A New Cold War?

27 Mar

I was recently asked to offer some commentary for this BBC piece on whether or not we’re in a new Cold War. Obviously, such articles can only use a tiny fraction of the submitted information, so I thought I’d place my full responses here. The questions are those posed by the BBC and, of course, all of my thoughts can and should be contested.

1) When would you say Cold War tensions peaked and why?

The period that we call the Cold War had deep roots in the nineteenth century, and more immediate roots in the period from the 1917 Russian Revolution onwards. It emerged after World War Two as the result of misperception, misunderstanding, ideological fixation, economic tension, and – crucially – the decisions of key individuals such as US president Harry Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. It’s a handy term that covers the period from the mid-1940s to the late 1990s, encompassing the confrontation between the two major (at the time) ideological systems of liberal capitalism and collectivist communism. It was not the only major feature of the period, but it came to be entangled with other facets of the post-World War Two world such as decolonisation and the emergence of newly independent, formerly colonised, states.

The period from 1948 until the 1961 building of the Berlin Wall and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis saw persistent and frequently dangerous crises and flashpoints emerge. The UK-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis, for example, saw the superpowers drawn in to a volatile situation. The 1962 Cuban Crisis is arguably the Cold War’s most famous event, and nuclear war was avoided by luck much more than by good judgement. The post-Cuba period saw a decline in tension that eventually resulted in the thaw between the USA and USSR called detente.

But, the ‘peak’ of the Cold War very much depends on where you were and who you were. If you’re a Western European, the Cold War status quo was pretty much accepted after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. If you’re an Angolan though, the period after Portugal’s 1975 withdrawal and the onset of the civil war saw significant superpower proxy intervention. And if you’re Vietnamese, the major escalation of America’s Cold War battle in that nation began in 1964 and only ended in 1973.

So, the ‘Cold War’ was never really that cold. Millions of people died in proxy conflicts or in conflicts that the superpower struggle imposed itself on without any recognition of the conflict’s fundamental local nature. For Cambodians, Congolese, Koreans, Ethiopians, Somalians, and many, many others, the Cold War was very much a hot war. [Note: This was an excerpt that actually appeared in the BBC piece, and I’m rather pleased that they included it.]

2) Given current tensions between the US and Russia, do you believe we are facing a ‘new Cold War’? (If so, why? If not, why not?)

The tactics that are making the news, such as assassinations, have a much deeper history than the Cold War era. During the late Tsarist period, the Russian secret police – the Okhrana – monitored and acted against expatriate Russians living in Europe, hoping to clamp down on anti-Tsarist revolutionaries. Such tactics – infiltration, ‘fake news’, sometimes assassination – were used by the Soviet Union and its allies during the period of its existence, but they weren’t unique to that state. So, the sense that we face a new Cold War because of such tactics is slightly false.

Cyber warfare represents a new battlefield that didn’t exist during the Cold war era in any meaningful sense, but Russia’s use of ‘troll armies’ to spread misinformation again has antecedents that go much deeper than the Cold War. For example, there emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century damaging and toxic ‘fake news’ in the form of anti-semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols are a good example of a completely fabricated source used to discredit and damage Russian Jews and the exile Russian Jewish community more widely. Although, there is considerable debate about who exactly created the Protocols. So, again, things that we think of as being very much of the ‘Cold War’ have much deeper roots.

At its heart, though, the Cold War was a battle of ideologies. The United States and the Soviet Union both saw their systems as universally applicable, whether this was in the case of existing allies or the new states that emerged from the process of decolonisation. We’re not currently in that situation. Russia does not stand at the head of an international ideology, even if the old USSR’s ideological appeal was frequently overstated by its Western opponents.

Putin’s Russia is far more integrated into the global economy than the USSR ever was. This is therefore a benefit and hindrance for Moscow. On one hand, it can use economic leverage – most notably through Russia’s vast oil and gas resources – but on the other hand it’s much more susceptible to sanctions, economic counter-leverage, and the vicissitudes of the global marketplace.

Finally, Vladimir Putin is not a Lenin, a Stalin, a Khrushchev, or Brezhnev. To a greater or lesser extent, all of these leaders believed in the Soviet system and its Marxist-Leninist ideology. Putin is – to these outside eyes at least – a Russian nationalist more interested in economic and territorial power than in ideological power. To my mind, Putin more resembles a Tsar than a General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. [Note: I am NOT a Soviet/Russian specialist, some my commentary on Russian politics and society should most certainly be taken with a pinch of salt. Note 2: I have been heartened by responses from actual Russianists who agree with the Tsarist comparison. That is something of a relief.]

3) Can these tensions reach Cold War levels again? (In other words, how worried should we be?)

Putin’s recent statements about new Russian nuclear weapon systems tap into something fundamental: ‘the bomb’ is the last vestige of ‘great power’ status. I realise that this might make British readers uncomfortable, but in some ways this makes Russia analogous to Britain: a formerly powerful, expansive, globally influential state, now in a much reduced position, but still with an arsenal of the most powerful weapons ever created. [Note: This was the bit I was really hoping would get included. Sadly, it wasn’t.]

Being that the nuclear threat was one of the most public manifestations of the Cold War, it’s perhaps worth dwelling on this aspect. Since 1945, the main danger has not been the triggering of a deliberate global nuclear war, but the incremental ‘sleepwalking’ into a an escalating nuclear confrontation. This could have happened because of accidents, misperceptions, and misunderstandings. In 1983, for example, the NATO Able Archer communications exercise became coupled to faulty Soviet intelligence gathering in a way that risked a nuclear confrontation driven by misperception and and misunderstanding.

Historians are terrible at predicting the future. [Note: Niall Ferguson, I’m looking at you!] Indeed, it’s something we should avoid doing! So, I’d rather say that the situation is similar to earlier periods, but also quite different. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and its international position is quite, quite different. Could another Cuban Missile Crisis happen somewhere in the world? Possibly, but it’s far from certain.

4) If so, how can the international community prevent this happening?

As I mentioned above, Russia is much more tightly integrated into the global economic system than the USSR was, making it more susceptible to economic pressure. And the post-Cold War period was a disaster for Russia. Its exclusion from supra-national organisations such as NATO and the EU, coupled with the mass theft of formerly state owned industries by those who would become known as the oligarchs, bred a form of confrontational cynicism that is still apparent today. If the United States – in the 1990s at least – was perceived to have been the ‘winner’ out of the Cold War, then Russia was most definitely perceived – and probably was in economic, political, and social terms – as the the loser.

After World War One, an isolated, bitter Germany (broadly speaking) eventually saw Hitler rise to power and bring about the calamity of World War Two and the horrors of the holocaust. In the war’s aftermath, there was a determination not to permit this to happen again, and thus West Germany lay at the heart of Western European military and economic integration. Would Vladimir Putin or his successors (when one eventually emerges) wish to align Russia more closely with Western Europe? That very much remains to be seen.


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