The deteriorating international situation and ever deepening disagreements between major powers have triggered an intensive discussion on the nature of antagonisms in the world, and more specifically, on whether this is a new Cold War or not. I would say it is. It certainly differs from its last century’s analogue in that it is one-sided and has been unilaterally waged for several years by the United States and its closest allies, using the old templates.
Those who remember the previous confrontation can easily see repetitions. Military buildup programs are aimed at regaining bygone supremacy and drawing Russia into a new arms race in much the same way the Soviet Union was in the past. Sanctions and restrictions aim to slow down Russia’s development; the propaganda campaign is designed to justify the former two goals and undermine Russia’s international prestige through blatant provocations, among others.
Many of the methods used look similar, too. In the 1980s the Soviet Union was pushed towards intervention into Poland. Now it is Ukraine that has been chosen to be the “victim.” For almost a decade some in the West have been trying to repeat the European missile crisis of the 1970s-1980s thus remilitarizing European politics. Ronald Reagan proclaimed the Soviet Union an evil empire. His successors have gone out of the way trying to demonize Russia and its leaders.
To call things by their proper names, the West has started a new Cold War in an attempt to reverse its disadvantageous position in the new global balance of power. This is dangerous. One must soberly assess the consequences of the present geopolitical, geoeconomic, and ideological situation and the experience of the previous war, and map out a long-term strategy. While the Soviet Union suffered a defeat thirty years ago, today’s Russia has every chance to succeed, as it acts not all by itself but as a vanguard of the non-Western world, which is rising and asserting itself on the global stage.
But there can be no winner in a Cold War. It is a question of who is going to lose less. The win is transient and often dangerous. This has finally dawned upon the West as it has woken up from the euphoria that gripped it after the collapse of communism. One must remember that world politics are not a zero-sum game and the purpose should be not to beat someone but benefit all and everyone in a new, more stable and fairer world order.
A New War
The imposed confrontation is quite fierce, especially in the media, now that the West has suddenly found itself in an unusual position of desperate defense as it has been trying to reverse the global balance of power to its own advantage once again. The strategic target of this rearguard action is China. But in order to keep it from becoming the world’s number one power, the West needs to get Russia out of the way first by getting it morally crushed and or defeated. Also, fighting Russia is much more customary for the West.
The main reason for the desperate counterattack lies deep. The West has lost its unconditional military supremacy upon which it built its economic, political, and cultural dominance since the 16th-17th centuries. As the Soviet Union created its own nuclear weapons, followed by China and some other non-Western countries, and Russia subsequently retained its nuclear capabilities and regained its potential for active deterrence in the 2000s, the West lost the ability to ensure its hegemony by force. This democratized the world and allowed other countries and civilizations to use their accumulated (with the help of Western technologies as well) competitive advantages. Having restored its strategic capabilities and will to fight for its own sovereignty and security, Russia has essentially “midwifed” the rise of new powers, primarily those in Asia. The global balance of power has changed drastically over the past ten to fifteen years.
The West’s retreat is a result (among others) of its fatal mistake made in the early 1990s, when the major part of the Russian elite and society wanted, for a number of reasons, to join the Western world on decent terms. But the West did not respond to that impulse because of its own arrogance, triumphalism, ideological blinders, and intellectual shortsightedness. It demanded more than Russia could ever give, namely, ideological, geopolitical, and economic subordination to the extent of having its sovereignty limited, which was clearly at odds with the country’s overall historical tradition. The opportunity was missed. When Russia had predictably regained its status as a leading global player in a historically short time, largely due to restoring its military capabilities, it had already panned out as a non-Western power. This changed the global balance of power dramatically.
Another reason for the recurrence of the Cold War is more down to earth. While more and more citizens of Western countries became discontent with growing inequality and diminishing chances to improve their wellbeing, elites lost control of their own political systems. This majority, represented mostly by so-called “populists,” got a chance to influence politics by self-organizing itself through social media, bypassing traditional institutions. Elites cannot a do not wish to change the system which keeps provoking more discontent, but they have started to try to take new media under control. To rationalize that they need an external enemy. In this case, they have cooked up semi-mythical “Russian hackers.”
