17 August, 2016
cold war

Photo credit: Klubovy | Vetta | Getty Images

By Alina Nychyk, UDI Associate and Secretary General of the Wroclaw Regional Representation of Polish Forum of Young Diplomats

The Cold War was a state of confrontation between the East, presented by the Soviet Union with its allies, and the West, led by the USA. It lasted almost from the end of the World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union while the tensions were observed in political, economic, scientific, propaganda and military spheres. Although an open warfare never happened, the USA and the Soviet Union supported the opposite parties in various conflicts around the globe. To protect Western European countries from a possible Soviet invasion, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) emerged in 1949. While NATO was never called being explicitly anti-Soviet, the objective reality gives us different insights. After the Soviet request to join NATO in 1954 ‘to keep peace in Europe’, the refusal followed, which led to a subsequent creation of the Warsaw Pact to oppose the Alliance. Both blocks were building their military capacities to deter each other. The confrontation had its more and less tense moments, but kept both sides under pressure as every dispute could bring the world to a nuclear war. When one of the two rivals, the Soviet Union, fell apart into independent countries and the Warsaw Pact was at its end, the world celebrated the end of the Cold War and was looking forward to a new era of international peace and cooperation.

Surprisingly, NATO, an organisation that was formed to oppose the Soviet Union, did not cease to exist when the latter collapsed. Although the European part of NATO expenditure was gradually decreasing and the American presence on the continent was in decline, Russia was always cautious about the Alliance. According to Mikhail Gorbachev, with NATO’s expansion into the Western Germany after its reunification in 1990, the organization gave assurances that it would not enlarge further to the east (Blomfield and Smith, 2008). Although the statement was later questioned, the misunderstanding remained. Russia, which considers itself an ancestor of the Soviet Union, stated clearly that it does not want to see NATO close to its borders. Nevertheless, many of the former Soviet republics or members of the Warsaw Pact expressed their will to join NATO and the European Union. Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999, followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004. Their further accession to the EU meant economic turn of former Soviet allies to the West and threatened Russian economic security (Tsygankov, 2014, p. 2). In the beginning of 2000s, Russian economy was in rather difficult positon and only with positive trends on the oil and gas markets, the country joined the global arena. Gaining some economic stability, Russia could fight for its geopolitical interests once again. President Vladimir Putin stated a number of times that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the XX century (Putin, 2005). Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference sent a warning sign to the West: Russia was not going to stand American domination any more. Apart from the shock resulting from the new Russian attitude, Western politicians did not take the message seriously (Rolofs, 2007). When later Georgia and Ukraine showed their NATO and EU aspirations, Russia was ready to use all means to protect its interests and keep its influence in these countries. Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 was a concrete threat to the post-Cold War security on the European continent. Annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a clear sign that Russian-Western relations could not remain unchanged.

The New Cold War: facts and analysis

When Russian words were not heard in the West, the country started military actions in Georgia to use other methods to communicate with the rest of the world. When Ukraine, the country of the biggest strategic importance for Russia, inspired to join the EU and NATO, Russian foreign policy focused on keeping Ukraine in its sphere of influence. Although liberalism gives every country an independent choice which organisation to join, realism can explain the conflict in Ukraine far better. More than 20 years ago, John Mearsheimer (1993) predicted Russian aggression against Ukraine in case of its giving up the nuclear arms. According to him, present Russian actions in Ukraine could have been expected. The West threatened Russian core strategic interests when promoting signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU without any consultations with Russia. Mearsheimer (2014) states that Western politicians have a tendency to believe that the logic of realism is not relevant in the XXI century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of liberal principles (the rule of law, economic interdependence and democracy), but the Ukrainian crisis showed that realpolitik remains important. In the new military doctrine of the Russian Federation, signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2014, NATO’s enlargement to the East and growing military capacities are named as biggest threats for Russia and the country is going to protect its interests (Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, 2014). Consequently, in the US National Security Strategy published in February 2015, aggressive Russian policy is mentioned as one of the most important challenges for the European security (, 2015). This shows a huge change compared to the same document from 2010 in which Russia was primarily depicted as one of the emerging economies and a partner in the process of disarmament (, 2010).

Therefore, are there supporting facts that we are actually leaving in the New Cold War times or is this a name used only by populist politicians to incite fear among the population? There is a need for a closer look at the situation and for a comparison of the present confrontation between the West and Russia with the one of the Cold War.

