When is a Cold War not a Cold War?


Is Russia in a new cold war with the West?

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev seems to think so. “We have slid, in essence, into times of a new Cold War,” Medvedev told an audience of diplomats on 13 February at the Munich conference, blaming NATO states for the deterioration of relations. Medvedev’s words have echoed those of senior Russian politicians. Their sometimes virulent denunciations of the US and NATO have generated little reaction in the US and Western Europe, but they have unnerved eastern Europeans whilst influencing Russians to see Western states as adversaries, not allies.

In public at least, Western politicians, commentators and military officials have shown a marked reluctance to use the term, ‘cold war’, despite the sharp deterioration in relations between the US, NATO and Russia. “We are not in a cold-war situation, but also not in the partnership that we established at the end of the Cold War,” was as far as NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg went after Prime Minister Medvedev’s remark. This article asks; why are Westerners reluctant to use the ‘cold war’ tag? What is a cold war and is Prime Minister Medvedev correct?

US journalist Walter Lippman is popularly assumed to have coined the expression, the ‘cold war’, in a series of articles written in 1947 and published under the same name. Lippman himself ascribed the term’s provenance to France, where he said the terms froide (cold) and blanche (white) were popularized in the interwar period to describe the proxy and information wars of totalitarian powers – a ‘state of war without open war’.

Current denials from politicians and military officials are mirrored in the academic world, where many Western commentators and scholars on Russia have, in the past few years, shied away from using the term ‘cold war’. One of the leading analysts of Russian non-conventional war, Mark Galeotti, has refused to see events as a new cold war: “This is not a new Cold War, with all the ideological division and instability that entails. If anything, this is closer to the freewheeling days of the nineteenth century, and especially the Great Game of imperial rivalry in Central Asia.” Richard Sakwa described the current NATO/Russia dynamic not as a cold war, but a cold peace, “an unstable geopolitical truce in which the fundamental problems of a post-conflict international order have not been resolved.” Sakwa’s term ‘cold peace’ echoes that of a British nineteenth century Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston, who used the term ‘cold civility’ to describe an earlier cold war with Russia. The writer and columnist Anne Applebaum – admittedly writing in 2013 – has decried the term ‘cold war’, arguing that neither the US nor Europe is locked in a “deadly, apocalyptic competition” with Russia, although she did argue that cold war tactics were being used. Andrew Monaghan warned in late 2015 against seeing the Russia/NATO tension as a new cold war in his pamphlet “A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia.” For him, such comparisons risk being repetitive and simplistic. They trap debate in the twentieth century and ignore Russian adaptability. By contrast, Ed Lucas, author of The New Cold War, has been one of the few voices to use the term unashamedly.

So what are the definitions of a cold war, and should they now be applied to Russia’s relationship with the West. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a cold war as: “A state of political hostility between countries characterized by threats, propaganda, and other measures short of open warfare.” Webster’s dictionary calls it, “a condition of rivalry, mistrust, and often open hostility short of violence, especially between power groups.” In his 1973 Grand Strategy: Principles and Practices work, John Collins described a cold war as “an active state of international tension at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, wherein … military measures short of sustained, armed combat are orchestrated to attain national objectives. Finesse and fraud replace brute force.”

By any of these definitions one can make a strong case that Russia is in a cold war with the West. There is undoubtedly political hostility, there are threats, and there are measures ‘short of open warfare’. This includes not only the ubiquitous information warfare, but also other forms of military and non-military influence – over 40 different types according to my research – in the Baltic, Ukraine, and Syria. Some of these are reminiscent of the tactics used by the KGB and the Communist Party during their ideological struggle against the West, and especially from the 1960s to the 1980s. These tactics: propaganda, disinformation and paramilitary activity were collectively referred as Active Measures. The best descriptions of these can found in congressional reports dating back to the 1980s.

Indeed, not only do NATO/Russian relations accord perfectly with these definitions of a cold war, but, evidencing recent events, one can argue that this current cold war is unstable, with the potential to turn hot. It has already briefly done so with the shooting down of a Russian military aircraft by Turkey – a NATO state – in November 2015. Given the chaos in Syria, the use of proxies, and posturing between Russia, Turkey and NATO elsewhere, including the Baltic, it is unlikely to be the last such event.