Confrontation became unavoidable some ten years ago when Moscow asserted itself as an independent and sovereign player and, more importantly, started rebuilding its military capabilities in earnest. Tension can be expected to start subsiding only when the U.S. and other Western countries become used to the new state of affairs, put their internal things in order, at least to some extent, and regain control of their political systems. This will inevitably bring about more elements of authoritarianism which have already become all too obvious.
The United States and its closest allies have thrown in all of their reserves. Raring to make use of its remaining advantages, the U. S. has been politicizing, and thus destroying, the global liberal economic system. Since the West’s influence remains quite strong in the international media, it has launched a propaganda war against all, which only undermines its advantages in this field by tainting its reputation it earned in the past for its relatively unbiased and accurate presentation of information.
Outlining a strategy for a new Cold War would require assessing the sides’ resources as well as the overall situation in which the confrontation will unfold.
The most important ideological advantage—high standards of living and quality of life for the majority of citizens—is on the West’s side. It has so far been able to sustain the stereotype that well-being is a result of political democracy, the dominant form of government in almost all developed countries. But it is already beginning to be questioned. Freedom House indices evaluating the spread and popularity of democracy in the world have been showing negative dynamics for several years in a row.
The key reason for that lies within the West itself—growing inequality and the declining quality of life in the middle class. The West’s image was badly damaged by a series of interventions, unsuccessful for the most part, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and by its support for the failed Arab Spring. A long-term crisis in the European Union and U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy have added tarnish to democracy, making it less appealing. In addition, the achievements of authoritarian Asian countries are depriving the West’s soft power of arguments in support of its own model of development as the only successful one.
Contemporary liberal democracy will have to back down just as democracy has always done throughout history when faced with fierce competition. Hellenic republics gave in to tyrannies. The Roman Republic turned into an empire. The Novgorod one fell. The Republic of Venice became weak and surrendered to Napoleon. The relatively democratic Polish state lost to the Russian Empire and Prussia and was torn apart. We can find similar examples in a less distant past as well. Almost the entire Europe succumbed to Hitler. Had it been not for the desperate struggle of the Soviet Union and the selflessness of its people, the history of continental Europe and the major part of the world could have been different.
Let me go a bit further and say that capitalism, which by definition breeds inequality, runs counter to democracy. Its success was based and conditioned not on democracy but on the legal system inherited from feudalism and designed to protect private property. Democracy in the capitalist West evolved leaning on the political systems which would be considered authoritarian today and which were based on military supremacy and redistribution of the world gross product from colonies and semi-colonies. There are no such possibilities any more to lean on and there will be none in the future. Likewise, there will be no threat of state communism which forced the ruling circles in the West to share and pay attention to social justice.
But none of this means that democracy is dying out. All governments have to respond to their citizens’ demands for many reasons including the one mentioned above—technologies give people unprecedented opportunities for self-organizing and pursuing their interests. This applies to all countries and Russia is not an exception.
The “regressive authoritarianism—progressive democracy” dichotomy will fade out even more in a dozen years or so. There will be a variety of hybrid systems. Democracy has the best chances of holding out in the United States due to its efficient economic system, which Trump will most likely spur, and America’s uniqueness. In fact, this is the only state born as a democracy and it is probably simply unable to give up this form of government. But the degree of liberality may vary. The democratic space will shrink in the U.S. too. This is already happening due to the struggle for control of new media and Trump’s novelties, which may as well continue after the end of his term.
A similar situation will develop in the realm of values. Globalization has opened up new markets and boosted well-being in the West. Set against the background of sentiments brought about by the revolutions of 1968, this led to a massive shift in values among a considerable part of Western elites towards the priority of individualism, dogmatic tolerance, cosmopolitanism, rejection of faith and partially even the family, and other traditional values. But the situation has changed. Well-being is not growing any more. Most people in leading Western countries are frowning upon the dominance of postmodernist values, and the overwhelming majority of citizens in the rapidly growing non-West (which is gaining more weight in the world economy, politics, and ideology) simply ignore these values as alien to local cultural traditions. As a result, the progressive (or so it thinks of itself) Western minority (and the “advanced” minority in other countries) is becoming infinitesimally small and will have to defend itself rather than lead the way.
