Is It Time For A New Cold War?

Is It Time For A New Cold War?

The resurgent idea of the Cold War keeps lurking, zombie-like in its ugly reappearance. Like a massive undead Soviet-era relic, why won’t it just pack up once and for all and die?

Framing the context

Relations between Russia and the United States are now at their worst since the Cold War according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. But it hasn’t been without buildup. With NATO increasingly encroaching on Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, Putin’s annexation of Crimea made the US and EU sit up and take notice of Russia again. Likewise, the refugee crisis and fallout from Syria have injected a new lease of life into Europe’s need for NATO. Now we’re here, the political hawks would say the world is on the brink of another Cold War. But let’s get rational for a second before we start trawling eBay for ex-Soviet memorabilia. Do the Cold-Warists really have a case?

About thirty years ago at the height of the freeze, the core of the struggle was an ideological one about how to organise society; about a form of world order and which was best. Yet none of these elements are present now.

Although it may seem similar, there are differences. The Cold War was mainly one of propaganda. The idea of a neo-Cold War is misleading, as Russia currently dishes up no side plate of ideology with its foreign policy. Instead, what Putin aims to do is undermine Western institutions and democracy so that ordinary Russians will not look to them in admiration. Rather, his is a mission to foster an environment of corruption. If he succeeds and the EU and NATO collapse, his cronies and oligarchs will be able to do more dodgy business deals, propping up his regime.

“Live not by lies” – Solzhenitsyn

Moving to today, the ideology may have changed, but the underhanded methods might not have. It’s known that Russian Communist party officials had links with their European Communist counterparts. So why wouldn’t Russian secret services resurrect their old political playbook and engage in electioneering? Michael Flynn admitted to – and resigned as – Trump’s National Security advisor for lying about secret meetings with Kremlin officials prior to the inauguration. Then Jeff Sessions came into the firing line for allegedly meeting the Russian ambassador. Could they and other members of Trump’s team secretly have cultivated ties to discuss the campaign? Before the election, “The Donald” was repeatedly featured on Russian broadcaster RT and began to copy RT propaganda phrases such as “Obama being responsible for ISIS”. Combined with this, there’s evidence that the Kremlin used trolls, bots, and spread fake news that was picked up on US social media. No wonder Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats before he left the White House. And what’s more, Putin didn’t retaliate. So is Vlad’s dark hand (remember he was a former KGB agent himself) now so shocking to believe?

And there’s still more evidence. It’s been rumoured that pro-Russian conspirators plotted a coup last year during Montenegro’s election to stop the country joining NATO. Going back to 2007, Russian actors were blamed for intervening behind the scenes with a cyber attack on Estonia. Then there was another similar attack on Ukraine’s power grid in 2015. But getting back to the Cold War question, there’s now a marked difference. Russia’s means of exploiting and causing trouble on a geopolitical level are far more sophisticated, less costly, and a lot more far-reaching due to the game changing nature of the Internet. Putin and his message now have worldwide reach thanks to the viral spread of social media and the fanatics who re-post it. What’s more, hackers in some leaky basement Moscow don’t even have to leave Russia – they can just do it all through a desktop computer.

It’s taken the West far too long to cotton on to the electioneering issue. The US needs to start understanding Russia’s new information war and start fighting back.

The great Putin bromance

So is all this Cold War talk all just blatant Russophobia as Russian media outlets have claimed? Yes, the actors are the same, but times have evolved. Of course, Putin wasn’t responsible for Trump’s election. Dissatisfaction with globalisation and deindustrialisation were all America’s own doing. And then there’s the new dynamic of the current Trump-Putin bromance. Weirdly though, it might actually be part of a wider US Cold War-like geopolitical strategy to do a “reverse Kissinger” and balance a rising China’s power by cosying up to Russia. Forming a counterweight alliance may seem far-fetched, but it’s known that there’s an open conflict between the traditional Republican foreign policy base and Trump’s core team like Steve Bannon. The racist alt-right and Bannon would much prefer to embrace a white, Christian Russia over “yellow” China.

However, the major difference between the present day dynamic and the Cold War past is economics. China and the US are massive economic powers integrated under capitalism. No wonder President Xi Jinping made a speech at Davos championing the liberal international order that has allowed China to export to the West. Economics has thus become a force for peace. But this could be chipped away at if Trump begins a trade war under the guise of domestic protectionism. And should isolationism take hold, the situation will be more akin to the interwar period than the old Cold War.

Yet a tangible threat is still there. Trump’s success has meant that the twin ideas he has peddled of nostalgic nationalism, as well as strongman leadership, are equally shared by Putin. Both are similar in the cartoonish masculinity they promote in the place of knowledge. Both also advocate the idea of personal success and self-advancement over others. But the danger with strongmen like Putin and Trump is that they can fall out. With no underlying core principles to bind them, only an authoritative style of leadership and a modus operandi, the danger of a spat is all too real for all of us.

Smelling the coffee

Xenophobia, Russophobia, Putinophobia or not, Trump’s election has become a turning point. Europe may no longer have America and NATO to back it up, and Putin would be all too happy to see the EU disintegrate.

Europe’s whole economic and security system is so bound up with a particular liberal, internationalist view of America that, if Trump has his way, might not be around for much longer. This is the real revolution.

The true threat to the West isn’t coming from Russia physical per-se, but from those voices within that are anti-trade, anti-immigrant and anti-liberal. And just like during the Cold War, the Kremlin’s main mission will be to continue to find ways to exploit instability and cause geopolitical turbulence inside America and Europe to disturb the peace.

Times may have changed and the means may be different, but what’s certain is that the international order is shifting. There could be an unravelling of the stable international system that has governed the world for the last 70 years in favour of a more dog-eat-dog world. It might not quite be Cold War 2.0, but make no mistake, the old order is crumbling and we have front row seats to the show.


Written by Vanessa Moore,

Features Editor

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