Not since the days of Ronald Reagan has Russia played such a prominent role in US political life. After Donald Trump’s shock victory – greeted in the Russian parliament with cheers and champagne – came accusations of Russian meddling in the US electoral process, followed in January by the leak of a dossier claiming that the Russian authorities had accumulated (even more) compromising information on Trump. More recently there have been alarms over the Kremlin’s connections with and possible influence on the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and Trump’s now ex-national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The rhetoric emanating from US politicians and media commentators too seems to be drawn from another era. In November, a murky online group called PropOrNot went full McCarthy by releasing ‘The List’, designed to name and shame – or indeed casually smear – websites which it believes ‘reliably echo Russian propaganda’. In January, Fox News rolled back the years by announcing that there was ‘no Soviet source’ for the DNC leaks, and the title of a piece in the New York Review of Books – though it was soon corrected to reflect events since 1991 – asked: ‘Was Snowden a Soviet Agent?’ The Russian official media, in their turn, have been producing waves of anti-Western rhetoric for a few years now, but the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions put in place by the US, Canada and the EU sent them to fevered new heights.
All this makes it hard to shake the feeling that we are living through a deranged re-run of the Cold War. Of course, the idea of a reprise of the superpower stand-off that dominated the 20th century has been in the air more or less since the actual Cold War ended, the stuff of countless think-tank briefings and film plots. But it has gained particular force over the last decade or so, supplying a readymade framework for understanding the mounting tensions between Russia and the West – especially since the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008. For one current of opinion, that conflict provided yet more evidence that Putin’s Russia had reverted to Soviet type, bent on dominating its neighbours just as the USSR and the tsarist empire had been. From this perspective, Russia and the West are locked in the same old geopolitical struggle, an authoritarian power pitted against the world’s democracies.
A more even-handed version of the ‘new Cold War’ argument doesn’t see the recent downturn in US-Russian relations as a straight reversion to the familiar pattern, but holds instead that it is in various ways comparable to the polarisation that set in soon after 1945 – the Cold War standing in this case as both analogy and warning. In Return to Cold War, Robert Legvold – a specialist in post-Soviet foreign policy and regular contributor to Foreign Affairs – sees worrying similarities between the current situation and the early stages of the Cold War (c.1948-53), focusing in particular on the rhetorical framings of the conflict on each side, and on the seriousness of the potential outcomes. Then as now, in his view, each side assumed the other alone was at fault – ‘the essence of the conflict was in the other side’s essence’ – while the zero-sum character of the confrontation also meant that both parties felt it ‘could end only with either a fundamental change in the other side or its collapse’. Moreover, the globally interlinked nature of the Cold War meant that ‘trouble in one area metastasised to others,’ and Legvold sees the current situation in similar terms: bitterness over Ukraine has choked off co-operation on a range of issues, most notably nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation. The clash between Russia and the West, according to Legvold, threatens to ‘cripple efforts to come to grips with the 21st century’s new challenges’, from terrorism to climate change to cyber warfare.
Legvold may be right that the rhetoric coming from either side could have material effects. The notion of a ‘cold war’ is a kind of geopolitical speech act: if enough people in power decide they are in one, it will materialise. But there are decisive differences between the Cold War contest and current frictions between Russia and the West: the lack of remotely comparable ideological stakes; the greatly reduced number of players (this time around, China, East and South Asia, Africa and Latin America are all bystanders); and the much more geographically circumscribed nature of the struggle (with the grim exception of Syria, the zones of contention have been in Eastern Europe). In short, it makes more sense to say that both Russia and the world have been so transformed over the past generation that none of the Cold War conditions can be said to apply. In Should We Fear Russia? Dmitri Trenin (a career officer in the Soviet and then Russian army for twenty years, including stints in Iraq and East Germany; he now runs the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office) calmly and concisely sets out this line of argument. In his view, the current rivalry between Washington and its allies on one side and Russia on the other is ‘more fluid and less predictable’ than the 20th-century stand-off had been. But this in itself is cause for concern: his Tolstoyan verdict is that ‘the situation in Western-Russian relations may now be as bad, and as dangerous, as at any time during the Cold War, but it is bad and dangerous in its own new way.’
The debate over whether we are or are not in a new Cold War reflects different views of what has happened over the last quarter-century. The story that is most often told in the West sees Gorbachev and Yeltsin making great strides towards democracy and free markets at home, matched by an unprecedented degree of co-operation with the West on the global stage. In this narrative, the rise of Putin meant a reversal of all these trends, resulting in a steady reassertion of Russian power after 2000 that fuelled a series of ugly confrontations. In Who Lost Russia? Peter Conradi attempts a more balanced view, providing a brisk run-through of the post-Cold War era in which both Russia and the West are faulted for a string of misguided moves. A correspondent in Moscow from 1988 to 1995, and now foreign editor of the Sunday Times, Conradi points out the major landmarks along the road to the present hostility. From Russia’s perspective, these were the steady enlargement of Nato; the interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya; US support for protest-driven regime change in former Soviet states from the mid-2000s onwards; and US and EU attempts to pull Georgia and Ukraine into the West’s orbit. From the Western point of view, the charge sheet includes Russia’s suppression of internal dissent and rigging of the electoral system; attacks on the principle of private property (most notably with the dismembering of Yukos); the invasion of Georgia; the annexation of Crimea and military incursions into eastern Ukraine; as well as the more recent signs of interloping in the US elections.
Both Conradi and Legvold try to take a fair-minded approach, Legvold arguing that ‘the two sides arrived at this point together,’ and that ‘the only path out of the current impasse must be travelled together.’ In the present climate, to adopt this kind of stance is no doubt to court condemnation in some quarters – it doesn’t take much for someone to be classed as an apologist for Putin, or what the Germans call a Putinversteher. But the problem with both their accounts is that their very even-handedness obscures the fundamental fact that has shaped US-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War: the huge imbalance in power and resources between the two parties. Those who point to this fact are often depicted as supporters of the Kremlin, as if to note the disparity were somehow to take the weaker side. To be sure, Putin has found sympathisers in unlikely places – on the left as well as the right – who are willing to condone his crimes; when Russia bombs civilians, some insist on seeing it as part of a ‘counter-hegemonic’ design. But there is a huge distance, politically and ethically, between measuring how much power Russia really has and defending what Putin does with it. One of the effects of the ‘new Cold War’ rhetoric is to conflate the two, and thus to prevent any discussion of the actual international balance of power. But it’s impossible to understand the story of relations between Russia and the West without taking it into account: all other geopolitical calculations have flowed from it – including both the West’s impulse to drive home its advantage through expansion of Nato, and Russia’s growing resentment of that process, as well as its inability to halt or reverse it. In March 2009, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, presented her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with a yellow plastic box featuring a red button marked ‘reset’ in English; but the State Department had made a basic translation error when labelling the button in Russian: instead of perezagruzka it read peregruzka – not ‘reset’, but ‘overload’. The gaffe pointed to an embarrassing lack of either competence or care in Washington; but it was also an unbeatable metaphor for the whole trajectory of post-Cold War relations between the two countries.
‘It is difficult,’ Conradi writes, ‘to pinpoint the precise moment at which relations between Russia and the West went wrong.’ In fact, he continues, ‘it may be that there was never a moment at which they were going right.’ Coming at the end of the book, this reads like an evasion rather than a conclusion, but Conradi may be more right than he knows. Within the story he tells lie the makings of an alternative account, in which a Russian fantasy of alliance with or even integration into the West was gradually revealed to be a delusion the West never shared. The Russians had believed the end of Communism also meant the end of superpower rivalry, and assumed that the former would lead to their country becoming a fully-fledged member of the liberal capitalist world. But the West they sought to join had strategic priorities of its own which, far from receding with the Cold War’s end, could now be expanded and pursued unopposed. What has happened over the past decade is not so much an unforeseen escalation of tensions as a collision – delayed or masked for a time – of incompatible interests.
