in terms of both the threat of nuclear annihilation, but also as a war of ideologies, beliefs and social structures.

So we’re going to come back to that in a second, because it’s something I would like to explore with both of you. But about the nuclear annihilation. Professor Sarotte, it feels like for anyone with even a sort of a simple memory of history, there were decades in which it felt as if that annihilation could come at any moment. I mean, can you just remind us one or two times about when we did indeed come close, even though mutually assured destruction was supposed to bring about some kind of mutually assured restraint.

MARY ELISE SAROTTE: Sure. This is, by the way, going to be, in my opinion, another one of the differences between the old Cold War and the new Cold War, that could potentially make the new Cold War more risky. The old Cold War developed over decades, and it allowed for a popular awareness of the risks of a nuclear exchange to develop alongside it. And this had all kinds of cultural consequences. Kids in school had drills, not as they do today, sadly for active shooters, but for nuclear bombing, they were taught to duck and cover.

Now let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that ducking and covering wouldn’t really do much for you if a hydrogen bomb exploded above your head. It nonetheless raised awareness of these issues. Average families built bomb shelters in their backyards. Film producers made movies like Dr. Strangelove and the made for TV movie The Day After, which was viewed by an estimated audience of 100 million people, including my terrified younger self.

So you had this cultural awareness. And I don’t think we have that anymore, even though we of course, still have the thermonuclear threat. And perhaps the highest point of fear was, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles into Cuba, and Washington under President John F. Kennedy discovered this. At first, that information was kept secret, but then it was released to the world. And that was the moment where I believe during the Cold War, the East and the West came closer than they did at any other point to potential nuclear conflict. And that, of course, had a huge public impact as well.

CHAKRABARTI: So let me just step in here. Jack, your thoughts?

JACK BEATTY: Well, how close, indeed. Serhii Plokhii, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, has a new book Nuclear Folly: The Cuban Missile Crisis. And he shows just how close we really came. We came almost, it was the length of an apology, you might say. We had a policy of dropping practice depth charges on Russian submarines around Cuba to get them to surface. Whether President Kennedy knew about this or not, we don’t know. It felt like a kind of Pentagon overreach. We had to know where the subs were, so we were dropping these. Well, up came a sub. There was a destroyer, and the destroyer didn’t know whether it was a practice sub … or not. It turned around to face the bow on, to face the destroyer, and just then a UN plane came in and seemed almost to strafe the sub, but lit it up. This was at night with flares, and the sub commander expected bombs at any second. He ordered a torpedo prepared to be fired at the American ship.

That torpedo was nuclear tipped, and it would have created biblical waves. And it would have, in effect, been the first shot of the nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. But the American captain and his signalman signaled, I’m sorry, I’m sorry for the plane coming down. And that apology, saved the world. The Russian commander turned away and resumed, of course, parallel to the destroyer. But of course, symbolically paralleled it, because he still had the nuclear weapons, paralleling, our course with Russia and the Soviet Union. And then Russia, each having nuclear weapons.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes. So so Professor Sarotte, Jack’s vivid example there. Does that fall into the the scope of the tacit code of conduct that you’ve written about that was given time to emerge between the United States and the Soviet Union? That was important in these critical moments of staving off catastrophe.

SAROTTE: Well, the Cuban Missile Crisis was really a case unto itself. But as I wrote in my New York Times op-ed last week in, shall we say, less troubled times when there wasn’t the immediate threat of thermonuclear war. Yes, a kind of tacit code of conduct developed. And as I described in the New York Times, I gave the example of navy helicopter pilots who kept an eye on the Soviet fleet. Now, of course, Soviet aviators noticed that U.S. Navy helicopter pilots were doing that, and the Soviet aviators would come out to keep an eye on the Navy helicopter pilots.

But the interesting phenomenon there is that both sides behave professionally, kept the same airspeed, altitude heading and everybody got home safely. So that again, is a kind of guardrail in a sense that is gone. Because as we saw before, these truly horrific events, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before the actual main invasion itself, there are a number of incidents where Russian pilots behave very, very recklessly. They buzzed or flew dangerously close to ships and planes. And so that is another difference between what we had established in the decades of the old Cold War and what’s happening now in the, so far, only weeks of this new Cold War.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I want to just here for a moment of tape of President John F. Kennedy himself. This is in 1963, when he was talking about aspects of what the kinds of pressures he and his staff were under in in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And here in this piece of tape, Kennedy admits, It could have very easily gone the other way.

JOHN F. KENNEDY [Tape]: Each action that we took raised the prospect that it might escalate with the Soviet Union into a nuclear war. I think we took the right one. If we had had to act on the Wednesday in the first 24 hours, I don’t think probably we would have chosen as prudently as we finally did.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack, what do you think about that?

BEATTY: Oh, yes. I mean, it was a near thing. The memoirs and the histories of the period show how a combination of deft diplomacy and just sheer luck, and sometimes just the delay in getting cables from Moscow. And indeed, this became when the red phone was created, you know, the hotline in order to speed communications, it was a near thing back and forth, back and forth.

But, you know, striking in this is John F. Kennedy’s sort of intellectual preparation. He had just read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about how the first world, how about the powers blundered into the First World War. And he said, That is not going to happen to me. That will not happen to me. And although even his own brother advocated a strike on Cuban missiles, on Russian missiles there and a tough line, he stood and he stood against almost all of them. And said, No, I’m not doing this. We’re going to find another way. And I think that was his finest profile in courage.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know, the other thing that stands out to me in that moment we heard from JFK is that he talked about if they had to act on the very next day, things could have turned out completely differently. So the deliberate intention was trying to slow things down to produce a window for that back and forth that you were talking about, Jack.

