The Russia-Ukraine Crisis Has Removed All Doubt. We’re in a New Cold War

World Politics Review, 22.02.2022
Erica Gaston, abogada y académica (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace-Global 
Public Policy Institute)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bellicose speech yesterday, in which he announced that Russia had recognized the independence of two separatist regions of Ukraine and would deploy military forces there as “peacekeepers,” suggests that after months of military posturing and diplomacy, a full-scale invasion may well be at hand. But while it is still impossible to know for sure how the crisis will play out, one consequence of it is already certain: There is no more use in dancing around reality using terms like “strategic competition” or “great power tensions” to describe relations between the West and Russia. We are in a new Cold War.

After the past few months of escalating tensions, it is impossible to imagine the U.S. and its NATO allies, on one hand, and Russia, on the other, going back to their respective corners and maintaining the pretense of anything but open hostility. The past two Security Council sessions on Ukraine have felt like a throwback to a different era, with wildly divergent cross-accusations and a level of hostility that appeared ripe for Khrushchev-inspired shoe-banging at any moment. It is hard to imagine the council, despite its mandate for maintaining global peace and security, producing anything but tit-for-tat vetoes and geopolitical posturing in the near future.

This new Cold War was of course in the making long before the Ukraine crisis, and not purely on a Russia-NATO axis. The U.S.-China rivalry had already inspired Cold War rhetoric, and will likely be the most significant dynamic shaping the international system and the carving out of competing spheres of influence in the coming decades.

But now that the crisis over Ukraine has brought it much more out in the open, what can we expect from this new Cold War? And are there any differences compared to the last one, in the way it will be pursued that might make it possible to defuse this cycle of geopolitical competition, preferably in less than four decades this time around?

Many credit George Orwell with coining or popularizing the phrase “Cold War” in his 1945 essay, “You and the Atom Bomb,” which was written after nuclear weapons were used for the first time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His essay was a meditation on how the nature of this new weapon would shape interstate competition, as well as the ideological climate within each superpower’s sphere of influence.

In his view, the invention of a weapon that was unequaled in its military potential but could only be produced by a handful of countries, at least by the technological standards of the time, would create a standoff of frozen war between the world’s superpowers, cutting each of the “three great empires” he identified—the U.S., Soviet Russia and China—off from each other and hardening the worldviews, beliefs and social structures within each:

Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police State. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a “peace that is no peace.”

Orwell speculated that the one thing that might counterbalance the consolidation of power that these all-powerful weapons afforded was “the discovery of a weapon—or, to put it more broadly, of a method of fighting—not dependent on huge concentrations of industrial plant.” What he meant was something that would democratize the means of violence and coercion. In Orwell’s view, “ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance.”

The age of more readily available, arguably democratized, means of warfighting and political resistance also came to pass, albeit some 40 years later. Globalization, changes in technology and the spread of social media have made more lethal and transformative means of warfare available to individuals, popular resistance movements and nonstate armed groups. Without high-tech weapons or advanced military-industrial complexes, terrorists and insurgencies have defeated advanced armies and humbled superpowers. Peaceful mass protests—another form of decentralized power and resistance—played their part, too. From the Arab Spring protests to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, activists tore down dictators and went after what Orwell would have decried as the “self-elected oligarchies” and hierarchies of power.

But as the latest uptick in geopolitical tensions suggests, these changes in the means of warfare and political and social resistance did not put an end to great power dominance and rivalry. Sadly, it was Orwell’s other prediction—of more accessible means of warfare risking a descent into “barbarism”—that appears closer to the reality. In too many places, decentralized or demonopolized violence and resistance left in their wake extreme fragmentation, social polarization and perma-conflict. The number of protracted crises generated over the past two decades, most of which cannot be resolved absent multilateral cooperation, make it all the more imperative that the new Cold War tensions do not escalate into the sort of proxy contests and frozen peacemaking that characterized the last one.

Given this, what do the tools and weapons that are most prominent in the current geopolitical standoff suggest about the shape of the coming conflict? The threat posed by nuclear weapons is not absent of course. The U.S., Russia and China still maintain healthy nuclear arsenals and delivery systems that are even more advanced than at the end of the Cold War. But so far, nuclear weapons have not been the competition-defining hardware that they were in Orwell’s time. They’ve barely even figured in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, for instance, only making an appearance when Russia test-launched three ballistic and cruise missiles Saturday, which spurred news headlines but did little to alter the overall dynamics of the conflict.

Instead, the standoff in Ukraine has materialized in the form of Russian tanks on the border ; an unconventional shadow force of Russian mercenaries and Ukrainian separatists, now joined by uniformed Russian forces, contesting Ukraine’s territorial integrity; and a disinformation campaign promoting narratives of ethnic cleansing as a possible pretext to war. On the opposite side, NATO forces scrambled cybersecurity experts, readied an arsenal of economic sanctions and projected their own counter-disinformation campaign.

The U.S.-China rivalry has followed a different trajectory, but has also been as much about nonkinetic threats and positioning as about military force. So far it has been waged through tech sanctions, punitive tariffs, competing trade deals and infrastructure initiatives, and investments in soft power projection or denial.


What these early skirmishes suggest is that this new Cold War will be a hybrid one, with as much of a focus on nonkinetic weapons and tactics as on all-powerful military force. The main super-power or weapon for the U.S. and China is their domination of key nodes in the global political and economic system, which gives them agenda-setting and gatekeeping powers, as well as the ability to weaponize global interdependence. Today, this positioning is more significant than their nuclear arsenals in terms of allowing them to demarcate spheres of influence and shape global power dynamics.

Russia has less power to wield in this regard. But the way it has leveraged its U.N. veto, its ability to project expeditionary force and the Soviet Union’s military-industrial legacy allows it to compete for influence and resources, and to block others from doing so, on a global scale. Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on the military tactics it relies on—from deployment of “little green men” and the use of disinformation and cyberattacks, to cultivating proxy allies in Western zones of interest—but Moscow can deploy them across many arenas simultaneously in ways that few others can. In the past year alone, Russia has used these tactics to either garner influence and capital or roil Western interests in the Sahel, Libya, Syria, Sudan, the Balkans and, of course, Ukraine. If not a superpower, Moscow is certainly a super-spoiler extraordinaire.

Taken as a whole, the type of weapons and tactics that the U.S., China and Russia are deploying represent an aggregation of political power, economic capital and military might that few other nations can compete with. But they are neither as unassailable nor as exclusive as Orwell imagined nuclear weapons would be. This may make both détente and deterrence more difficult to achieve. The threat of mutually harmful sanctions does not have the same impact as mutually assured destruction. And the sort of signaling that is necessary for deterrence to be credible and effective is more difficult in the context of proxy, cyber or hybrid warfare, where the actors, timing and even attacks themselves are harder to read. This may make it more difficult for threats to be contained or ratcheted down, and the hybrid nature of this conflict—with its focus on economic, political and social competition over military force—makes it more likely that civilians and other neutral actors will be swept up in it.

On the flip side, though, precisely because these new hybrid levers of power are contestable, relatively common and possessed by actors beyond the states in question, there may be more avenues to break them down. Unlike in 1945, we live a world where private corporations, errant insurgent groups, minor regional players, popular protest movements and even individual hackers have the ability to frustrate the ambitions of global superpowers. Although existing forums like the U.N. Security Council may be ineffective platforms for crisis resolution for the foreseeable future, there may be emerging avenues for states and citizens alike to reach across borders, defuse tensions and get out of the cycle of zero-sum competition that proved to be the last Cold War’s real barrier to peace.

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