It must be said that the defeat of aggressive liberalism does not belittle socio-humanistic achievements of the Western civilization. Likewise, resistance to attempts to impose Western ideology does not rule out efforts to use the best experience for the sake of one’s own development. With famine and direct threat of war gone, information revolution underway, and higher living standards achieved, all sociopolitical models will tend to become more humane, open, and tolerant. Actually this is already happening naturally in Russia and this is not in any way at variance with its values such as patriotism, commitment to sovereignty, self-realization through service to the family, society and the country rather than oneself, religious tolerance, and cultural openness. The latter is especially important in an open and interdependent world of today and tomorrow.
So even without pursuing any special foreign policy, Russia will, merely by maintaining relative peace, facilitate objective redistribution of forces in ideological competition. History simply needs to be given a chance to run its course. But things are more complicated in the field of information and propaganda.
The inertia of long-term cultural dominance and accrued trust in Western mass media remain quite strong. Intellectuals across the world have developed a habit of learning not only about their neighbors but even about themselves from Western sources. While losing global competition, the West has cranked up its propaganda machine.
Russia needs to build up its propaganda capabilities too and get rid of the sickly fixation on the West and desire to make excuses and “fight back” rooted in the scantiness of Soviet times and the weakness of the first decade of independence. Some intellectuals, mentally stuck in the 1980s-1990s, are still plagued by inferiority complex and despise their own country. But history has turned over. Now it is Western partners who are in crisis and have stonewalled themselves. They make one forced blunder after another, undermining trust in themselves even in their own countries. The majority of people in Russia believe that their country is scoring victories, and this feeling must be cherished and promoted.
But in order to feel pepped up, Russia needs to spur economic growth and develop its social welfare system. After all, the current surge in patriotism and self-confidence experienced by most Russians stems partly from the fact that their life has become immeasurably better, more comfortable and freer over the past fifteen years than it ever was in the grueling 20th century.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the ensuing crisis, abortive reforms of the 1990s, and the petrodollar influx of the 2000s which was not used for major economic modernization took their toll, cutting the country’s share in the gross world product and world population. Relatively advanced industries such as the civilian aircraft industry nearly went to waste. Many scientists and technical specialists were lost. A modest GDP and slow growth restrain foreign policy possibilities. Russia is not considered an economically rising power which is good to befriend but dangerous to antagonize.
But Russia has many advantages over the Soviet Union. The main one is that the transition to a market economy has fed the people. Most people live modestly, and yet incomparably better than under Soviet power. One of the reasons for relative prosperity is that the country has stopped the arms race, which bled the Soviet economy dry, and abandoned the costly foreign policy based on ideological dogmas. The Soviet Union was essentially a war economy. No one knows exactly how much was spent on defense, but most likely about a quarter of GDP, which is five or six times the current defense budget. The Russian Federatin heavily subsidized almost all union republics, and the Soviet Union did the same to all socialist countries. Enormous amounts of money were wasted in aid to socialist-leaning countries and the Third World. Shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky estimated this amount at $24 billion. The people that lived sparingly helped other countries more than the rest of the worldcombined did. USSR also had more tanks than all the other countries put together. The country does not have to subsidies heavily ineffective socialist agriculture. Russia has none of those burdens and has many more economic possibilities to persevere through the confrontation than one can judge from its modest share in the gross world product as compared to that of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union was a closed economy that had to make most of the basic goods on its own. Russia is much more open and effectively uses the benefits of the international division of labor. But this also makes it more vulnerable. Faced with fierce competition, it will always have to make a tough choice between openness and self-sufficiency. This will require its foreign and economic policy to be taken to a completely different level of integration. But most importantly, economic growth needs to be boosted for both supporting society’s morale and obtaining additional resources in geopolitical competition.
After the Soviet Union’s breakup historical Russia lost a considerable part of its territory and almost half of its population. The psychologically and militarily important strategic buffer in the west shrank or disappeared completely. NATO moved hundreds of kilometers closer to Russia’s central regions, and the line of direct contact became more than ten times longer. This created a nasty situation not only for Russia but also for the newcomers. The Baltic States do have reasons to be worried. If they had stayed neutral, they would have fewer such reasons now.
NATO’s enlargement not only exacerbated mutual suspiciousness, but it also significantly strengthened the anti-Russian faction in Euro-Atlantic institutions by admitting the Baltic countries, Poland, and some other unstable and corrupt states, which are most susceptible to American influence. The formal balance of power and defense expenditures have changed drastically. The West spends over ten times more than Russia does. The enlargement of NATO and the European Union reduced Russia’s foreign policy possibilities and restrained its citizens’ freedom of movement. Some countries had to abandon the visa-free regime with Russia.
