Russia and the West: A Second Cold or the First Cool War?
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Konstantin Khudoley

PhD in History, is a professor and Head of the Department of European Studies at the School of International Relations of St. Petersburg State University.

In 2003, when Russia and the United States failed to come to agreement in assessing the Iraqi crisis, renowned political scientist Stephen Cohen predicted that a “Cool War” would break out between the two countries. Although relations between Russia and the West as a whole deteriorated in the following years, both sides avoided talking about a possible conflict, obviously hoping that things would get better.

However, in 2014-2015, relations between Russia and the West went into a steep dive. Many politicians, journalists, and scientists who had previously held moderate views, began to talk about the beginning of a new Cold War, and only a few continued to use more cautious wording, recalling, among other things, a Cool War. From our point of view, it is a Cool War that describes the present situation most accurately. The purpose of this article is to show how the current Cool War between Russia and the West differs from the classic “Cold War” and where it may go amid the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis.


Cool and Cold Wars: Differences and Peculiarities


There are a large number of works both in Russia and abroad which thoroughly analyze the main trends and events of the Cold War era. However, they offer a wide variety of definitions for the very phenomenon of the Cold War and some of them are quite vague. By ‘Cold Warʼ we mean a period in the history of international relations when the two superpowers, which qualitatively overpowered all other countries and led blocs of countries with antagonistic socio-political systems, were in a state of irreconcilable global confrontation permeating all spheres of life, going in all directions (arms race, ideology, geopolitics, economics, culture, science, education, etc.), and aimed at crushing the opposing socio-political system, but at the same time playing by certain written and unwritten rules, the main of which was the inadmissibility of war between the two superpowers. The latter rule undoubtedly remains in effect, but otherwise current relations between Russia and the West differ from the Cold War period in almost all respects.

First of all, the modern world is much more complex and diverse than the bipolar one of the Cold War era. It has elements of unipolarity since the United States is still the most influential country in the world, of bipolarity now that China has emerged on the world stage with a powerful economy, and of multipolarity due to Russia, which pursues its own independent policy, and other actors. While during the Cold War relations between the USSR and the USA were central to the system of international relations, now they are not.

Nowadays relations between several states play the leading role in world politics.

The logical result of this is that global processes have become less controllable and the situation is unlikely to return to where it was during the Cold War and the period of bipolarity.

During the Cold War, states with antagonistic socio-political systems opposed each other and this duel played a crucial role. The fact that both sides sought to crush the opposing socio-political system and were sincerely convinced that they were acting in the interests of all humankind made the confrontation particularly irreconcilable and fierce. Although crises and conflicts alternated with periods of détente, a compromise between the opposing parties was impossible. Now there is a conflict between various models of capitalism, which have not only differences, but also important common features such as market economy and private property. This is why the current Cool War between Russia and the West is not a conflict of antagonistic socio-political systems or civilizations, but a standoff over the structure of the modern world and the rules of the game in the international arena, which makes a compromise quite possible.

The Cold War was global as virtually all states participated in it, even those that had officially declared themselves neutral or non-aligned. Less than half of the states actually participate in the current Cool War. Voting in the UN General Assembly on the Crimea and Syria resolutions is quite indicative in this regard as almost half of the countries abstained or did not participate in it. Unlike the Cold War, there are only minor signs of the Cool War in the Pacific region, where the center of the world economy and politics is gradually moving. The Cool War is truly global only in cyberspace.

Qualitative changes have occurred in bloc politics as well. During the Cold War, there was no doubt that both the USSR and the United States would fulfill their obligations to the allies. In turn, both Moscow and Washington were confident of their allies’ support on all more or less significant issues. This is not the case anymore. Some NATO member states, Taiwan, South Korea, and some other U.S. allies have doubts that the United States will come to their rescue. So ,U.S. allies prefer to distance themselves from Washington in some situations. Israel, South Korea, and New Zealand did not join the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the EU. Turkey is playing a fairly independent game. On the other hand, Russia’s allies in the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union did not join the Russian counter-sanctions and took a very cautious position on Crimea, Donbass, Syria, and some other events.

In a Cool-War bloc obligations are becoming less and less clear, while the very concepts of blocs and bloc politics are becoming increasingly vague.

