The past decade has shed light on a renewed competition for influence between Putin’s Russia and the West. Understanding both sides’ strategies along with the personality of the Russian strongman is key to draw the perspectives of Cold War 2.0.

By Zsófia Baumann and Adrien Morin

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.

The protagonists

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.

Cold War 2.0, Putin, Hollande, Merkel, 2015
Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Petro Poroschenko at the Minsk Summit in 2015 (Source: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann / flickr)

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.

Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping BRICS summit 2015
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at a BRICS summit in 2015 (Source: Russia’s Presidential Press Office / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Russia’s hybrid warfare

The grey zones

After every Russian military intervention against a neighbor remains uncertainty, the lack of rule of law and economic development, and an abundance of soldiers. These so-called grey zones surround the borders of Russia: in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. De jure, they still belong to the countries they used to be part of but they are de facto controlled by Russia. The grey zones are the evidence of Russia’s expansionism and their unresolved status results in persisting conflicts between Russia and its neighbors.

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Russia’s military presence in Europe’s grey zones. (Source: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2016)

There are currently seven such grey zones in Eastern Europe: Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, as well as Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea in Ukraine. While it is not on the border with Russia, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan can also be included in the list. Russia does not maintain troops in the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh but the standoff between Armenia (where it aims to belong) and Azerbaijan (where it broke away from in 1988) enables Moscow to project its power into the region. Instability and the tensions it creates are the key sources of Russian power in the grey zones.


Almost ten years ago the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was the first instance when Putin (president at the beginning and prime minister towards the end of the conflict) used the strategy of supporting separatist movements in a neighboring country. The two breakaway regions of Georgia have always been a source of domestic conflict for the Eastern European country, and by extension, an opportunity for Russian interference. The first time South Ossetia gained autonomy was in 1922, following the annexation of the independent Democratic Republic of Georgia by the Soviet Red Army. It is likely that the Soviets then granted autonomy to the Ossetians in exchange for their support against the Georgian government. Georgia became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 which was followed by a military conflict between the new republic and its northern breakaway region, South Ossetia. The Ossetian separatists were once again aided by Russia, ending the conflict with a ceasefire and an agreement to keep Georgian, Ossetian and Russian peacekeepers in the region. The same process went down in Abkhazia, another breakaway region in the northwestern part of Georgia, topped with an ethnic cleansing of Georgians living in the territory, decreasing their population from 240,000 to 46,000.

While tensions were constantly at a heightened level, there was no direct confrontation between the Georgian government, the Ossetian separatists and Russia until 2008. Simultaneously to Georgia stepping on the path to becoming a NATO member and signing an association agreement with the EU, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were seeking recognition for their independence. In March 2008, they submitted formal requests to the Russian parliament (Duma) for an official approval, citing the newly independent Kosovo as an example (recognized by most Western countries, but not by Russia). The Duma issued a resolution calling for then President Putin to consider the recognition. A month later Putin issued a decree establishing official ties between the Russian government and the separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, this process was halted when a Russian jet shot down a Georgian reconnaissance drone flying over Abkhazia on 20 April, leading to a direct military confrontation between the two sides in South Ossetia, with Russian troops marching into Georgian territory, stopping only kilometres away from the capital, Tbilisi. The confrontation ended after five days with a peace agreement brokered by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Russia partially withdrew its troops from Georgia, as part of the ceasefire agreement, but continued to maintain soldiers at checkpoints near both territories. Soon after, Dmitry Medvedev (who took  over the presidency from Putin in May) signed a decree acknowledging the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, drawing condemnation from the international community. A decade later, both regions remain in a “frozen” state, broken away from Tbilisi but not formally independent.

