Following Russia’s offensive against Ukraine the world has not entered another Cold War. The Cold War was a frozen condition that divided Europe for nearly fifty years, while the Eastern and Western blocs avoided direct confrontation. The new epoch can be defined as a Shadow War, in which Moscow no longer recognizes the independence or integrity of neighboring states, thus setting the stage for intense competition with the West for influence throughout the Wider Europe.
After recovering from its Cold War defeat, Russia is once again mounting a pervasive and persistent security challenge to the West. President Vladimir Putin's neo-imperial goals to restore a Moscow-centered bloc, and his subversive strategies that undermine the stability of several regions from the Baltic to the Caspian, challenge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a security provider and undercut the development of the European Union (EU) project.
There are three fundamental components of the Shadow War. First, Russia’s leaders no longer depict the country as a European state. Instead, they define Russia as a distinct “Eurasian pole of power,” defending itself against Western encroachment, proud of its anti-Americanism and illiberalism, and seeking to play a vanguard role among authoritarian governments that reject Western political influence.
Second, there is no longer a clear division of Europe into Western and Russian spheres as was evident during the Cold War. Instead, we are witnessing a prolonged struggle over a string of states that are under pressure to join the Russian zone but whose populations and territories are divided or whose governments do not possess sufficient capabilities to resist Moscow.
In particular, the former Soviet republics in Europe’s East – Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – are increasingly squeezed by Moscow to relinquish their Western aspirations. The Kremlin also seeks to subvert Central European countries that are members of both NATO and the EU by turning them into neutral international players. It employs military threats, imposes energy embargos and stirs ethnic tensions in Estonia and Latvia to undermine national stability, and it offers corrupt business deals in states such as Bulgaria or Hungary so that national governments promote Kremlin goals.
The third component of the Shadow War are the diverse assortment of weapons employed to undermine the adversary, whether energy, business, media, cyberspace, politics or warfare. Moscow is currently much better prepared for the Shadow War than its Western adversaries. This is evident in its escalating offensive against Ukraine and its adroit tactics of disinformation, subversion and destabilization to disqualify the country from its westward perspective.
Still stuck in wishful thinking, American and EU officials claim there is no zero-sum competition with Russia over the allegiance of any European country. In reality, the paramount conflict between a country’s freedom to choose its international alliances, which the West espouses, and national subordination to Russia, on which Moscow insists, lies at the core of the Shadow War.
While President Putin remains at the helm in the Kremlin, Western policy must be urgently geared toward a long-term struggle for the freedom of countries throughout the Wider Europe. Ukraine has become the symbol and substance of this Shadow War. Both the West and Russia claim the nation as part of their heritage and their future. Most Ukrainians identify themselves as Europeans and want to join the EU, while the Union acknowledges Ukraine as a European state. Brussels is offering Association Agreements and free trade arrangements to Kyiv and other post-Soviet governments that meet democratic standards, thereby indicating where they ultimately belong.
Putin's Russia denounces the EU approach as conflicting with its own historical, cultural and geostrategic claims that the post-Soviet countries form part of the “Russian world” and must either return to Moscow's tutelage or remain outside Western alliances. This would not only entail the curtailment of national sovereignty but also promote the imposition of a value system based on autocracy and statism that thwarts the democratic aspirations of most citizens.
The West is only just emerging from its post-modernist utopia and its post-Cold War illusions about Russia. It is imperative for Washington to grasp the leadership role in the Shadow War just as it did during the Cold War, because Europe remains divided and confused and is perceived as weak and indecisive by Moscow. If the United States forfeits such a role then it will witness a series of regional crises that could shatter European stability and demolish the NATO security alliance.
The short-sighted “reset” with Moscow is already history and all that remains are hopes for constructive cooperation with the Kremlin in such areas as arms control, the Syrian civil war and Iran's nuclear program. But the outcome of such collaboration remains unpredictable. Moscow will use these U.S. security priorities as points of blackmail and bargaining to undercut American resistance to Kremlin assertiveness in its former European dominions.
If the EU and NATO are serious in defending their declared strategic interests and professed values of freedom, democracy and national independence, they will need to mount a sustained campaign to support European countries that reject subordination to Russia. In the Shadow War against Moscow a broad arsenal of tools will need to be deployed, whether economic, legal, informational, political, psychological or military. And in this prolonged struggle for European unity and trans-Atlantic security, ultimate victory will remain elusive.