Are We Entering an Era of a New Cold War?

There are many elements that are leading the pundits to proclaim the revival of the cold war. The Ukrainian crisis, the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, the increase of NATO’s presence at the western borders of Russia, the large-scale activity of the Russian air force, the financial and economic sanctions against Russia, and Western efforts for its diplomatic isolation, are only some of the elements that have led some analysts and officials to speak of a return to the Cold War. However, to what extent does the current status of relations between Russia and the West justify the “return to Cold War” assessment?

Undoubtedly, there is increasing rivalry between Russia and the West, relations have deteriorated and tensions have grown, yet we are not seeing the revival of the Cold War. To state the developments in the “West-Russian” relationship as a new Cold War overlooks important aspects and features of the relationship which may result in conclusions and even in policies that are detrimental to Western and European interests.

Why the current situation is not “a revival of the Cold War”

First of all, the ideology in the current rivalry does not have the significance of the Cold War era. Back then, it was a conflict between two different ideologies, two different economic and political systems. The rivalry was also a result of each system’s effort to prove its superiority over the other as they battled for the dominance and containment of the others ideology on a global scale. The Soviet Union was afraid of the US/Western expansion of capitalist economic and political influences whilst the US/West feared the expansion of Soviet communism, these fears largely shaped the decisions and policies on both sides.

Today, ideology doesn’t have the same significant role of the Cold War years. This makes the present situation much different in many ways, not only with regards to the nature of the rivalry, but also to how each side perceives the other. 

During the Cold War each side viewed the other as the arch enemy, an evil system which was the opposite of everything they stood for. The mere existence of the other – a radically different ideology, a different system of political and economic organization – posed an existential threat, even in the periods of détente. Every move coming from either side of the iron curtain was interpreted through a prism of suspicion, fear and threat. This made the rivalry much more intense on a geopolitical and global scale.

The West and the Russia may disagree over certain issues now, but not everywhere and not always. The two sides have been freed from depicting each other as the “ultimate enemy” and their relationship is not defined anymore by the framework that this perception created. US, Europe and Russia all share common interests and realize the value of cooperation. The communication between them has strengthened, forums have been established and initiatives have been developed which bring the two sides closer.

In the Cold War era there was a deep fear that each side wanted the destruction of the other and worked towards that end. This fear has now has disappeared, at least in the policy-making circles. The real objective of both sides was the maintenance of the status quo as it had been shaped after World War II (which at best meant co-existence and limited contact), after the Cold War the West and Russia sought to intensify their cooperation beyond pompous and rhetoric declarations of intentions in order to meet these ends.

In addition, the relations between the West and Russia are no longer characterized by the danger of an unpredictable escalation of tensions with the ever present danger of nuclear war as the ultimate fear. This is not to say that this danger has completely disappeared – as long as nuclear weapons exist, the danger exists. Today however, the deterrence of their use is not only based on the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the possibilities of an escalation of the tension or a nuclear war due to miscalculations and misunderstandings has also decreased. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 the two sides literally tried to guess the intentions of each other, something that increased the risk of an accidental or unintended military clash. Today there are open channels of communication and discussions regarding tensions resulting from disagreements.

Why we shouldn’t view the current situation as a “revival of the Cold War”

To regard the deterioration of the relations as a new Cold War may create eye-catching headlines in the media and be appealing to some analysts and officials, however the facts of the current situation don’t bare this interpretation out. And precisely because we do not have a “revival of the Cold War”, we should get away from the logic of the Cold War, otherwise, we may end up in policies detrimental to Western, and mainly European, interests.  

Those who speak of a new Cold war advocate a tougher response to Russia – harder economic and diplomatic sanctions, further increase of Western military presence on the Russian border, etc. But to what extent does such an approach serve the interests of the West and Europe? In this framework, competition and rivalry are considered as the norm and Russia is the enemy that must be contained everywhere and always. In other words, Russia is no longer a potential partner but a rival on the global stage. 

The interpretation of developments in West-Russia relationship as a new Cold War offers a convenient explanation of Russia’s aggressive behavior. However this explanation is inadequate since it attributes this behavior to Russia’s place as competitor and rival, but isn’t enough to grasp the true reasons behind Russia’s aggressive behavior? There may be other reasons as well, e.g. that Russia simply wants a greater role in world affairs or to be taken into account in developments taking place in its neighborhood.

The making of policies based on the Cold War perception of the other as the enemy will adversely affect potential cooperation in areas where the two sides can find common focal points or even common interests. Probably, it will result in the reduction of communication and of interactions, making it even more difficult to understand how and why Russia thinks and acts in the way it does. It will undermine efforts to find and shape common understandings and positions in issues of a global or regional concern.

We face a change in the relationship between Russia and the West, a new stage, but one that is inherently different from the Cold War relationship and as thus shouldn’t be considered a return to the Cold War. We have to understand the factors that form this new phase and remember that thinking, and acting, in terms of a return to the Cold War is not beneficial either for the West or Russia.