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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turning Cold War's Tables

As could have been expected, presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed at their summit in the Finnish capital of Helsinki to paper over the cracks in U.S.-Russian relations. The presidents did it again: They agreed on everything from cutting strategic nuclear weapons and fixing the framework of the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's eastward expansion to the substance of a forthcoming Russia-NATO charter. As a reward for being good, Washington has also promised Russia a modest increase in financial assistance and a possible enhanced role for Moscow in international economic institutions.

To be precise, it was Yeltsin who said Clinton caved in to all Russia's demands: to give a written guarantee on nondeployment of either conventional or nuclear weapons in the east and pledge not to use former Warsaw Pact airfields and other "military infrastructure." Yeltsin even said Moscow would have some sort of veto over NATO decisions. "Nothing will be decided without Russia," he said.

But Clinton, obviously, understood the Helsinki accord somewhat differently. What Washington, apparently, really needed in Helsinki was to make Yeltsin mutter something that could then be interpreted as a tacit agreement to NATO expansion in principle. Now everything is fully on track, and the timetable of expansion can be executed according to plan.

The United States still believes the main problem with accepting NATO expansion in Moscow is psychological and, as a Washington-based Carnegie Endowment official recently put it, "intellectual." The Moscow foreign policy elite is seen from Washington as simply too dumb and too rash to understand all the goodies NATO expansion will bring Russia. And, if they are so dumb, they should be fooled for their own good.

Yeltsin was handed the bitter pill with some sweeteners added. It will be his problem to sell the NATO deal to the Russian public, while the West will be busy consolidating its "historic Cold War victory" over Russia.

Russia is now an open country with a relatively free press. Tens of thousands of foreigners are permanent residents in Moscow. But Western leaders and policymakers understand Russia as imperfectly as during the Cold War. Russia is not like occupied Germany in May 1945 or devastated Japan. Russia is a wounded, restless and increasingly terrified nuclear superpower that could wipe out the whole of trans-Atlantic civilization if it were provoked too far.

During the Cold War, the West was quite wrong in its assessment of Russia's intentions. In reality, Moscow was panic-stricken about NATO, the West's potential military might and the outcome of any possible war. Military preparations in Central Europe were more an indication of fear than preliminary aggression. It was fear, indeed, and the panic it evoked in the top leadership, that was potentially capable of causing nuclear war.

Soviet troops and their Warsaw Pact allies were supposed to attack from the very first moment of a war in Europe, but this was not so much an aggressive policy as an act of desperation. A preventive attack was seen as the only way of avoiding defeat.

Now Western military and political leaders believe that because the Russian conventional army is so obviously weak and incapable of any offensive action, there is no threat to Europe whatsoever. But Russian generals only look at changes in numbers and deployments, at the same time believing the overall strategic situation did not change so dramatically.

As during the Cold War, Russia is in a defensive position, and the threat is still there. Although Russian conventional forces are much weaker than before and are positioned much closer to Moscow, the nuclear deterrent is still intact.

This means that in any confrontation with the expanding West -- for example, a conflict over Russian military transit in and out of the Kaliningrad enclave -- Russian generals will feel compelled to prevent the massing of superior enemy forces, not with a preventive conventional offensive, but with a first and early local nuclear strike.

In many ways, the Cold War tables have turned: Russia will in the future exercise "forward defense" of Kaliningrad and "flexible" nuclear response, whereas the West will rely on rapidly deploying superior U.S., German and British conventional forces near the new front line. Yeltsin and Clinton may have struck a deal in Helsinki that will turn out to be worse for Europeans than Yalta in 1945.

Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor of Sevodnya.