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Russian tank in South Ossetia in August 2008. (Source: Yana Amelina / Wikimedia Commons)

This direct military confrontation between Georgia, Russia and the Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists was the first direct conflict since the fall of the Soviet Union. The conflict highlighted Russia’s willingness to engage in a full-on military operation against an independent country, in what it considers its sphere of influence. Shortly after the war ended, Russia also came clean regarding its foreign policy goals with President Medvedev revealing his five-point doctrine. The fourth point of the doctrine is as follows:

protecting the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever they may be, is an unquestionable priority for our country. Our foreign policy decisions will be based on this need. We will also protect the interests of our business community abroad. It should be clear to all that we will respond to any aggressive acts committed against us.

Though the first and fifth points of the doctrine emphasize Russia’s commitment to international law and peaceful relations with its neighbors respectively, the above passage clearly highlights the Kremlin’s justification for intervening (militarily or otherwise) in countries formerly part of the Soviet bloc, especially if they are home to Russian speaking minorities. This doctrine will also pave the way for the Ukrainian conflict five years later.


What first looked like a mass protest against the government soon turned into a full-scale military conflict that tore the Eastern European country apart. Protests first erupted in November 2013 in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, when President Viktor Yanukovych suspended talks with the EU on signing a trade and political agreement that would have put the country on track for a future accession to the Union. Yanukovych, whose base was located in the Russian-speaking Eastern part of the country, was pressured by Russia to back out of the deal, which had long been wary of the country’s rapprochement with the West.

The protests turned violent in February 2014 when government forces shot into the crowd of protesters killing dozens. A week later the government collapsed and Yanukovych fled the country. This pushed Russia to take advantage of the chaotic political situation and enter the Crimean Peninsula located in the south of the country (home to Russia’s Black Sea naval base). It took no more than two weeks for the Duma to approve sending the Russian military to the autonomous Russian-speaking Crimea, annex it and have this operation legitimized by holding a referendum, a move widely criticized by the international community. Infamous Russian-speaking soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms swamped Crimea and soon thereafter, appeared in the Eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. The temporary Ukrainian government in Kiev sent troops to crack down on violence in Eastern Ukraine, but by April, separatists declared independence in both regions. Though by the spring of 2014 Ukraine elected a new president and the EU trade deal was eventually signed, the status of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine remain unclear. As of today, Ukraine is split into three parts: (Western) Ukraine, where life goes on as before, the grey zones of Eastern Ukraine, and the Crimean Peninsula, which, though not internationally recognized, is de facto controlled by Russia.

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Anti-terrorist operation in Eastern Ukraine, August 2014. (Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine / Wikimedia Commons)

Why this strategy works

Russia’s strategy of keeping these areas in limbo (or “frozen”) seems to work. On the one hand, the fact that Georgia and Russia have unsettled territorial disputes prevents these countries from joining any other alliance, such as NATO or stepping on the road of becoming members of the European Union. On the other hand, they provide a way for Russia to increase pressure on domestic policies in Tbilisi or Kiev by threatening to heat up the conflicts with further military mobilization. This means that as long as the status of these grey zones remains unclear, Russia will have leverage over its neighbors without having to directly occupy any territories.

Apart from creating grey zones, and thus insecurity along its borders, Russia introduced another new element to spread its power: the use of hybrid warfare. In fact, it not only introduced it, but mastered the rules of the game. Hybrid warfare incorporates a blend of conventional/unconventional, regular/irregular, as well as information and cyber warfare. By deploying soldiers in unmarked uniforms (the so-called “little green men” who create upheaval and divisions within the population) in Ukraine or using its cyber capabilities to interfere in the domestic affairs of Western adversaries, Russia aims to create instability. It does so not only on its borders by stalling its neighbors’ integration to the West, but on the international scene too, where it sows distrust between allies and hampers international cooperation.

Russia’s cyberwar

Manipulation, propaganda and subversion were the instruments of the Cold War. This does not mean countries do not use them anymore. On the contrary, these tools became part of cyber warfare strategies. Russia, is ahead of Western countries in waging hybrid warfare, part of which is launching cyber attacks and manipulating populations of adversaries via the Internet. The digital attack against Estonia in 2007 was one of the first instances when Russia resorted to information warfare against a European country. Within the course of three weeks, Russian hackers managed to force the Baltic country to severe its international electronic connections and largely disappear from the internet. The success of the attack against Estonia gave Russians enough confidence to use similar tactics, this time, combined with a military operation against Georgia in the South Ossetian conflict. The goal of the synchronized cyber attacks was intelligence gathering for strategic, operational and tactical level military operations. Their purpose was to aid the military invasion by disrupting communications, gathering military and political intelligence and spreading Russian propaganda.

The invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was a success. However, the extent to which the supplementary cyber actions played a role in this success is unclear. Russia started to use this tactic against other countries too, moving away from its sphere of influence, towards the West. The strategy that was initially aimed at neighboring countries such as Estonia, Ukraine and Georgia is now being used against Russia’s biggest rivals: European countries and the United States. According to research from German think tanks, including the Global Public Policy Institute and the German Council on Foreign Relations, Russia turned its attention towards Western Europe roughly around the same time it annexed Crimea, drawing a parallel between its territorial and cyber expansions.

The opportunity presented itself in the form of a number of elections of major offices: the presidential elections in the US in November 2016 and in France in the spring of 2017, followed by the parliamentary election in Germany later that year. The fact that Russia has been preparing for these major cyber campaigns since the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 is demonstrated by its extensive network of media outlets that entered foreign markets in the past few years. The network’s goal is to spread Russian propaganda around the world, and attesting to this is the fact that all of these outlets are controlled by the Kremlin. The most influential players of the network are the television broadcaster RT (formerly known as Russia Today), the radio station Voice of Russia and the media platform Sputnik. The use of these channels together with the exploitation of loose social media regulations on privacy protection enabled Russia to intervene in the election of the highest office of the United States in an unprecedented manner. Following a nearly year-long investigation into the allegations over Russian meddling, the United States’ Department of Justice indicted 13 Russian nationals and three entities on charges of conspiring to defraud the US, conspiring to commit wire fraud and bank fraud and aggravated identity theft. Although the extent to which Russia’s interference affected the outcome of the US presidential elections cannot be determined, it succeeded in stirring up the political debate and discrediting runner-up candidate, Hillary Clinton. It also made Europeans worry. French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a critical voice of Russia’s actions in Ukraine,  was prepared for a cyber invasion. Indeed, his campaign suffered a major cyber attack just 48 hours before the elections when tens of thousands of internal emails and documents were released by a Russian group linked to the Kremlin. Apart from this incident, both France and Germany prevented a large scale cyber-attack similar to that of the US by introducing a wide-array of countermeasures ahead of their elections. Anticipating a possible Russian interference thus nipped the bud of Russia’s cyber ambitions.

It is important to note, that despite the fact that cyber meddling looks like an attack against the West, Russia’s real target is not abroad, but at home. According to experts, Russia is not trying to convince other countries of its ideological superiority, it is merely addressing another audience: its own population. By targeting the US and European countries, Russia seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the Western alliance to show that it is no alternative to Putin’s rule. The main message is that Russia is not perfect, but it is stable. At least more stable than the West.

Russia’s new proactive interventionism abroad

The biggest clash between Russia and the West in recent years was probably on the occasion of the Syrian Civil War. Russia’s (and China’s) blocking of a number of UN Security Council Resolutions and later military involvement on Bashar al-Assad’s side further complicated the already complex conflict and postponed its peaceful resolution.


2011 became a key year for the growing tensions between Russia and NATO allies. The Syrian conflict, in particular, crystallized the opposition between pro and anti-interventionist parties, leading to a major political and humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and Europe. This Syrian deadlock is rooted in the 2011 Libyan crisis and the military intervention led by NATO. The US, the UK and France were then accused of betraying the spirit of the UN resolution (which only sought to impose a no-fly zone) and forcing a regime change in Libya. Trust was undeniably broken at that occasion and Russia, along with China, later blocked any Western attempts to legally intervene in Syria against Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, Moscow decided to take part in the civil war alongside the Syrian president and against groups backed by the US and its NATO allies.

