Global Affairs

US, Russia on the brink of new Cold War?

The US is gripped by hysteria over Russia, locking the two nations into Cold War-style conflicts that could take decades to unravel.

LONDON • Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, the man who represented Russia in the United States for almost a decade, has finished his mission and is back home in Moscow.

But when he faced Russian journalists in a live TV press conference over the weekend, the main questions fired at him were not about the intricacies of his work, but about one matter: Are Russia and the United States now locked into a new Cold War?

"Not yet," Mr Kislyak replied hesitantly, a qualified answer which said it all.

For all the props of the Cold War have reappeared - the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions; the frequent alleged discoveries of "plotters"; the economic sanctions which Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev characterised as "unleashing a trade war"; and the tanks: This year, both the West and Russia will engage in some of the most extensive military manoeuvres in decades.

Yet trappings aside, what about the substance? Are we standing at the onset of a new Cold War? The answer is both reassuring and worrying at the same time. No, the Cold War which raged from the late 1940s to the late 1980s will not return. But confrontation between the West and Russia is likely to intensify and, tragically, may be more unpredictable and therefore more dangerous than before.

Since few under the age of 40 are likely to have experienced the Cold War directly, it is hard to convey what the atmosphere of that time felt like. But those - like this writer - old enough to have experienced the Cold War at close quarters are likely to remain scarred for life by the experience.

It is difficult to erase the memory of the barbed wires and sentry towers, of the menacing, ever-present police, or the gruff security agents dressed in ill-fitting polyester suits and reeking of tobacco who used to follow every foreigner visiting a communist nation.



The Cold War preoccupied the minds of every single leader, both East and West, and was fought relentlessly every single hour, for four long decades. It was pursued directly on the streets of the German capital of Berlin, where the barrels of US and Soviet tanks faced each other at a distance of a couple of metres, and one soldier careening into a wrong street could have unleashed a hot war.

The Cold War was pursued in the air where US and Soviet aircraft bearing Western nicknames such as Foxbat, Flogger or Fishpot were engaged in daily simulated dogfights which could have easily become real ones, and in the deep oceans, where silent Western submarines and clever electronic devices tracked down their Soviet counterparts, nicknamed Tango, Bravo or Kilo. The result was a vast arms race during which the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics alone possessed over 50,000 nuclear charges between them, enough to obliterate all of us, many times over.

Few dared ask whether this arms race made any sense, and those who did were dismissed as either lunatics or traitors, by both sides. And hundreds of thousands of military planners on both sides did nothing else but track down their opponent's moves.

At one point, America's Central Intelligence Agency used to collect statistics about Soviet soft fruit production, hoping that this might yield clues about Soviet nuclear radiation. Western spies also used to build special toilet seats, so that they could collect the human waste of visiting communist officials; that gave some indication of their state of health.

Today's memory of the Cold War is that of shadowy but entertaining spying plots, James Bond-style. But the reality was that the Cold War generated hundreds of real proxy wars in which tens of millions perished, tragically and not gloriously, and away from the Hollywood lights.

Meanwhile, communist spies from East Germany were once engaged on a project to collect, classify and index the body odours of individuals, in the hope that this would make their tracking easier; no period of modern history was as surreal.

The world was broadly divided into "them" and "us", and a myriad of proxies, who engaged in their own wars, from the Yalu River on the Korean peninsula to Vietnam and Indonesia, the dusty mountains of Afghanistan, much of the Middle East and large chunks of Africa. Today's memory of the Cold War is that of shadowy but entertaining spying plots, James Bond-style. But the reality was that the Cold War generated hundreds of real proxy wars in which tens of millions perished, tragically and not gloriously, and away from the Hollywood lights.

Nor was the Cold War only about military prowess. It was also about displaying superiority in every field of human activity: That is why chess championships became global confrontations, why athletes were drugged to their eyeballs in order to collect Olympic medals, and why vast amounts of money were spent on radio broadcasts and bribing journalists; just about every trick of human ingenuity was tried.

None of this is ever likely to return now. Russia is not the Soviet Union; its territory is the smallest it has been in centuries, and its economy not larger than that of Italy. Russian President Vladimir Putin may be difficult, but he has no ideology, and no aspirations to represent a universal model, as the old Marxists used to claim. Nor is the world bi-polar any more; China's rise has transformed all that.


Still, the current showdown between the US and Russia retains some of the features of the Cold War, and adds a number of important new dangers.

Similar to the times at the onset of the Cold War, Russia is yet again challenging the security and territorial arrangements in Europe both by direct means such as the invasion of Ukraine and the incorporation of the Crimea peninsula into its own territory, but also by trying to undermine Europe's military and political allies.

As a result, a new arms race is now gathering speed and, although this is nowhere near as intense as that during the Cold War, it also has incalculable consequences, since much of the race is now over technological force multipliers, innovations which can render useless an opponent's arsenal.

During the Cold War, the opposing sides evolved special procedures and even language to prevent accidental clashes; there were telephone hotlines, a myriad of notification mechanisms, and no military commander was allowed to make comments about nuclear weapons.

Now, most of these measures simply do not exist; Russia prides itself in conducting snap exercises which catch Western military planners unawares, and Russian officers openly threaten to "nuke" or "bomb" East European countries which offend them.

But the biggest problem is that both the US and Russia are now settling down to an entrenched confrontation from which neither would be able to extricate itself for years, if not decades.

Russia's President Putin, who just published his by-now-regular snapshots of him fishing bare-chested or diving in Siberia's lakes, associates his confrontation with the West with not only his own macho image, but also with the supposed virility of his country. It is inconceivable that he will draw back from that and, since he is certain to secure another six-year term in office at the elections later this year, no change in Russia's position is expected until the middle of the next decade.

And in the US, a curious coalition of Democrats who have persuaded themselves that they have lost the elections because of Russia's interference and Republicans who oppose President Donald Trump have succeeded in imposing tough new sanctions on Russia not because these make strategic sense or achieve any purpose, but out of a sense of frustration and largely in order to hit at the White House, just about the worst reasons for such a posture.

And, again, it is difficult to see how President Trump may even be able to meet with the next Russian ambassador to Washington, let alone negotiate with President Putin.

Just as happened at the onset of the Cold War in the early 1950s, a hysteria about Russia is gripping Washington, one which will not go away even if Mr Trump is a one-term president. Pressure is building up on Capitol Hill for the US to repudiate a series of arms- control agreements with Russia, yet another potential folly which will take decades to remedy.

None of this means that an actual military confrontation between Russia and the US is imminent. But Cold War-style tensions will increase, and will remain constant for years to come. And people are already dying at least partly as a result of this confrontation, in places such as Ukraine or Syria.

Karl Marx, whose ideology the Soviet Union espoused throughout the Cold War, was probably correct when he once remarked that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, and secondly as a farce.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'US, Russia on the brink of new Cold War?'. Print Edition | Subscribe