The False Euphemism of ‘New Cold War’
Vivek Sugandh


Russia’s relationship with West has been on a downward trajectory for a very long period of time. It is under this pretext that an eminent discourse of ‘A New Cold War’ has emerged in the official and academic circles of the West as well as Russia. Cold War era was a long period of heated turmoil which lasted long and defined the international politics of the second half of the 20th Century. During this period, the world came very close to ‘nuclear armageddon’ (read Cuban Missile Crisis). It was a complex interplay of ideologies and power struggle between two superpowers. During this period, the relations were strained on all indicators of state power, i.e. military, cultural, economic, political and diplomatic, in a zero sum game. The peaceful end of the Cold War negated the period of ‘Long Peace’ put forth by Kenneth Waltz and the realist logic that great power transition cannot happen without war and conflict.

Emerging Discourse on ‘New Cold War’

Disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was seen as a triumph by the Western countries and policies that emanated from this eventually led post-Soviet Russia to develop a crisis of identity, and a sense of alienation and humiliation by the West to undermine Russia’s power and interests. This in turn led to an action-reaction cycle between the United States (US) and Russia and led to tensions in the relationship. Recently, even the Russian leaders like Dmitry Medvedev and Mikhail Gorbachev have spoken about their apprehensions over the Russian relationship with the West and have argued that the recent deterioration of relationship between the two could mark the dawn of ‘A New Cold War’ or ‘Cold War 2.0’. Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov uses the Cold War term of ‘containment’ to describe US foreign policies towards the Russian Federation and its neighbors. Such predictions do not portend well if seen in the context of ongoing crises in West Asia and Afghanistan and the issue of North Korea’s nuclearisation. Global peace hinges on collaborative action by both the powers.

‘New Cold War’ was a term coined by US journalist Edward Lucas in his 2008 book, “The New Cold War”. Through this book, Lucas argues that Russia under Putin is a danger to itself and others. However, his view only shows the Western apathy and lack of right perspective on Russian domestic and foreign policy system. He argues that inside Russia, the state has become fragile owing to depletion of freedom, hollow and sham institutions and economy’s overdependence over natural resources and military sales. On the external front, it’s ‘Anti-Westernism’ in diplomatic discourse that feeds the ruling regime’s popularity.

However, Russian experts like Richard Sakwa argue that the Russian foreign policy is more guided not by West bashing but more by the desire to reclaim its great power status and become influential again. He dubs Russian maneuvers as part of reclaiming its “legitimate interests”. Even the Western world has not been sympathetic to Russia’s cause by completely disregarding Russia as an important player in the post-Cold War era world order. This attitude led to growing disenchantment in Russia which was only capitalised by Vladimir Putin. Russia under Putin has become economically stable owing to military sales and rise in oil prices.

There is another school of thought led by the neo-realist Kenneth Waltz that argues that the bipolarity that existed during the Cold War era was stable and it never ended. The disintegration of Soviet Union and its subsequent years of cooling of relations under Boris Yeltsin were just a phase of ‘Russian crisis of identity’ hovering between Atlanticist and Eurasianist approaches. However, under Putin the cold War era has come into force again when Russian and Western countries have continuously exchanged barbs and heated rhetoric. Similarly, Dmitry Furman has argued that the New Cold War era was the natural extension of the earlier one except this time the struggle is centered on the former territories of Soviet Union. He cites that the struggle between the United States and Russia is a direct extension of the struggle over Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. These aforementioned scholars have given several reasons to support their New Cold War hypotheses which are elucidated below.

Firstly, the psychological mindset of negativity and mutual distrust persists even after the end of Cold War. The Cold War attitude of rivalry and confrontation is still there in the political and bureaucratic circles of both countries which still see the world in bipolar terms.

Then, the rise of Putin and his criticism of west’s adventurism have only accentuated the matter. Putin, since coming to power in 2000 has not only revived the ‘personality cult’ in Russia but also moved towards the Eurasian vision of Russia, having a distinct identity of its own rather than aligning it to European and Asian model. The Russian resurgence under Putin and its claim as a global super power has much to do with the core nationalist philosophies of Russian philosophers like Alexander Dugin and Ivan Ilyin, who have depicted Russia as a unique civilisation distinct from the Western and Eastern frameworks. Nationalism has recently become the most important discourse in Russian foreign policy discussions. With the blend of Stalin’s persona and Lenin’s pragmatism, Mr. Putin has emerged as a true Russian leader. He has governed Russia for long 17 years and enabled a full turnaround in Russia’s fortunes after years of industrial decline. In the 15 years of rule, he has saved Russia from the forces of destruction, both internal – Chechnya and the Oligarchs - and external Western influence. Much emphasis has also been placed on the Russian world and Moscow’s responsibility to defend the rights of ethnic Russians. Francis Fukuyama, who once saw end of Cold War era as “End of History” argues later that the ‘Russian model of Sovereign Democracy’ is stable and that it challenges the Western liberal democracy.