The main aspects of the Cold War and the Cool War largely coincide but are not identical. Focal points have also changed. While the main area of confrontation during the Cold War was the arms race, now it is the economy. “Trade wars,” sanctions, counter-sanctions and other restrictions are the main weapons by which the opposing parties seek to inflict maximum damage on the competitor’s economy. But the purpose is not some short-lived impact (there are only a few cases when countries faced with the threat of sanctions immediately complied with demands, and Russia is certainly not among them), but a long-term weakening of the opposing side in order to make the development of its most promising sectors of the economy difficult or even impossible. Since Russia’s economic potential is smaller than that of the United States and the EU, the overall situation is unfavorable for it. Hopes that the sanctions would be eased or even lifted because of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis have not come true. Moreover, the sanctions confrontation between Russia and the West is gradually gaining momentum. At the same time, one cannot but see that the West has no intention to go to extremes: its puts incomparably less pressure on Russia than America puts on Iran. The American political and business elite, both Republicans and Democrats, do not consider Russia an economic competitor. For them, just like for the EU, economic pressure on Russia is primarily a means of forcing it to change its behavior on the world stage and to accept the existing world order and rules of the game.

The central element of the Cold War was undoubtedly the arms race, the largest in the history of humankind. Both sides sought to achieve an advantage that would allow them to speak and act from a position of strength. In the Cool War, the arms race between Russia and the West, especially the United States, continues, but it differs significantly from that of the Cold War times. In the past the arms race was a competition between the two superpowers for achieving military superiority, and both the United States and the USSR put huge resources into it. Nowadays the arms race boils down to a military buildup of one state, namely the United States. Russia has recently created a number of modern weapons, but in terms of military spending, both Russia and China are significantly behind the United States. Neither Russia nor any other country is able to participate in the arms race on an equal footing with the United States due to the enormous gap in economic, scientific and technical potential. The scale of troops and weapon concentration is also incomparable. It is enough to compare the situation in Central Europe, where the two blocs directly opposed each other during the Cold War, or in the Baltic Sea region, where Russia now borders NATO member countries. In the military confrontation of the Cool War there is no such fury and fierceness that was during the Cold War. Unlike the previous arms race, the current one does not dominate all other spheres of life, including the economy, science, education, etc., and it is not in the focus of public attention all the time. The Russian and Western military and special services keep in touch with each other, which was absolutely unthinkable during the Cold War. The system of Russian-American arms treaties is falling apart, but its complete erosion would be undesirable. And yet, since each side has serious doubts that the other one fulfills its commitment, this process is unlikely to be stopped. This will lead to even more mutual suspicion and distrust but will not recreate the situation of the early Cold War as neither side has any reason to revive the policy of “balancing on the brink of war.” A more complex situation may develop if the arms race intensifies in outer space or qualitatively new types of weapons are created, but even then both sides will most likely exercise restraint. Individual clashes between the military are possible only where they contact each other directly, as in Syria or in the air and at sea. Such incidents have occurred, but, remarkably, neither side tried to escalate the situation.

There is also a striking difference between regional conflicts during the Cold War and the Cool War. While the Soviet Union and the U.S. were directly or indirectly involved in almost all of them, now Russia and the West stay away from many such conflicts. During the Cold War, almost all regional conflicts were caused by military clashes between states, and usually one or sometimes both superpowers were aware of the upcoming outbreak of hostilities. Regional conflicts of the Cool War era most often arise as a confrontation between various political forces within states themselves, with Russia and the West usually getting involved in them afterward. While during the Cold War both the Soviet Union and the U.S. sought military and geopolitical advantages in regional conflicts, now economic interests play an increasingly important role in determining the policies of Russia and the West. Propaganda campaigns of the Cool War and the Cold War also differ significantly. On the one hand, the use of new information technologies makes them more massive and intensive as borne out by the West’s and Russia’s concerns about “fake news” and disinformation. However, their ideological component is quite small. Both sides try to convince the world public that their policies are correct, but the debates on values are not at the center of propaganda campaigns and play a supporting role. The “post-truth era” that has set in recently has shifted attention from ideology to an alternative and sometimes emotional interpretation of current events, which is used for informational influence. So, propaganda campaigns seriously complicate the general situation but especially drive hostility in cyberspace.

Since the Cold War was a global confrontation of antagonistic socio-political systems, it permeated all spheres of life without exception, directly affecting not only states, but also individuals.

