Vladimir Putin’s domestic policies and his Cold War narrative are at the heart of Cold War 2.0. The West is yet to implement cooperative measures to counter this narrative and tackle the Russian leader’s strategy.
Although Cold War 2.0 is understood as a modern conflict for influence on the international scene between Russia and the West, it cannot be fully apprehended without analyzing Russian domestic politics along with the personality and strategy of the man at the center of this rivalry: Vladimir Putin.
Putin: making Russia great again
Putin unexpectedly became the President of Russia on the first day of the millennium, when his predecessor Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation on New Year’s Eve of 1999. Putin had only been prime minister for a few months and was relatively unknown on the international scene. Upon ascending to the presidency, Putin was the complete opposite of Yeltsin: young, energetic, fluent in a foreign language (he speaks perfect German, but also understands English) and, above all, media-savvy. He was also determined to “take care of Russia” – the last instruction he got from Yeltsin before he was handed the presidency.
Most of Putin’s resentment towards the West, and the US in particular, can be explained by the experiences of his early career. Upon graduating from university in the mid-1970s, he joined the KGB – the secret service of the Soviet Union – where he was taught to see the US as an enemy. Despite his aspirations to become an undercover agent, Putin was tasked with counterintelligence, carrying out political surveillance of everyday Soviet citizens. His mission was to root out the “enemy within.” He spent the last five years of the Cold War (1985-1990) in Dresden, East Germany, where he witnessed first-hand the collapse of the world order he knew. As protests broke out in Dresden in 1989, Moscow remained passive and let the whole bipolar system crumble. For Putin, Russia’s “giving up” had an undeniable impact on his future political career.
In 1999, at the time he was sworn in as prime minister, Putin was unknown to the Russian public. However, a series of mysterious apartment bombings that shook Moscow and other Russian cities a few months later changed this. The incident proved to be a perfect opportunity for Putin to gain exposure and step up as a competent leader ready to ensure Russia’s security. He suspected Chechen terrorists to be behind the bombings, using this as an opportunity to crack down on separatists and wage a full-scale war in Chechnya. What became known as the Second Chechen war lasted until May 2000 and resulted in the establishment of a pro-Russian government in Chechnya along with a huge boost in popularity for the newly appointed president.
President Putin promised the Russian people strength and demonstrated this by building a close relationship with the newly appointed American president, George W. Bush. When 9/11 hit the US, Putin was the first foreign leader to reach out to Bush. He hoped that the US, because of its fight against Islamist terrorists, would be on the same page as Russia fighting Chechen insurgents. However, Bush went his own way and with the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime Putin feared that “regime change at the hands of the Americans” could potentially reach Russia too. Accordingly, his rhetoric towards his domestic audience became more anti-American. Putin was, and still is, portraying himself as the only man who is willing to stand up to the US. In 2004, a few months into his second presidential term, the Beslan school hostage crisis happened, and Putin’s popularity suffered a major blow. Chechen and other Islamist militants held more than 1,100 people hostages in a primary school in the North Ossetian town, demanding the independence of Chechnya. The inability to compromise led the Russian military’s rescue team to storm the school with heavy weaponry on the third day of the stand-off, causing the death of 334 people, including 186 children. The crisis led to a national outrage at Putin, who in return blamed the US for supporting Chechen separatists and independence movements in general. At home, Putin used “the American meddling” as a justification to solidify his power even more and cancelled upcoming elections countrywide.
2004 was not the best year for Putin. Not only his popularity plummeted after the Beslan crisis, but three ex-Soviet states also faced popular uprisings contesting the rule of Soviet-type corrupt leaders in favour of democratic reforms. The so-called “Color Revolutions” (the 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine and the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan) reinforced Putin’s worst fear: the US getting involved geographically closer to Russia. The Russian president was convinced that people do not just go to the streets, there must be a puppet-master behind these revolutions, a role likely to be played by the US.
In 2008, Putin’s second presidential term ended and, due to a constitutional restriction, had to retake the position of prime minister while handing over the presidency to his political ally, Dmitry Medvedev. The US also welcomed a new leader, Barack Obama, who, together with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saw the opportunity to “reset” the relationship. However, the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, once again, reminded Putin of the protests in Dresden and seeing his long-term ally Muammar Gaddafi dragged and killed on the street by protesters revived his suspicions towards the US and the West more generally. The same year saw protests across Moscow due to allegations of widespread electoral fraud at the parliamentary elections (ballot-stuffing and government officials filling in voting sheets) throughout the country. Russia saw its biggest pubic uprising since 1917 and faced harsh condemnation from abroad. The most vocal of all was Hillary Clinton, who voiced serious concerns regarding the elections and reiterated that “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted (…) and that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.” Since then, Putin’s relationship towards Europe and the US has been based on his need to take revenge for not only the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the perceived humiliation he has endured at the hands of Western leaders.
