Blog | December 04, 2018

Avoiding a New Cold War: The World Needs a Wind of Change

By Ofer Fridman

On the one hand, neither Russia, nor the West, claim that they want a repetition of the Cold War. On the other, in analysing the tone and rhetoric used by both sides, it seems that they are talking themselves into such a scenario, because renaming this confrontation as hybrid war or gibridnaya voyna does not change its nature. Moreover, continued words of hostility have been widely supported by actions: defence budgets have risen in Russia and in NATO, non-NATO member Sweden has returned to conscription, NATO has deployed forces in Eastern Europe on the largest scale since the end of the Cold War, and the Kremlin has renewed flights of its strategic bombers and is announcing a new piece of military hardware almost on monthly basis.

It is important to remember that the Cold War was not only a nuclear stand-off, with its numerous near-misses (from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Able Archer episode) that brought humanity on the brink of mutual destruction, but also a period that was enormously expensive, both financially and politically, and extremely destabilising throughout the world. Since a new Cold War promises to be even less salutary, both sides have to face a difficult choice between a politically challenging but responsible path based on mutual respect and trust, versus an impulsive, reckless and antagonistic approach, which may be politically easier, but in which the whole world loses.

In an effort to avoid the repetition of a new Cold War scenario, Western leadership would probably have to make very difficult political decisions, but since the West (in its political, rather geographical sense) represents the most stable, experienced, economically powerful and politically progressive community on this planet, it seems that it is about time that it start behaving like one. The West should accept the fact that Russia is a major power that is going to remain ambitious, alive and kicking, with President Putin or without, protecting its interests and unwilling to dance to a Western tune. Therefore, there is little help in assessing that Moscow is “politically isolated, economically sanctioned and with few options to improve its lot” or how vulnerable “an over-geared, under-invested, over-securitised and under-legitimate Russia may be.” First, it does not represent the trend. Second, and more importantly, it misleads and creates an unhelpful delusion regarding the current state of Russian affairs.

A case in point is Ukraine. While the West is obviously right to claim that Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy is not a place for Russia’s meddling, it should not forget the other side of the coin – Ukraine is not the place for the Western interference either. In other words, as a direct continuation of the previous understanding that Russia is going to remain a major power in its neighbourhood, the West should accept its role. As John J. Mearsheimer, put it: “Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.”

Similarly, since the Kremlin believes that its foreign policy “reflects the unique century-old role of Russia as a balancing factor in international affairs and the development of the world civilisation,” it seems about time that Moscow starts to balance its relations with the West, rather than impair them.

On the one hand, it seems that in its game against the West, Russia enjoys an advantage – it is more prepared and knows the West’s weaknesses much better than the West knows Russia’s. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of Russian people living, studying, teaching, working or even just visiting the West is incomparably higher than the number of the Westerners, who have been doing the same in Russia. Today’s Russia (with its political leadership, academic and business communities and even average citizens) understands the West, its strengths and weaknesses, much better than the West understands Russia

On the other, the fact that the Russians have travelled, studied and lived in the West is also a weakness. It does not necessarily mean that the Russians think that the West is better; rather it means that they recognize it is different, and during tough times anything different looks appealing. The Kremlin should remember that Russian exposure to and engagement with the West may also have a very quick and powerful adverse effect if the Russian people should become unhappy with their leadership.  After all, these were not external adversaries, but the Russian people themselves who brought Russian the state down twice during the 20th century – in 1917 and again in 1991.

Since the end of the Cold War, the West has made many mistakes – some were recognised quickly, for others it took years to understand, for some the West was punished, for others it punishes itself. Without any doubt the West also has made many mistakes in its approach to Russia, however, the Kremlin should remember that punishing the West “for assuming Russia’s a weak power, a declining power” is not the goal, but merely a way to point towards the West’s mistakes (and it seems that the lesson has already been learnt).  

Re-establishing lost trust will not be an easy task, neither for Russia, nor for the West. Undoubtedly, it will be a long and painful process, however, the alternative could be even worse. Both sides have to understand that the world needs a wind of change, different to the sentiment expressed in the lyrics of the famous song of the Scorpions depicting the ruins of the Soviet Union. “Let your balalaika sing what my guitar wants to say” fostered a misapplied euphoria in the West and even less helpful taste of humiliation in Russia. The world needs a wind of change based on mutual respect and understanding, the ability to take responsibility for previous mistakes and a readiness to compromise. Only such a scenario will eliminate the need for future rock bands to play similar songs in the decades ahead. Otherwise, regardless the instruments that would set a future tune, whether these will be guitars or balalaikas, we all lose.

Ofer Fridman (PhD) Lecturer in War Studies, Department of War Studies, King's College London, Director of Operations, King's Centre for Strategic Communications (KCSC)