Is a New Cold War Imminent?
No. 3 2007 July/September
Alexey Arbatov

Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; a member of the Russian delegation to the START I negotiations (1990); and Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma (1994-2003).

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s
speech in Munich on February 10, 2007 represented a watershed
moment in Russia’s relations with the United States and other
Western countries. Some experts and observers are even talking
about the beginning of a new Cold War era. Are things really so
bad? Do the latest developments represent a drift toward a global
confrontation between the two powers and coalitions?


The Cold War was a political
phenomenon, a product of a special historical period that continued
from the late 1940s to the late 1980s. Its basic feature was a
clear-cut bipolarity of the structure of international relations,
which split the world along the East-West line. In the 1950s, the
Soviet Union and the U.S. divided Europe and Asia into spheres of
influence; the same phenomenon happened in the 1960s-1970s with
Latin America and Africa. This standoff actually split several
countries and nations, among them Germany, Korea, Vietnam, China
(continental China and Taiwan) and Palestine (the present
Arab-Jewish conflict actually resulted from geopolitical maneuvers
of the great nations that led to the partitioning of the
Palestinian territories). The globe became an arena of a tense
tug-of-war between the two superpowers.

The Soviet Union and the U.S. were
behind each local and regional armed conflict in the world,
standing on different sides of the barricades. The long list of
their standoffs included conflicts in Korea, Indochina, Algeria,
South Asia and Cuba. They were also responsible for the four wars
in the Middle East, in Horn of Africa countries, Angola,
Mozambique, Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

The international community came close
to a Third World War at least three times: during the second and
the fourth Middle East conflicts in 1957 and 1973, and the 1961
Berlin Crisis. Once, the world almost passed the point of no return
in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The catastrophe was
avoided, due largely to a fortunate concourse of circumstances and
the deterring role of nuclear armaments of the rival

Fearing an armed clash, the superpowers
and their allies invented a substitute for direct combat, namely,
intensive preparations for a war; in other words, an arms race. In
its peak years, the two states each commissioned on average one
intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) a day, and one strategic
missile submarine per month, as well as a thousand or more nuclear
warheads per year for their strategic nuclear forces.

The scale of the buildup and
modernization of conventional armaments was no less impressive.
This was especially noticeable with NATO forces in the 1960s and
the early 1980s, and in the 1970s-80s inside the Warsaw Pact. Each
side annually commissioned hundreds of combat aircraft and tactical
missiles of various classes. They also mass-produced thousands of
armor vehicles and artillery and dozens of warships and
multipurpose submarines.

To justify their global rivalry and
ensuing victims, the parties waged a fierce ideological war,
demonizing the enemy and attributing to it the most sinister
conspiracies and aggressive intentions. This approach implicitly
removed the need to understand the other party’s point of view, to
reckon with its interests and observe any norms of morality and law
with regard to it.

There were two distinct stages in the
Cold War. The first stage (from the late 1940s to the late 1960s)
was marked by “pure” bipolarity. The second stage (from the late
1960s to the late 1980s) saw the beginning of the formation of a
multipolar world. The People’s Republic of China emerged as an
independent ‘center of power’ and eventually entered into conflict
with Moscow, which led to armed clashes on the Soviet-Chinese
border in 1969. China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979 put Moscow and
Beijing on the brink of war. Other factors that were responsible
for the breakdown of global bipolarity included the growth of the
political and economic influence of Western Europe (for example,
the Ostpolitik course pursued by West German Chancellor Willy
Brandt), and the development of the Non-Aligned Movement, led by
India and Yugoslavia.


The present increase of tensions
between Russia, on the one side, and the United States, NATO and
the European Union, on the other, has nothing in common with the
Cold War years in the second half of the 20th century.

