Russia and the West: A New Cold War?

Russia’s conflictual relationship with the West has been described as a Cold War-like confrontation. In reality, these powers are engaged in an asymmetric rivalry, not a Cold War.

Russia’s relations with the United States and other Western nations have been increasingly conflictual. The Kremlin has challenged the position of American hegemony globally and in regional settings. Following election of Donald Trump as the U.S. President, Russia’s military strategy, cyber activities, and media role have been under particular scrutiny although the Kremlin has acted assertively since the second half of the 2000s.

While many Western observers place responsibility for the conflict on Russia, some tend to blame the West. However, most observers agree that a Cold War-like confrontation is set to define the two sides’ relations. Today the narrative of a new Cold War commands the attention of political and scholarly circles.

The Misleading Cold War Framework

Image credit: Kremlin/Wikimedia.

As compelling as it may seem to some observers, the Cold War framework is misleading. In particular, it fails to address the global power shift and transitionary nature of the contemporary international system. In today’s world, the old ideological rivalry is no longer applicable. The new world is no longer divided by the communism-capitalism dichotomy. Instead the competition of ideas is predominantly one between liberal and nationalist principles of regulating the economy and political system. While in the eyes of many the West continues to represent liberalism, the realities of Brexit, Trump, and tightening migration regulations in the European Union demonstrate the global power of nationalist ideas. On the other hand, China, Russia, and other allegedly autocratic and nationalist polities continue to favor preservation of liberal global economy, and oppose regional autarchy and Trump-favored protectionism.

Instead of reviving old Cold War rules and principles, new rules and expectations about the international system and state behavior are being gradually formed. China, Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, and others are seeking to carve out a new space for themselves in the newly emerging international system, as the United States is struggling to redefine its place and identity in the new world.

The described changes altered position of the only superpower in the international system. Structurally, it is still the familiar world of American domination with the country’s superiority in military, political, economic and symbolic dimensions. Yet dynamically the world is moving away from its US- and West-centeredness even though the exact direction and result of the identified trajectory remained unclear.

As a result, many non-Western countries are developing their own rules and arrangements in world. Russia and other non-Western countries increasingly have international options they never had before as new global and regional institutions and areas of development outside the influence of the West gradually emerge.

This does not mean re-emergence of a new international confrontation. Most non-Western nations are not looking to challenge the superpower directly and continuing to take advantage of relations ties with the West. The U.S.-balancing coalition or a genuine alternative to the West-centered world has not yet emerged. Unlike the previous eras, the contemporary world lacks a rigid alliance structure. The so-called Russia-China-Iran axis is hardly more than a figment of the imagination by American neoconservatives and some Russia conspiracy-minded thinkers. The world remains a space in which international coalitions overlap and are mostly formed on an ad hoc basis depending on issues of interests.

Partly because of these global developments, the Cold War perspective also misunderstands Russia’s motives and power capabilities. Unlike the old era, Russia does not seek to directly confront or defeat the other side. Rather, the objective is to challenge the rival party for the purpose of gaining recognition and negotiating a greater space within the still largely West-influenced global order.

Furthermore, Russia is in no position to challenge the Western nations globally given the large – and in some areas widening – gap between the U.S. and Russian capabilities. The importance of defending Russia’s interests and status by limited means has been addressed through the idea of asymmetric capabilities applied on a limited scale and for defensive purposes. When the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov first described the so-called hybrid war he did not mean to provide a template for an offensive military strategy. Rather, as several military analysts noted, he intended to recognize that the West had already being engaged in such war against Russia and that Russia had to be better prepared for the new type of war. While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is not acquiescing to American pressures, he is engaged in asymmetric rivalry. The latter targets the competitor’s selected vulnerable areas and is designed to put on alert and disorient, rather than achieve a decisive victory. Asymmetric methods of Russian foreign policy include selective use of media and information technology, cyber power, hybrid military intervention, and targeted economic sanctions.

Finally, the Cold War narrative underestimates a potential for Russia’s cooperation with the West in selected areas. The described asymmetric rivalry does not exclude the possibility of Russia and Western powers cooperating in some areas (nuclear non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, cyber issues) and regions (Middle East and North Korea) while perceiving each other as competitors over preferred rules and structure of the international system. In the increasingly fragmented world, Russia and the West may move beyond viewing each other as predominantly rivals if they learn to focus on issues of common concern and find a way to reframe their values and interests in non-confrontational terms.

Future Co-operation?

Cooperation with Russia remains possible and indeed desirable. Russia’s constant attempts to engage the United States and other Western nations in cooperation, including those over Iran and Syria, demonstrate the importance to the Kremlin of being recognized in relations with the outside world. Despite its internal institutional differences from Western nations, Russia sees itself as an indispensable part of the West and will continue to reach out to Western leaders in order to demonstrate Russia’s relevance.

Although the West continues to possess the power of influence, Western leaders have not been effective in using such power. Instead of devising a strategy of selective engagement and recognition, they largely rely on containment and political confrontation in relations with Russia. The West remains fearful of Russia and wants to force the Kremlin to comply with Western demands to relieve pressures on Ukraine or conduct a more restrained foreign policy.

These pressures are not likely to work. If the West continues to challenge Russia’s perceived interests, there are indeed reasons to expect that Putin may fight back. Even with a stagnating economy, the Kremlin commands a strong domestic support and an ample range of asymmetric tools for action.

However, for reasons of psychological and economic dependence on the West, Russia, unless provoked, is not likely to engage in actions fundamentally disruptive of the existing international order. If the United States does not engage in actions that are viewed by Russia as depriving it of its great power status, the Kremlin will refrain from highly destabilizing steps such as abdication of the INF treaty or military occupation of Ukraine or other parts of Eurasia.

As difficult as it might be to accept for the West, there is hardly an alternative to engaging Russia in a joint effort to stabilize the situation globally as well in various regions including Ukraine and wider Europe. The new policy must be based on understanding that the Kremlin’s “revisionism” is partly a reaction to the West’s refusal to recognize Russia as a potential partner. The alternative to the new engagement is not a compliant Russia, but a continued degradation of regional and global security.

Andrei P. Tsygankov is professor of political science and international relations at San Francisco State University. He has published widely in the United States, Russia, Europe, and China. His books include Russia’s Foreign Policy and Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin, and he has recently edited the Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy (to be published in 2018).