Think Tank Review: November was a special month for the West, marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the anniversary came a stream of Cold War-inspired reflections and comparisons from top U.S. thinkers and diplomats.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, left, presents his credentials to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, looking on. Photo: AP
November marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The anniversary prompted some Western think tanks to reflect upon the Cold War and make comparisons with the current period of U.S.-Russia bilateral relations.
Informed by the previous Cold War, progressive scholars looked at the possibility of a second Cold War, while calculating the odds the world might already have stepped to the brink. Even the former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack F. Matlock, weighed in on the notion of a Cold War II, using annotated notes meant for a canceled speech.
In addition to the glossy, historical overtones of November’s political commentary, some think tanks also marked the first traces of a potential conflict in Russia’s Caucasus region sparked by the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East. Think tanks also considered the political future of Georgia, especially within the context of potential Russian intervention abroad.
Kissinger, Gorbachev and a new Cold War
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev both spoke in November on lessons from the first Cold War. Kissinger looked historically at the past, saying the Cold War was “inevitable” and “inherent in the nature of the two societies.” Gorbachev, however, looked more at the future, framing the world as being “on the brink of new Cold War.”
Both the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also considered the possibility of a new Cold War.
Brookings Senior Fellow Jeremy Shapiro implied the possibility of a Cold War II by suggesting workarounds to avoid it. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Mankoff of CSIS spoke of a tit-for-tat escalation in which Russia might take offense at the U.S. “trying to muscle in on what they see as their sphere of influence.”
Commentary out of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Carnegie Endowment instead looked – like Kissinger – at the past.
An event at CFR looked backwards toward the vast archives of Cold War history, and featured Robert Blackwill, Vitaly Churkin, and Frank Elbe. At the event, these Cold War veterans “recounted firsthand experiences” of the period surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall and shed light on an interesting past as opposed to an uncertain future.
And elsewhere, regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Valdai Club in late October, Alexei Arbatov of Carnegie stated that Putin’s speech was “clearly not a declaration of a new Cold War between Russia and the West.” Arbatov firmly put to rest the conjecture of a second Cold War.
Radical Islam, ISIS and the Caucasus
If tensions between Russia and the West are placed against the backdrop of a new Cold War, a growing determinate of future stability may well be the Caucasus. The region is rife with political uncertainty, Islamic radicalism, split loyalties, and fits and starts of democratization. The region could also be a point of contention between Russia and the West, a flashpoint of future conflict, or even the grounds for a collaborative, counter-terrorism project between Moscow and Washington.
Notably, three of the top five U.S. think tanks - CSIS, Rand, and the Carnegie Endowment – focused on the region in November. In short, in American think tank circles, talk of rising tensions in the Caucasus has come to the foreground.
Regarding the North Caucasus, specifically the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, Islamic radicalism has made the Caucasus “the most turbulent part of the Russian Federation.”
In that spirit, the Carnegie Endowment brought Thomas de Waal and CSIS’ Sergey Markedonov together in November to participate in a discussion centering on rising tensions in the North Caucasus. The event focused on North Caucasian volunteers to ISIS and the political tactics of regional leaders trying to maintain control over their respective dominions. As an important aside, a CSIS-run program dedicated to exploring the North Caucasus region and Russian Islam helped to analyze events in this underreported region.
Political uncertainty in Georgia
Both Rand and CSIS published commentaries scrutinizing Georgia’s political system. Rand’s William Harrison Courtney co-authored a commentary that tracks two important recent events in the country of Georgia: “leadership squabbles” relating to government resignations and “the cracking of the Georgian dream coalition” related to disparate attempts to defeat ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. Courtney added that the future of Georgia is “hanging in the balance.”
Tbilisi, Georgia is 1,000 kilometers away from Crimea, yet, for Georgia, Russia’s annexation of Crimea brought Russia much closer to home. “Planned” rallies on November 15th protesting “Russia’s [previous] attempt to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions and … the [Georgian] government’s inaction to counter these attempts by Russia,” did little to suppress a flare-up of ethno-nationalism.
The Crimean annexation has led to an uncertain future that has “forced the leaders of the South Caucasus and Central Asian states to be more deferential to Moscow in the near term while accelerating efforts to loosen and diversify their ties with Moscow,” CSIS’ Jeffrey Mankoff said this month.
Moscow’s actions are “breeding a new national identity and pride which will be the surest guarantee of these countries’ sovereignty over the longer term,” Mankoff said. In short, fears of Russian interventionism now extend from the Baltics to the Caucasus.