Supporting the opposing parties in conflicts around the globe was one of the main engines for the conflict during the Cold War. After the collapse of Soviet Union, Europe was perceived as a sphere of growing security and stability. When in March 2014 Russia illegally annexed territory of another state – the Ukrainian Crimea, the post-World War II order on European continent was changed. That created a dangerous precedent, which evoked fear of instability all over the world. Small nations were afraid that bigger powers could use force to achieve their imperial interests. The West had to deal with the consequences and to keep the global order. Most of international community, including the UN and the EU, condemned illegal referendum on the peninsula and its unification with Russia. During the following meetings with Russian representatives, European and American politicians emphasized that they would never accept the annexation. Russia was excluded from G8 group and sanctions were imposed by a number of states on persons involved in violating territorial integrity of Ukraine. Later Russia started supporting the separatists’ movements in Eastern Ukraine. The West officially condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine and called for a peaceful solution to the conflict. After July 17, 2014, when Russian-backed separatists shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, it was easier for Western politicians to persuade its people in the need of a stronger action to stop Russian aggression in Europe (, 2015). Western democracies tried not to be involved in the war militarily, but supported Ukraine in other ways. The European Union implemented a three-pillar strategy of response. The first one was sanctions against the aggressor with an objective to change Russian policy by economic pressure. The second one was European soft power and diplomacy in order to change Russian behaviour through engagement. In addition, the third pillar aimed at constant support for Ukraine, in order to make the country better prepared to function as an effective state able to defend itself (Speck, 2016). NATO responded by implementing new programs of Ukraine-NATO cooperation, giving advisory and financial support, and training the Ukrainian Army (, 2016). While Western involvement in the conflict in Ukraine is considered by Russia as threatening its own security, some scholars propose even bigger response to the violation of international laws. There is an opinion, that if the West does not push back, it will end up being pushed aside (Karasek, 2014, p. 10).

The war in Syria is the next case of Russian-Western confrontation. Western coalition led by the USA wants the current president to leave the office whereas Russia supports Bashar al-Assad and his government. While Moscow said it was attacking the Islamic State (ISIS), for the most part Russian planes and troops were attacking the Syrian rebels, some of whom are seen as the biggest threat to Assad’s rule and are supported by the West (MacFarquhar and Erlanger, 2015). Western allies were trying to fight ISIS and supporting liberal opposition against Assad’s regime. While the Western coalition understands that Russian support is necessary to succeed with the fight on ISIS, Putin has a vested interest in maintaining Bashar al-Assad’s government and hence cannot agree with the Western desire of re-elections. The conflict of opinions is not easy to be resolved. Russia becomes involved in conflicts around the world and proposes its own way of their resolution. Although predominantly the West considers such actions as worsening the situation, it has to deal with it as Russia is going to stay, as it is (Gratz, 2014, p. 1).

One of the components of the Cold War was information war, which was implemented mostly by the Soviet government. In the Soviet propaganda, the West was shown as an awful rival, hostile and in charge of all the economic and social difficulties at home. Modern day situation in Russia shows many similarities. The newly implemented military doctrine shows the West and NATO as a threat, from which Russia needs to protect itself (Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, 2014). In a number of Russian high officials’ speeches, the West is referred to as trying to diminish and undermine the country; attempting to destroy the Great Russia by implementing sanctions against it. Russia is positioned as a victim who wants to cooperate with the rest of the world, but it is “them” who are pro confrontation. On the other hand, there is a strong emphasis on Russia’s special mission in the world, its protection of traditional Christian values, which the West shuns, in Putin’s view. Russian intelligence net combined with media tools (such as worldwide TV network Russia Today) represent powerful propaganda machine to change the Western perceptions (Gratz, 2014, p. 6). Most Russian news show western events as a fight against Russia. Consequently, society is uniting against the common enemy, and President Vladimir Putin receives 80% of popular support. In its fight with Russian propaganda, NATO published a report which responded to most of Russian claims to the Alliance, starting with it being a threat to the country and ending with explanation of each of its military campaigns (, 2015). Whether we believe in NATO’s kind intentions or let Russia decide itself who imposes threat to its security, the misunderstanding remains and threatens the world stability (Mearsheimer, 2014).

Russian and NATO military trainings is the next area of conflict. In the last years, Russian troops near the Ukrainian border became a common sight. Apart from this, Russia also organised many military trainings very close to the NATO borders. In April 2016, big military trainings were exercised in the Black Sea with the Russian Defense Ministry releasing an imposing video demonstrating their firepower. It shows guided missile training from Russian naval fleet in the Black Sea and larger artillery guns being fired on-board naval vessels. Russian military personnel was commanding stealth helicopters, launching and firing more than 200 pieces of military hardware (, 2016). In response, NATO started its manoeuvres as well. One of the examples is the latest operation “Anaconda 2016”, which took place in Poland in June 2016, and was called the biggest NATO training since the Cold War. Around 31,000 soldiers from 31 states took part in exercise. According to Russian Military Attaché in Warsaw, “Anaconda 2016” may be treated as an offensive operation by Russian Federation (Smith, 2016). Currently, every either Russian or NATO move is met very carefully by the opposing party.