First, the present dispute lacks the
Cold War’s system-forming element, that is, bipolarity. In addition
to the global and transregional centers of economic and military
force, such as the U.S., the EU, Japan, Russia and China, the world
is witnessing the growth of regional leaders, among them India,
Pacific ‘small tigers,’ member states of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Iran, Brazil, South Africa and

Additionally, the mighty currents of
globalization and the information revolution are eroding
traditional forms of interstate relations. Nor can we discount the
ubiquitous growth of nationalism, and the increased role of
transnational economic, political and even military

Russian-U.S. relations no longer
represent the central axis of global politics. It is just one of
its many facets – and not the most important one in many issues.
Apart from some contradictions, Russia and the West share major
common interests. Finally, they have other competitors beside
themselves. Thus, a zero-sum game is out of the

Whatever disagreements may divide
Russia and the West, they are on the same side of the barricades in
the ongoing international conflicts. In Afghanistan, for example,
they act jointly, seeking to prevent a resurgence of Taliban and
al-Qaeda activities. On other issues, such as the nuclear programs
of North Korea and Iran, and the situations involving Palestine and
Nagorno-Karabakh, they are attempting to solve these problems
through multilateral negotiations.

The once irreconcilable ideological
rivalry between the two parties is now relegated to the past. The
real ideological divide now lies between liberal-democratic values
and Islamic radicalism, between the North and the South, and
between the forces of globalization and anti-globalization. Russia
may not be fertile ground for liberal values, but it will certainly
never embrace radical Islam. Over the last 20 years, Russia has
sustained the greatest losses in the struggle against Islamic
extremism (the war in Afghanistan, and the wars and conflicts in
Chechnya, Dagestan and Tajikistan).

With regard to the arms race, despite
the current growth in U.S. and Russian defense spending, the
present situation is not remotely comparable to what took place
during the Cold War. In the period from 1991 to 2012, that is,
since the signing in Moscow of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
(START-I) until the expiry of the Strategic Offensive Reductions
Treaty (SORT, also known as the Moscow Treaty), signed in 2002, the
strategic and tactical nuclear weapons of the two countries will be
reduced by about 80 percent [the Moscow Treaty expires on December
31, 2012].

Yet both parties are slowly modernizing
their nuclear and conventional armaments. In 2006, Russia
commissioned six ICBMs, 31 battle tanks, 120 armored vehicles and
nine aircraft and helicopters. New warships and submarines are
commissioned once in every few years. This is incommensurable with
the figures of the 1970s-80s. The United States, which has a much
larger defense budget, spends the bulk of this money on the upkeep
of its Armed Forces and the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As
opposed to Russia, the U.S. commissions more new conventional
armaments, but less nuclear arms.

There are factors that are upsetting
the strategic stability. These include the deployment of a limited
missile defense system in the U.S. against individual missile
launches; plans to deploy elements of this system in some European
countries; and Washington’s plan to develop space-based armaments
and equip strategic delivery vehicles with precision-guided
conventional warheads.

Following the conclusion of the Cold
War, the U.S. expressed the view that the fall of the Berlin Wall
made redundant any agreements (and therefore negotiations) for the
limitation and reduction of armaments, because only enemies
allegedly conclude such treaties.

Victims of that irresponsible approach
included the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the 1996
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which never entered into force, the
1993 START-II treaty, and the 1997 START-III Framework Agreement.
Furthermore, the parties never held negotiations on warhead
counting rules and verification measures under the SORT treaty, or
on a ban for the production of fissile materials for military
purposes (the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty). In 2007, Russia
announced its possible withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range
Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and from the 1999 Adapted Conventional
Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. The policies by nuclear and
threshold powers jeopardized the most important agreement – the
1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


Although the present situation can
hardly be called a new Cold War, Russia-West relations are
obviously strained. What are the factors behind these

First, the correlation
of forces between Russia and the West has changed over the last few
years. Russia has achieved stable economic growth and relative
social and political stability. Moscow has consolidated its power.
It has obtained large funds for domestic and external investment,
increased by 300 percent (since 2001) the funding of national
defense, and suppressed mass armed resistance in the North

