Where Could The European Cold War Go Hot Again?

Think a war in Europe won't happen? Here's a look at the issues most likely to spur a military confrontation

Those with direct experience of the USSR see Russia as an existential threat — REUTERS
Jan 27, 2017 at 12:06 PM ET

It’s difficult to make generalizations about a place as diverse as Europe. Nevertheless, since the end of the USSR and the rise of the EU, it’s been popular to think about Europe in general terms: increasingly federal, with a common currency, reduced travel restrictions, and (after the defeat of Serbian nationalism in 1996) greater philosophical homogeneity about the relative importance of ethnicity, language and political identity. Up until recently, it seemed like Europe had reached a conclusive majority consensus about these questions.

Since 2014, however, and the West’s failure to protect an avowedly pro-European Ukraine, it has become increasingly popular to describe the West’s relationship with Russia as a new Cold War. Reading the headlines, it certainly seems like Moscow and Europe are one badly-aimed missile or bomb away from World War III. As political realities in the US and abroad are challenged, what are the lines or issues most likely to lead to war in Europe?

Imperial Russia By A Different Name

One variable that seems constant right now is Russia. Whether one sees things from Russia’s perspective (wherein Russia is surrounded by hostile neighbors intent on its destruction) or those of its nearest neighbors (which see Russia as an aggressive and expansive imperial bully), Russia’s actions are indisputable. It has invaded and occupied portions of Ukraine and Georgia. It has countenanced cyberattacks on Estonia, Ukraine (which included the first deaths attached to cyberwarfare), the U.S., Georgia, Azerbaijan and NATO. It is pursuing a long game to undermine and destabilize any and all political alliances that do not include it, as well as those that do include it. The weaker everyone else is, the greater the room for Russian opportunism.

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Russia has also taken the side of America’s primary antagonists in the Middle East. This has made it the friend of isolationists, nationalists, and left-wingers who (paradoxically, given Russia’s own actions) oppose an American and European hegemony, backed by the increasingly questionable threat of military intervention.

Whether it is lashing out in righteous self-defense or as part of an unethical attempt to grow larger and more powerful at the expense of its smaller and weaker neighbors, there is no question that Russia is looking to expand its brand.

The Return Of Nationalism

Across Europe, explicit nationalism is on the rise at levels unseen since the early 20th century. While hard to quantify, the success of so-called “populist” political parties with nationalist agendas suggests a growing dissatisfaction with NATO, the EU, and the U.S.. Over the last two years, far-right parties have won political power, gained credibility, or advanced substantial nationalist agendas in Poland (Law and Justice), Hungary (Jobbik), Romania (the recent founding of a new nationalist party) Austria, Italy (rejection of judicial and legal reform), the U.S. (Trump/Alt-Right), Germany (Alternative for Germany), UK (Brexit), France (Le Pen’s National Front) and others.

Nationalism overlaps well with Russia’s agenda, because it erodes federalism—the idea that different people in different countries could lay aside tribal instincts like linguistic or ethnic affinities to cooperate. This makes it easier for Russia to project power at a local or regional level without sacrificing much in the way of money or manpower. Even nationalists like those in Poland and Germany who tend to dislike Russians for a variety of actual and perceived historical slights seem to receive financial support from Russia. This seems based on the principle that a Europe of many countries will be less unified in opposing Russia’s agenda.

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In principle, those countries that have a strong nationalist political voice end up pursuing policies that strengthen (relatively) Russia. For people who believe that NATO, the U.S., or the EU are too strong, that may not be a particularly troublesome issue.


There are at least three different types of national responses to the question of (largely Middle Eastern and African) immigration into Europe.

The first draws on 20th century legal precedents guaranteeing humans fair and dignified treatment regardless of their national background. This response, exemplified by Germans and Scandinavians, tends to view immigrants as refugees fleeing war or economic oppression for which Europe or the West have some kind of responsibility given the global economy. Nations like Germany, Denmark and Sweden are considered among the most generous to refugees. Germany especially has embraced modern attitudes toward immigration, in the wake of its catastrophic spasm of ethnic cleansing during WWII.

Other countries with colonial legacies have maintained generous post-colonial policies. Absent active restitution, countries like France, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Portugal—any country that had its finger in the exploitative pie that was 17th-20th century Africa, South America, and Asia—provide expedited or dual-citizenship options for many people living in countries formerly touched by European sails and soldiers. This is similar to the posture of countries like Germany. It also results in specific ethnic and religious traffic flowing from the formerly colonized to the colonizer.

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A critical difference between the experience of countries like Germany and those like France or the UK (for example) is that Germany’s posture toward immigration and citizenship embraces an assumed modern, cosmopolitan future, and exists without any natural enemies safe for the white supremacists and Neo-Nazis who nearly destroyed Europe during World War II (until recently, not a credible source of dissidence). Colonialism did not die easily in the UK, France, or other similar countries, and much military blood and cash was expended in attempting to keep colonial holdings within the fold. Groups nostalgic for former imperial glory tend to see immigration as an affront to national dignity, beyond being unwise policy.

Groups that evaluate immigration through the lens of colonial nostalgia are not Nazis or necessarily white supremacists, though the practical implications of their attitudes end up being similar enough to warrant comparison.

Finally, there are nations in Central and Eastern Europe whose attitudes on immigration were shaped by their experiences in WWI and WWII, as well as life behind the Iron Curtain. Ethnic cleansing and population movements by the Nazis and the Kremlin-led USSR left countries with the idea that ethnic homogeneity was an absolute good, and ethnic diversity was an existential threat. During the first part of its life, the USSR viewed ethnicity as threatening to the ideal of a classless society, although that slowly devolved into a view that non-Russian ethnicities were dangerous.