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Caricature of Putin’s arms sales to Assad (Source: Freedom House / flickr)

Relations between Russia and Syria had already been deepening prior to the outbreak of the civil war, due to the gradual international isolation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime (because of its involvement in Lebanon and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Assad and Putin came to power around the same time in 2000 and this proved to be a good opportunity for both to refresh the relationship between their two countries. After the peaceful protests of the Arab Spring turned into a bloody civil war in Syria, it was initially agreed by both the Syrian and Russian governments that foreign interference should be avoided. Indeed, apart from vetoing a few UN resolutions that  condemned the Assad regime for human rights violations, Russia stayed out of the conflict.

Cold War 2.0 - Russian Vetoes on the Syrian Crisis at the UNSC
Vetoed UNSC Resolutions During the Syrian War

The first major break between Russia and the West came in 2012, after the first Geneva Conference aimed at bringing an end to the conflict. The US suggested that the departure of the Assad regime should be a precondition for peace talks. Russia, on the other hand, made it clear from the beginning that political transition could not be imposed from the outside and that Syrians would have to decide who would rule their country after the war. Though a temporary agreement between the US and Russia was reached the next year, condemning the Syrian government’s alleged chemical attacks against rebels, it was nothing more than fulfilling Russia’s main goal of keeping foreign militaries away from Syria.

To underline its commitment to let Syrians solve the conflict by themselves (and to make sure the Assad regime stays in place), Moscow hosted the Syria-Syria dialogue between the government and the opposition twice in 2015. However, by that time the Islamic State had become a serious actor on the Syrian battlefield and pressure grew on the international community in order to find a solution before military intervention could not be avoided any longer. Russia even went as far as settling its tense relations with Turkey, which gravely deteriorated following Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian aircraft in November 2014. This new partnership led to the formation of a joint Russian-Turkish commission aimed at formulating a strategy to detect trafficking of terrorists and stop weapons flow into Syria through the Turkish border. Russia’s increased diplomatic efforts also led to a tighter cooperation with Syrian Kurds, with the Kremlin urging the UN to include them in future peace talks. Additionally, Russia drafted UNSC Resolution 2199 in order to halt the illegal trade of oil and the sale of cultural antiquities from Syria and Iraq, thus cutting some of the financial resources of terrorist groups. The resolution was unanimously adopted by the UNSC.

Defence ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria at a meeting in Tehran, Iran, June 2016 (Source: Mohammad Agah / Wikimedia Commons)

In September 2015, Moscow announced its decision to intervene militarily in the form of airstrikes against ground targets held by the Islamic State. The Russian intervention was in response to the request of the Assad government. Though the official purpose of the Russian military involvement in Syria was to fight terrorism (to annihilate the Islamic State), it also sent a message to the West. In March 2016 Putin announced that the mission was “on the whole accomplished” and ordered the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian forces. By pulling out of Syria, Russia meant to emphasize that it keeps to its word and that the operation was solely a counter-terrorism one. The withdrawal also meant to show that Moscow does not want to interfere with another country’s internal affairs. However, a deadline for withdrawing troops was not announced and Russian military bases kept functioning with Russian soldiers on the ground. Therefore, Russia never really left Syria and still provides combat support to Assad’s government on an ad hoc basis, often using the pretext of fighting terrorism. Putin also wanted to make it clear that Russia is a relevant player in the Middle East. In October 2016, the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s Soviet-era aircraft carrier was deployed at Syria’s Tartus Port, a Russian naval facility on the coast of the Mediterranean. The presence of the warship did not only illustrate that Russia is a capable, modern military player, but it also aimed to send a message to the West regarding Russia’s commitment in the region. Syria thus became a theatre to test out modern Russian military equipment and doctrine. Nothing proves the importance of this more than the fact that, since the end of the Cold War, Syria is the first instance where Russia actively got involved in a conflict outside of its traditional sphere of influence (the former Soviet Republics).

