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Are We in a New Cold War?

There are crucial differences between relations now and then between Russia/the Soviet Union and the United States. 

by Peter Rutland 22 June 2017

The heightened tension between Russia and the West following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 has led to much talk of a new “Cold War.” What exactly was the “Cold War,” and is it accurate or helpful to discuss contemporary East-West relations in Europe in these terms?


This is the topic of a new book by Robert Legvold, Return to Cold War (Polity Press 2016), which was discussed at a panel of the Association for the Study of Nationalities at Columbia University in early May. Legvold, a professor emeritus of Columbia University, has been prominently involved in US-Russia relations for many years.

The Cold War, which ran from 1947 to 1989, was an uneasy period of neither war nor peace. The two competing parties, the Soviet Union and the NATO alliance, saw the other side as an existential threat, and prepared for full-scale war in defense of not only their national interests, but also their very identity as independent societies. The fear of nuclear war prevented the two sides from attacking each other, but the rivalry was fought out in multiple proxy wars, from Latin America to South-East Asia.


Clearly, the antagonism between Russia and the West today has not reached that level of hostility. The only Western countries that see Putin’s Russia as an existential threat are its immediate neighbors – mainly the Baltic states. Neither Russia nor the U.S. is prepared to launch a full-scale war with the other at short notice, as they were during the Cold War. And Russia is not espousing a global eschatological ideology, as did the Soviet Union. Another important difference is the asymmetry between the two sides. The Soviet Union achieved rough nuclear parity with the U.S. by 1969, and its economy was about 25 percent of that of the U.S. – close enough to be a long-term threat. Today the Russian economy is only 7 percent of that of the U.S.


Finally, another difference is that there are now nine nuclear powers around the world, and the risk of a nuclear war now lies in the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the two superpowers.


It is for these reasons that Legvold titled his book “Return to Cold War,” and not “Return to THE Cold War.” Still, Legvold considers that the level of antagonism is sufficiently deep and dangerous to merit raising the alarm by using the term “cold war.”


One important difference between the present situation and the past is that the classic Cold War developed certain rules of the game that prevented escalation into a full-blown war. It took some time, however, for these norms to evolve.


Legvold is concerned that such a framework is lacking in the present situation. Neither side seems to understand the goals of the other, and mutual communication has almost completely broken down. Legvold is particularly troubled by the fact that the two sides are not directly communicating with each other on a wide front, increasing the risk of mutual misunderstanding and a spiral into further confrontation. By way of example, he noted that Russia ended cooperation in disposing of nuclear materials through the Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in 2014; shut down the Northern Distribution Network for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2015, and took a contrary position to the U.S. on threats in the Middle East at the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty conference.


Legvold does not believe that Russia is set on overturning the liberal international order – rather, they just want recognition as a legitimate partner, a seat at the table. But in Washington both Republicans and Democrats have tended to see Russian President Vladimir Putin as an incorrigible foe who cannot be trusted, thus stripping him of its legitimacy as an interlocutor. (And this was true even before the brouhaha around Russia’s attempted hacking of the November 2016 U.S. presidential election.)


Another important feature of the original Cold War was that it extended over several decades, and went through various cycles, from confrontation to cooperation, and back. Sometimes a change of leadership in Moscow was needed to bring about a shift in relations. So Legvold is warning us that learning to live with post-communist Russia must be seen as a long-run proposition.


At the Columbia panel several U.S. and Russian security experts commented on Legvold’s book. Igor Zevelev (from the Wilson Center) suggested that in a broader historical perspective U.S.-Russia relations are now “back to normal” – it was the 1990s that was abnormal. The relevant long-term parameter is that of Russia’s quest for national identity and its place in the West, something that predated the Cold War. He suggested that NATO expansion was not necessarily or exclusively aimed against Russia, but had other goals – to solve German-Polish tensions, and to consolidate democracy in Central Europe. However, an unintended consequence was the creation of a new problem of insecurity further east, since Russia was excluded.


Samuel Charap (Rand Corporation) suggested that the Ukraine crisis belongs in a different category than disagreements over intermediate range nuclear forces or Syria (because it is seen by Moscow as an existential issue) and thus warned against diplomatic efforts to link these disparate issues. Jeanne Wilson (Wheaton College) suggested that Russia’s gambit in Ukraine may have paid off for Russia: it killed the idea that Ukraine could join NATO, and gained the territory of Crimea. Putin may have considered these gains worth the cost of long-term alienation of Ukraine.

There is a risk that all the political furor in Washington around the Trump administration’s ties to Russia may distract us from recognizing that the deep structural antagonism between Russia and the West goes beyond the peculiarities of the Trump campaign, and requires urgent attention from the diplomatic community on both sides to mitigate the risks of renewed hostilities.


The downing last week of a Syrian government aircraft by a U.S. fighter underlined the risks of escalation – a danger that will only increase as U.S.-backed forces seem to be on the brink of gaining control of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. The risks of direct military clashes between U.S. and Russian forces are now as high as at any time during the Cold War.

Peter Rutland 
is a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University.
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