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* There’s a lot of loose talk about a new «Cold War» — a comparison of present-day tensions to the bitter ideological and military rivalry that existed between the Soviet Union and the West from the 1950s to the end of the 1980s.
But such comparisons may be misleading.
«The Cold War,» says Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, «was a competition resulting from a bipolar system, where two superpowers, both with economic and military advantages, were competing to shape international politics.
«Their universalist ideologies made this competition inevitable, as did the distribution of power at the time.»
In contrast, he says, today’s competition is not the result of a balance of power, or universalist ideology per se, but «conscious decisions made by leaders, the strategies they pursued and a series of definable disagreements in international politics». And these were not «destined or inevitable».
So, while Mr Kofman believes the stakes could prove significant for the United States, the scale and existential nature of the conflict is nothing like the Cold War, nor is Russia in any position to fundamentally alter either the balance of power or the structure of the current international systems. «In short,» says Mr Kofman, «the causes and character of the conflict are different.»
During the real Cold War there was an armed peace in Europe, while the real battles were fought out across the globe from Angola to Cuba and the Middle East. Today’s battle lines are generally much closer to Russia’s own borders — Georgia and Ukraine.
There is a very different balance of forces between Russia and the West. Russia also has very limited «soft power», lacking an attractive internationalist ideology to «sell» around the world.
Russia used the 2017 Zapad exercises to showcase its Iskander-M missile
If the Cold War was a battle for global dominance between two universalist ideologies — capitalism and communism — what then is today’s competition between Russia and the West really about?
Mr Kofman says that, for Russia, «it is about its survival as a power in the international order, and also about holding on to the remnants of the Russian empire».
«Russian leaders,» he says, «are desperate to avert the further fragmentation of Russian influence and territory. They see no way to do this without maintaining buffer states and imposing their will on neighbours to secure their borders.»
For the United States, Mr Kofman says, this is a confusing conflict. «One aspect of it», he says, «is a classic tale of hubris and over-extension; that is, too much liberal ideology and not enough thinking about international politics.
«Without any powers to contest American influence for two decades, Washington rightfully took advantage to build what it wanted, but all expansion of influence and power must eventually come with increasing cost, and those costs are starting to multiply in spades.»
Is the Russian bear sharpening its claws once more? Or is talk of a second Cold War simplistic? The Editor of The Sunday Times Martin Ivens, former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin, Cold War and security expert Tara McCormack and Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia specialist Andrew Monaghan debate the issues as the rhetoric between old enemies heats up.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: The Times and The Sunday Times