At the same time, by buying time for the regime, Russia might not only be playing for political advantages, but economic ones too. The longer the Syrian government is in place, the more opportunities the Kremlin could gain to exert its influence in the country, now and for the future. The Syrian government is already economically reliant on Russia: giants such as Gazprom and Lukoil are helping to rebuild and develop Syrian infrastructure, such as oil and gas pipelines. A customs corridor has been established for the trade of agricultural goods between the two countries, and Russian companies are investing in the telecommunications and technologies sectors as well. Therefore, apart from the demonstration of power in the international arena, Russia might also have other benefits from this relationship too.

A long history of suspicious murders

The latest poisoning incident targeting former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury outraged the international community. It is not the first instance that spies, politicians or businessmen formerly linked to the Kremlin suspiciously die on UK territory. However, interestingly, we are observing a shift as to who is targeted, which might cause the international community to revisit Russia’s covert activities on their territories.

Not all enemies of the Kremlin, or more explicitly, of President Putin, die under mysterious circumstances, but the list is long enough to raise suspicion. Probably the most famous case of the post-Cold War era was the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006. The former FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) officer and defector to the UK accused the Russian secret services of staging acts of terrorism in an effort to bring Putin to power in the late ‘90s and claimed that the Russian president ordered the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006. Litvinenko was poisoned with a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium at the bar of the Millennium hotel in Mayfair, central London, and died three weeks later. Litvinenko’s death was ruled murder by Scotland Yard with two former KGB agents (whom he met the day of his death) named as perpetrators. Scotland Yard’s investigation concluded in 2015 that “one way or another the Russian state [was] involved” in the murder of Litvinenko.

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Alexander Litvinenko shortly after his poisoning at the University College Hospital, London (Source: Wikipedia)

This was followed by a series of high-profile murders and murder attempts: that of German Gorbuntsov, an exiled banker who survived after being shot four times while getting out of a cab in London, in  March 2012; Alexander Perepilichnyy, a businessman who collapsed after allegedly being poisoned (with a toxin from a Chinese flowering plant that causes cardiac arrest) in Surrey, in November of the same year; Boris Berezovsky, an exiled billionaire and ally of Litvinenko, who was found hanged in his home in Berkshire, in March 2013, but whose death could not be unequivocally ruled as suicide; and Scot Young, an associate of Berezovsky, who fell from his fourth-floor apartment in Central London, in December 2014. Meanwhile, similar suspicious “incidents” happened in Russia as well: Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer, and Anastasia Baburova, a journalist, were shot in Moscow in January 2009; Natalya Estemirova, a human rights activist and journalist investigating abductions and murders in Chechnya was taken from her home in Grozny and killed in July 2009; Boris Nemtsov, an opposition critic of Putin, was shot in Moscow in February 2015 after organizing a march against Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine; and lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in police custody in Moscow in November 2009, after allegedly being brutally beaten and then denied medical care.

The case of Sergei Skripal, however, is different. He did not defect to the UK and did not accuse the Russian secret services, government, president or anyone else, of any wrongdoing. Unlike Litvinenko, he did not publish criticism of Putin. On the contrary, he was sent abroad on the orders of the Kremlin. Though he was later arrested for being a double agent (for the British) and sentenced to 13 years in prison for high treason, he was released after four years and received an official pardon from then President Medvedev. In 2010, Skripal was one of the three Russian agents who were part of the US-Russia spy swap, after the FBI arrested ten Russian sleeper agents working undercover in the US. He was handed over to the Americans and later settled in England. In light of his official pardon and the nature of previous killings, it is unclear why Skripal was targeted. If indeed the Russian secret services were behind it, as British investigators claim, the attacks reflect “a breakdown in the old etiquette of espionage”, as stated by Mark Galeotti, an expert of Russia’s spy agencies. According to Galeotti, retired spies are not considered to be a threat to the Russian government. They are usually left to live in peace since the information they have is mostly outdated and thus irrelevant. The case might be different for spies who defected (such as Skripal), but killing him after all these years goes against the usual pattern, not to mention that he was officially pardoned and forgiven for his crimes by the Kremlin.