Russia’s new status prompted changes in
the rules of the game, established in the 1990s, in its relations
with the West. The idea that Moscow – voluntarily or not – follows
in the footsteps of U.S. policy, while its interests and opinions
are ignored, has become unacceptable to all political parties and
government agencies in Russia. Meanwhile, a majority of American
politicians – and almost as many European – view the 1990s model of
Russia-West relations as natural and the correct

Second, after the end
of the Cold War, the world did not become unipolar. On the
contrary, a new multipolar and multilevel system of international
relations quickly took shape.

The new global conditions presented the
U.S. with a unique opportunity. It had a chance to establish the
supremacy of legal norms and take a leading role in international
institutions (above all, the United Nations and the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in international politics.
It was in the position to exert the primacy of diplomacy to resolve
conflicts, and the principle of selectivity and legality to use
force in self-defense or for ensuring peace and security (in
keeping with Articles 51 and 42 of the UN Charter). Washington was
presented with a historic opportunity to lead efforts to build a
new, multilateral and harmonized world order.

But the United States squandered its
chance. In the 1990s, suddenly finding itself in the position of
“the only global superpower,” the U.S. increasingly substituted
international law with the law of force, legitimate decisions of
the UN Security Council with directives of the U.S. National
Security Council, and prerogatives of the OSCE with NATO actions.
This policy was most graphically and tragically expressed in the
military operation against Yugoslavia in 1999.

After administration change in 2001 and
the horrible shock that the American nation experienced on
September 11 of the same year, this policy was finalized. Following
the legitimate and successful operation in Afghanistan, the United
States – under a far-fetched pretext and without a UN Security
Council sanction – invaded Iraq, seeking to “reformat” the entire
Greater Middle East to suit its own economic, military and
political interests.

The provision by U.S. government
agencies of false information to justify the invasion of Iraq, the
flagrant violations of human rights under the occupation regime in
Iraq, as well as in the Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prisons,
the biased trials over Iraqi leaders and their barbarous
executions, obviously approved by Washington (in defiance of
protests from Europe) – all these scandalous facts have besmirched
the moral image of the United States.

Even the strongest nation – which
presumptuously challenged the new global system and embarked on a
path of unilateral and arbitrary use of force – was to inevitably
meet with cohesive resistance from other states. Predictably, its
efforts were to end in fiasco. Indeed, an unprecedented growth of
anti-American sentiments began throughout the world, along with a
new wave of international terrorism and the proliferation of
nuclear and missile weapons. Meanwhile, America got bogged down in
the hopeless occupation of Iraq; it undermined the UN and NATO’s
coalition policy in Afghanistan, and tied its own hands with regard
to Iran and North Korea. Moreover, the U.S. is losing its influence
in Western Europe, in the Far East and even in its traditional
fiefdom of Latin America.

The U.S. unilateral policy of force
alienated many different countries and prompted them to join the
international opposition to it. These countries included Germany,
France, Spain, Russia, China, India, Uzbekistan, Venezuela,
Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and many member states of the Arab
League. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, established in 2001
as a coalition against Islamic extremism, turned into a
counterweight to American interference in Asia. At the same time,
opposition to the Republican administration is growing inside the

Gradually, America aggravated its
relations with Russia, as well. Immediately after the September 11
terrorist acts, Vladimir Putin, guided by compassion and the wish
to elevate the level of Russian-U.S. cooperation to a new level,
took a major step toward Washington. In return, Russia received the
U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty (which was covered by the fig
leaf of the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions), the
liquidation of large Russian oil concessions in Iraq, and NATO’s
eastward advance – which now includes the former Baltic republics
of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, NATO has announced plans to
accelerate the involvement of Ukraine and Georgia into the
organization. Another plan – to build elements of a U.S. strategic
missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic –
contravenes the spirit of the 2002 Russia-U.S. Joint Declaration on
the New Strategic Relationship, which provided for cooperation in
developing such a system, and is at variance with negotiations at
the Russia-NATO Council for a common theater missile defense

Third, the situation
in the former Soviet Union is a major factor for the present
aggravation of Russia-West relations. Moscow was indignant at the
active involvement of the West in the “colored” revolutions in
Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), which worked to support
anti-Russian politicians (this gave rise to suspicions that the
same model was applied in Kyrgyzstan in 2005).