A Cold War narrative at the heart of Putin’s domestic legitimacy
The 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine largely rebuilt Putin’s domestic popularity, as he reaffirmed his role as Russia’s strongman. He was elected for his second consecutive term (and fourth overall) as Russia’s president on 18 March 2018 with 77% of the votes in his favor. It is always difficult to accurately estimate the popular support of a political leader in a country that lacks political plurality and independent media coverage, but it seems undeniable that a majority of Russians are supportive of Putin’s political program and his foreign policies in particular. A survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Center in 2014 found that an overwhelming majority of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea. Another survey from 2016 highlighted that nearly 40% of Russians thought that their country should pursue a policy to bring back the superpower status of the USSR, while 49% were confident about Russia’s ability to become a strong power in a 15- or 20-year period (with 26% thinking that it already is). Finally, almost a third of all Russians consider that their country’s lack of leadership in the world is a result of the actions undertaken by Western countries according to this same survey from the Russian Public Opinion Center.
These numbers highlight that Putin’s aggressive strategy since 2014, while sparking intense criticism on the international stage, received strong popular support domestically. As Erik C. Nisbet and Elizabeth Stoycheff explain, this popular support is key even in autocratic regimes in order to maintain legitimacy. They point out that Putin was able to achieve this legitimation process through the “weaponization” of Russian media, which became “sources of disinformation at home and abroad,” but also because Russian citizens (like many others around the world including in Western societies) went through a “natural psychological process called motivated reasoning.” This process implies that individuals “discount or avoid information that may somehow counter [their core] beliefs” or, in other words, they will not go against the narrative that they decided to adhere to.
Domestically, the narrative regarding the nature of international relations and where Russia stands within the international system was largely shaped by Vladimir Putin. After a period of “détente” between 2009 and 2012, following President Obama’s “reset” policy with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev (deputizing for Putin as Russia’s president), the relationship between Russia and the West deteriorated. Michael McFaul, Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and former US ambassador to Russia, argues that following the 2011 protests against a falsified parliamentary election and after Putin’s return to power in 2012, the “old social contract – economic growth in return for political passivity – was no longer sufficient to appease these middle class protesters.” Putin then needed a new source of legitimacy to secure his rule over the country and found it in a Cold War-style rhetoric where the US and its allies were accused of trying to undermine Russia’s interests both domestically (fomenting revolutions in Russia) and internationally (destabilizing Russia’s allies in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in particular).
The Russian president placed himself at the center of this new Cold War as the strongman who is Russia’s best (and only) chance to survive in a hostile environment, under Western pressure. Vladimir Putin needs a new Cold War and Russians must be led to believe that he is the only legitimate candidate to lead them through it. In the meantime, strong anti-Russian reactions among Western countries only add up to this narrative, turning Cold War 2.0 into a self-fulfilling prophecy written by the Russian president. In sum, and apart from economic considerations, this situation is exclusively providing political benefits to Vladimir Putin. First, because international aggressions (Georgia, Ukraine and to some extent Syria) allow him to secure Russia’s strategic interests abroad by strengthening Putin’s political allies (separatists in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea, Bashar al-Assad). Second, because the clashes that erupt with Western powers increase his popular support at home.
The perspectives of a neo Cold War
The renewed tensions between Russia and the West that we are witnessing take their roots in the aftermath of the Cold War and the way the US and its Western allies decided to build their relationships with the newly created Russian Federation following the downfall of the USSR. Western relationships with post-Cold War Russia never followed the model of countries like (Western) Germany or Japan who, although defeated by the allies in World War II, built fruitful relationships with their former enemies. EU and NATO memberships were never considered for Russia and, on the contrary, Western countries took advantage of the former Soviet Union’s territorial losses while containing a weaker Kremlin. Strong ties were established with former Soviet republics and both the EU and NATO extended memberships in Eastern Europe, all the way to Russia’s border.
We can only speculate on how different the situation would be today if the US and its allies had tried to establish a more balanced relationship with Moscow instead of considering the Cold War as a definitive victory and thinking that the Russian society would buy Western values in their entirety. History cannot be re-written either, but the lessons learned from it should perhaps help Western leaders make better choices in the future. American hegemony is deteriorating in an increasingly multipolar world and Western values (such as democracy and human rights) are being challenged more and more on the international scene. For too long, Western leaders have refused to accept that the Western model would not become the exclusive universal norm and that international relations should be considered through this reality. Leaders like Vladimir Putin in Russia or Xi Jinping in China are enjoying high approval rates domestically, partially thanks to their use of a well-oiled propaganda machine, but also because they successfully implemented alternative political models commingling strong nationalistic narratives and economic development. Understanding these realities should be the first step in order to prepare appropriate policy responses.