Skripal could have continued to work with the British intelligence services, as Litvinenko did, but there does not seem to be any evidence to suggest that this was the case. His murder, as Galeotti suggests, could rather be related to the functioning of the Russian intelligence community than about Skripal himself. Russians, including former agents, belong to the realm of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU – which Skripal worked for) and its “civilian” counterpart, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). However, as Galeotti puts it, the FSB, the main domestic security agency, “is a very different service, one of political policemen used to operating without rules.” Other services are now adopting a similar culture and a sense of competition has developed between the different agencies. Thus, it might be possible that Skripal fell victim to this competition between the GRU and the FSB.

The Western response to Russia’s policies

Amid Russia’s assertive policies, Western countries were confronted to a challenging situation: implementing an appropriate response to secure their interests around the world and, more importantly, doing so in a coordinated way. Increasing security cooperation among NATO allies in the age of rising nationalism has been and continues to be very difficult. However, from the Syrian Crisis to the Skripal poisoning, the West has implemented various measures to contain or punish Moscow for its attitude, with varying degrees of success.

The Syrian deadlock

NATO allies engaged in Syria saw their range of action clearly limited with the UN blockage initiated by Russia and China, and even more so after Moscow decided to militarily intervene alongside pro-Assad forces in late 2015. Amidst fears of a direct confrontation with Russian troops, NATO allies implemented a set of limited military options ranging from providing  non-lethal aid to opposition groups, to conducting special operations on the ground. The US, Turkey, France and the UK were the four main protagonists of the Syrian Civil War on NATO’s side.

The US has been, among NATO allies, the most active supporter of Syrian opposition groups. Washington provided selected armed groups (opposing the Assad regime), both in Syria and in neighboring countries (Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar), with training and logistical support. However, in the absence of an international mandate given by the UN and while Russia intervened with Assad’s blessing, the US ended up being an uninvited power interfering with Syria’s domestic affairs. The Obama administration was thus forced to shift the purpose of its military operations in Syria from counterbalancing Assad’s domestic policies to fighting terrorist groups in the region as part of the broader doctrine of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). In October 2014, the US’ Department of Defense established Operation Inherent Resolve “in order to formalize ongoing military actions against the rising threat posed by [the Islamic State – IS] in Iraq and Syria.” Refocusing military operations in Syria on counterterrorism implied cutting down support to these groups fighting the Assad regime, to the benefit of those committed to the fight against IS. This new policy came with serious consequences as the US lost many of its locally trained fighters who were “more focused on fighting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.” In the meantime, the Assad regime backed by Russia was able to regain ground against Syrian rebels. Occasionally however, the US carried out military strikes against Syrian military positions as a response to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

The US’ main partner in its fight against IS since 2014 has been the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Although the YPG has proven to be the most reliable and effective group against IS, its empowerment at Turkey’s southern border raised important concerns in Ankara. Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch on 20 January 2018, targeting Kurdish groups in northern Syria in order to prevent the creation of an “autonomous Kurdish state that would challenge Turkey’s territorial integrity and national security” (although the operation was officially designated as a counterterrorist one). From then on, Ankara became more of a spoiler than a trustable NATO partner. Moreover, Turkey, who shot down a Russian warplane in 2015, has been nurturing closer ties with Moscow since then, hampering NATO’s efforts to appear as a united front against Russia’s actions in Syria and on the international scene more broadly.

