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Don't Mention The Cold War

Mikhail Gorbachev says we're "on the brink" of one. Henry Kissinger thinks he knows how to avoid one. And Vladimir Putin seems to be trying to provoke one.

Cold War talk is in the air and Cold War fears are on the rise. Over the past eight months, according to a report by the London-based European Leadership Network, close military encounters between Russia and the West have spiked to their highest levels in decades.

These include "violations of national air space, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs...harassment of reconnaissance planes, close overflights over warships, and Russian ‘mock bombing raid’ missions."

But despite the rhetoric and the posturing, the escalating conflict between Russia and the West is not a new Cold War.

For this to be a Cold War, Russia would need to be a superpower. It is not. Moscow would need to lead a bloc of nations that enjoys rough parity with the West. It doesn't. And it would need to be offering an alternative model to Western liberal democratic capitalism. It isn't.

"Russia is a mid-sized power that lacks the capacity to shape the international environment single-handedly. It is not in the top league with the U.S. and China," political analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote recently in "The Moscow Times."

"Moscow suffers from superpower phantom pains, but its ambitions are not backed by economic power or technological prowess. Its sole claim to superpowerdom is its nuclear weapons, brandished too cavalierly."

Despite Moscow's best efforts, there is no Russian-led bloc of countries opposing the West. The much-touted BRICS is essentially a group of mid-level powers clinging to a rising China.

And for all its flaws -- and they were legion -- Soviet communism presented an alternative political and economic system to Western democratic capitalism and an alternative development model that enjoyed some traction, particularly in the Third World. What is Russia offering today? Homophobia and gay bashing masquerading as"traditional values"? A kleptocracy fueled by petrodollars? Fantasies of a revived Russian empire?

"Neither Russia nor even China (whose leaders long ago abandoned the communist vanguard for the pursuit of profit) offer universalist ideologies capable of competing with free market capitalism," Stewart M. Patrick, director of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations International Institutions and Global Governance Program, wrote recently on his blog.

At best, Moscow is offering a scattershot critique aimed at appealing to all the foes of globalization, be they on the left or the right.

That the Kremlin is not presenting an alternative to the West is even evident in the nature of its propaganda, as Peter Pomerantsev noted in a recent piece in "The Atlantic."

Putin's Russia, according to Pomerantsev, "reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action."

Unlike the propaganda promoting Soviet communism, which was based on a universalist and more-or-less internally consistent and logically coherent ideology, facts and proof are irrelevant.

"For the Soviets, the idea of truth was important -- even when they were lying. Soviet propaganda went to great lengths to 'prove' that the Kremlin’s theories or bits of disinformation were fact," he wrote.

"The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted -- to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative."

No, this isn't a Cold War. But guess what? It's even scarier and more dangerous.

During the Cold War the Kremlin had a stake in -- and was interested in maintaining -- the existing international system. Despite its ideology and rhetoric, the Soviet Union after Stalin wasn't revolutionary at all. It was a classic status-quo power.

But in the past 25 years, a new international order has taken shape to replace the bipolar superpower rivalry -- and Moscow doesn't like it. It wants the old 20th-century bipolar world back, or a 19th-century concert of great powers, each free to act in their own spheres of influence.

And if it doesn't get it, it is going to do its best to disrupt the existing order.

"Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, however disingenuously denied and creatively concealed, constitutes a frontal assault on the liberal international order that the United States and its Western allies have done so much to promote and build," Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote.

Russia's behavior, he added, represents "the resurgence of a more primitive form of power politics" in which established norms like "the principle of sovereignty, the sanctity of borders, the illegitimacy of spheres of influence, and the supremacy of citizenship over ethnicity" are under assault.

The Cold War was a stable and predictable arrangement. The world we are now entering is anything but.

Russia is playing the role of a spoiler. And spoilers bent on challenging the international order -- especially nuclear-armed ones -- are dangerous.

And we've seen this movie before. Napoleonic France tried to disrupt the British-dominated European order in the early 19th century, as did Germany -- twice -- in the early 20th century.

"We are not in a 'revolutionary' period of world politics, in Kissinger’s terms, in which a radical power -- think revolutionary France, Leninist Russia, or Maoist China -- pursues (at least for a while) dreams of world revolution," Patrick wrote.

Not yet. But we could be soon.

-- Brian Whitmore

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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