The West is sleepwalking into a new Cold War

15 Sep 2017


Russia is playing war games in the Baltics, UN negotiations on restricting cyber warfare collapsed along old Cold War lines, and the war of words between Russia and the West has heated up. So, are we witnessing the beginnings of a ‘new Cold War’?


This idea isn’t new. Edward Lucas argued in 2008, a full six years before the Russian annexation of Crimea, that the West was losing the war, without even realising it had started. In his book, Lucas argued that Russia was reverting to old patterns of Soviet behaviour. He wrote in a climate of apparently politically motivated murders (such as those of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko), ever more hostile exchanges between Russia and western countries, and Russia increasingly using its economic and political power to influence its neighbours. Subsequent events have merely served to strengthen his argument. Russia has become increasingly involved in supporting sides in conflicts western leaders find unpalatable - Assad in Syria, separatists in Ukraine, and relations between Russia and the West have consistently soured.


So, how does this ‘new Cold War’ compare to the previous conflict?


The Cold War was characterised by the collision of the two great ideological forces of the twentieth century. This paradigm is noticeably absent from the current pattern of conflict. After the end of the Cold War, Russian leaders embraced market capitalism, leading some to the idea that Western capitalist democracy had ‘won’ the Cold War, heralding the ‘end of history’. Though subsequent events have evidently disproved this argument, the fact is that the resurgent conflict is not fought along ideological lines.


However, in the realm of propaganda, the conflict is eerily similar. RT (formerly Russia Today), a state-run international news agency, was created in 2005, with the purpose of improving Russia’s image abroad. It was described by Luke Harding, then The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, as an ‘ambitious attempt to create a new post-Soviet propaganda empire’.


RT paints an unswervingly rosy picture of Putin, and is characterised by vehement anti-Americanism. RT propagated, for example, the conspiracy theory that the US government was involved in the Boston Marathon Bombings. There are striking similarities then, between the old and the new propaganda apparatus. Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general, said that Soviet propaganda ran ‘unparalleled’ programmes, from campaigns against US missiles in Europe to allegations that the CIA invented AIDS. In the ‘post-truth’ era, the emergence of RT as a glossy propaganda machine, presenting the ‘Russian viewpoint’ to foreign audiences, seems like the modern equivalent of Soviet dissemination of misinformation. In the context of allegations of Russian hackers’ interference in western elections, the old Cold War tactic of aiming to undermine the integrity and stability of the opposing states seems to have re-emerged.


Similarly, the climate of competition between Russia and the West is resurging. Be it in clashes within the UN Security Council, over issues ranging from airstrikes in Syria to sanctions against North Korea, or in support for parties in conflicts the West finds unpalatable, the language of cooperation has all but disappeared. Perhaps the starkest example of this is in the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, and their (alleged) support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. These actions are unavoidably reminiscent of the Soviet formation of the Eastern Bloc, and adhere to the Soviet idea that interference in the domestic politics of the countries making up the ‘near abroad’ is legitimate.


Russia’s newfound geopolitical assertiveness thus echoes that of the USSR in the Cold War, with the potential to further destabilise an already weakened Europe.


The final paradigm through which the apparent resurgence of the Cold War must be viewed is in Russia’s domestic political climate. Domestic society in the Soviet era was characterised by leaders propped up by personality cults and the suppression of civil liberties, both of which can be seen in full force in Russia today.


Putin’s personality cult verges on the ridiculous at times, from topless photoshoots to leading migrating cranes in a hang-glider. Despite the economic hardship imposed by the 2008 financial crisis, the fall in oil prices, and sanctions following the annexation of Crimea, his popularity remains high. A 2017 survey reported that 87% of Russians had confidence in his ability to handle world affairs.


With regard to the suppression of civil liberties, there has been a steady regression since Putin came to power. In the 2017 Freedom House report, measuring the level of political freedom and civil liberties citizens are able to enjoy, Russia was given a score of just 20%, citing Putin’s unassailable position, the domination of the legislature by his party, and the lack of freedom the press has. Opposition leaders have been targeted, from Politkovskaya’s assassination, to Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment, and civil rights, such as those protecting the LGBTQIA+ community, have been quashed.


So, are we entering a new Cold War? It certainly looks that way. The increasingly developed propaganda machines, and the aggressive geopolitical manoeuvring, indicate that Russia is returning to its old position. It is standing against the status quo in western-dominated arenas such as the UN, and aggressively pursuing its interests at the expense of its less powerful neighbours.


Though western governments have begun to recognise the sinister undertones of Russian policy, the collective pressure of these actions must be acknowledged. The West is in a far weaker position to counter this threat than during the Cold War. Trump's hesitant support hesitation for NATO means the strongest of the Western allies can no longer be counted on. With the rumblings of a New Cold War gaining prominence, there is an ever-increasing urgency for the West to act, before the price of Russian belligerence becomes too high.






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