Provocations and violations of airspace were the tools to frighten the enemy during the last century and happen presently as well. Starting from the Ukrainian crisis, violation of the NATO airspace by Russian planes became a common practice. Russian warplanes were entering NATO airspace in Poland, Baltic States and other European countries. The situation reached its apogee when, on 24 November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that entered Turkish territory and did not respond to warning from the Turkish side (MacFarquhar and Erlanger, 2015). It was the first time since the Cold War when a NATO member state shot the Russian warplane. While NATO approved Turkey’s actions and called for de-escalation, Russian-Turkish relations worsened significantly. One of the biggest provocations happened in April 2016, when Russian Su-24 and Ka-27 helicopter came extremely close to the American destroyer Donald Cook in international waters of the Baltic Sea. The USA strongly condemned such a dangerous behaviour (, 2016).

On the other hand, Russia sees NATO’s activities as provocations. To protect its eastern members, NATO launched new missile defence system in Eastern Europe, which was considered a direct threat by Russia (Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, 2014). Critics say that the installation of the missile defence system make NATO-Russian relations even more tense (Schwarzkopf, 2016). Russian officials hinted a few times that the country is going to allocate nuclear missiles in the territory of the annexed Crimean Peninsula. According to former US ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, NATO would respond immediately by strengthening the deterrent and defence capabilities of the Alliance (, 2016).

The build up of military capacities shows another similarity with the Cold War. Although Russian economy is collapsing, the government still finds the money to develop and modernise its army. Growing military expenses evoke concerns among NATO members, especially the ones close to Russian borders. Furthermore, new Russian military successes are widely promoted in its media. The Russian Ministry of Defence’s website is full of advertisements of new military equipment with photos and specifications. News present military successes, new developments in military science, cooperation with friendly states and the need to build more military capacities due to threats from the West (, 2016). Feeling Russian attitude, NATO countries are redirecting more finance into their military sectors and increasing its military presence close to the Eastern borders. Baltic countries and Poland asked for more NATO forces on their territories. For example, in June 2015 the USA declared that more tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery are to be deployed in Eastern Europe, amid NATO concerns over Russia’s role in Ukraine. A Russian Defence Ministry official called the placement of weapons in NATO states along Russian border the most aggressive American act since the Cold War (, 2015).

NATO Summit Warsaw 2016 stated that the biggest challenges to the West are coming from the East and the South. According to the decisions of the Summit, four multinational battalions are to be deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland composed of around 3,000 troops from the UK, US, Germany and Canada. NATO Secretary General named it the “biggest reinforcement of NATO’s collective defence since the Cold War” (, 2016). While the Alliance underlined that all its steps were completely defensive, the Russians already stressed that the response will follow. Many Western and Eastern experts argue that more confrontation is to be expected.

Right after the NATO Summit, the Russia–NATO Council meeting took place on July 13, 2016. It was a chance for the opposite parties to share their worries and to come to a consensus. Unfortunately, little cooperation was reached during NATO-Russian discussions. While Alliance members stand for returning to the alignment of forces that was before the 2008 conflict in Georgia, Russian representatives do not consider such a prospect. From its side, Russia wants NATO to decrease its presence in Eastern Europe and the Alliance will hardly agree to change its European security policy. Agreement regarding the crisis in Ukraine was not reached as well (Troitskiy, 2016). With such deep differences of views on international developments, close cooperation between NATO and Russia is very unlike perspective for the nearest future. Most experts do not believe in the possibility of a bigger conflict due to sensibility of both counterparts, but some further provocations and smaller confrontation is a very likely scenario for the next years.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, it is justified to say that some components of the Cold War are very visible nowadays. Information war, violation of airspace of rival countries, support of differуте parts in local conflicts around the world (proxy war), NATO and Russian trainings close to each other’s borders, the build up of military capacities all present concrete signs of another world reality, less stable and more distrusting. Although Russia is much weaker militarily and economically than the Soviet Union, it tries to act in many ways the same. The West should be cautious and face the challenge. Even though the scale of present confrontation is much smaller than it was during the Cold War, most of its characteristics exist today. We cannot say that the past is to repeat itself and the former confrontation is going to follow. Today the situation is much different and it is difficult to predict how it is going to develop in the nearest future. Nevertheless, due to various points of view about the global order, further escalation of local conflicts, provocations and building of military capacities by the opponents will prevail. Hence there are some similarities with the last century, so we can call the present Russian-Western relations a state of new reality: the New Cold War.

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