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This is not to diminish or excuse a powerful racial element in resistance to immigration, simply to frame it in the context of places that experienced the Holocaust firsthand, often actively participating in it in a way that ended up shaping every subsequent generation.


The European immigration “crisis” is complicated by the issue of religion. There are two key fault lines at play here: Orthodox versus non-Orthodox, and Christian versus Islam.

Countries like Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Poland and Slovakia tend to be Catholic. The primary factor in considering their political preferences is their experience with Soviet-style governance, wherein Orthodox Christianity was a proxy for Russian intelligence agencies, and Catholicism was part of resistance to totalitarianism and Russian nationalism.

Orthodox countries tend to be pro-Russian: Greece, Bulgaria Macedonia and Serbia all share religious and cultural affinity for one another, as well as Russia. They tend to be hostile to the idea of immigration from the Middle East and Africa based on religious grounds, given the relationship between church and state. This has been the case for centuries.

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Religious constituencies within all European countries tend to view the EU’s stance toward religion with skepticism, and see efforts to resettle non-Christians within their borders as direct attacks on both their Christianity and ethnicity. Still, there are substantial differences between Orthodox countries (which tend to be pro-Russian) and Catholic countries that spent time behind the Iron Curtain (which tend to be anti-Russian).

Countries Formerly Occupied Or Annexed By Russia

Polish voters empowered the “Law and Order” party based partly on its promises to block non-Christian (most importantly, Islamic) immigration and the expansion of EU power at the expense of Polish autonomy. At the same time, Poland is among the most staunch and enthusiastic NATO member-states. Its army is the fourth largest in Europe behind Russia, Ukraine, and France. Its chief foreign policy priorities have nothing to do with Middle Eastern immigration, and everything to do with preventing a repeat of the 20th century, where Poland was occupied by Russian soldiers on three separate occasions, and forced to adopt Soviet governance at bayonet-point.

Similar in their opposition to recent Russian militancy to Poland are the Baltic States, as well as countries like Sweden, Finland, and Romania. The fate of the Baltics and Finland were determined as part of agreements between Nazi Germany and the USSR to enforce German and Russian “spheres of influence” according to Hitler and Stalin’s vision for Europe. The Baltics were made into independent SSRs within the USSR, while Sweden maintained its independence. Finland was invaded and had large portions of territory annexed into Russia, and Romania was partitioned before and after WWII, first by agreement between the USSR and the Nazis, and later by conquest.

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Within the Baltics, anti-Russian attitudes are tempered by former Russian citizens of the USSR who lost their national standing when the USSR collapsed. This is most conspicuous in Latvia, but is also true for Lithuania and Estonia. Broadly speaking, any country with an ethnic or Russian-speaking population that borders Russia or was part of the USSR’s sphere of influence. It is a visible reminder of Russia’s de facto colonization of other nations within the USSR, the consequences of which—the current war in Ukraine, as well as the past war in Georgia—explain why national security is among the most urgent priorities for these countries now (satirically represented here, though more recent developments suggest that Germany would remain part of the EU and France perhaps would not).

Another way of stating this European dynamic would be thus: countries with no direct experience of the USSR tend not to see Russia as an imminent military threat. Those with direct experience of the USSR (and which therefore have vocal Russian-speaking minorities as viable political entities) see Russia as an existential threat.

Economic Ideals

Those countries that have had difficulty adjusting their economies to meet the EU’s standards, or which have not prospered during their time in the EU have become powerful passive allies of Russia. Greece, Italy, Spain and Bulgaria have all come to view sanctions on Russia as damaging to their own economies. They view competition with Russia as harmful to their economic interests, either “someone else’s problem” or somehow the fault of the U.S..

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The EU’s structure (exposed during Greece’s economic crisis of 2012) does not privilege every country equally, nor is it designed to—its design offers benefits to those countries that are best able to leverage Europe’s many markets and industries. Those in favor of the EU would stress that each country that joined the EU did so transparently and freely, and expected to benefit from its structure by investing time and energy—these people would say that countries failing to maximize their income within the EU have themselves to blame. Those opposed to the EU (many Greek nationalists) believe that it is an exploitative system.

Energy Dependence

The final factor that determines a country’s relationship with Europe versus Russia is its dependence on Russian oil and gas. After the fall of the USSR, some countries that had existed behind the Iron Curtain were able to maintain privileged relationships with Russian energy producers. Dependence on the Russia used to be the single greatest European weakness, and still is for certain countries (most conspicuously Hungary, which goes out of its way to propitiate Russia, but also other Central European powers as well as Ukraine itself).

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Lately, though, low oil prices, longtime pushes for energy independence using renewable sources, as well as the opening of alternate energy markets in the Middle East have made it increasingly difficult for Russia to monopolize Europe’s energy, and therefore have reduced its political influence there. This places Russia in a serious bind, as the US’s development of new technology to access additional energy reserves means that as the price of oil and gas rises, it becomes profitable for it to reenter the energy market—meaning European countries will never again be entirely dependent on Russia for energy.

The Prospect of War

Although there are many fault lines that could lead to conflict, it still seems unlikely that European war will spread west from Ukraine. Still, it’s worth paying attention to these various collisions between Russian and European countries. No century in history has seen a Europe free from war—the question is always one of degree and intensity. So far, the 21st century still has all the elements in place for a truly epic struggle between European countries and Russia. And this conflict, unlike those of the last century, may be adjudicated by nuclear weapons.