France and the UK have been involved in Syria to a lesser extent but also struggled to find a way around Russia’s leverage in the region. In September 2014 Operation Chammal and Operation Shader were launched, the French and British components of Operation Inherent Resolve, seeking to defeat IS in Syria and Iraq. Just like the US, France and the UK saw their original plan to push Bashar al-Assad out of power frustrated by the absence of international consensus and Russia’s support for the Syrian regime. Paris and London carried out airstrikes in Syria against IS-designated targets. They also occasionally targeted governmental infrastructure following alleged chemical attacks and provided non-lethal assistance to some opposition groups, without Damascus’ approval and against Moscow’s will. However, the two European countries failed to implement a regime change in Syria, on the model of what they were able to do in Libya. In short, NATO allies have invested considerable resources in the Syrian Civil War but with limited impact on the conflict itself (with the exception of targeted strikes on terrorist groups), and remain unable to contain Russia’s strategy in the region.


Amid the Syrian deadlock, Western countries were slow to react following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and could not prevent the annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014. However they quickly implemented sanctions against Moscow. The US, Canada and the EU (followed by other countries like Albania, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Switzerland and Ukraine) coordinated to enforce three types of sanctions:

  • sanctions aiming to restrict access to Western financial markets and services for designated Russian state-owned enterprises in the banking, energy and defense sectors;
  • sanctions seeking to place an embargo on exports to Russia, of designated high-technology oil exploration and production equipment;
  • sanctions imposing an embargo on exports to Russia, of designated military and dual-use goods.

Early on, these sanctions, along with the depreciation of the global price of oil (a major source of Russian exports) affected the Russian financial sector, leading to the devaluation of the ruble by up to 40%, while $75bn worth of capital left Russia in 2014 (a much higher rate than the previous year). Russian oligarchs and many within Vladimir Putin’s inner circle were to be particularly targeted by US sanctions, with the hope of forcing the Russian president to comply with Western demands.

It is always difficult to evaluate the impact sanctions have on a country’s economy and it is even more complicated to determine whether they will translate into political gains (e.g. by forcing the targeted country to comply). Western sanctions seem to have impacted the Russian economy at least to some extent, affecting the country’s imports, exports and share in international trade. However, these sanctions did not lead to an attitude change in Moscow thus far and every day that passes makes the perspective of Russia complying less likely.

According to Andrey Movchan, director of the Economic Policy Program at Carnegie Moscow Center, Western sanctions have not worked as much as people would like to believe. First, he evaluates that “more than 30% of [the Russian budget] is classified as secret,” hence falling out of accurate international estimates regarding Moscow’s (and Russian oligarchs’ in particular) economic resources. Movchan argues that “both the government and businesses had accumulated cash reserves from the oil boom” (which lasted for roughly a decade between the late ‘90s and 2008), allowing them to amass gold and foreign currency reserves among other assets. In addition, he explains that despite the state controlling most businesses, “Russia still enjoys the benefits of liberal economics” including unrestricted cross-border capital flows and the possibility to align with international markets in order to stabilize the ruble’s exchange rate in the free market. In short, it will take much more than the current sanctions to destabilize Russia and Vladimir Putin, while they have also been costly for Western economies.

Military deployment around the Baltic Sea

The Syrian and Ukrainian cases showed that Russia would not hesitate to put boots on the ground to secure its interests outside of its boundaries and that NATO had to come up with a different approach to prevent further Russian expansionist strategies. The Baltic states, former members of the USSR and home to large minorities of ethnic Russians could be potential targets for the Kremlin. In order to protect its Eastern European members and prevent a Russian incursion, NATO implemented the 2016 Warsaw Summit decisions to “establish NATO’s forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and to develop a tailored forward presence in the Baltic Sea region.”

The Foreign Analyst - NATO Enhanced Forward Map
The deployment of the four multinational battlegroups part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (Source: NATO)

NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, although a defensive mechanism, can be seen as the alliance’s first proactive move against Russia since a neo Cold War started to take shape. NATO emphasizes the deterrence purpose of the operation while its transcontinental dimension (troops come from Europe and North America) is meant to be “a tangible reminder that an attack on one [NATO member] is an attack on all.” In addition, NATO Enhanced Forward Presence includes frequent military exercises seeking to ensure the operational readiness of the troops involved. As of 1 February 2018, more than 4,500 troops were mobilized in all four battlegroups.