So why is Russia using these tools? In brief: to achieve its policy objectives in the most efficient manner possible. These objectives are open to debate, but as of 2016 they could be argued as being: blocking Ukrainian attempts to re-orientate the country towards the EU and NATO, seeking to damage the credibility of NATO, seeking to re-orientate the social and political development of Russia in an illiberal and anti-Western direction, seeking to develop Russia’s status as a ‘semi’ superpower and to project barriers against what the Russian regime sees as US and Western cultural war aimed to undermine Moscow. Indeed, it should be noted that Russia sees its actions as fundamentally defensive and designed to protect its sphere of interest. Psychologically, the Russian elites see themselves as being under cultural attack, accompanied by NATO’s continued eastern creep. Creations such as the Internet, and events such as the Arab Spring, are seen by some as part of a Western plot to damage Russia.

So why are Westerners so reluctant to use the ‘cold war’ term? I would suggest the following reasons.

First, for politicians to admit the existence of this new ‘cold war’ is to accept – publicly – a fundamental change in European security architecture which has significant implications for defence, foreign and energy policies. Changes are taking place, in NATO and in the EU, but they are piecemeal. There is still a sense of heads being buried in the sand at the political level. Perhaps there is a fear that recognising a cold war will in some way ‘make it real’. There is still a hope that the current cold war will be short-lived, part of the ebb and flow of Russia’s evolution from authoritarian dictatorship to democracy. Events inside and outside Russia are likely to prove this view naïve. The problem is so daunting, the forms of warfare so complex, and the options so difficult, that it is easier for politicians to hope that the problem somehow goes away.

Second, to acknowledge this cold war raises difficult questions for Western leaders about low levels of defence spending, and about why European militaries have so few Russia experts. A research centre in the UK that housed NATO’s largest collection of Russia experts in Europe was closed in February 2010 to save money.

Third, amongst academics, there is perhaps a tendency to see the term ‘cold war’ in reference to the Cold War, a historically defined event between approximately 1947 and 1990. There is concern, articulated most eloquently by Andrew Monaghan, that to impose a previous cold war template is misleading. Whilst Monaghan’s point is clearly correct, concern at how the phrase might potentially be misunderstood is insufficient reason to avoid it. To describe the current situation as a ‘cold war’ does not imply the replication of any particular cold war. It merely indicates that the current situation accurately fits the definition of the term ‘cold war’. The depth of similarities or differences between this and other cold wars are part of a wider debate.

Finally, some commentators believe that this cold war lacks a strong ideological dimension, which they argue is a sine qua non of a cold war. While it is true that a decade ago there appeared to be little ideological antagonism between Russia and the West, a point argued by scholars such as Dmitri Trenin – in part because Russia lacked a state ideology – such notions are less true today. An ideology of sorts is under construction. Russian intellectual traditions have been rummaged through. The Orthodox Church has been called into service to denounce Western post-Christian decadence, whilst latent anti-Western nationalism has been fanned by the state through its control or influence over the media. President Putin is forcing on his country a new identity: Russian Orthodoxy is its ideology, authoritarianism is its method of government, and nationalism is its identity. Whether coincidental or not, it echoes an earlier version of Russian identity: ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality’ was the phrase coined by Count Sergei Uvarov to describe Russian state ideology in the 1830s.

I would argue that Western states are now in a third cold war with Russia. The first cold war between Russia and the West – between Great Britain and Russia specifically – took place between 1830 and 1890, interrupted by one hot war, the Crimean War (1853-1856). It was fought over values: liberalism versus autocracy, and geography: Poland, the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and High Asia where the British and Russian Empires met. The second cold war took place between 1917 and 1990, interrupted by a brief but vital wartime alliance between the Allies and Russia against Nazi Germany. Almost immediately after WWII, the second phase of the second cold war began – what we refer to as the Cold War – with Soviet domination of eastern and central Europe, a global battle of ideas and proxy wars in the developing world. The Cold War ended in 1990 after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR. This new, third cold war, is likely to last as long as current Russian leaders remain in power and, if their aims are successful, longer. To acknowledge the existence of this new cold war is a necessary first step to understanding it and finding policies to mitigate it.

Image: President George H. W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev sign United States/Soviet Union agreements to end chemical weapon production and begin destroying their respective stocks in the East Room of the White House, Washington, DC on the 1st of June 1990. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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