Mary Elise, do we have the diplomatic apparatus now between if we want to call it the United States or NATO, up to you, and Moscow for that continuous back and forth that can produce a kind of dialog, even if it has to be totally back channeled, that could slow things down and prevent a nuclear conflict? Do they exist as robustly now as they should?

SAROTTE: Well, I think an interesting question is, can we learn from the way Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis for the current crisis? And during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington had to communicate by written communication. So one of the things that Kennedy did afterwards was create a phone line because he said, this is ridiculous. We should be able to talk to each other by the phone. And Kennedy, the key part of the crisis happened on Saturday, October 27th, as Harvard Professor Graham Allison, my colleague, has written. What really ended the crisis was a magic cocktail with three ingredients.

The first ingredient was a public deal offered to Moscow, saying that the United States would agree not to invade Cuba if Moscow would withdraw its missiles. The second part was a private deal. Washington said this is not a quid pro quo. You must not talk about this in public, but we will also remove western Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which you don’t like. And then the third part was essentially an ultimatum, which is you need to respond within 48 hours, or else. And the or else was clearly the risk that there would be the start of military action.

And Moscow decided to take that deal and announced publicly the next day on Sunday that it was withdrawing and it kept the private part of the deal private. And so that was a case of brinkmanship. And essentially, Moscow blinked. And so the question is, is there some equivalent because this horrific violence in Ukraine really needs to stop. I am awestruck by the behavior of the Ukrainians, how brave they are, but it is horrific what is happening, the pictures we are seeing, the bombings of hospitals.

And so the question is, is there some way that we can accomplish what Kennedy accomplished, which is end the conflict without causing escalation to nuclear war? I believe that is the most pressing question facing us now. And because we have this example from the Cold War, there aren’t many examples. But here’s one. Is there some way we can learn from this and that the diplomats can somehow behind the scenes, as you say, find their magic cocktail that can stop the shooting today.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so in your New York Times essay, you write pretty clearly, professor about how you see this as being more challenging now than it was in the 1960s. I’ll just quote here. You say, there are grievous losses that we’ve experienced in the subsequent decades. Losses of military to military communication. We have expelled embassy and consulate staff members, the development of new forms of weaponry, hypersonic missiles to cyber warfare. So, you write, two of the world’s largest military powers are now functioning in near-total isolation from each other, which is a danger to everyone.

SAROTTE: Yes, absolutely. I sadly stand by everything I’ve written there. Unsurprisingly, as I said, the big differences are the fact that we no longer have arms control treaties developed painstakingly over decades that served as guardrails. Perhaps the most relevant one is the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty that was negotiated between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and it eliminated an entire class of weapons that Donald Trump left that in 2019. And that’s particularly relevant, because Putin says, setting aside the moment for whether this is accurate or not. But Putin says what he is concerned about is that NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, could put such weapons or even next generation intermediate range nuclear forces weapons into Ukraine, and that would directly threaten Russia.

Again, there is no evidence that NATO wants to do this. But Putin is saying this is why he feels he has to attack Ukraine. And U.S. negotiators in what appeared to be their leaked responses to Russia, have been indicating some willingness to renegotiate this treaty, or at least parts of it. Which I think frankly would be in both Western and Moscow’s interest. The problem is that now that the bloodshed has started, it would be so dangerous for Putin personally to retreat. It makes the bar much higher for reinstituting some parts of that agreement.

But that, I think, is a guardrail that we’re missing. We also, as I said, are missing the cultural awareness that we used to have. And then exactly as you read, over the past years, we’ve withdrawn embassy staff, withdrawing consulate staff, military to military contracts have been decreased. In other words, these things that have developed over time during the Cold War aren’t there to help us in what is now a renewed nuclear conflict.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack, what do you think?

BEATTY: Yes, these arms control treaties have been abrogated, weakened. The Trump administration in 2018 announced that we would reserve the right to respond to a cyber attack with a nuclear weapon. Think of that. That I do not think has been repudiated by the Biden Pentagon. So a cyber attack on the United States, we reserve the right to respond with a nuclear strike against whoever did that. That’s a lowering, that’s a peril, that’s a fraught situation.

CHAKRABARTI: And it makes me wonder with that kind of language having been used. I mean, Professor Sarotte, you mentioned a moment ago, what would it take to get Russia, the United States, NATO’s countries back to the table to produce new long-term treaties? That could reduce the nuclear threat.

SAROTTE: Yeah, obviously, that’s a huge question. … I should add that there is only one treaty still constraining Washington and Moscow, and that’s the new Start Treaty, which is set to expire in 2026. So in just four years, unless it’s renewed. But chances of renewal seem very, very slim and then both sides are unconstrained. So that is one of the reasons why I’m very concerned about this new Cold War. I think the question, the more immediate question now, Is it going to turn into a hot war between Russia and the NATO countries? Right now, obviously, the NATO position is to support Ukraine, but not get involved.

That’s heartbreaking because it’s understandable in an analytical sense. But what is happening in Ukraine is truly awful. And the more we can find ways to help the Ukrainians without risking nuclear war, the more we should do. I think there are some necessary risks that we should run. And then there are actually some cases where if these events happen, you would start to see a greater need for NATO to actually get involved. Because that would mean threats not just to Ukraine, but to the West. So if there the use of chemical or biological weapons, if there’s the use of tactical nuclear weapons, or if there is an attack on a nuclear plant sufficient to cause a leak, those would all start to endanger NATO territory. And then we have to start talking not about a Cold War, but sadly about a hot war.

Related Reading

New York Times: “I’m a Cold War Historian. We’re in a Frightening New Era.” — “Keep the airspeed, altitude and course steady: That was the mantra for American pilots who regularly encountered Soviet aircraft during the Cold War. And the Soviets often returned the favor.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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