The weakening of the common military and political control left some of the former southern Soviet republics—Russia’s strategic underbelly—exposed to radicalism and terrorism. Throughout the almost twenty years of weakness (since the end of the 1980s), the Soviet Union/Russia remained under constant military-political pressure that influenced their decision-making.
Finally, the degradation of the arms control system and the emergence of new weapons, including cyber ones, eroded strategic stability and increased the risk of war.
Having allowed the expansion of Western blocs beyond all reasonable limits, Russia has ended up with a source of potential conflicts on its border—Ukraine, a large crumbling state with an humiliated and unhappy people, and the elite that will pursue an anti-Russian policy for many years ahead for the sake of its own legitimization.
But this is where the negative consequences end and positive ones begin. The disappearance of unreliable and costly allies in Eastern Europe has taken a huge burden off of the country. Russia has returned to the Middle East and partly to Vietnam on much more advantageous military-political and economic terms. Russia no longer subsidies union republics where the quality of life was generally higher tthen in RSFSR proper. Life in these countries is now harder and their citizens have to go to Russia as migrant workers to earn their living. An egregiously erroneous policy and corruption caused enormous amounts of money to be wasted away in subsidies to Ukraine, to be more precise its leaders, through gas discounts. But this is no longer the case.
Having realized the danger coming from further expansion of Western blocs, fraught with big war, and growing threats in the south, Russia carried out military reform to create much less costly but much more efficient, from the military-technical and moral-psychological points of view, armed forces. Unlike the giant Soviet army and contrary to Western propaganda, they cannot be viewed as poised for a massive offensive. Having created a new generation of high-precision strategic systems, including hypersonic ones, announced by President Vladimir Putin on March 1, 2018, Russia has de facto won the arms race without ever getting drawn into it. These systems preemptively devalue most of the U.S. investments into a new round of military modernization and buildup and likely devalue some of the enormous investments already made (for example, by making U.S. aircraft carriers more vulnerable). (I would like to thank Russian diplomat and international relations shocolar Alexander Kramarenko for suggesting that Russia has won this round of arms race without even getting involved in it).
Sanctions have facilitated successful import-substitution in certain industries, primarily agriculture, and helped improve Russia’s food security. The Syria operation has so far been quite successful and inexpensive. Coupled with skillful diplomacy, it has tremendously strengthened Russia’s positions not only in the Middle East but also in the world in general.
The gross world product is being redistributed in favor of the non-West. Military resources and political influence are shifting there as well. Russia is turning east towards rising Asia. The eastward pivot is correcting imbalances, disadvantageous since Soviet times, in relations with the West, namely, excessive technological, economic, financial, and moral dependence on it. Russia’s top elite no longer feels like being a European periphery and becomes increasingly Central Eurasian. Trade volumes with Europe and Asia will level out in a couple of years. Internal dynamics have weakened Atlantic relations. The European Union has entered a long crisis, which is ruining Europe’s international positions and nudging it to consolidate against Russia (how long this is going to last remains to be seen). Only the U.S., but now largely alone, has positive growth prospects, and this is something to be reckoned with. NATO has enlarged geographically, but “deflated” militarily, and Russia should hardly worry about a possible attack from it.
But it is relations with China that make Russia’s international positions so distinctly different from the Soviet Union. Throughout the major part of the Cold War the Soviet Union stood against both the West with its overwhelming economic and psychological supremacy, and China. Now Russia and China have established de facto long-term partner relations approaching allied ones. China is almost destined to become the world’s number one country in terms of aggregate power within ten to fifteen years. Inevitable rivalry between Washington and Beijing is likely to give Moscow additional foreign policy opportunities and broaden its room for maneuver which has partly been reduced by confrontation with the West.
Naturally, Russia should balance its interests, too. But if China does not embark on a path of hegemony, inherently built into the Middle Kingdom concept, but becomes first among equals in Greater Eurasia and immerses itself into its institutions, and remains committed to maintaining the state of equilibrium, the two countries will keep up a close relationship, which is going to continue to change the global balance of power dramatically. In the unfolding Cold War against Russia and China, the U.S. and its alliesalready have to deal with an equal, or possibly even stronger, opponent. This will make further confrontation even less beneficial. In May 2018, Harvard’s Belfer Center published a review of surveys conducted in the West to find out how Russia’s positions in the global balance of power are changing. All experts noted that in the past fifteen years Russia had grown much stronger in terms of aggregate power as compared to the West, and two in three said, in the world in general.