Putin, through his foreign policy concepts and speeches, most famous being the Munich Speech, has criticised the USA and its allies for the spread of terrorism, disorder and anarchy. He has used his anti-Western stance as a nationalistic weapon and viewed the disintegration of USSR as the biggest catastrophe of the 20th Century. He denounced the imported view of democracy and human rights and criticised them for imposing it in other countries. Russia has slammed the West for creating turmoil in the West Asian countries in the name of democracy and humanitarian intervention. It has also challenged the western supremacy in the United Nations (UN) through vetoing US backed resolutions relating to Iran and Syria. Scholars like Lilia Shevitzova explain that by the turn of 21st Century, the old anti-Westernism had become a dominant feeling among the Russian elite and this psychological dynamic helped to foster the New Cold War.

All this is matched with western assertiveness in Russia’s “near abroad”. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) expansion along the Russian borders and enlargement of the European Union (EU) has specifically irked Russia, which sees its neighborly regions as its own sphere of influence. Russia feels betrayed as the US had promised Gorbachev that post-unification of Germany, no further expansion of NATO would happen. Today, it has included several post-soviet republics and former Warsaw Pact members like the Baltic States. In fact, NATO forces were employed against Serbia, a fellow Slav nation and ally of Russia in defense of Kosovo Albanians in 1999. Offensive realist John Mearsheimer was quick to explain the Russian actions in Ukraine as Putin’s reaction to the possible expansion of the NATO to include Ukraine. The post-Cold War NATO enlargement process started in the mid-1990s with invitations issued to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and official talks about extending NATO to include Ukraine began in 2008. US military bases in Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan post 9/11, and its plans to deploy a missile shield in Poland has led to deterioration of relationship between the two countries. Russia has also criticized the Western supported ‘Colour Revolutions’ in its backyard as a way to destabilise Russia and its allies. Similarly, Russia’s hegemonic attitude in its ‘near abroad’ like Georgia and Ukraine, and its attempts to build a new alliance with China only conforms to the view of expanding enmity.

Both the countries seem to be jostling for influence in the post-Soviet space and it appears that a ‘New Great Game’ is evolving in this region, especially in the Central Asian region. Similarly, the competition for influence in the Caspian Sea and South West Asia, and Russia’s employment of energy as an instrument to maintain its influence in Ukraine should be viewed in this regard. Russia’s arms sales and good relations with states critical of the US such as Venezuela has also enforced this zero-sum view. Several other quarters like the Arctic Circle have emerged as new avenues of power struggle where the Western countries and Russia are scrambling for rich resources which will be available due to global warming.

The Ukrainian episode marked the low point of relationship between the US and Russia as for the first time their motives conflicted. Ukraine is very important for Russian dream of ‘A Eurasian Union and integrated economy’. Russia subsequently reintegrated or annexed (better left to the reader’s interpretation) Crimea into its fold after a referendum. It was strategically important for Russia as it would preserve its access to the Black Sea where in Sevastopol its Russian sea fleet is stationed. Russian backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian government forces since 2014 while the western countries led by the US are standing by the new regime in Ukraine. Subsequently, Russia was expelled from G-8 and several sanctions were imposed on Russia. Russia too retaliated by imposing sanctions and freezing energy supplies to Europe.

Russia and China together countering USA’s Asia Pivot Policy is another strengthening of partnership. Scholars have argued that similar Cold war type security alliances have started to emerge in the World. Russia has been attempting to build closer military ties with China and other neighbouring countries through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Russia has emphasised the importance of SCO as imperative for security in Eurasia and as a counterbalance to NATO. Russia and China have gradually come closer because of shared threat perceptions from the US. Charles Krauthammer terms Russia’s rapprochement towards China and terms it as ‘Russia’s pivot to Asia’. Russia and China signed a spectacular 30-year energy deal worth $ 400 billion encompassing pipeline construction and supplying natural gas to China. The deal is seen as Putin’s riposte to economic sanctions and threats by Western countries post the Crimean episode.