The West has, of course, long been the central reference point for Russian and Soviet policymakers, whether as antagonist or as object of admiration. Moscow’s most recent pro-Western turn began under Gorbachev, who dreamed of a ‘common European home’, a harmonious bloc of broadly social-democratic states – a kind of Greater Scandinavia. Under Yeltsin this turned into a project to make Russia into a ‘normal’ liberal democracy, firmly under the tutelage of the US. But the disasters of shock therapy eroded what little popular support there was for this line, and in 1996 its main proponent, Andrei Kozyrev, was replaced as foreign minister by Evgeny Primakov. The former spy chief oversaw a recalibration of policy, preferring to set a course more independent of the West; in 1999, as prime minister, he was sharply critical of Nato’s intervention in Kosovo, carried out over Russian objections and without UN approval. Putin, on the other hand, returned to the ‘Westernising’ stance to begin with: shortly before assuming the presidency for the first time in 2000, he told David Frost he sought ‘more profound’ integration with Nato, and ‘would not rule out’ Russian membership. In the aftermath of the 11 September attacks – having himself levelled the remains of Grozny in what was billed as a ‘counterterrorist operation’ – Putin saw the potential for an ‘anti-terrorist’ alliance with the Bush administration, opening Russian airspace and encouraging Central Asian states to help with the assault on Afghanistan. The co-operation between Washington and Moscow was short-lived (the unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM treaty in June 2002 was an early sign that Russian overtures would not be reciprocated), but throughout Putin’s first two terms, even as tensions began to multiply, some version of the idea of allying with the West persisted. It recurred under Dmitry Medvedev, too, in the form of his 2008 proposals for a new ‘European security architecture’, or in his call that same year for closer economic integration of a space stretching from ‘Vancouver to Vladivostok’.
None of these initiatives found an audience in the West. For most of the period since 1991, the West has seen no place for Russia within Euro-Atlantic security arrangements, and has had little reason to pay heed to Russian interests outside of them either. Nato enlargement, eagerly sought by the former Warsaw Pact countries as a security guarantee, was seen by the Clinton administration primarily as a political instrument rather than a military commitment: the lure of membership was a means of pressuring Eastern European governments to forge ahead with market reforms. Of course, arguments were made for Nato enlargement based on the strategic need to step into the vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal – what Clinton called a ‘grey zone’. But at the time, this had little to do with a ‘Russian threat’ as far as Washington was concerned: expansion could be pursued precisely because Russia was so weak. As James Goldgeier put it in his 1999 book on Nato enlargement, Not Whether but When, ‘the possibility that Poland or the Czech Republic would actually need defending seemed remote.’
Already on Washington’s agenda even before the fall of the USSR, the expansion of Nato was treated as a given from 1994 onwards, the only question being how to make the Kremlin swallow it – to ‘get the Russians to eat their spinach’, as Victoria Nuland, then chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, put it. (Digestive metaphors seem to be a feature of the Foggy Bottom mentalité: Madeleine Albright later referred to the need to ‘minimise Russian heartburn’.) The Yeltsin government several times floated the idea of joining Nato, but Russian membership was never seriously considered. The ‘Partnership for Peace’ launched in 1994, the Permanent Joint Council set up in 1997 and the Nato-Russia Council that replaced it in 2002 seemed to provide avenues for cooperation between Moscow and the alliance. But as the Russians quickly realised, they were alternatives to membership rather than stepping stones to it. When Putin asked Clinton at a 2000 summit how he would respond to Russia’s joining the alliance, Clinton apparently looked desperately to the advisers flanking him: Albright ‘pretended that she was looking at a fly on the wall’, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger ‘did not react at all’, so Clinton was reduced to saying he would ‘personally’ – a word he repeated three times, to be on the safe side – support it. All of these facts are in Conradi’s account but, strangely, he arrives at the opposite conclusion to the one his narrative suggests: ‘successive US presidents from Clinton through to George W. Bush to Obama,’ he writes, ‘had made a point of trying to integrate Russia into the Western world.’ Given Conradi’s attempt to be fair-minded overall, this reversion to standard ideological assumptions seems especially unfortunate.
Part of the reason there has been no place for Russia inside the Euro-Atlantic order is that, despite its weakness in the post-Soviet period, it nonetheless remained too large to be absorbed comfortably – especially in a system that revolved around a single, superordinate power. The paradox of Russia’s recent resurgence is that, for all its refusals to fall into line with Washington’s priorities, it is still in no position to mount a frontal challenge to the West. In terms of military might, economic weight and ideological reach, Russia is no match for any of the larger Nato member states, let alone the whole alliance combined. The collapse of the planned economy sent all of the former USSR – already lagging behind the West on any number of indicators – into an economic depression that lasted a decade. In 1999, Putin said that it would take 15 years of rapid growth for Russia to draw level with Portugal’s current level of per capita GDP. It reached that milestone in 2011; but by then Portugal was further ahead, and even amid the deep recession sparked by the Eurozone crisis, its GDP per capita was still more than one and a half times that of Russia. In 2015 Russia devoted around a tenth as much money to its armed forces in absolute terms as the US did, and slightly more than the UK; in per capita terms, it spent somewhat less than Germany or Greece. All told, its 2015 military spending came to around 8 per cent of the total for Nato as a whole; the US accounted for almost 70 per cent of that total.