In a Cool War, there is no such mobilization drive, and it is hardly possible since confrontation affects the upper class rather than the rest of the population.

Despite the obvious differences, many have the impression that the world is reliving the Cold War. The reason for this may be that the Cool War is waged in many ways by the same methods and means as the “Cold War.” This is particularly noticeable in propaganda campaigns. Although they are conducted not only in the traditional media, but also in a completely new sphere—cyberspace—they largely use the same techniques and clichés as half a century ago. Naturally, even when this is done using the latest information technologies, the effect of these propaganda campaigns is not comparable with the efforts put into them.

An important difference between the Cool War and the Cold War is that international ties between Russia and the West in the fields of culture, science and education, and contacts between people generally continue. Their limitation is due largely to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis, rather than politics. There is nothing even remotely reminiscent of the Iron Curtain at this point.

In summary, Russia and the West are engaged in a Cool War, that is, confrontation over the modern world order and the rules of the game in the international arena, which, while not being global and antagonistic, is one of the main contradictions of contemporary international relations, covers a wide range of issues, getting particularly fierce in the field of economy and cyberspace, but  preserving political and humanitarian ties and individual contacts between the military and special services, and taking place at a time when global processes are becoming less manageable, and yet employing Cold War-era methods and tools.


Coronavirus, Economic Crisis and Future Prospects


The ongoing changes in the world will profoundly affect the further course of the Cool War between Russia and the West. Forecasts about how long the coronavirus pandemic will last and how deep the economic crisis will differ significantly, but there is no doubt that this is the severest shock in years. Also, no one can be sure that the coronavirus will not be followed by new, currently unknown infections. The full impact of the pandemic and the economic crisis is likely to be felt in the medium term. Nevertheless, some trends can already be observed.

The coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly increase differentiation between states, and often between individual regions and social strata within states. Health issues will become one of the main, and in some cases possibly the most important, dividing line: the accessibility of high-quality medical services for people, the possibility of living in a safe and comfortable environment, serious success in conducting medical research and using its results for developing optimal treatment protocols, drugs and equipment. This will require a sharp increase in both public and private spending on health, which only the most developed and wealthy countries can afford, especially in times of economic crises. Occasionally, some sort of enclaves can be created within states, whose residents, mainly from the upper class, will get the same quality of healthcare as in developed countries. So the part of the world’s population that will have full access to the benefits of healthcare will be in a privileged position, but the gap between it and all others will increase dramatically.

The emergence of countries and enclaves with the most favorable conditions for health improvement and treatment will become an important factor prompting the world elite to move into them. They will be followed by highly skilled specialists: managers, doctors, scientists, engineers, workers, etc. These processes will without doubt cause major shifts in various spheres of life such as politics, economy, education, science, and culture. By providing their population with modern healthcare services, the most developed and wealthy countries will gain one more advantage strengthening their position in the world. In other countries, the domestic political situation will worsen noticeably. The legitimacy of the government which is unable to create conditions for preserving the health of a large number of people will be greatly undermined. In states with privileged enclaves, internal contradictions will grow immensely.

This can lead to the weakening or even disintegration of state structures and the emergence of new “failed” and “fragile" states.

As people have to reduce their social contacts and traveling, the development of information technologies gets another powerful impetus. They will further penetrate business, politics, public administration, science, and everyday life of people. Distance learning will be an important reason for the growth of population differentiation. It will not replace full-time education in the foreseeable future, but in some cases, it will adversely affect the quality of education. However, it will also open up new opportunities for the most dynamic part of young people, especially students. So, a motivated student will be able to study the subjects of interest in leading universities of the world without leaving his own school. This may have far more serious consequences than it seems at first glance.

Further development of information technology and healthcare will lead to the emergence of new social strata. Even if they are not numerous, their influence, including in the field of foreign policy, will gradually increase both at the level of individual states and on a global scale.

Needless to say, the coronavirus pandemic has already destroyed many international ties, and the economic crisis may force some countries to step up their protectionist policies. However, this does not mean an end of globalization. It has just slowed down and somewhat changed. In our opinion, the role of nation states will increase but only in certain cases and for a short period of time. The overall process of globalization is going in the same direction as before. Russia’s international influence in the medium term will depend on how successfully it can engage in new global processes, use them to its advantage and win the support of new segments of the population.

