German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Oct. 8 that the situation between the U.S. and Russia today is more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. As he put it,
“It’s a fallacy to think that this is like the Cold War. The current times are different and more dangerous.” Since most of us think of the Cold War as by far the most dangerous time we have known, Steinmeier’s view is startling. It is important to understand what he is saying, not simply because he is the foreign minister of an important country, but because he is a smart man.
In the interview, Steinmeier discussed the Russian intervention in Syria, the standoff with the United States and the frozen but still dangerous confrontation over Ukraine. When we look at these two confrontations between the United States and Russia (Germany doesn’t have the military strength to affect this balance) either situation could result in a direct confrontation of U.S. and Russian forces.
On paper, the United States remains committed to the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while the Russians are protecting it. There is now combat in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. Russian and Assad regime forces seem to be trying to take control of the city. The United States sees Aleppo as a bastion of anti-Assad forces and doesn’t want to see it fall. The U.S. has the option to try to block the Russian and Assad advance. Russia has to decide whether to stand and fight or withdraw. Neither side is confident it knows the other’s intentions, but both believe that Aleppo is a critical if not decisive battle. The chances of intentional conflict are real, as is the possibility of an unintended clash escalating.
At the same time, Syria is not essential to the national security of Russia or the United States. It is not without importance, but a defeat or capitulation there will not change the balance of power between them at all. It would of course affect psychological and political perception, but in the long run, perception ultimately comes down to substantial military and economic power. The United States can afford to back off. The Russians will find it more difficult, but can contrive reasons for slowing or halting the attacks.
In Ukraine, the issue is fundamental to Russia and secondary to the United States. Therefore, it is far more dangerous than Syria. For Russia, a Ukraine dominated by a third power, with forces deployed in Ukraine, represents a fundamental threat to its national security. For the United States, it is a secondary issue that can rise to a primary one.
As I have written, the foundation of U.S. foreign policy since World War I was preventing any single power from dominating Europe and Russia, as their combined strength in technology and resources would threaten American interests. Therefore, Russia returning to its prior position, with the potential to dominate the European Peninsula, would rise to a primary issue. If Russia invaded Ukraine and used it as a base to threaten its former satellite states, this would begin escalating to a primary level. But that is several steps from happening, and if it did, it would still not constitute a direct threat to the entire European Peninsula.
The Cold War focused on the center of Germany, and the possibility of a Soviet seizure of Western Europe did not appear far-fetched. Since the U.S. was defending Western Europe at a distance, its conventional forces facing the Soviets appeared to be inferior. Therefore, part of U.S. strategy, at least officially, was the use of nuclear weapons, both strategically and on the battlefield, to stop a Soviet offensive. That meant that should the Soviets have chosen to undertake an offensive, or if they detected a U.S. offensive, they had to go nuclear at the earliest possible moment.
This is what kept the Cold War from turning into a shooting war. The Soviets and the Americans, along with their allies or subordinates in Europe, saw themselves in an existential crisis. The deterrence against conventional war in Europe, as opposed to proxy wars elsewhere such as Vietnam or Afghanistan, was nuclear war. Wars that did not involve primary and overwhelming interests did not involve the risk of nuclear war. There was no military target worth a nuclear strike in either country, nor would either country risk immolation over Vietnam or Afghanistan. Therefore, these wars could take place.
I think this is Steinmeier’s point. The confluence of extremely critical fears and interests paradoxically reduced the chance of conflict, because it increased the chance of nuclear war. Today, none of the friction points between the United States and Russia are of primary interest to both countries. Syria is at best secondary to both, and Ukraine really matters only to Russia. This cannot result in nuclear war, and therefore, each side will take greater risks than they would have in Central Europe during the Cold War.
Therefore, the situation is more dangerous now precisely because the stakes are lower. In lowering the stakes, the risks decline and the possibility of serious conflict between U.S. and Russian forces rises. That direct clash did not occur during the Cold War, at least not on any significant scale. That means that the risk of nuclear war is diminished, but the risk of direct conflict is higher. This would not be proxy wars, but direct war. Undisciplined crises are the most dangerous.
Steinmeier’s observation seems valid. The mystery, of course, is what he is planning to do about that. Having made the declaration, it would seem reasonable that Germany would try to defuse the U.S.-Russian confrontation. Is Germany announcing that it is shifting its role in global politics to a more active role, albeit mediation? These crises raise the question of what Germany will do. That is a question with an ominous past. But if the German foreign minister is speaking for Germany, then this is exactly where his logic would lead him.