In the 1990s, Russia made many mistakes
as it sought to dominate the post-Soviet space. However, as its
economic and financial potentials grew, and as its independence
strengthened, Russia moved to pragmatic policies vis-à-vis
bilateral relations with its neighboring countries. Having waived
illusory imperial projects, Moscow emphasized with its neighbors
energy transit to Europe, the purchase of promising businesses and
infrastructures, investment in prospecting and extracting mineral
resources, the preservation of vital military facilities,
cooperation in combating new transborder threats, and interaction
on humanitarian issues.

The conflicts with Ukraine and Belarus
over energy prices and transit rates resulted in the interruption
of energy exports to Europe. An outraged West accused Russia of
energy imperialism and blackmail, and proposed using NATO as a
guarantee of the importer countries’ energy security. Moscow’s
tactics might be seen as brazen, especially with regard to Ukraine,
but the transition to world prices on the energy markets meant the
renunciation of the former imperial policy of economic subsidies in
exchange for political or military-strategic loyalty. This was
confirmed by Moscow’s equally pragmatic approach with regard to
such different neighboring countries as Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia
and Belarus.

Nevertheless, the escalation of
tensions is caught in a vicious circle. Russia’s toughening of its
policy toward the GUAM countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and
Moldova) stems from NATO’s possible extension into their
territories. In turn, GUAM and NATO respond with more active
counteractions against Moscow thereby instilling even more fear in
Russia about the possible creation of a new “sanitary cordon”
against it.

Fourth, political
processes in Russia after 2000 represent another major factor
behind the aggravation of Russia-West relations. In the 1990s,
there was more freedom in this country than there is now – and
especially more than in the Soviet times. But only a narrow circle
of the liberal intelligentsia in the largest cities could
appreciate that freedom. The rest of the population was exposed to
the wind of change amidst shock reforms, universal impoverishment,
rampant corruption, criminal mayhem, and the embezzlement of
national wealth. The systems of social security, public health,
education, science, culture and defense collapsed overnight. (The
leader of the Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, said that “in less
than ten years, the Russian people experienced two putsches, two
financial defaults and two wars.”)

This is why the majority of the
population support President Putin’s policy of consolidating state
power around the Kremlin and broadening its control over the
economy and domestic policy.

The main problem with Putin’s “managed
democracy” and “executive vertical” is that the country’s present
economic wellbeing and political stability rest on a very fragile
and short-lived foundation. The economic growth of the last few
years is largely due to unprecedented global energy prices. But
such a model cannot ensure broad employment, technological
development, social stability, or the revenues necessary for
meeting all the acute needs of the country. Besides, high oil and
gas prices will not last forever.

Foreign politicians do not seem to
understand that their deep concern over Russia’s ability to meet
the West’s energy requirements contradicts the West’s concern over
the state of Russian democracy. Democracy is incompatible with an
economic model that is dependent on the export of raw materials.
This model has always been the basis of authoritarian-bureaucratic
political systems.

The West is faced with the difficult
problem of choosing a policy toward Russia in the course of its
long, deep and very contradictory transformation. Until now, the
U.S. and many of its allies have been going from one extreme to
another over this issue: from high hopes to bitter disillusionment,
from excessive involvement to utter indifference and disregard, and
from enthusiasm to suspicions and hostility.

