Is a New Cold War Imminent?

8 august 2007

Alexei Arbatov is 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).

Resume: 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.

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 nations.

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 Nigeria.

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 actors.

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 question.

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 tensions?

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 Caucasus.

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 variation.

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 U.S.

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 system.

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 life.”

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 NATO.

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 interfering.

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 world.

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 games.

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 Europe.

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.

Last updated 8 august 2007, 13:30

} Page 1 of 5