The days of icy tensions between the Iron Curtain and the Iron Lady may seem long behind us, but the emergence of Salisbury –a cathedral city nestled in the southern English countryside – as the supposed new target for Russian interference would suggest quite the opposite. The two men identified as suspects in the March nerve agent attack described it as a “wonderful” English city, but the resulting interview with Russian news outlet RT threw up suspicions among sceptical Kremlin-watchers: was their paper-thin alibi a show of defiance by Moscow, a rush-job by Russian intelligence, or a tactical distraction from grumblings of a Cold War renaissance?
The post-Cold War realignment has now lasted almost as long as the confrontation itself. The Berlin Wall has been down for almost as long as it was up, and Stalin’s communist legacy has been swapped for a new regime of illiberal nationalist authoritarianism – an ideology slowly but surely creeping its way across the global forum. But Russia’s response to the suspected GRU agents’ arrest was not the first instance of obfuscation and lies – Vladimir Putin took to the stage with a mighty roar following the Yeltsin years in the 1990s, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 became the worst instance of East-West relations since the reign of the USSR. Some news sources even suggest there have been as many as 14 deaths in the UK that can be connected to Russia since 2006.
Prior to the Crimea occupation, analysts routinely denied what is now almost commonplace thought: that the Cold War came back with Putin’s more aggressive foreign policy. But it is worth taking one further step: the Cold War never ended in the first place. Contemporary politics is seeing a resurgence of McCarthy-era criticism which ruined many lives and chilled public discourse for years, demonising the Kremlin and its supporters as “Putin apologists” – the pawn now, of course, being the president of the United States himself. But if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them; and the hacking crisis of the US elections may be distracting us from a disturbing convergence between these two mighty players. The virus of Russian imperialist Duginism is now fizzing away in the bloodstream of the American ‘alt-right’, where Trump’s own campaign chairman has been accused of covert relations with the Kremlin. The ideological split of the 20th century has been turned on its head in favour of a potentially despotic rule between previously hostile nations in a joint crusade to carve up the planet between them.
And so maybe what we’re seeing is, in fact, not the start of a new cold war; perhaps the first one never ended. We might look back on the Yeltsin years as a short period of détente, a shift in the poles from one ice age to the next. The future of western relations with Russia are somewhat uncertain. But whether they’re keeping their friends close or their enemies closer, one thing is for sure: the UK, with its imminent departure from the safety blanket of the European Union, is set to be the political piggy-in-the-middle of these two mighty powers.