In 1951, the outstanding U.S. diplomat
and political analyst of the 20th century, George Kennan,
prophetically foresaw the downfall of the Soviet empire and left a
wise testament, as if written in our days: “When Soviet power has
run its course, or when its personalities and spirit begin to
change […], let us not hover nervously over the people who come
after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions
to find out whether they answer to our concept of ‘democratic.’
Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their
internal problems in their own manner. The ways by which peoples
advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things
that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national

In Kennan’s opinion, constructive
relations and a gradual rapprochement with Moscow would be possible
only if Russia fulfilled three major conditions: be open to the
outside world; not turn its workers into slaves; and not seek
imperial domination in the world while viewing those outside the
sphere of its dominance as enemies. Despite its numerous problems
and mistakes, Russia today fulfills these conditions.

Russia’s relations with the outside
world, above all the Western countries, have an essential impact on
its internal evolution.

The better these relations are, that
is, the deeper Russia’s interaction in the economy, international
politics, security, culture and the humanitarian sphere with the
West, the stronger are the positions of democratic circles inside
Russia. This increases the value of democratic freedoms in the eyes
of the public, as well as the observation of democratic procedures
and norms by authorities of all levels.


The present cold wave in Russia’s
relations with the U.S. and the European Union has added tension to
the separate links of the multipolar system, caused by the
constantly changing correlation of forces, the kaleidoscopic
changes and problems inherent to globalization, and continual
“surprises” from third countries that are now free from the former
superpowers’ control.

Despite overwhelming anti-Western
sentiments and pressure from certain political circles inside the
country, Russia’s leadership does not wish for confrontation with
the United States or the European Union, nor an end to cooperation.
Furthermore, Russia does not view itself as some sort of second
superpower after the U.S. Moscow formulates its interests, first of
all, in a trans-regional format and declares its rights at the
global level only selectively.

At the same time, Russia wants to be
recognized – not only in word, but also in deed – as a great power
among other great powers. It wants its legitimate rights to be
respected, and its views on major issues to be reckoned with – even
if these views differ from those of the U.S. and its allies. Should
any differences emerge, however, they must be resolved on the basis
of mutual compromises, rather than by “pushing” the American
policy, or by presumptuously suggesting that Moscow interprets its
own interests in the wrong way.

This was the main idea of Putin’s
Munich speech, which cannot be refuted. At the same time, there
were some objectionable points in the speech, in particular the
threat of Russia’s possible withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range
Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and criticism against the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

However, the low probability of a new
Cold War and the collapse of American unipolarity (as a political
doctrine, if not in reality) cannot be a cause for complacency.
Multipolarity, existing objectively at various levels and
interdependently, holds many difficulties and threats.

For example, if the Russia-NATO
confrontation persists, it can do much damage to both parties and
international security. Or, alternatively, if Kosovo secedes from
Serbia, this may provoke similar processes in Abkhazia, South
Ossetia and Transdniestria, and involve Russia in armed conflicts
with Georgia and Moldova, two countries that are supported by

Another flash point involves Ukraine.
In the event of Kiev’s sudden admission into the North Atlantic
Alliance (recently sanctioned by the U.S. Congress), such a move
may divide Ukraine and provoke mass disorders there, thus making it
difficult for Russia and the West to refrain from

Meanwhile, U.S. plans to build a
missile defense system in Central and Eastern Europe may cause
Russia to withdraw from the INF Treaty and resume programs for
producing intermediate-range missiles. Washington may respond by
deploying similar missiles in Europe, which would dramatically
increase the vulnerability of Russia’s strategic forces and their
control and warning systems. This could make the stage for nuclear
confrontation even tenser.

Other “centers of power” would
immediately derive benefit from the growing Russia-West standoff,
using it in their own interests. China would receive an opportunity
to occupy even more advantageous positions in its economic and
political relations with Russia, the U.S. and Japan, and would
consolidate its influence in Central and South Asia and the Persian
Gulf region. India, Pakistan, member countries of the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations and some exalted regimes in Latin
America would hardly miss their chance, either.

