The Russians Are Coming?

Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Reuters
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine at a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Chisinau, Moldova, November 14, 2008
The day after the American presidential election, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev issued a harsh warning to the West. He announced plans to station short-range missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea, as part of a military strategy to neutralize the missile defense shield the United States is aiming to build in Eastern Europe. The Americans and their allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, where some elements of the system are to be built, insist that it is designed to protect against a threat from a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, and argue that even at its most ambitious, it would be essentially useless against a Russian attack. The Russians strongly reject that rationale. “We have told our partners more than once that we want positive cooperation, we want to act together to combat common threats,” said Medvedev. “But they, unfortunately, don’t want to listen to us.”

When the Kremlin sent its tanks and soldiers into Georgia this past August, it demonstrated to the world that it is prepared to confront a Western-backed nation in the most forceful terms possible—up to and including military action, if need be. Since then foreign policy experts and politicians in Europe and the US have embarked on a vigorous debate about how best to respond to Russia’s growing assertiveness.

Their fears were further heightened in early January when Moscow, in an escalating feud with the Ukrainian government, briefly shut down pipelines running through Ukraine, which provide Europe’s principal supply of natural gas. Coming during a deep winter cold spell, the move left several Eastern European countries without heat, causing schools and factories to close—and forcing European leaders into a round of urgent diplomacy with Russia.

Few of those striving to analyze the situation, however, have gone about the task with the passion of Edward Lucas, a journalist with The Economist who has been covering Central and Eastern Europe for nearly a quarter of a century. The title of his new book, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, was treated by some reviewers as a bit of a stretch when it first appeared in 2008; since the conflict in Georgia and this winter’s natural gas crisis, though, it has looked more like prescience, as commentators have tripped over each other to announce the revival of geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West.1 Lucas is refreshingly direct:

Twenty years after Mikhail Gorbachev started dismantling communism, Russia is reverting to Soviet behavior at home and abroad, and in its contemptuous disregard for Western norms.

This is a pretty bold assertion, but Lucas immediately sets about qualifying it.

It turns out that quite a lot…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.