We must admit the obvious: a new Cold War is unfolding, and Russia should think about how to get out of it as a winner.
Over the last six months, most commentators have finally stopped saying that the relationship between Russia and the United States is “at its worst since the end of the Cold War” and begun recognizing the obvious: a new Cold War is unfolding. The situation is increasingly reminiscent of the 1950s, naturally, with necessary adjustments for the new international situation. I believe that Russia can get out of the current aggravation as a winner. It only needs to make the right choice in its domestic policy and foreign policy course and, most importantly, avoid getting involved in a big war, which may turn into a global thermonuclear and cyberspace Armageddon.
The previous round of the Cold War ended with the defeat of Communism and the USSR. What are the chances in the current one unleashed against China and Russia? Let us count the resources. As a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, we have lost a significant part of the territory and population. Unsuccessful reforms have caused significant damage to the meritocratic elite, human capital, science, and high technology. The western security buffer has shrunk. The loss of global influence and the empire was a painful blow to many.
After a rapid growth in the 2000s, the economy has been stagnating, reducing somewhat the base of international influence. But most importantly, in the long run this is fraught with erosion of internal stability and loss of active public support for the authorities. The country’s fundamental weakness is that it has no future-oriented ideology that would replace the bygone ones: the dead communist one, and the ideas of “returning” to Europe in the 1990s, “rising from knees” in the 2000s, and regaining the status of a first-class great power in the 2010s. Great nations collapse without such ideologies or after their loss. The ruling circles’ decision to avoid the long-overdue “new Russian idea” that would unite the majority is quite puzzling. High-quality technocracy is necessary, but it will not secure a victory in the fight for the future. In the initial stages of the previous Cold War, the country had an idea, albeit a communist one, and a growing economy.
Yet there are a few positive aspects, as well. One had to pay for greatness. The price the Soviet Union had to pay for support of the Third World countries of “socialist orientation,” vassals in Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics, and the giant military machine was enormous. Before the defeat of 1990-1991, we were opposed by the Western civilization, which had just started losing, but was still powerful. Now it is falling apart politically and morally, and weakening economically, although, its accumulated economic, military, cultural, and information potential, called into play through sanctions and information warfare, is, in fact, still quite strong.
The political systems of most countries that have decided to confront us and China are not adapted to a long and fierce confrontation. If we were opposed by the West ruled by more authoritarian and effective governments, the situation could be much more complicated. Authoritarian trends in the West will inevitably increase, just as everywhere else (with the pandemic already actively used for such a transition). But the change in the political systems established over the past half-century will be painful and it will take decades.
At the end of the previous Cold War, the intellectual state of the West was its strong trump card. Now the situation has changed dramatically. The West is in turmoil and no longer sets the trend. This is another reason for its panic, hostility, and desire to shut itself off from others. In the past, it was the Soviet Union that kept itself secluded from the world, while the West legitimately bragged about its openness to attract others. Another startling analogy with the Soviet Union―the insane deployment of NATO ground forces to Afghanistan and their predictable defeat after almost twenty years of fighting―looks like a farce.
We are not too well-off, but there is no shortage of everything like that we had in the past (which, apart from the decline of the communist idea, was the most important reason for the collapse). Russia has rebuilt its military machine―a first-class resource in a world of growing chaos and fierce competition (in the gold-sword dichotomy, the latter now prevails again)―for a small fraction of the previous price. It is another matter that it must be a special kind of sword. But with the latest generation of weapons, we have shown that we can lead wherever necessary at small cost. By rebalancing economic ties towards the East and reducing overwhelming economic dependence on the West we get more room for maneuver.
Any patriot of our country cannot but mourn over the loss of ancestral lands. But most of these territories devoured Russia’s resources. Now these territories supply us with a cheap workforce. Without it, the demographic decline that began in Soviet times would be much more painful. Trade is carried out at market, rather than subsidized, prices. This is one of the reasons why almost all former Soviet republics have become poor relatively sharply. The problem of Ukraine, created largely by our inaction in the past, remains, but the country is moving rapidly towards total insolvency. Assistance to developing countries is relatively minuscule. But what is most important is that we have kept Siberia―a key basis for development in the years to come.
