A conflict between Moscow and Washington has been brewing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In many ways, the current period is more dangerous than the Cold War period.

Russian Hemeimeem air base in Syria. Photo: AP/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Some experts are calling the current crisis between Moscow and Washington, which has been exacerbated by the situation in Syria, a return to the Cold War era. For the first time since the 1983 crisis over “Euro-rockets,” Russia and the U.S. officially recognize the risk that the current diplomatic conflict may develop into an armed clash.

Yet, this analogy is not quite correct. The Syrian crisis is much more dangerous than the Cold War ones, including the notorious Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Today, the conflict potential in the Russian-American relations is higher than it was in the second half of the past century.

Systemic rivalry

It is not without reason that the American political scientist John Lewis Gaddis has called the Cold War a period of “long peace.” At first glance, the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s was a time of severe confrontation between the two superpowers with irreconcilable ideologies. In fact though, the Soviet-U.S. confrontation was conducted strictly by the rules, without ever reaching — despite the tough rhetoric — the brink of an armed collision.

The main cause of the long peace was not at all the possession of nuclear arms by both the Soviet Union and the U.S. After all, the availability of chemical weapons did not prevent the unleashing of World War II. The leaderships of the two superpowers had no political reasons for direct confrontation. The United States and the Soviet Union were incapable of replacing each other as the leaders of the capitalist and socialist worlds.

Any conflict between them would have immediately resulted in the collapse of the whole system of Yalta-Potsdam agreements, including the United Nations. In exchange for the collapse of the world order, the “winner” would have gained a limited territory requiring colossal expenses for its rehabilitation. The game was not worth risking the resources gained by the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. as a result of World War II.

The lack of political motivation was supplemented by the deficit of technical capabilities for conducting a direct war. Situated in different hemispheres, the Soviet Union and the U.S. were not capable of occupying each other’s territory. Nether of the two sides possessed a superiority to guarantee the defeat of the enemy in any major regional conflict. A direct war would come to an irrational exchange of nuclear strikes with no capitalization in the form of a political victory. There were no political fanatics within either the Soviet or American elites ready to risk everything for the sake of a victory in an “Armageddon war.”

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Neither the Soviet nor the American ideology was irreconcilable toward the opponent. Both superpowers postulated the principle of competition between communism and liberalism. First, this meant that the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. recognized each other as equals. Second, the sides were willing to play by the rules. Third, competition implied that the opponent possessed some positive qualities, which had to be either adopted or surpassed.

Neither the Soviet nor the American propaganda instilled hatred of the opponent’s way of life and culture at schools, organized mass demonstrations with militarist insanity or turned a blind eye to the death of the other side’s soldiers in regional conflicts (the way it was done, for instance, in France and Germany on the eve of World War I).

With a real enemy, no ideological battles are fought: Enemies are preparing for war in silence. For example, during the 1930s, representatives of the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany very rarely tried to prove something to each other or challenge some arguments of the opponent. Their behavior at the official meetings was marked with an ostentatious politeness and practically total lack of informal communication. Neither did the Germans conduct any discussions with the British on the eve of World War I. Armed conflict was a decided matter, and it was pointless to try to convince the opponent that your side was in the right. In this sense, the Soviet Union’s and the U.S.’s endless mutual accusations in the UN proved their intent to establish relations rather than start a war.

In every major regional crisis, from the Korean War to the war in Afghanistan, the Soviet and American leaders showed their unwillingness, rather than willingness, to start a war. Not once during those crises (including the Cuban one) did the Kremlin or the White House bring up the question of severing diplomatic relations or liquidating the United Nations. The sides painstakingly concealed the participation of their military in regional conflicts and did not hold veteran parades in Moscow or Washington. On any serious exacerbation, the leaders of the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. were quick to start negotiations and discuss conditions of a compromise.

Non-systemic rivalry

The situation started to change after the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. Causes for an armed conflict began accumulating between Russia and the U.S. Two nuclear powers with comparable potential had to build their relations in the context of a single global order. That was in itself the source of a growing confrontation.

The self-disintegration of the U.S.S.R. prompted a wave of speculation that there were no more ideological contradictions between Moscow and Washington. In fact, it was after 1993 that the real ideological contradictions started to emerge. Since the end of 1994, Russia has officially refused to accept the American concepts of leadership and the expansion of democracy.