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis will certainly lead to a significant regrouping in the international arena. All states without exception will suffer losses, but one can say with great confidence that a new bipolarity—the United States and China—will form in the future. Although the U.S. has been hit hard by the pandemic and the crisis, all the factors that determine its role in the world are still at work. There are no signs indicating a decrease in the number of people from the upper class wishing to move to the United States. One of the reasons is that trust in the American healthcare system remains quite high. The question of whether the Chinese economy will resume its growth after the end of the pandemic and the crisis or whether it has already reached its maximum is debatable among experts. But there is no doubt that China has already created sufficient capacity to hold one of the top two places in the world economy. Of course, it is highly improbable that the world’s elite will want to move to China. In fact, the Chinese model of socio-political development has never been particularly attractive to it, except for small groups. In addition, the highest segments of society in many countries resented the latest changes in Hong Kong legislation. Wealthy people and highly qualified specialists have been leaving China for many years. At the same time, one cannot but notice foreign students in Chinese universities, including Russian ones, from the families of businessmen who work with China. For many years, China has been taking a lot of effort to attract foreign students, but, as in the case of the Soviet Union, there are very few immigrants from the upper class among them. If the situation changes, this will signify China’s undeniable success. A group of universities that hold top positions in international rankings may give China major advantages in the future.

In the medium term, relations between the United States and China are likely to become central to international relations. The contradictions between them will be deep, but they, too, will most likely resemble the current Cool War between Russia and the West, not the previous Cold War. The economy will be the main arena of this confrontation. However, China and the United States are much more connected with each other economically than the Soviet Union and the United States were during the Cold War or than Russia and the West are during the ongoing Cool War. By and large, both China and the United States are deeply involved in the processes of globalization, albeit differently, and receive significant benefits from this involvement. A fundamental shakeup of world development would not be in the interests of either. Therefore, their confrontation will continue within a strictly defined framework, and compromises on tactical and sometimes strategic issues are quite possible. China will strengthen its military potential, but the task of achieving military-strategic parity with the United States is not on its agenda for the time being. China will be firm on Hong Kong but is unlikely to take the risk of a direct clash with the United States over territorial disputes in the South China Sea or Taiwan. The role of the ideological component in propaganda campaigns will also be limited. Confrontation will be much severer in cyberspace. The emergence of U.S.-China bipolarity will not make international processes more manageable than they are now. Moreover, their manageability is likely to continue dwindling. This will give other countries significant freedom for maneuver.

Objectively, the emergence of U.S.-China bipolarity is not in Russia’s interests.

The main contradiction between the United States and China lies in the economic sphere, where Russia’s position is unlikely to strengthen in the near future. Russia’s strong military potential can only partly compensate for the unfavorable balance of power in the economy. In addition, “trade wars” between the United States and China can destabilize the energy market, affecting export revenues that will continue to occupy an important place in the Russian federal budget. In the foreseeable future, China is unlikely to enter into any arms limitation treaties, which will objectively reduce the importance of other such agreements, even if Russia and the United States maintain their military-strategic parity. In this situation, it would be best for Russia to distance itself as much as possible from the confrontation between the United States and China and determine its position on a case-by-case basis, depending on its own interests.

In recent years, Russia and China have built a strong strategic partnership. This is a tremendous achievement that must be appreciated and preserved. However, in the future, relations between Russia and China may develop only quantitatively, not qualitatively. Both sides have stated, including at the highest level, that they do not plan to create an alliance. There is no indication that the SCO and BRICS will turn into military-political blocs. China does not seek alliances, but such calls are sometimes made in Russia. However, this is unlikely to benefit Russia, since it would become a junior partner either in a bilateral or a multilateral union. This would reduce its role in world affairs, significantly increase American pressure, and sour relations with the EU. It should be noted that the attitude of China and Russia towards the United States is only partly identical. The Russian leadership advocates a radical change in the world order, while China stands for changes in the rules of the game within the existing coordinate system.