The renewed nuclear arms race only bolsters the idea of a new strategic competition between the two. Both the US and Russia have come out their big bang plans of modernisation of their armed forces. Russia has planned of modernising its armed forces with $ 720 billion weapons renewal programme. Both the countries are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons. NATO, on the other hand, has planned its biggest build-up in Eastern Europe since the Cold War to counter the Russian aggressiveness. The three Baltic States which joined NATO and the European Union in 2004 are alarmed by the Russian aggressiveness in Ukraine and have asked NATO for a permanent presence of battalion-sized deployments of allied troops in each of their territories.

With Russia now increasingly seen as a threat to the Europe, efforts to sustain and extend the series of agreements underpinning European security since the end of Cold War are also imperiled. Both, a follow up to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaties (START) agreement and efforts to update the conventional forces in Europe Treaty, now appear dead, while Russia is challenging the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Scholars argue that with the turmoil in Syria the era of proxy wars are back. During the Cold War era, several proxy wars were undertaken in global theatres like Vietnam and Afghanistan. In Syria, Russia has, for the first time since the Cold War deployed its forces far from home to counter the West supported rebellion against its friendly regime. Syria has long been a pillar of Russia’s West Asia Policy. The only Russian base outside the former Soviet Union is in Syria’s Tartus. Russia resisted every western move at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to pass a resolution seeking Assad’s removal. Also, its assertive diplomacy was instrumental in thwarting US air strikes on Syria in 2013 amid allegations that government forces used chemical weapons against civilians. Strategists have dubbed the Syrian venture as a proxy war where the USA is supporting the rebels while Russia is with the regime.

Demystifying the False Euphemism of Cold War

Contrary to the above discourse to propagate the emergence of another global polarisation and conflict, terming the recent slugfest between Russia and West as New Cold War could be oversimplifying geopolitical realities; indeed, it would depict a naive understanding of the international structure and politics. The Cold War era was multifaceted and complex, characterised by strategic bipolarity and ideological warfare (Capitalism versus Communism) with alternate social and economic systems. Soviet Russia did pose an ideological danger to the West when Communism spread to East and Central Europe and also took a global dimension. The Soviet regime had then emerged as the champion of the communist revolutionary processes and financed the spread of Communism. But Russia under Putin lacks such might and dedication towards any such revolutionary process. In fact, the export of ‘Russian Sovereign democracy’ and its usage of soft power in its peripheries are not well documented and pursued, and therefore the competition is exaggerated. Conversely, the most potent challenge to the Western liberal democracy is Islamic fundamentalism which Samuel Huntington has well addressed in his magnum opus, “The Clash of Civilisations”.

In the existing scenario, there is no bipolarity in the international system and Russia does not offer any realistic alternative socio-economic model to be adopted by other states. In fact, the world is moving towards ‘complex multi-polar architecture’ where Russia is only one of the many emerging powers challenging the Western led order. This emergence of multilateralism is more guided by various groupings and institutions like the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa Group (BRICS), SCO etc.

The emerging ‘Balance of Power’ in the international system is because of the emergence of China as an alternative model to be followed by developing countries. Chinese model of state capitalism and political Communist control has been attractive for many countries especially in Africa and Latin America. The Great Game of the 21st Century is played more specifically between the US and China. China has come up with its ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy to counterbalance the ‘US Pivot to Asia’. However, the previous level of tension is unlikely to emerge into a new Cold War because of the structural and cultural differences between the major players in Asia. Richard Pipes, a leading Western scholar on Russia argues that the emerging Sino-Russian axis is nothing but ‘a marriage of convenience’ in which Russia will only play second fiddle to the expansionist China. In fact, Russia is facing stiff competition from China in its ‘Near Abroad’ where China has emerged as a significant player. Similarly, Russian assertiveness in its Near Abroad will be checked by its neighbours and it would be very difficult for Russia to come up with a unified bloc which can rival western blocs of EU and NATO. Russia is already facing several challenges in its attempts to unify post-Soviet states as its projects like the ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) and more recently the ‘Eurasian Economic Union’ (EEU) has not validated its purpose till now.

The Russian economy is not strong enough to withstand the impacts of any renewed Cold War scenario. The Russian economy is not diversified and relies on the energy resources and military sales. Its economy contracted by 3.7 percent in 2015, followed by 0.6 percent in 2016. The Crimean episode and steaming relations with the US has hurt Russian economy badly. The recent fall in oil prices have only brought more distress to its economic fortunes.