Putin will not suddenly change the narrative that granted him domestic legitimacy and the Russian society is unlikely to modify its aspirations to see Russia returning to the frontline of global politics as a superpower. Unless he decides to amend the constitution like Xi Jinping did in China, Putin will have to step down as president in 2024. This could be an opportunity for Western leaders to improve their relations with a new Russian leader (the same way these relations somewhat improved during the transitional Medvedev presidency). However, six years is a lengthy period to wait for and there are no guarantees on what the Russian leadership will look like by then. Instead, the West should implement pertinent measures to contain Putin’s Russia while avoiding getting locked up in a Cold War narrative.
Western countries need first to unite in light of Russia’s assertive attitude on the international scene. A united front across Europe and North America will constitute the strongest deterrent against Russian aggressions. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence is a good step in that direction, but a lot remains to be done to regain a sense of unity among NATO members. American president Donald Trump’s misleading criticism of NATO members’ lack of financial commitment to the alliance is not helping the cause. Similarly, some NATO members’ unilateral interventions around the world (in Iraq, Libya or Syria) made it much harder to reach consensus on common defense policies among Western countries. European Defense is also stammering amid internal disagreements within the EU regarding common security strategies. A multi-speed EU with some countries (France and Germany in particular) taking the lead to reinforce European cooperation on security (while giving more time to other EU members to adapt) would create a stronger deterrent (in addition to NATO operations) to Russian aggressions on the Old Continent. This could be especially important given the uncertainty created by Donald Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric on the other side of the Atlantic.
More specifically, Western countries need to reinforce their modern-warfare capacities, especially in cyberspace. Despite some efforts that have been made in the wake of the French and German elections of 2016 and 2017, reinforcing cyber capabilities is not an easy thing to do, as it requires cooperation between the government and private companies. French President Emmanuel Macron, after winning a presidential campaign targeted by Russian groups, announced a legislative proposal that would counter fake news by implementing more media transparency and blocking offending sites during election campaigns. The French agency for the protection of audiovisual communication (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel – CSA) would also be empowered under the proposal to “fight any destabilization attempt by television channels controlled or influenced by foreign states.” Similarly, the United Kingdom and Czech Republic have also launched government units to tackle disinformation.
But, to reiterate, government action is not enough if it does not have the support from private companies, such as social media giant Facebook. A good example is Italy where, leading up to the general elections in March, Facebook launched a new fact-checking program, in cooperation with the government, solely for its Italian users, that identifies and debunks false information appearing on the site. However, as the recent Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted, what happens in the cyberspace is still very difficult to grasp and even more so to regulate. Cybersecurity ranges from protecting individuals’ data to preventing it from being used for political purposes or manipulation, and to countering fake news and propaganda as a way to protect IT infrastructure from hackers and cyber terrorism. These threats happen in an interconnected cyberspace that does not know any bounds. It should thus be the shared responsibility of countries, as well as governments and private entities, to build confidence building measures and tackle these threats collectively.
Western countries should also work to improve their relationship with Beijing in an emerging neo Cold War context. China is unlikely to turn into their ally, but it does not have to be their enemy either. The Chinese regime is not exactly in line with Western values on a wide array of issues. However, the lack of understanding of Chinese society and its domestic political contexts (the importance of territorial integrity, the economic concerns of the Chinese people or the strong nationalistic sentiment following the “century of humiliation”) in the West is often a major hurdle to improving relations with the Middle Kingdom, including on issues like human rights and freedom of speech. The persisting anti-Chinese rhetoric across Western countries, especially since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is usually biased and, in effect, is hampering efforts for improved ties with the world’s second most powerful country.
More generally, the West should become more consistent with its own values. Western governments cannot push for the respect of international law and, at the same time, violate the spirit of UN resolutions (i.e. with the intervention in Libya). They cannot continue to have a human rights double-standard and condemn some countries’ domestic violations while staying silent when their strategic allies – the Gulf monarchies in particular – resort to the same practices. Western leaders cannot call for freedom of speech when they themselves pressure media in their own countries. In sum, the West should stop believing it has an undeniable edge in terms of moral values compared to its Russian adversary. The current tensions between Russia and the West are unlikely to result in a moral defeat for Vladimir Putin.
Western countries should rather focus on harmonizing their policies towards Russia to become united and reinforce their common defense to deter any form of Russian aggression. More importantly, they have to undermine Putin’s Cold War narrative and work on cooperative measures among themselves instead of promoting nationalistic discourses. Cooperation with Russia when strategic interests are converging should also be a central component of the global strategy to tackle this Cold War narrative. The 2009 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) deal signed by presidents Medvedev and Obama is a proof that cooperative measures between Russia and the West are possible. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program was an even bigger achievement on that regard, as it symbolized the possibility of consensus among the world’s main powers (the US, Russia, China, France, the UK, Germany and the rest of the EU) on a major international security concern (nuclear proliferation). The annihilation of the JCPOA under the impulsion of Donald Trump will only undermine Western unity and reinforce Putin’s new Cold War narrative.
Cover Picture: poster with Putin’s face on the streets of Amsterdam, 2008, © Lenna Utro-Shterenberg / flickr