In order to distance itself from the confrontation between the United States and China and maintain an independent role in international affairs, it is advisable for Russia to improve relations with the West, especially the United States. It seems that demand for better relations with the West is gradually forming within Russian society. Unlike in the 1970s-1980s, when for many Soviet people the American and Western European way of life served as one of the main value guidelines, and in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Soviet and then Russian ruling circles hoped for major economic assistance from the West, some sort of a new Marshall Plan, people in modern Russia are much more realistic about these things. An ordinary Russian citizen does not see the advantages that he can get from Russia’s cooperation with the West even if bilateral relations abruptly change for the better, but at the same time, fatigue from international tension and a desire to return to a normal, calm life are gradually taking over. In the future, especially if the socio-economic situation deteriorates, such sentiments will undoubtedly increase and cannot be ignored.

The Cool War is less fierce and intense than the “Cold War,” but it will take more time and effort to exit it. A large number of complex and multifaceted problems have already piled up. While during the Cold War, arms limitation agreements almost always led to progress on other issues, now, even if the 2011 START Treaty is extended, this will not lead to a noticeable improvement in relations between Russia and the United States as a whole. A positive shift requires mutual understanding not only on the issue of weapons, but also on the economy (primarily sanctions and counter-sanctions), regional conflicts, etc. It is also important to stress that the existing problems will not disappear all by themselves. Hopes that Russia and the West will join forces in the fight against the coronavirus have proved false. It will take a lot of work and political will to end the Cool War. At present, it is widely believed in political circles in both Russia and the West that the current confrontation will continue for a long time. This is why it would be more realistic to try to direct the Cool War onto a calmer course.

At the initial stage, Russia and the United States could take several steps towards each other. Firstly, they could create normal conditions for the work of diplomatic missions, including the lifting of restrictions imposed in recent years, the reopening of closed consulates, etc. This is equally necessary for both sides: there can hardly be any progress without restoring the negotiation process through diplomatic channels. Secondly, it is very important to stop the escalation, or better still, to at least slightly reduce the intensity and the scale of propaganda campaigns, including those in cyberspace. This is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future. However, the question of restoring, even partially, bilateral trust cannot be raised even theoretically without the littlest steps in this direction. Thirdly, it would be advisable for Russia and the United States to review all agreements to prevent accidental clashes between their military. Some of them may need to be updated or amended to reflect the new situation and new dangerous areas. It is unlikely that such clashes, like those in Syria, will lead to a major military conflict, but they undoubtedly exacerbate Russian-American relations.

The implementation of these steps could raise political dialogue to a higher level at the next stage. It is unlikely to produce concrete results right away, but it will help identify real problems and possible points of contact. However, further intensive propaganda campaigns can reduce this dialogue to a pure formality. Strategic issues of future relations between Russia and the West can only be discussed at the third stage, taking into account specific aspects of relations with the U.S., the UK, and the EU.

Simultaneously, Russia should develop relations with other major players, such as India, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and South Africa. In the future, other, completely unexpected, partners may come into view. The more multi-directional Russia’s foreign policy is, the stronger its position in the world will be. However, multi-directionality also has its limits in the Cool War: many of Russia’s potential partners show restraint and caution for fear of spoiling relations with the United States.

So, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis will lead to significant changes in the world and to a regrouping of forces.

Russia can strengthen its international positions by engaging in new processes, but the Cool War with the West will be a serious obstacle on this path.

Its end would meet the interests of both Russia and the West, which also commits certain resources to it, and facilitate the strengthening of international security and cooperation.


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The 20th century is likely to go down in human history as an age of terrible global confrontations: two world wars that killed tens of millions and brought suffering to hundreds of millions of people, and the Cold War that claimed many lives and put immense strain on people in almost all countries of the world. There was no such dangerous confrontation before and, apparently, there will be none in the foreseeable future. This, of course, does not mean that confrontations and conflicts will disappear, but they will be completely different.

The Cool War was not inevitable, but nor was it accidental. The system of international relations that existed during the Cold War is being dismantled unevenly in different areas and regions. The old rules of the game work selectively in modern conditions, while new ones are formulated slowly and often are not universally accepted. The resulting vacuum provides fertile ground for collisions between elements of the old and the new, both among themselves and with each other, in different, sometimes unexpected, combinations. This makes the Cool War and similar conflicts in the future possible but not predetermined. This is why both the current Cool War and other similar conflicts are not a new Cold War or a relapse of the old Cold War, but phenomena of a new era that have their own causes, logic, dynamics, and inertia. Accordingly, they require completely different responses and solutions. Recipes of the 20th century will not work in a new era.

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