A significant factor in calculating the balance of power is the decreasing share of the West in world GNP and the growing independence of the non-West, which provides more room for geoeconomic and geopolitical maneuvering. Russia has yet another important advantage―the experience of defeat in the previous Cold War and the absence of illusions and ideological blinders. So far we have avoided repeating Soviet mistakes: imperial over-involvement and copying a richer opponent’s actions in the military field, and have abandoned the weird concept of necessity of numeric equality (parity) in armaments.
Our most important advantage is that the majority of Russians and the Russian elite believe in their moral rightness. There was no such feeling in late Soviet society. This became one of the main reasons for the disintegration of the country. It is necessary to support this feeling with a forward-looking strategy and ideology, and get out of the economic stagnation that saps our spirit and vigor.
I suspect that those who decided to launch another Cold War against us, China, and the other “new ones” have already lost faith in their own rightness. In face-to-face debates, now quite rare, with Western colleagues, I simply told them more than once: “Stop lying.” And they did. We Soviets used to be so shy. But this does not mean, however, that our opponents will give up quickly. They are trying to consolidate for the time being.
A fundamental change in Russia’s geopolitical position occurred due to the transformation of China from an enemy into a friendly state, almost an ally. It is the most important external resource for development and saving money by reducing military expenditures. China is rebuilding its armed forces and transforming its military strategy from land to sea orientation. Beijing is not going to threaten us yet. A strong China is drawing off more and more U.S. military-political resources. Russia is doing the same for China. Russia is a strategic pillar in the military-political sphere and a safe source of the most critical natural resources for China.
History has drawn us up to each other. And this is a huge gain in the current situation. It is necessary not only to deepen cooperation and advance it to the level of an informal union in the next decade, but also plan our China policy for the decades to follow, when uncontested good-neighborliness may have to be supplemented with stronger elements of balancing if China gets the better of the United States (which it has more chances to do) and suffers imperial dizziness from success. At this point, Beijing’s relative defeat does not seem likely, but if it happens, Russia will have to rebalance its policy in its favor. The West must not be allowed to take the upper hand. It has already shown what it is capable of when it thinks it is winning―a series of aggressions and color revolutions that have plunged countries and entire regions into chaos and poverty.
We should assess the possibility that if the United States suffers a relative defeat, it may in a decade’s time opt for a condominium with China proposed by Kissinger and Brzezinski.
We have a good chance of winning this Cold War. But the struggle will require us to commit a lot of national effort and work out a forward-looking ideology. It should not just rely on life-giving traditions but should lead into the future. Its contours are quite obvious. My colleagues and I have repeatedly described them. Many other thinking Russians have also come up with fruitful ideas.
In order to create such an ideology and make it effective, it is necessary to maintain intellectual openness and pluralism. I think this can be done, although it will not be easy amid the ongoing confrontation. If such freedom is restricted, this will lead not only to a loss of competitive advantage, but also to inevitable mistakes in policies (the Soviet experience proves this).
After the “win,” history will continue, and new efforts will be needed to improve our country and find optimal balances in the world. We lost the previous round of the Cold War, including by taking on an overwhelming burden. Now Russia has an opportunity to become a balancer in the U.S.-China rivalry (more friendly towards China) and in the future system of Greater Eurasia.
In conclusion, I will repeat what I have said many times before: the risk of a new world war is extremely high. The world is balancing on the edge. An active peace policy is an imperative. If the line is crossed, history will end and there will be no fourth Cold War or anything else.
In Geneva, Putin and Biden took a step back from this line. But the situation remains extremely precarious. I was disgusted by the previous Cold War, which I lived through, I am sick of the current one, but I would like analysts from future generations to be able to write similar articles, argue, and live on.