Did The Cold War Ever Really End?

Sonya Seunghye LimFormer Chief of Station, CIA

Sonya Seunghye Lim is a former Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency where she had a 24-year distinguished career in the Directorate of Operations, to include two assignments as Chief of Station. She also served as Chief of Operations at CIA Headquarters.

Christopher TurnerFormer CIA Operations Officer

Christopher Turner had a 25-year career in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations, during which he completed several sensitive assignments in the Far East, South Asia, and Europe.


OPINION
– From the optics of the United States intelligence community (USIC), the Cold War did not end in the 1990s with the Fall of Communism. Its outward appearance was merely altered. Beneath a thin veneer of economic and political engagement, Russia and China continued to pose threats to liberal democratic ideals and values. The past twenty years have seen massive Russian and Chinese operations against the US and its allies to steal our secrets and to disseminate anti-democratic propaganda.

But outside the USIC, political rapprochement without clear-eyed calculation and economic expediencies without consideration of long-term costs were the preferred approaches. Such wishful thinking spawned a false sense of security – that wars could be contained and that aggressors could be talked out of their mad plans. From 2008’s Russo-Georgia War to Russia’s taking of Crimea in 2014, its direct entry into the Syrian conflict in 2015, and its invasion of Ukraine this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proved again how inaccurate and fanciful such perceptions were. A world emerging from the horrors of Putin’s latest large-scale predations will require decisive action and clear policy to quell its sordid aftermath — rampant spread of misinformation, persistent cyberattacks, and withering skirmishes in the realms of economy, security, and intelligence.

Since his invasion of Ukraine, the airwaves, the internet and print media have been filled with observations and analyzes on Putin’s many mistakes focused on the fact that he took these missteps despite his KGB background and the vast intelligence apparatus at his beck and call. It’s clear that Putin chose to wage this war based on a myriad of wrong assumptions, on an inaccurate assessment of his military’s competence and readiness, and on poor, misinterpreted, or dismissed intelligence (or perhaps all three). Putin’s Russia as a threat to democratic ideals is no longer an abstraction that can be shelved or otherwise discounted for the sake of political expediency. Putin is now demonstrating that he is a threat to any semblance of world security and stability; he has no other role or purpose in the world. While Putin’s war has so far failed to achieve his strategic goals, it has hastened the inevitable confrontation between liberal democracy and authoritarianism and has split much of the world — though in overly simplistic terms — into two camps, good and evil.


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This split has also affected global order and prioritization. After a period of sending mixed signals, the US has re-emerged as the leader of those liberal democratic countries that stand against cruel authoritarian regimes. This development may also create closer agreement between the US and the European Union (EU) on their policies towards China. And, in coldly pragmatic terms, the US may profit from a new iteration of the Cold War as the EU dramatically reduces its energy reliance on and trade with Russia. On this point Germany offers a clear example. For the past four decades, Germany maintained a close relationship with Russia. The construction of the Nord Stream II pipeline, despite the limited sanctions and US prostrations at the time, illustrated Berlin’s once-favorable stance towards Russia. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine changed all of this, and Germany now finds itself on the cusp of taking on another prominent role in the EU — charting the region’s future in security and military affairs.

With the significant reduction in Russia’s economic relations with the EU, China will likely be Putin’s sole viable option for economic and political support. Due to China’s established and growing confrontation with the US and the EU, both in terms of trade and Chinese expansion of influence and territory, coupled with China’s great need for energy, Russia and China appear fated to intensify their cooperation. Exactly how this cooperation will sort out remains uncertain, but it only bodes ill for the non-authoritarian world.


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But Russia has other, albeit smaller, de-facto supporters. As the biggest producers of fossil fuel energy, Arab nations will benefit from rising energy prices caused by late-pandemic demand and sanctions against Russia. Those Arab countries that have not supported the US / EU sanctions against Russia may well become safe havens for Russian oligarchs. It is not surprising that some of them have already begun to park their most extravagant assets in the region in attempts to avoid sequestration.

The outlook offers an abundance of gloom and doom, but we should always recall that, in great setbacks and challenges, equally great opportunities often lie. Energy dependence, economic investments, and risk aversion were some of the key obstacles to closer cooperation between the US and the EU on Russia and China in the recent past. We are witnessing a dangerous formation of an international order in which Russia and China solidify their resolve to confront US-led alliances and intentions. But we are also seeing the exploitable weaknesses in Putin’s regime. Survivalist instincts, shifting allegiances, and raw greed at both the individual and national levels will present opportunities to collect key intelligence on liberal democracies’ fiercest adversaries. We are also witnessing the enormous power of ideology, liberal values, and collective actions.

Regardless of the outcome of Putin’s war against Ukraine, in the coming months and years Russia and China will wage an even more intense espionage war against the US and its allies. The good news is that liberal democracies have finally been roused from the complacency in which they’d largely wallowed since the Fall of Communism. Now is the time to commit to comprehensive intelligence and security cooperation among our allies so that we may formulate coherent and clear policies to counter these existing and coming threats.

Sharing informed opinions is important. Opinion pieces represent the diverse views of The Cipher Brief audience and do not represent views of The Cipher Brief.


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