NATO Enhanced Forward Presence brings a new dimension to the modern opposition between the West and Russia as it brings an important military presence at Russia’s doorstep and around the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. It prevents Russian incursions into Eastern European territories outside the unlikely scenario of a direct military confrontation and allows for a better monitoring of Russian military activities in the Baltic Sea and around the region more broadly. Moreover, at a difficult time in terms of unity among NATO members, the operation creates bounds and opens new perspectives for military cooperation, especially since European Defense is evolving at a slow pace.

The expulsion of Russian diplomats

Alongside economic sanctions and military operations, Western countries have implemented a set of diplomatic sanctions following Russia’s meddling in other countries’ domestic affairs. Barack Obama set the tone in December 2017 when he decided to expel 35 Russian diplomats and close two compounds used for intelligence-gathering in the US following Moscow’s involvment in the American presidential election. The expulsion of Russian diplomats intensified in March 2018 after the poisoning of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. At least 27 countries expelled 144 Russian diplomats in solidarity with the UK, while NATO decided to remove seven staff from its Russian mission.

The Foreign Analyst - Russian diplomats expelled by countries following the Skripal poisoning
Russian diplomats expelled by countries following the Skripal poisoning (Source: The Washington Post)

These diplomatic sanctions symbolize the worsening relationship between Russia and the West but also outline the creation of a – though fragile – united front against Russian interference in European and North American domestic affairs. Indeed, countries like Hungary and Italy, usually pursuing Russia-friendly policies, were among those implementing the diplomatic sanctions. Similarly, Russian state-media are now targeted because of the influence they try to exert on Western societies. French president Emmanuel Macron decided for instance to deny access to RT and Sputnik at political conferences, calling them “agents of [Russian] influence and propaganda.” However, for analysts such as Jakub Janda, from the Prague-based European Values Think-Tank, these measures are not sufficient and the West should be tougher on the Kremlin. Western countries should, for instance, step up its economic sanctions while implementing new legal frameworks to counter Russian interference and propaganda, as well as more efficiently prosecuting these agencies and individuals illegally operating for Moscow abroad.

To summarize, the Western response to Moscow’s assertive attitude was late to develop. After the unsuccessful Syria policy and the failure to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the West organized to counter Russia in 2014 with a set of economic sanctions. More recently, NATO members and their allies have been more proactive in responding to and preparing for Russian aggressions by organizing military operations around the Russian border, implementing diplomatic sanctions and countering Russian propaganda. However, these measures are yet to lead to an attitude change from Vladimir Putin and have done less in containing the Russian strategy than reaffirming Cold War-like tensions, an exercise that the Russian president has long been preparing for.

Vladimir Putin and the prospects of a new Cold War

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.

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, Russia, Cold War 2.0
Medvedev and Putin in 2013. (Source: IoSonoUnaFotoCamera / flickr)

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.

The Foreign Analyst - Russia vs The West: What do Russians Think of Russia's Power
Russia vs The West: What do Russians Think of Russia’s Power (Data Source: 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.

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Military Parade in Moscow in 2015 (Source: Dmitriy Fomin / flickr)

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.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in 2017, Syria, Russia, Cold War 2.0
Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in 2017 (Source: Russia’s Presidential Press Office / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in 2017 (Source: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Medvedev_and_Obama_in_back_of_limo, Russia, USA, Cold War 2.0
Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev ride together in the back of a limousine in 2010 (Source: The White House / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Donald_Trump_&_NATO_Secretary_General_Jens_Stolenberg,_April_12,_2017_USA Europe Russia Cold War 2.0
Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg outside the White House in 2017 (Source: The White House / Wikimedia Commons)

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 recenFacebook / 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 Photo: “Europe from Moscow”, cover of Time magazine in 1952, map by R. M. Chapin Jr.