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U.S. braces for a long-term confrontation with Russia

NBCNews | According to current and former US and European officials, the US and its allies are bracing for a long-term conflict with Russia, a contest of wills akin to the Cold War, sparked by Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

There is no end in sight to the developing conflict between the West and Russia, with Putin showing no signs of pulling back Russian troops shelling Ukrainian cities and the US and Europe threatening to supply Ukrainian forces and launch infinite economic warfare on Russia.

"I think we're going to have to deal with it for a long time and be pretty resolute and imaginative about facing it," said Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a former member of George W. Bush's administration.

Countries are being forced to choose sides in a conflict described by President Joe Biden and European leaders as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, between the rules-based order established after World War II and the "law of the jungle," where might makes right, as it was during the Cold War.

In his State of the Union address last week, Biden warned, "Any nation that countenances Russia's brazen aggression against Ukraine will be tainted by association."

His speech echoed previous presidents' promises to lead the "free world" against the threat posed by Moscow during the Cold War. Antony Blinken, Biden's senior diplomat, used similar terminology that harkens back to the Cold War era.

"With this heinous invasion, we, our European allies and partners, and people all across the world are reminded of exactly how much is at stake." On Friday in Brussels, Secretary of State Blinken stated, "We see the tide of democracy rising to the moment."

Putin has sent a warning to neighboring countries, urging them not to aggravate the situation.

Mary Elise Sarotte, a Cold War historian who recently authored "Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Stalemate," is astounded by how quickly the terrain has altered in a matter of days, as well as the obvious parallels with the Cold War.

"It's amazing how quickly this has all happened. "This new Cold War has accelerated dramatically," said Sarotte, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "This is a watershed moment in history."

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, European leaders came together to form a united front, signaling a historic shift. Germany and other European nations reshaped their foreign policies to start providing weaponry to Ukraine and impose extraordinary sanctions on Russia, both of which would have been unthinkable just two weeks ago.

Unlike during the Cold War, Moscow does not have the support of a large bloc of countries or a communist ideology that appealed to many people around the world who saw it as a viable alternative to capitalism or colonialism.

The unknown is how China will react as the situation continues. Beijing appears to be willing to back Russia and buy its fossil resources so far. However, some analysts believe that economic sanctions will compel China to choose between trade with the developed world and trading with an isolated Russian economy.

Experts say Putin's Russia is in a weaker position than the former Soviet Union, and that, unlike its economically closed predecessor, it is vulnerable to foreign sanctions.

This new battle with Russia is marked by a campaign of tremendous economic pressure on Russia, an option that could not have succeeded against the previous Soviet regime, which was largely cut off from world markets.

"During the Cold War, there was nothing we could do that would truly damage the Russian economy." "Well, there is now," Cohen explained.

Even so, he warned, Russia is "unquestionably dangerous" and "unquestionably extremely malignant."

According to Sarotte, the Cold War grew more gradually than the current situation, and the two sides eventually negotiated de facto norms of conduct and, eventually, extensive arms control accords.

However, the current impasse represents uncharted territory with no mutually agreed-upon "game rules," as well as a volatile Russian leader willing to defy international standards.

"There were times throughout the Cold War when things were more stable than they are now," said Thomas Wright, director of the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe.

"This appears to be a very dangerous time, especially given Putin's nature. That "maybe the most significant difference" between the current crisis and the Cold War, according to Wright. "It appears that a lot of this is about Putin personally."

According to Wright, Putin will almost definitely reach for the sweeping financial penalties placed on Russia.

"I don't think he'll just let our response play out on our terms," says the author "he stated, "He'll almost certainly try to aggravate the situation and put pressure on us."

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world has had to consider the unthinkable: a potential nuclear war between the world's two most powerful nuclear superpowers.

"This is obviously an unusual circumstance," said Tara Drozdenko, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program. "I can't think of another event in my life that has had such a profound impact on nuclear weapons as the demise of the Soviet Union."

Despite the current tensions, Drozdenko believes it is critical for the two countries to resume weapons control discussions in order to reduce the risk. The New START Treaty, the United States' and Russia's only surviving arms limitation accord, expires in 2026.

The close proximity of US and Russian forces near Ukraine elevates the potential of an accident or miscalculation sparking an armed war between NATO and Russia. The Pentagon stated Thursday that it has set up a hotline between US and Russian military top brass to "deconflict" forces in the area, in an attempt to avert an inadvertent clash.

"You can imagine all kinds of ways this might spiral out of control and turn into a NATO-Russia clash," said Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense in Barack Obama's administration. "And in that case, if the situation escalates, the nuclear threat becomes much more serious."

Following the imposition of harsh financial penalties on Russia by the United States and the European Union following the start of the Russian incursion, Putin claimed that he had activated his nuclear forces.

Russian military doctrine publicly supports the concept of "escalating to de-escalate," advocating for the use of nuclear weapons to force a foe to retreat.

"I believe this is the first time we're seeing Putin put it into reality," said Flournoy, who is now co-founder and managing partner of the consulting firm WestExec Advisors.

Rather than retaliating, the Biden administration made it clear that the US would not raise nuclear deterrent forces' alert levels, and even canceled a planned test launch of a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile to make it clear that Washington was not interested in escalating nuclear tensions.

Sarotte believes the United States would benefit from drawing on Cold War lessons, such as the necessity to back resistance fighters against Russian soldiers, in what might be a long battle ahead.

Historians believe the United States won the Cold War by confining the Soviet Union, developing a more successful economic model, and fostering a large alliance network.

Former officials say that defeating Putin's Russia will also necessitate sustaining friends' unity, even if the economic fallout from Moscow causes some hardship at home.

"The most important thing is to prepare yourself for what will be a lengthy and painful period," Cohen added. "It isn't something that comes naturally to us." We prefer things that are brief, decisive, and get the job done quickly so we can go on to the next task. Well, it isn't going to be our world, and we must accept that."

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