Middle Israel: Welcome to Cold War II

"Occupation continues,” asserts wryly the caption in Tbilisi’s Museum of Soviet Occupation, referring to its map of current Georgia, where red stains blot Russian-occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali.

The analogy to the Soviet trauma – which in this land of majestic mountains, lush valleys, and gushing rivers included 72,000 shot dead and 200,000 deported in 1921-1941 alone – is understandable. Post-Communist Russia has killed hundreds of Georgians, wounded thousands, and displaced tens of thousands while wresting one-fifth of Georgia’s internationally recognized land.

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Punctuated by the desk from which Stalin issued his murderous orders, and lined by jail-cell doors of thick metal and heavy locks, the museum that decries Soviet Georgia’s plight chillingly implies that with Russia having molested Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea in 2014, and decided the Syrian civil war in 2018, the Cold War is back.

It isn’t. Instead, we now face what a grotesque and a cunning Vladimir Putin presented in their Monday summit in Helsinki: Cold War II.

COLD WAR II is different from Cold War I in its belligerents’ aims, in its front lines’ location, and also in its meaning for the Jewish state.

Yes, like the original Cold War, this one also involves spooks, sanctions and propaganda; but unlike what happened last century, this one is driven neither by communist zeal nor by Soviet imperialism.

What Putin set out to restore was not the Soviet Union’s reach, which stretched from Vietnam to Cuba, but czarist Russia’s, which made do with domineering its immediate neighbors.

And unlike the USSR, Russia is also fine with capitalism. Moreover, on this front Moscow surrendered unconditionally, a choice underscored by its hosting in 2013 of the beauty queen contest that is now part of the conspiracy theories about Putin’s alleged blackmailing of Trump.

Yes, the beauty contest is one of capitalism’s most nauseating products. Yet the Miss Universe contest Trump held in Crocus City – a hotel-and-entertainment complex outside Moscow owned by oligarch Aras Agalarov, author of Russia: Reflections on the Way to the Market (1998), and located beside the privately funded Myakinino metro station – was not part of the USSR’s resurrection; it was part of its defeat.

This is, of course, little consolation for countries like Georgia, but it is crucial information for Westerners as they count their enemies and allocate resources for fighting them.

Alas, this sobriety was missing when the West tried to read every post-Soviet civil war as a clash between democrats and anti-democrats, rather than as ethnic conflicts in which it had no natural stakes.

As seen by Russia, this misreading was a German-inspired ploy that maneuvered an impressionable Washington to attack historic Russian allies like Serbia and embrace historic German allies like Croatia and Ukraine.

This is not to say that Russia’s treatment of its neighbors is not a problem. It is. Russia should let its neighbors be. However, a family feud like the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is not Soviet missiles emerging in Cuba’s San Cristobal.

Tragically, the West did read post-Communist Russia’s every regional move as the Soviet Union’s grand return.

If led by a Richard Nixon, such a West would have respected from the outset Russia’s historic sphere and reached with it a formula whereby countries like Georgia and Ukraine remain free and integral, but neutral.

But Nixon wasn’t there when Germany tried to pull Ukraine into the European Union, and when Poland – against French and German advice – tried to pull Georgia into NATO.

Instead, Western statecraft had a geopolitical novice like Barack Obama, whose “leadership from behind” philosophy resulted in Europe’s elbowing of Russia from Libya in 2011, which in turn resulted in Russia’s takeover of Syria; arms deals with longtime US clients Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia; and political domination of the entire Middle East.

In short, Cold War II, like World War I, was initially a tragedy of Western errors in which reflex obstructed poise, fixation overruled wisdom, and idealism was a marginal actor at best.

That was back when this war began. Now ideology is part of the war, because Russia has moved from the geographic defensive to the political offensive.

WHAT BEGAN with securing Russia’s historic frontiers has since morphed into an attack on the free world’s democratic foundations.
Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election two years ago, as alleged by four American intelligence agencies, is part of a broader trend, whereby democracy’s great victory in Cold War I is challenged by three authoritarian powers: Russia, China and Turkey.

The three’s grand retreats – Russia’s from ’s democracy, Turkey’s from Ataturk’s separation of religion and state, and China’s from Deng Xiaoping’s rejection of lifelong rule – underpin freedom’s broader retreat along a front that stretches from Hungary and Poland to Venezuela and the Philippines.

Now, with the leader of the free world habitually besmirching the media and the judiciary and also trying to turn a blind eye to Russia’s foul plays, there is reason to fear that the West is losing Cold War II.

Set against this backdrop, it is tempting to assume we Israelis must now join this steadily unfolding war. Well, we can’t.
Cold War II is not Cold War I.

Russian Jews enjoy freedom of religion and travel, Moscow has full diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, the Kremlin does not incite Israel’s enemies, the two’s militaries dialogue efficiently, and Israeli peppers, apples and melons reach Russian tables while Russian oil feeds Israeli cars.

That is why Israel, rightly, took no side in the Ukrainian conflict and joined no anti-Russian sanctions. Like Finland during the previous cold war, our heart is firmly planted on Cold War II’s one side, but our interests demand neutrality. We are in no position to provoke a surging superpower.

That is the Middle Israeli lesson from the revolt whose recklessness is the reason millions of Jews will be fasting this Sunday, for the 1,948th consecutive year.

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