To be sure, Russia still has one of the largest armies in the world in terms of personnel, though many of them are teenage conscripts. But the 2008 war with Georgia among other things revealed how far behind Russia was in terms of technology and military organisation, prompting a major overhaul and upgrading of weapons; Syria has been the testing ground for some of these new-look forces. Yet what allows Moscow to pose a military threat to its neighbours is not so much the scale or strength of its armies as its readiness to use force in pursuit of its policy goals. This was what enabled it effectively to call Nato’s bluff by invading Georgia in 2008 – causing alarm in Central and Eastern European capitals about the solidity of the alliance’s security guarantees, especially the commitment to ‘collective defence’ in Article 5 of its charter. But the rapid resort to force is in itself an indication of the much cruder means at Russia’s disposal, a sign of its inability to secure the outcomes it wants either through diplomatic persuasion or through economic pressures or inducements. As Trenin observes, ‘the obvious asymmetry in power and status between Russia and the United States leads Moscow to elect the field which it finds more comfortable – military action.’
The Ukraine crisis clearly showed these dynamics in action. As Trenin again points out, the EU was the prime mover in Western policy towards Ukraine, but it was shockingly cavalier in its approach. Brussels ‘failed to appreciate the geopolitical, economic and even psychological importance of Ukraine to the Russian leadership and people and pursued its Eastern Partnership project without much thinking about its wider implications’; then, when the crisis deepened, it ‘essentially withdrew to the background’ as Washington stepped in. This time, the aggressiveness of the Kremlin’s response was in part driven by fear that the Maidan would encourage protesters at home. But equally important was Moscow’s awareness that although it had decided that it couldn’t allow Ukraine to become more closely integrated with the EU or join Nato, it lacked both the resources to make Kiev a genuinely better offer and the power to convince the West not to absorb Ukraine into its sphere of influence. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent Russian support for separatists in the Donbass served a number of purposes, not least boosting Putin’s domestic popularity at a time of heightened confrontation with the West; but these were tactical improvisations rather than part of a long-held plan to dismember Ukraine. The moves were also intended to block Ukraine’s accession to Nato by turning significant portions of the country into either a warzone or contested territory. In this they may have succeeded – though President Poroshenko recently announced plans to hold a referendum on Nato membership – but the country has definitively left Russia’s sphere of influence, and there can be little doubt that events in Ukraine since 2013 have been a huge strategic and political defeat for Putin.
They are also a watershed in a larger sense: they mark the final demise of the fantasy of Russian integration or alliance with the West. As Trenin puts it, ‘that window is permanently closed.’ The idea had been progressively eroded over the previous decade and a half, and the return of Putin to the presidency in 2012 brought a strident nationalism increasingly at odds with a pro-Western stance. But it is only recently that Russia seems to have given up on the Westernising fantasy entirely. Its official ‘foreign policy concept’ from February 2013 described Russia as ‘an integral and inseparable part of European civilisation’, and made it clear that priority would be given ‘to relations with the Euro-Atlantic states which, besides geography, economy and history, have common deep-rooted civilisational ties with Russia’. Only in the next iteration of that document, in December 2016, did these allusions disappear. What has taken their place is a much stronger emphasis on ‘Eurasian integration processes’. The immediate reference is to Moscow’s project for an EEC-style trade bloc composed of Russia plus several former Soviet states, but behind it lurks the notion, increasingly fashionable in Muscovite policymaking circles over the past few years, of Russia as the core of a Eurasian ‘civilisation’, distinct from its European, Asian or North American neighbours. The idea is in essence a reactionary one, dedicated to the preservation of an obscurely defined complex of ‘cultural traditions’ and ‘values’ derived largely from various religious traditions and shrouded in layers of myth-making and national messianism, not to mention 19th-century race thinking. Much of this is, sadly, central to its appeal. But Eurasianism’s recent rise to prominence is not simply a matter of Russia turning right: it is also an attempt to fill the ideological void left by the pro-Western idea as Russia’s relations with the West deteriorate. If Russia has indeed given up on alliance with or integration with the West, what are its alternatives? Hidden for much of the post-Cold War period, the questions raised by Russia’s position in the world, both in a literal, geographical sense and in strategic terms, have re-emerged with particular urgency since the Ukraine crisis.
