Author: Prof Roland Dannreuther
It is now frequently stated that Russia’s intervention into Ukraine has started a new Cold War. However, it should be remembered that the defining feature of the Cold War was that it did not escalate into a hot war, bringing East and West into direct confrontation. In the period from about 1947 to 1989, there was no war on the European continent. What we have now is a hot war in Ukraine which, incidentally, follows earlier post-Cold War hot wars in the breakup of former Yugoslavia. If there is to be a new Cold War, by definition it will come after this war has ended and we know the resulting settlement; whether it is a free and independent Ukraine and a weakened but resentful Russia; a partitioned Ukraine; or Ukraine fully integrated into Russia.
Yet, on the reasonable assumption that the war will end at some point, it is almost inevitable that something similar to the Cold War will emerge. As in the earlier Cold War, the dominant Western doctrine will be one of containment. This was first articulated by George F. Kennan in 1947 and involved ensuring that no further Soviet gains were made and that the ‘status quo’ was defended for the long struggle ahead. This implicit commitment to stability within the doctrine of containment was not universally shared. There were always more hawkish elements which sought to ‘rollback’ Soviet aggression. Conversely, there were those who sought to promote a policy of ‘engagement’ which would develop a web of interdependence to undermine the conflict from within. The classic example of this was Germany’s Ostpolitik and its material manifestation was the gas pipelines which were built in the 1970s to provide Soviet gas to Western Europe.
Ironically, it is now these pipelines which are at the heart of the European debate over the construction of a new policy of containment.
For most of the post-Cold War period, the dominant approaches have been ‘rollback’ and ‘integration’. Rollback came in the form of NATO enlargement; integration in the form of consultations and institutional frameworks to seek to include and accommodate Russian interests. It is notable that as late as 2011, Putin praised the NATO-Russia Council for its effectiveness and efficiency. It is, though, over Ukraine that the dynamic of NATO enlargement or ‘rollback’ stalled and Russian commitment to integration finally dissolved. The result is that containment and a new Cold War is now inevitable.
If such a Cold War is inevitable, what can we learn from the experience of the first Cold War?
The first is that the question of the military balance and how to assure ‘strategic stability’ will regain the priority and significance that it had prior to 1989. Europe in the first Cold War was an armed nuclear camp. Hopefully, such a level of militarization can be avoided, but substantial increases in armed forces – particularly on NATO’s Eastern Flank – will be inevitable. Nuclear strategy will also come back into the spotlight. During the first Cold War, there was a complex web of doctrines, agreements, and institutions which managed the nuclear balance. These have almost all been lost now. The most worrying feature of the current situation is that Putin and his Generals now appear to accept nuclear weapons as just another weapon to be used in the battlefield. Unlike the first Cold War, the East-West consensus that nuclear war must be avoided at all costs no longer applies.
The second feature is a return to a more pronounced all-encompassing ideological conflict. This can be seen most visibly in Russia with increased internal repression, a return to Soviet-style propaganda, and a more autarchic economy. There are worrying signs of potential purges and other means to terrorise the population. But this is also mirrored, to a degree, in the West with a countervailing Western liberal orthodoxy. This will mean less space for the difficult but necessary dialogue over the racist and patriarchal roots of liberalism – such talk will be increasingly marginalised or condemned as ‘woke’.
The third feature is a return to balance of power politics. The first Cold War froze the ideological and military conflict in Europe; but this only meant that this ideological competition was transported to the Global South where the East and West sought to gain strategic advantage. This pattern can already be seen in how successful Russia has been in gaining allies in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. For its part, the West has returned to support local autocrats so long as they are on ‘our side’. For most of the countries in the Global South, however, they do not want to take sides in what is seen as just another episode in Europe’s centuries-old civil war.
The wildcard in this balance is China. In the first Cold War, the Soviet Union lost its closest communist partner by a classic exercise of US realpolitik under President Nixon. This time the Sino-Russian alliance appears to be holding up and the US shows no appetite to embrace Beijing to counter Moscow.
What this Sino-Russian relationship might lead to was partly foretold in a joke of a Russian pro-NATO liberal, who in the early 1990s was already quite a rarity.
“the liberal Russian’s dream is that NATO ends up on the Chinese-Russian border; while the liberal Russian’s nightmare is that China ends up on the Russian-NATO border.”
This nightmare is still quite fantastical, but it is also uncomfortably close to the new geopolitics of the coming Cold War.
Roland Dannreuther is Professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster. He is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Roland’s research revolves around the area of security studies and international relations with a regional focus on Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East. He also has an interest in the engagement of historical sociology in International Relations.