A multipolar world that is not moving
toward nuclear disarmament is a world of an expanding Nuclear Club.
While Russia and the West continue to argue with each other, states
that are capable of developing nuclear weapons of their own will
jump at the opportunity. The probability of nuclear weapons being
used in a regional conflict will increase significantly.

International Islamic extremism and
terrorism will increase dramatically; this threat represents the
reverse side of globalization. The situation in Afghanistan,
Central Asia, the Middle East, and North and East Africa will
further destabilize. The wave of militant separatism, trans-border
crime and terrorism will also infiltrate Western Europe, Russia,
the U.S., and other countries.

The surviving disarmament treaties (the
Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe
Treaty, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) will
collapse. In a worst-case scenario, there is the chance that an
adventuresome regime will initiate a missile launch against
territories or space satellites of one or several great powers with
a view to triggering an exchange of nuclear strikes between them.
Another high probability is the threat of a terrorist act with the
use of a nuclear device in one or several major capitals of the

In order to avoid unfavorable
developments, Russia’s slide into confrontation and rivalry with
the U.S. and NATO must be stopped, even though this confrontation
is not global but regional, geopolitical and selective in
military-technical issues. Those politicians in Russia and the West
who are attempting to gain political capital from this
confrontation are recklessly turning the major national interests
of their states into bargaining chips for internal political

Specifically, Moscow should, in the
spirit of the Russian president’s latest statements, put forward a
package of proposals for reducing armaments in bilateral and
multilateral formats, as well as consolidating the nuclear
nonproliferation regime. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev’s initiatives of
the 1980s, the new package must not be based on idealistic utopia,
but on radical yet realistic military, economic and technical
calculations. A program for effective military construction must
back such a program. Russia must give up its take-it-or-leave-it
policy of the last few years and push the new initiatives as a firm
demand, using all available diplomatic and military-technical
levers (there will be no harm in learning from the Americans in
this respect). Moscow’s position on the Iranian and North Korean
nuclear programs will play a special role.

Russia’s main and possibly only
military-technical trump card is the Topol-M mobile ICBM program
and a project for equipping these missiles with multiple reentry
vehicles. Even the United States is 10 to 15 years behind Russia in
this sphere. However, the sluggish implementation of this program
and the wasteful use of funds on other dubious projects sometimes
gives the impression that Russia is willing to tolerate its growing
strategic lag behind America; it seems that it does not want
serious negotiations and is willing to let its only remaining trump
card slip out of its hands.

Also, instead of devising integration
plans for the entire post-Soviet space and then revoking them,
Moscow should formulate – in very explicit terms – its interests
with regard to each member state of the Commonwealth of Independent
States, casting aside its neo-imperial idealism. But Moscow must
compete hard for these projects, using all available levers and
trump cards. In order to prevent NATO’s expansion into the CIS,
there must be guarantees of territorial integrity of the
neighboring countries. At the same time, their acute problems must
be solved in a way that is agreeable to everyone, and linked to the
observance of ethnic minorities’ rights.

As a result of the Kremlin’s consistent
and constructive policy, the West will eventually accept the new
rules of the game as they meet its long-term interests. In the long
term, Russia’s economic transition from an energy-exporter to a
high-tech innovator, accompanied by the growth of democratic
institutions and norms, will remove, in a natural way, the
differences over the country’s domestic policy and will determine
the European direction of the integration policy of Russia – the
largest country and potentially the strongest economy in

Only time will determine the most
favorable moment for integrating Russia into the European Union.
The final product of this integration will be the formation of the
economically, militarily, geopolitically and culturally mightiest
global “center of power.” This center will forever eliminate the
threat of unipolarity and arbitrariness, on the one hand, and
bipolarity and confrontation, on the other, and will lead the way
for building a new, rule-of-law world order that will solve
21st-century problems.