In 1997, Russia and China together put forth the idea of a multipolar world. That was received badly in Washington, which claimed a leading role in the emerging world order. Such ideological opposition proved to be more severe than the former one of “communism vs. liberalism.” At stake was not just the co-existence of two camps, but scenarios for forming a global world.

All the American administrations were irritated the most by two factors. The first was that Moscow retained the Soviet military (above all, nuclear) potential. In spite of all the complications of 1990–1993, Russia remained the only country that was capable of destroying America using comparable weapons.

The second was that Russia kept the status of a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which made Moscow capable of blocking Washington’s initiatives or making them illegitimate. In spite of the declaration of “strategic partnership,” the purpose of the American policy was to reduce sharply (ideally, eliminate) the Russian strategic potential to a level that posed no threat to the U.S.

In turn, the Russian elite was aware of the motives behind the United States’ actions. Moscow was concerned the most about Washington’s steps to reform international law. Through a chain of precedents, the American diplomacy was establishing two principles. The first allowed forcible removal of the leaders of sovereign states (followed by their conviction by an international tribunal).

The second concerned forcible disarmament of dangerous (in Washington’s view) regimes, primarily stripping them of the potential for weapons of mass destruction. The war in Iraq and the subsequent crises about the nuclear programs of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan were perceived by Moscow as elaboration of the American scenario of taking the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) away from a problematic country. The Russian leadership suspected that Washington’s final objective was to apply those approaches to Russia.

New forms of interaction gave rise to a new type of conflict. After 1991, the U.S. started using force against “rogue states” and appointed itself to work out a model for using war to punish certain regimes. The Russian leadership could not help but suspect that the final goal of those attacks was the Russian Federation. In turn, Moscow periodically resorted to demonstrations of force to induce Washington to seek compromise. A system of indirect, but severe confrontation arose between Russia and the United States, as manifested by the crises over Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine.

Those causes overlap with the progress in weapons. The creation of autonomous airborne units (i.e. drones), missile defense and aircraft defense systems and high-precision weapons makes the scenario of a regional conflict between Russia and the U.S. more realistic in technical terms. It cannot be ruled out that within the next 10 to 15 years this may be a major temptation for the elites in both countries.

The erosion of nuclear deterrence

Against this background it is not surprising that the psychological effect of nuclear deterrence in the Russian-American relations is eroding. The use of nuclear weapons is a political, rather than military, development. It requires a political approval from the country’s top leadership. It is not at all guaranteed that a country will resort to delivering a nuclear strike in response to a defeat of its regional military infrastructure.

In this context, it may be appropriate to recall the experience of World War II. All sides possessed chemical weapons but none went so far as using them, even under the threat of a complete defeat of its armed forces and loss of sovereignty. Can we be sure that in the future war (provided it is of a limited kind) the nuclear weapons will lie in storage as peacefully as the chemical weapons did in WWII? Also, in view of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Totskoye and Chernobyl, limited application of nuclear weapons is no longer unimaginable.

The U.S.’s “National Military Strategy” of 1995 for the first time spelled out the concept of future conflicts with Russia and China. The American experts saw it as Washington’s interference in a conflict of either Moscow or Beijing with one of their neighbors — a sort of “Desert Storm” in a limited theater. However, over the past twenty years, Russia and China have built up their defensive power to block the American superiority in high-precision weapons. The conflicts in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria should probably be seen as trials of that scenario, or tests of strength for a possible Russian-American collision.

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To model such a collision, two historical examples are relevant. The first is the Russian-Japanese war of 1904–1905, which was limited to the local theater. The second is the war in Spain of 1936–1939, where the Soviet air force fought against that of Italy and Germany, although the countries were not in a state of war.

A hypothetical conflict between Russia and the U.S. may resemble more those collisions than scenarios of a “nuclear apocalypse.” It may lead not to an exchange of nuclear strikes, but to severance of diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. and collapse of the UN in its present form.

It is hard to say how such a conflict may end if it, regretfully, occurs. Still, it can be predicted confidently that it will put an end to the familiar world order, with the leading role of the UN, the global financial system, and globalization processes. As a result, the world will probably fall back on the model of many closed, mutually hostile national states, with the cult of armed force the only ideology and without any norms of international law.

The ideology of tolerance will not survive, either. Rather, an ideology of intransigence will be officially postulated. Following a collision between Russia and the U.S., the world will rather resemble the Versailles-Washington order of 1919–1938.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.