Second Cold War actually unlikely

Speaking on the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin wall, Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned: “Failure to achieve security in Europe would make the continent irrelevant in world affairs…The world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it’s already begun.” Though growing anxieties over recent events in Ukraine and less recent events in Georgia might evoke memories of the Soviet Union’s time as America’s number one fear. While I will concede that there is a chill in the air right now, I don’t see much in the way of a second Cold War.

But the Ukraine has the potential to change that. With failing diplomatic ties, recent moves by both governments in Kiev and Moscow will stifle any chances of long term stability. On Nov. 5, Kiev announced it would freeze payments to Eastern Ukraine held by Russian separatists; which places separatist Ukraine either financially on their own or in the hands of Russia. Both cases are terrible for the longevity of peace as Ukraine has historically relied on Russian subsidies and cannot survive on its own budget or gross national product. Russia’s economy is already walking a fine line of havoc and recession on part of sanctions and the falling price of crude oil, yet the ruble might have to cover the costs of 4.5 million people living in Eastern Ukraine. Neither scenario works as Eastern Ukraine is not solvent without Russian aid and Russia is barely solvent as it is. History reminds us that insolvency of the Soviet Union brought the Cold War crumbling down. I am skeptical of the probability of another Cold War with the rapid descent of Russia as a global power, especially considering its long-term economic conditions. Russia simply does not have the capacity to go against the West as it did in the post-World War II environment.

Beyond the economic lens, aggression by the Russian government and separatists also remind of the Cold War. Reckless flybys, burgeoning Russian troop numbers on borders, and allegedly moving tank columns into Eastern Ukraine paint the picture of a regional power trying to maintain its sphere of security. In fairness, Russia has always stressed the importance of the ‘near-abroad’ which are states on the Russian doorstep. So, previous Soviet satellite states changing allegiances to the EU or NATO would create next door threats rather than next door allies. If the shoe was on the other foot, the West or the United States would respond with the same zeal in maintaining regional spheres of influence, especially if changing alliances creates security threats via protection clauses or new weapons given by the other group (Cuba anyone?) Certainly spheres of influence were paramount in the Cold War but the current state of Russia, including the inability to maintain discipline in satellite states makes the idea of a new Cold War unlikely.

If nothing else, the new Cold War Gorbachev warned of may simply be growing anxieties and reduced diplomatic relations. Several states including Finland and Kazakhstan express concerns about future diplomatic relations with Russia. The tragedy of power politics is that one day all great powers become irrelevant and Russia is becoming less important. With sanctions and the growing membership of NATO, it is expected that Russia will not go quietly. But it is important to recognize that Russia can project in Eastern Ukraine but cannot project against the West. Diplomatic relations recover and falter; Russian diplomacy will get worse before it gets better, but this is not to be mistaken for a new Cold war.

While ex-KGB Putin may jump with joy at Gorbachev’s prediction, there isn’t going to be another Cold War.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *