Relations between the United States and Russia have hit a low point since Moscow annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Many analysts are wondering whether the two sides are returning to a new Cold War.
The “first” Cold War lasted roughly from the end of World War Two in 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Charles Kupchan with Georgetown University, said the Cold War was a rivalry between a Western bloc led by the United States and an Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union.
“It was defined by ideological competition, a communist system versus a capitalist system, an autocratic system versus a democratic system,” he said. “And it was defined by traditional geopolitical rivalry, for dominance both over the military industrial heartland as well as over proxies in the developing world.”
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, memories of the Cold War have faded. But there is talk now of a new Cold War following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s peninsula, Crimea.
Obama says no cold war
During a recent speech in Brussels (March 26th), President Barack Obama dismissed the notion of a new Cold War.
“This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology.”
President Obama also described Russia as “a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors - not out of strength, but of weakness.”
Charles Kupchan agreed, saying Russia isn’t what it used to be.
“During the Cold War, Russia had millions of soldiers under arms. It had a world class navy. It had proxy client states around the world. That is not the Russia that we have today. Russia today has 750 - 800,000 men under arms. Its navy is a sad shadow of what it used to be,” said Kupchan. “It has very few allies in the world and it’s for that reason, I think that a return to the Cold War is not on - Russia doesn’t have what it takes.”
Experts say both sides are in a cold war
But Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, has a different view.
“I believe we are already in a new Cold War. That is not a majority view. I think most people are reluctant to think that we could fall again into something as large, complicated, dangerous, with particularly the shadow of a nuclear Armageddon as we had in that 50 year period earlier.”
Legvold said some of the essential characteristics of the Soviet Union’s relationship with the West during that period are true of the relationship between Russia and the West today.
“First of all, rather than the ambiguous sense of the other side that both the U.S. and Europe had of Russia for much of the last 20 years, that is neither friend nor foe, something in between but not quite clear what - reciprocated by the Russians who saw the West in much the same term - that has disappeared” he said. “And you see each side now literally not only defining the other side as adversary, but calling it such in speeches that we’ve had from major leaders and pundits in the press.”
US Russia relations at low point
Legvold said another sign of a new Cold War is that, in his view, officials in Washington and Moscow have apparently given up on the idea of working towards a fundamentally different cooperative relationship.
“The assumptions that underlay the Obama administration’s “reset,” for example. They now have disappeared and have been replaced by the notion that the most we can hope for are momentary, quite specific, quite limited transactions that may be cooperative, but not something that adds up to a level of cooperation that begins to lead us toward genuine and durable partnership.”
Many experts believe a genuine and durable partnership could only be achieved with new leaders in Washington and Moscow.