In the confrontation being imposed upon it, Russia has much better positions than the Soviet Union did in the past. Not only can it withstand a new Cold War but it can also play an active role in building a new world order. But for the prerequisites to become reality, the country should pursue a bold and smart policy, and accelerate economic growth, of course.
A Forward-Looking Policy
The experience of the previous Cold War and the subsequent period must be studied to avoid the mistakes made by the Soviet Union and young Russia. This experience is our advantage over our competitors who thought they had won.
Locked in imposed bitter rivalry, Russia cannot remain in the institutions burdened with old inertia of confrontation; nor should it quit everything. However, there is no explanation for its constant desire to go back to the Russia-NATO Council which legitimizes the alliance that has proved to be hostile and morally bankrupt, and has committed several acts of aggression. Did we not appease them enough? Instead there should only be a military-to-military dialogue to avoid direct confrontation and a new arms race. Russia should probably also downgrade level of its representation at the OSCE. Perhaps it would be prudent to extend arms control treaties for the duration of the transition period while a new world order is built. But new agreements would be almost pointless or even harmful as they would only continue to remilitarize mentality and prompt decisions, which could be unfavorable. Negotiations should rather focus on how to reduce mistrust and mutual fears .
Russia should try to restore the dialogue with the United States in order to lower the too dangerous level of confrontation. And we should not back ourselves into a corner of pathological anti-Americanism just as the Americans have done to themselves by whipping up the anti-Russian hysteria. But one should not expect any thaw in the foreseeable future.
Europe-centrism is outdated. Russia should stand back and let Europe stew in its own unsavory juice. This does not mean an end to mutually advantageous and useful cultural, educational, and economic cooperation, but there will be no strategic joint political initiatives. In the medium term, interested European partners ought to be brought into the Eurasian project, as this may in fact be the only way for them to maintain positive dynamics and retain international weight.
The Greater Eurasian project needs to be specified and carried on. Otherwise, it will wind up in much the same way many of our other undertakings have, such as the initiatives to turn the OSCE into a pan-European security system and sign a European security treaty. Beijing is moving towards creating a Sino-centric system in Asia. We risk remaining on the periphery, albeit friendly, unless we propose our own ideas.
Some in the Russian economic elite still believe that successful development or even a breakthrough can be possible within the present international economic system dominated by the United States. But this is a dangerous illusion. Firstly, the system is clearly overstrained as it is struggling to retain its positions. Secondly, no “stranger” will be allowed to develop within it. Washington has abandoned all hope that once China embarks on the capitalist path it will move politically and strategically in the West’s footsteps. The West will contain China, openly regretting it helped it rise, and obstruct Russia’s development. In other words, the sanctions are there to be never lifted. Any serious concessions in politics or economy will only make the West all the more eager to finish Russia off. Russia will have to diversify its foreign economic activities and instruments in order to become as independent from Western institutions as possible. As the world economy becomes increasingly politicized, foreign policy needs to focus more on economic aspects and get intertwined tighter with economic decision-making.
While scrapping old institutions, Russia should team up with its partners to build new ones, deepen and enlarge the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, and show the world its vision of the future not only through resolute actions like around Ukraine and in the Middle East, or by its new Eastern dimension, but also verbally. Finally, Russia must act more determinedly to protect peace and emphasize its role as a leading provider of global security. Russia leads the way in providing hard security in the world by effectively deterring the U.S. and the West militarily, stopping the destabilizing regime change practice, and getting directly engaged in the fight against radicalism and terrorism.
It is about time to draft a truly new foreign policy concept as the previous narrative has exhausted itself, being more of a ritual than a guide to action. Russia needs “strategic patience” as never before. On the whole, the situation is changing in our favor and future agreements may probably be more advantageous than those offered to us now. So let me say this again: there can be no complete victory in a Cold War, and therefore it should be brought to an end on terms that would be acceptable to everyone.
The article originally was published in 'Russia in Global Affairs' on July 18, 2018.