What, then, is Russia’s place within the US-dominated international order, and what role will it play in the future? Despite its brevity, Trenin’s book has the most to say about what might lie ahead, and his judgments are level-headed. Though there is still plenty of potential for conflict, he argues that many of the most widespread anxieties about the Kremlin’s intentions are unfounded. Russia, he writes,
has no resources and no real will to re-create its Eurasian empire … it has no ambition to conquer neighbouring EU/Nato member states, thus risking a war with the US; its brand of authoritarianism is a domestic, not an export product; its state-dominated economic system is not a model for others to emulate; its ideology is nationalistic, not international; and its capacity to infiltrate Western societies is very modest.
Underpinning Trenin’s assessment here is a profound historical shift he has described in such previous books as The End of Eurasia (2002) and Post-Imperium (2011), in which the turbulence of the 1990s and the authoritarian turn of the 2000s appear as passing phases in a painful but necessary process of coming to terms with Russia’s new self – post-Communist but also, for the first time in five hundred years, no longer imperial. Though the collapse of the USSR was experienced by many Russians as a diminution, accompanied by an abrupt demotion in the ranking of global powers, Trenin still thinks that Russia’s sheer size and its large and well-educated population, not to mention its nuclear arsenal and natural resources, will make it ‘an influential world player’ for some time to come.
Trenin sees Russia as occupying a potentially ‘pivotal’ position in an international system destined to be dominated by the US and China: by aligning with one of Washington or Beijing it could tilt the balance against the other, and by forming alliances with other states it may be able to create a counterweight to both. Trenin’s choice of metaphor recalls Halford Mackinder’s 1904 description of ‘Euro-Asia’ as the ‘geographical pivot of history’, but his projected future of great-power balancing also bears some resemblance to 19th-century inter-imperial blocs and rivalries. Kremlin strategists, too, may have something like this in mind when they refer to a coming ‘multipolar’ or ‘polycentric’ international order, which will apparently emerge after the ‘unipolar’ moment of US dominance has passed. The deepening disaster of Western intervention in the Middle East, and Russia’s apparent ability to change the course of the conflict in Syria – its bombs taking a massive civilian toll of their own – are seen in Moscow as portents of a global power shift in the making. But for now, any post-American world seems a long way off, leaving Russia hovering in a kind of geopolitical and historical limbo.
What happens in this long interregnum depends to some extent on the fate of the current system of political rule in Russia – whether under Putin or his eventual successors – since, as Trenin observes, the Kremlin’s domestic fortunes have become ever more closely bound up with its foreign policy choices. But it also depends greatly on what the West does. Since November, there has been a great deal of speculation about a possible US turn towards Russia. In late January, Putin and Trump reportedly discussed co-operation against Islamic State; but this would be an alliance of convenience rather than a step towards realising Putin’s long-standing dream of a global ‘anti-terrorist’ coalition – though it could certainly bring even more suffering to the Middle East in the meantime. Similarly, if the Trump administration does decide, even in the wake of the Flynn fiasco, to strike a deal with Moscow over Ukraine or soften the sanctions regime, it might benefit the Kremlin but it wouldn’t necessarily signal a more durable realignment. Whatever favours the Russians may have asked of Trump’s campaign team, and whatever gruesome personal chemistry there may be between the two presidents, it is the basic power imbalance between their countries that governs strategic calculations on both sides. The US enjoys accumulated advantages that enable it either to attend to or ignore Russian interests as it pleases. Russia, meanwhile, retains enough of its great-power habits of mind to resent this state of affairs, and has proved more than willing to deploy force to act on that sentiment, though it can’t by itself alter the underlying balance of power. Unless and until these conditions change, more clashes are likely, and they could occur anywhere along Russia’s vast periphery, or in the Middle East yet again. From the standpoint of a unipolar world in which the single superpower is permanently at war – currently bombing seven countries at once – it’s easy to imagine that a multipolar world would be an improvement. But the transition between the two could be long and bleak, and multipolarity too could be destructive in its own way. Those already hoping the future won’t look like Fallujah or Mosul will have to hope it doesn’t look like Donetsk or Aleppo either.