Part 1 of our series on Cold War 2.0 focuses on the actors of this newly developing rivalry between Russia and the West. With an emboldened Russia and uncertainties regarding China’s position, the West has yet to appear as a united front.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (1985-1991) dramatically changed the course of the Cold War (1947-1991) as it gradually shifted Moscow’s priorities from competing with the US and its NATO allies in a military buildup, to the restructuring of the Soviet society. It played a key role in the rapprochement between the West and the Soviets, and in the downfall of the USSR in 1991. The end of the Cold War was largely pictured as the victory of a liberal and capitalistic western model over an authoritarian and socialist (communist) one. It also brought hope for a safer future along with perspectives for renewed cooperation between the West and the newly created Russian Federation, led by Boris Yeltsin. For Russians, this period was, however, one of penury and national humiliation.
Time has passed and in 2018 the idea a rapprochement between the West and Russia seems to belong to a bygone era. Vladimir Putin, former prime minister under Yeltsin, has drastically changed his predecessor’s policies and Russia’s attitude on the international stage, leading to what many experts have described as a new Cold War. According to Edward Lucas and Mark MacKinnon, Cold War 2.0 started as soon as Putin took office in 2000, as he quickly confronted the West and the US in particular. Lucas argues that this new Cold War is one of power, money and influence while MacKinnon emphasizes on Putin’s will to revive the soul of the USSR and challenge the West on the international stage. For Robert Legvold, the new Cold War really started with the annexation of Crimea by Russia (2014), while previous clashes with the US and its allies (the European Union – EU – in particular) are a series of steps that led to the fracture we are witnessing today.
On the other hand, Norwegian historian Odd Arne Westad retorts that the term “Cold War” does not apply to today’s great-power tensions. He argues that the Cold War was an “ideological contest between capitalism and socialism” in which “each side fervently dedicated to its system of economics and governance” and whose outcome was meant to be “total victory or total defeat.” According to him, the “Cold War created the [conflictual] world we live in now (…) but today’s international affairs have moved beyond the Cold War.” Terminology matters and the opposition between Russia and the West that we are witnessing in 2018 is undeniably different in its scope and nature than the bipolar struggle that animated most of the second half of the 20th century. However, in the absence of a better term we believe it remains relevant to refer to the current situation as a new form of Cold War, even if it may sound anachronistic to some.
Whether this new Cold War really started in 2000 or in 2014, it is closely tied to Putin and his visions of both Russia and the entire world. Analyzing the current Russian leader’s strategy and western responses is key in order to draw some perspectives on where this battle for influence is taking us.
The West’s complicated relationship with Russia
The Cold War ended in 1991 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of everything the United States and Western Europe stood for: capitalism and democracy. Countries of the former Soviet sphere of influence broke away, gained independence and slowly joined Western alliances such as NATO and the European Union. The West grew, while the former Soviet bloc was shrinking, both in terms of size and influence.
Apart from a short period of collaboration at the end of World War II, the relationship between the Western and the Eastern blocs has been built on competition, insecurity and above all distrust. In such environment both sides’ main goal was to get as many allies as possible. The Soviet Union’s collapse was the result of its own internal problems and the unsustainability of its economic model (as opposed to military defeat), but its successor, Russia, while implementing domestic reforms, was not going to stand by and watch all its former allies join “the other side.”
By the end of the 1990s Russia had already lost most of its allies in Central Europe (the former members of the Eastern bloc); Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic joined NATO and later in the 2000s, the European Union. The Baltic States, formerly integral parts of the Soviet Union also became NATO and EU members. The Western alliance was now spreading eastwards all the way to Russia’s doorstep, while also trying to bring Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus on its side. Additionally, Western governmental and economic structures as well as lifestyles have not only taken over the former Soviet sphere, but have also spread in most of the world’s emerging countries.
It is impossible to characterize the Western world as one homogenous entity, especially when it comes to their relationship with Russia. The US, for example, has an entirely different relationship with its old nemesis than does Europe. There are also deep divisions between different countries on the Old Continent. These became clearly visible in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, with some European countries pushing for harsher sanctions against Russia, and others favoring a more moderate approach.
China’s stance in Cold War 2.0
The role China is to play in light of the renewed tensions between Russia and the West remains largely uncertain. With the US and its allies’ strategic interests being at odds with Chinese ones in the Middle East and, more importantly, in the South China Sea, many could fear the creation of a united front between Beijing and Moscow in the perspective of a neo Cold War. Chinese president Xi Jinping was among the first ones to congratulate Vladimir Putin after his last reelection, emphasizing the importance of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. The two countries have a lot in common after all. They both have roots in a single-party communist state with little or no domestic political plurality and rely on state-controlled media channels to spread pro-government propaganda both domestically and internationally (China recently announced the merger of its three major state-run broadcast networks into a single super-network called “Voice of China” with the aim of spreading Chinese influence abroad). More importantly, just like Putin in Russia, China is witnessing in Xi Jinping, the rise of a strongman seeking to rule unchallenged at home. In addition, the Sino-Russian bilateral relationship seemed to have reached a new high in 2017 with the strengthening of the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination between the two countries and the common views expressed on a wide array of key concerns regarding international affairs: the necessity to end American hegemony and lean towards multi-polarization, the refusal of a military solution on the Korean peninsula and a shared view on the terrorist threat.
However, as Peter Wood from the Jamestown Foundation argues, China and Russia’s “self-interest does not make them allies.” Wood explains that China has now significantly taken the lead in its bilateral relationship with Russia. The Chinese military (People’s Liberation Army – PLA), which considerably developed over the past decades and continues to do so, has largely matched the one of its neighbor in terms of equipment and technologies (perhaps only lagging behind in terms of operational experience on the ground). In addition, after conducting a diversification of its energy imports, China is not strategically dependent on Russian oil (the major source of Russian exports towards China) anymore and has more commercial ties with the West than with Moscow. More importantly, China has replaced Russia in terms of influence in former Eastern Soviet Republics and throughout Central Asia more generally, and even more so since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
It is unrealistic to count China among Western allies in the wake of a new Cold War. However, it is also inaccurate to imagine that Beijing will fully commit to the Russian side. The Middle Kingdom has long mastered the “art of pragmatism” when it comes to foreign affairs. China mostly developed bilateral relations on the international scene based on a cost-benefit analysis (whatever serves Chinese interests), calling for the respect of other countries’ sovereignty and denouncing hegemonism and interventionist policies (including the ones of the Soviet Union in the late 1960s).
China remained neutral on the Crimean crisis, probably uneasy about Russia’s military intervention but unwilling to interfere with another country’s domestic affairs (Crimea ultimately joined the Russian Federation via a referendum). As Zhang Lihua from Tsinghua University explains, “as far as Crimea is concerned, China has stood neither on the side of Russia nor on the side of the United States and Europe.” She argues that China sees a Western double-standard in the way these countries “actively supported Ukraine’s own independence referendum in 1991” while Beijing’s meddling in this issue would be inconsistent with the Chinese principle of domestic noninterference. In short, China has no strategic interest in being actively involved in a new Cold War, something Western leaders should keep in mind when dealing with their Chinese counterparts.
Cold War 2.0: an international conflict with high uncertainties
Prior to analyzing in details the nature and origins of the rising tensions between Russia and the West, we encounter difficulties in clearly identifying the protagonists of this modern conflict. While Russia does not seem to be able (or willing) to bring anyone on its side, the West remains largely divided. The ability of Western leaders to agree on multilateral policies and strategies as a way to challenge Moscow will be key in influencing the balance of power. However, amid rising nationalism and anti-globalist movements around the world, as well as uncertainties regarding China’s stance, the West has a long way to to go in order to appear as a united front against an emboldened Russia.
Part 2 focuses on Russia’s actions leading to this new conflict.
Cover Picture: detail of the Soviet symbol on a Russian Army officers hat, © Brian Jeffery Beggerly / flickr