All this makes it hard to shake the feeling that we are living through a deranged re-run of the Cold War. Of course, the idea of a reprise of the superpower stand-off that dominated the 20th century has been in the air more or less since the actual Cold War ended, the stuff of countless think-tank briefings and film plots. But it has gained particular force over the last decade or so, supplying a readymade framework for understanding the mounting tensions between Russia and the West – especially since the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008. For one current of opinion, that conflict provided yet more evidence that Putin’s Russia had reverted to Soviet type, bent on dominating its neighbours just as the USSR and the tsarist empire had been. From this perspective, Russia and the West are locked in the same old geopolitical struggle, an authoritarian power pitted against the world’s democracies.
A more even-handed version of the ‘new Cold War’ argument doesn’t see the recent downturn in US-Russian relations as a straight reversion to the familiar pattern, but holds instead that it is in various ways comparable to the polarisation that set in soon after 1945 – the Cold War standing in this case as both analogy and warning. In Return to Cold War, Robert Legvold – a specialist in post-Soviet foreign policy and regular contributor to Foreign Affairs – sees worrying similarities between the current situation and the early stages of the Cold War (c.1948-53), focusing in particular on the rhetorical framings of the conflict on each side, and on the seriousness of the potential outcomes. Then as now, in his view, each side assumed the other alone was at fault – ‘the essence of the conflict was in the other side’s essence’ – while the zero-sum character of the confrontation also meant that both parties felt it ‘could end only with either a fundamental change in the other side or its collapse’. Moreover, the globally interlinked nature of the Cold War meant that ‘trouble in one area metastasised to others,’ and Legvold sees the current situation in similar terms: bitterness over Ukraine has choked off co-operation on a range of issues, most notably nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation. The clash between Russia and the West, according to Legvold, threatens to ‘cripple efforts to come to grips with the 21st century’s new challenges’, from terrorism to climate change to cyber warfare.
Legvold may be right that the rhetoric coming from either side could have material effects. The notion of a ‘cold war’ is a kind of geopolitical speech act: if enough people in power decide they are in one, it will materialise. But there are decisive differences between the Cold War contest and current frictions between Russia and the West: the lack of remotely comparable ideological stakes; the greatly reduced number of players (this time around, China, East and South Asia, Africa and Latin America are all bystanders); and the much more geographically circumscribed nature of the struggle (with the grim exception of Syria, the zones of contention have been in Eastern Europe). In short, it makes more sense to say that both Russia and the world have been so transformed over the past generation that none of the Cold War conditions can be said to apply. In Should We Fear Russia? Dmitri Trenin (a career officer in the Soviet and then Russian army for twenty years, including stints in Iraq and East Germany; he now runs the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office) calmly and concisely sets out this line of argument. In his view, the current rivalry between Washington and its allies on one side and Russia on the other is ‘more fluid and less predictable’ than the 20th-century stand-off had been. But this in itself is cause for concern: his Tolstoyan verdict is that ‘the situation in Western-Russian relations may now be as bad, and as dangerous, as at any time during the Cold War, but it is bad and dangerous in its own new way.’
The debate over whether we are or are not in a new Cold War reflects different views of what has happened over the last quarter-century. The story that is most often told in the West sees Gorbachev and Yeltsin making great strides towards democracy and free markets at home, matched by an unprecedented degree of co-operation with the West on the global stage. In this narrative, the rise of Putin meant a reversal of all these trends, resulting in a steady reassertion of Russian power after 2000 that fuelled a series of ugly confrontations. In Who Lost Russia? Peter Conradi attempts a more balanced view, providing a brisk run-through of the post-Cold War era in which both Russia and the West are faulted for a string of misguided moves. A correspondent in Moscow from 1988 to 1995, and now foreign editor of the Sunday Times, Conradi points out the major landmarks along the road to the present hostility. From Russia’s perspective, these were the steady enlargement of Nato; the interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya; US support for protest-driven regime change in former Soviet states from the mid-2000s onwards; and US and EU attempts to pull Georgia and Ukraine into the West’s orbit. From the Western point of view, the charge sheet includes Russia’s suppression of internal dissent and rigging of the electoral system; attacks on the principle of private property (most notably with the dismembering of Yukos); the invasion of Georgia; the annexation of Crimea and military incursions into eastern Ukraine; as well as the more recent signs of interloping in the US elections.
Both Conradi and Legvold try to take a fair-minded approach, Legvold arguing that ‘the two sides arrived at this point together,’ and that ‘the only path out of the current impasse must be travelled together.’ In the present climate, to adopt this kind of stance is no doubt to court condemnation in some quarters – it doesn’t take much for someone to be classed as an apologist for Putin, or what the Germans call a Putinversteher. But the problem with both their accounts is that their very even-handedness obscures the fundamental fact that has shaped US-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War: the huge imbalance in power and resources between the two parties. Those who point to this fact are often depicted as supporters of the Kremlin, as if to note the disparity were somehow to take the weaker side. To be sure, Putin has found sympathisers in unlikely places – on the left as well as the right – who are willing to condone his crimes; when Russia bombs civilians, some insist on seeing it as part of a ‘counter-hegemonic’ design. But there is a huge distance, politically and ethically, between measuring how much power Russia really has and defending what Putin does with it. One of the effects of the ‘new Cold War’ rhetoric is to conflate the two, and thus to prevent any discussion of the actual international balance of power. But it’s impossible to understand the story of relations between Russia and the West without taking it into account: all other geopolitical calculations have flowed from it – including both the West’s impulse to drive home its advantage through expansion of Nato, and Russia’s growing resentment of that process, as well as its inability to halt or reverse it. In March 2009, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, presented her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with a yellow plastic box featuring a red button marked ‘reset’ in English; but the State Department had made a basic translation error when labelling the button in Russian: instead of perezagruzka it read peregruzka – not ‘reset’, but ‘overload’. The gaffe pointed to an embarrassing lack of either competence or care in Washington; but it was also an unbeatable metaphor for the whole trajectory of post-Cold War relations between the two countries.