Areas of Co-Operation

Cold War era was a zero sum game in which one’s side gain was automatically seen as other side’s loss, but in today’s world several issues of common concerns have erupted which call for a multilateral cooperation. Out of that, international terrorism is a challenge which concerns everyone. Russia is also concerned with it as it is troubled with its separatism in Chechnya. Other issues relating countries like Iran, North Korea, environmental degradation, issue of nuclear proliferation and disarmament are concerns which affect both the countries; the US has slowly realised that the confidence of Russia is necessary in its endeavours. Russia is an important player in US efforts to contain the Syrian conflict and the spread of the Islamic State (IS). Both the parties are dedicated towards finding a solution to the Syrian crisis and have come up with a renewed attempt towards peace through the Geneva III peace talks. The Russian role is magnified as it would be an important stabiliser in Afghanistan and Central Asia following the drawdown of coalition forces.

Russia as an Important Force in International Politics

Recent actions like annexation of Crimea, intervention in Ukraine, support to Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and assisting it in tackling the rebellion has given a clear sign that Russia under Putin would no longer agree to the Western marked notions and standards. Putin’s Russia is more tactful in diplomacy as compared to the Soviet Empire as it has emphasised on multi-polarity, established multi-lateral relations with countries especially China, and is utilising international forums like the UN to assert its power. The whole episode explains that Russia remains an influential player in the international politics. Russia’s geographical clout, accompanied with its military heft, has facilitated this rise. Russia accounts for the 25 percent of the global military sales and comes only second after the US (33 percent). This effort has been compounded by core pragmatism in the Russian political circles led by Putin.

The disastrous agendas in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East has led to ceding to Russia the initiative in the Middle-east for the first time since 1970s. Rise of IS and ongoing humanitarian crisis in the West Asia has depicted the US-led coalition in a bad light and given space to Russia to breathe and involve itself in the Middle East muddle once again. Even the US foreign policy strategists have woken up to this fact that Kremlin can no longer be shrugged off. Over the past years, Russia has steadily acquired a hold over the European energy supplies. Not only is it sitting on vast reserves of gas and oil, but it uses the domination of supply to acquire control over distribution in markets, building pipelines and buying stakes in energy companies across Europe.

Implications of the Evolving Power Games

Lastly, the emerging power play is getting permeated as we are already witnessing their attempted zero-sum behavior in tackling global issues. Trump’s election rhetoric of ‘deal making’ with Russia is fading and several theatres persists where both countries do not see eye to eye. For example, In Syria, both countries have different partners tackling the common enemy i.e. Islamic State. In Afghanistan, Russia seems to be hobnobbing with Taliban while the US sees no role for it. Trump’s “South Asian Policy” unveiled recently, sees India as an important partner but has little for other regional players like China, Pakistan and Russia. Russia-China relations, irrespective of their contradictions are founded on anti-US trajectory. Pakistan too has emerged as an acceptable ally for Russia in this course. Similarly, the challenge emanating from adamant North Korea has met with limited condemnation from Russia and China. Thus, It seems that global powers are evolving decisions in ‘silos’ while the existing challenges call for responsible behavior to address common threats of organised crime and terrorism, refugee crises, nuclear proliferation and security ills.

For India, these power games present a bumpy road as it has to carefully balance its strong relationships with the two powers. It needs to preserve its own national interest in the process. With so much happening in the neighborhood, India needs to solidify its image as a voice of sanity in the region.


Scholars like Peter Shearman have argued that the very usage of the terminology of ‘New Cold War’ is not only a bad analogy to analyse contemporary relations but also a dangerous one, which would only incite jingoistic sentiments in West and Russia. The possibility of a renewed competition like that existed during Cold War is bleak as whatever differences they might have, these do not translate into a wider challenge in International relations. In fact, there are wide arrays of cooperation existing between the two countries like space cooperation, arms reduction, non-proliferation and peace talks in Syria. Both the countries have involved themselves in a diplomatic triumph by concluding a deal with Iran to check proliferation of Nuclear weapons.

However, there is no doubt that a bitter hostility and mistrust does exist among both the countries, which is a remnant of the Cold War era. They can learn from the lessons of the Cold War that too much emphasis on balance of power and any escalated conflict owing to military competition would only lead to drain of money, and a renewed arms race and threat of nuclear weapons would only lead to ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD). If the variable of international terrorist organisations like the ISIS is added to this imagined binary of a ‘New Cold War’, it would only smack of global instability based on possibility of proliferation of nuclear weapons. The presence of two influential powers which have a reactive, tactical and responsive relationship sitting with their tremendous nuclear arsenals and exclusive agendas could be a very dangerous mix and a threat to global stability and peace.


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(The author is a Junior Research Fellow pursing M.Phil in the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies (CRCAS), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal National University.)

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