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That Cold War Movie

  • Brian Whitmore

Digging up the Cold War from the grave. (Cartoon by Sergey Elkin)

Digging up the Cold War from the grave. (Cartoon by Sergey Elkin)

Life has imitated Top Gun with Russian warplanes buzzing a U.S. Naval vessel and barrel rolling an American reconnaissance aircraft.

Reality has mimicked The Hunt for Red October with the Kremlin's submarines trolling the British and Scandinavian coastlines.

We've had a European twist on The Manchurian Candidate, with Moscow backing xenophobic politicians like French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

And we've even had a little Missiles of October redux, with two Communist Party lawmakers appealing to Vladimir Putin to place missiles in Cuba.

If it all seems like a grainy decades-old movie about the Cold War, that's because in many ways it is.

Putin's regime is in a big hurry to restore Russia's Soviet-era global clout. But with a third-rate economy and little soft power to speak of, the best the Kremlin can do is use its media empire and newly beefed-up military might to create the illusion of superpower competition.

Putin's Russia is far too weak to fight a real Cold War with the West, so the Kremlin has decided to do the next best thing: make a reality show about a Cold War.

Send some jets to buzz a Western ship, wait for the inevitable diplomatic dust up, and voila! Everybody's partying like it's 1979!

The Power Of Perception

Putin's Cold War movie is important at home because he has staked so much of his legitimacy on reviving Russia's lost glory. He needs this show to have a good long run.

But the Kremlin is also aiming at foreign audiences.

"The Kremlin has clearly concluded that in order to defend its interests close to Russia’s borders, it must play globally," Russian foreign affairs analyst Fyodor Lukyanov wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

Put another way, in order to get what he really wants -- a free hand in Ukraine and a privileged sphere of influence in the former Soviet space -- Putin needs to prove that he is ready and able to be a global menace.

"Perceptions matter," Mark Galeotti, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently.

"Arguably being thought to be dangerous is actually a more powerful geopolitical asset than actually being it. So long as the West believes Russia could surge into Ukraine, escalate in Syria, or even roll into the Baltic states, it inevitably feels a greater pressure to make concessions and invite Vladimir Putin to the table."

Corruption Is Not An Ideology

The one big ingredient that has been missing from Putin's Cold War thriller has been the ideological element.

In a lengthy article in the Kremlin mouthpiece Izvestia, political scientist Sergei Karaganov tried -- not very convincingly -- to fill the void.

According to Karaganov, the root of the current conflict is a struggle between the West's laissez faire capitalism and permissive social norms against Russia's authoritarian state capitalism and defense of traditional Christian values.

"What makes the Russian challenge so strong for European elites is offering an attractive model of behavior and set of values to the rest of the world," Karaganov wrote.

Moscow has certainly tried to use these issues to gain advantage, like with its financing of xenophobic far right parties in Europe, for example.

But to suggest that Russia's conflict with the West is ideological, a la the Cold War, is pure nonsense.

There is a normative aspect, but it essentially pits the West's relatively transparent system, with it's quaint notions of the rule of law, the sanctity of contracts, and individual rights against Russia's opaque authoritarian kleptocracy.

If Russia has an ideology, it is corruption. Everything else the Kremlin passes off as values is just tactics, active measures, and window dressing.

The Kremlin's Cold War movie has succeeded to a degree in easing Moscow's international isolation and convincing the public that Russia is back as a global player.

But it hasn't given Putin what he wants in Ukraine, it hasn't gained Russia its coveted sphere of influence, and it hasn't ended Western sanctions.

If the Kremlin escalates and makes this little reality show a little more real, the results could be devastating.

And this is not just because of things like the United States deploying advanced F-22 fighters to Lithuania and Romania and NATO rotating troops through the Baltic states.

In the real Cold War, after all, the Soviet Union was cut off from Western financial markets and was effectively under permanent sanctions in the form of CoCom export restrictions.

And that's a place the Russian elite -- which has grown fond of the goodies Western economies offer even as they flout Western rules -- does not want to go.

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to The Power Vertical Podcast on April 29, where I will discuss the themes raised in this post with Mark Galeotti of New York University, Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Agnia Grigas of the Atlantic Council.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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