A new Cold War is not in the interest of either Russia or the West. However, there will always be great power rivalries in world politics and that’s what we’re seeing now between Russia and NATO.


President Barack Obama, accompanied by, from left, Office of National Intelligence Director James Clapper, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry, after speaking at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, December 17, 2015. Photo: AP

The recently published article by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which some see as a comprehensive ideological manifesto, attempted to explain the role of Russia on a global stage from a historical perspective and call for greater cooperation with the West.

“Russia is not seeking confrontation with the United States, or the European Union, or NATO," the Foreign Minister wrote. "On the contrary, Russia is open to the widest possible cooperation with its Western partners.”

However, the warning of a new Cold War made by the Russian delegates at the 2016 Munich Security Conference earlier this year legitimized something that has been implicitly accepted by the international community for quite some time now. Russia's  Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that the current world situation is echoing the darkest days of the Cold War.

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The Munich Security Conference, which was supposed to be about finding a solution to future problems, most importantly regarding Ukraine and Syria and migration flows to Europe, immediately turned out to be a grudge match between NATO and Russia. The veiled warnings quickly reminded participants of another similar conference in 2007, although this time the attendees were not as shocked. 

Lithuanian Prime Minister Dalia Grybauskaitė replied that it is not a Cold War, but a hot war with Russia on three fronts that is currently going on, while Polish President Andrzej Duda accused Russia of fomenting a new Cold War through its policy in Ukraine and Syria.

The Russian threat to the West

In the new post-Cold War era, is a new escalation something that meets the strategic vision of the Kremlin? A comparative analysis of Russia and Soviet Union draws some similarities.

Russia is under a strong leadership and is active in foreign policy circles again. For a country that almost stopped looking beyond its immediate Central Asian neighborhood, Russia is now projecting its power beyond its broken and restive coastlines.

Russian missiles are now skimming the surface of the Black Sea and striking targets a thousand kilometers away, a feat only capable by a couple of great powers in the entire world, completely unexpected since the Soviet collapse, considering the dilapidated state of the Russian Navy. Russian long-range bombers are now flying sorties across the coastlines of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

Russian intervention in Syria successfully showed that Russia is capable of projecting power in a small and rapid capacity in an isolated corner of the Middle East, an area it considers to be of vital importance for Russian national interests. The biggest advantage of this intervention was for the Russian arms industry, which was lagging behind in competition with its Western counterparts like France and the U.S. and had already lost traditional allies like India to Israeli arms exporters.

That has changed overnight. The intervention in Syria has generated newfound interest as Russia now leads the aircraft carrier program in India. Russia is also forming renewed ties and selling arms to Egypt, Vietnam and Afghanistan, among other countries.

This provoked a response on the part of Western military analysts, who debated whether or not the Russian army is to be taken seriously and whether it needs to be regarded as a threat to U.S. or Western military force projection capabilities.

While it is important to highlight the changes that Russian military has made since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decade and a half of utter incompetence and negligence, it is arguably still miles away from posing any serious threat to Western force projections due to a simple fact called foreign policy priorities.

The greatest threat to the West comes from overestimating Russian power, and therefore forming policies that will create a rift within the Western alliance itself.

Why Russia does not want a war

Russian foreign policy, and along with it, its military policy, is correlated highly with its economic boom. Studies proved previously that Russian foreign and economic policy are extremely correlated, and its military aggression is proportional to its economic boom, a fact that is increasingly being reversed with every Russian intervention and the global oil price collapse.

Russian efforts to portray itself as a power capable of taking on the West in a new Cold War, on display at the 2016 Munich Security Conference, is an attempt of what might be called “reflexive control theory,” which was practiced primarily by the Soviet Union. Thereby, if Russia is considered a power that is to be feared, it naturally implies a series of responses by the West, which will justify the great power status of Russia, as an axiomatic fact.

Also read: "Why the 2016 Munich Security Conference was a disappointment"

However, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and the reality of a chance of a new Cold War cannot be further from the truth. Russian influence for all practical purposes will be limited to the Middle East and Eastern Europe, leaving the greater part of the globe including Asia-Pacific and Latin America out of its reach, primarily because Russia is not only incapable due to military and economic contingencies but also due to pragmatic reasons.

Russia, while indeed a great power, contrary to what the U.S. would want us to believe, is no way near the capability and reach of the Soviet Union, regardless of its intention. The Russian military performed terribly during the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict. While it successfully managed to pummel the Georgian forces, it showed weakness in command and control and air superiority.

The Russian navy modernization is all but stalled. Any Russian sea patrol is constantly accompanied by a tug boat, which is remarkable, and unlike Western navies or navies of other great powers like India, China and Australia. There has been impressive progress in the last five years, but it is still very much a work in progress, and the fifth generation fighters as well as new 85000 Storm class aircraft carriers won’t be in service until the end of the 2030s.

Russian Special Forces in Crimea, known in the West as the “little green men,” were the best, most disciplined brigade that Russia could muster. The crème de la crème of Russian Spetsnaz (the Russian Special Forces), they looked and played their scripted part, in a town, which has traditionally been Russian speaking, had Russian backing and support in the populace, and hosts a Russian naval base of over 26,000 soldiers. Most importantly, they did not face any resistance of any sorts, from the under-equipped and ill-positioned, corrupt and operationally stunted Ukrainian army, and the Ukrainian political consensus was against engaging Russia.

Similarly in Syria, Russian forces are facing operational fatigue, which is forcing a change in calculus regarding the duration of the Russian stay in Syria, as the Syrian regime is constantly failing to be able to consolidate areas that it won with the help of Russian and Iranian air power and Hezbollah.

Underneath all the bombast in Munich by Medvedev, the hint of an appeal by Lavrov to the West to help find a ceasefire as Russia tries to deliver Syrian President Bashar Assad to the negotiation table was lost in the media, but was caught by Western policy makers, which resulted in the Syrian peace deal, flawed, but still a sign of progress in a war-torn region.

Russia’s response to Turkey shooting down of one of its fighter planes proves Russian policy makers are wary of going toe-to-toe with NATO and it is the Russian interest as well as intention to come to a deal with NATO.

Also read: "The implications of the Turkey factor for US-Russia relations"

Compare and contrast that with the Soviet response during the 1983 Operation Able Archer (a major war games exercise, conducted by the U.S. and its NATO allies, which made the Russians believe that a nuclear strike on its territory was a real possibility), and one can clearly understand Russia is feeling the pain of waging two open ended conflicts in two different parts of the world.

Neither in Syria, nor in Ukraine, did Russia face a dogged conflict and counterattack, a vital concept in judging a military’s capability, and a fact consistently absent from any Western analysis.

Great power rivalry

International relations scholars thought the era of great power rivalry was over after the fall of the Soviet Union. What they did not anticipate is something the realists always highlighted. The collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed forces beyond anyone’s control, forces that were controlled by the hegemonic peace provided by the binary polar stability of the Cold War order.

It must be understood that a conflict or Cold War is not in the interest of either Russia or the West. However, there will always be great power rivalries in world politics, and misunderstanding or misjudgment might lead to policies that perpetuated this “Security Dilemma” between Russia and the West in the first place, and the resulting centrifugal force is pulling EU and the West apart as it struggles to chart a course.

While this is not a new Cold War from any measurable angle, it is definitely a great power rivalry that has returned in the forefront. Careful policy and communication is needed to prevent it from escalation.

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