Dr. Vlad Sobell, of Daiwa Institute of Research (London, UK), is the world’s leading expert on post-Communist transitions in Russia and Eastern Europe. He wrote extensively on the nature of recent political and ideological confrontations between Russia and the West. Dr. Sobell has kindly agreed to post the following article to this blog.
The origins of the new cold war
Vlad Sobell, Daiwa Institute of Research
Towards a new cold war
The demise of the Soviet Union was the closing act of the 20th century’s conflict in Europe. It also marked the end of the Continent’s deep divisions. While Western Europe had prospered and, for the first time in its history unified on a peaceful, democratic basis, the anachronistic Soviet bloc prevented its members from participating in European integration.
It might have been hoped that, given this development, European integration would embrace not only the former Soviet satellites, but also the Soviet Union’s core – Russia. This is not to suggest that Russia could or should become a full member of the EU (we believe it should not). But there was no reason to suggest that Russia and the EU would not be able to evolve a modus operandi shaped by both partners’ comparative advantage and undisturbed by old baggage. And certainly there was no reason to believe that Russia and Europe, including the former Soviet satellites, would not be able to proceed towards a historic reconciliation, following the example of France and Germany decades earlier.
Unfortunately, it has now become plain that such expectations were naive. While the former Soviet satellites achieved their inclusion into NATO, and subsequently the EU, Russia’s relations with these Western organisations have gone from bad to worse. Over the past twelve months the extent of mutual incomprehension and hostility has reached levels unseen since the Brezhnev era.
The systemic roots of the new cold war
Many analysts maintain that, while cause for concern these developments are not and never can amount to a repetition of the Cold War. They point out that the new conflict is not driven by irreconcilable ideologies and the espousal of diametrically opposed values, global superpower competition or the attendant arms race. Russia, after all, has ditched communism, seen its empire crumble and embarked on the construction of democracy and a capitalist market economy – embracing the same values as the West. This benign interpretation holds that, whatever rivalry there may have been, it is driven mainly by economic and commercial rather than ideological or security factors.
Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that this optimistic view is misleading. A sceptical but – we would argue – more realistic interpretation suggests that the new confrontation has much deeper roots, with both sides once again occupying alien universes with incompatible ideological languages. Rather than rooted in atmospherics or “mutual misunderstanding” that might be overcome by greater engagement, there are grounds to believe that the new conflict is propelled by a host of inter-related factors, deserving to be designated as systemic. Instead of converging, these systemic drivers will push both sides towards a continued divergence.
The present article first analyses roots of the new cold war, thereby focusing on the causes of divergence. However, we also argue that in the long run a divergent course is not inevitable, as other equally powerful currents will tug in the opposite direction. Our key point is that it is largely up to the West, not Russia, to seize the opportunity and work towards convergence. Nevertheless, without giving up hope, we remain sceptical.
Security, ideology and the rise of post-communist superpowers
For the present purpose, the sources of the new conflict can be organised under the rubrics of “security”, “ideology” and “geo-politics”.
The security dimension stems from the precipitous weakness of Russia’s post-Soviet state and economy, which brought the Federation to the brink of disintegration (not just in geo-political but also in economic terms.) Thus, when faced with a resurgent NATO and apparent encirclement following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Russia has naturally reacted in a defensive manner, perceived in the West as “increasingly assertive” or “hostile”. (Westerners may well deride Moscow’s explanations as “paranoid”, but no major Western nation has faced a comparable situation since the Second World War).
Unfortunately, we are now well beyond the point of return – for example, a full inclusion of Russia into NATO is no longer possible. On the contrary, the current situation has a dangerous dynamic: the harder NATO pushes (for example by including Ukraine and Georgia), the more “resurgent” Russia will become; this will further embolden the anti-Russian hardliners in the West, fuelling a vicious circle.
The ideology dimension is, to a large extent, an outgrowth of the security driver. After the events of the 1990s, the new Russian leadership under President Putin became acutely aware of the need to “nationalise” the Federation’s post-totalitarian reform programme. It sent foreign advisors packing, while purging the state of the influence of foreign-connected oligarchy. The Kremlin’s ideology of “sovereign democracy” has been a manifestation of the need to ensure that the country’s economic and political elites function as a force for cohesion rather than disintegration, as had been the case in the 1990s. It is, indeed, a justification of “controlled democracy”, but it calls for controls only insofar as the regime needs to neutralise Russia’s persisting actual or latent disintegrative tendencies. And it places a premium on unfettered independence, stressing the need for Russia to develop its democracy in line with its own political “DNA”.
Unfortunately, these issues too are completely misunderstood in the West, where “sovereign democracy” is generally dismissed as a fig leaf for “autocracy”. Few analysts bother to consider that the exhausted post-totalitarian Russia is “structurally” immune to another, inevitably dysfunctional, autocratic experiment. The Russians understand only too well that de-pluralisation of politics and economics would lead to another disastrous blind alley.
Nor would many analysts concede that President Putin has rightly placed priority on effective democracy rather than desiring to control everything that moves. The notion that he fears chronic government paralysis of the Ukrainian type (or of Russia in the 1990s), rather than democracy, is simply inadmissible in the unimaginative Western interpretation of his regime.
The geo-political drivers of the new cold war have been fuelled by the deep “tectonic currents” in the global economy, initiated by the overcoming of communism in Russia and China. (Which, incidentally, means that they are an unwelcome by-product of the unwinding of the first Cold War.) The regeneration of these ancient civilisations, made possible by their transition to capitalism, is not only re-balancing the global distribution of power. It is also fundamentally altering the relationship between Russia and the West, with the latter at a loss how to respond.
Contemporary Russia (together with China) is an unprecedented phenomenon. Having ditched its empire and embraced the construction of democracy, it is focusing on its own internal development as, inter alia, a key condition for the buttressing of its integrity. With these objectives being paramount, the new Russia is projecting itself externally only to safeguard its security and advance its economic and commercial interests, just as all Western powers are doing.
Because Russia is certainly growing stronger and – given its vast deposits of hydrocarbons – will likely go from strength to strength, it is perceived by the West as a menace. This negative perception is exacerbated by Russia’s continuing to occupy a “tectonic plate” of its own, rather than hitching up with that of Western Europe. Thus a fundamentally healthy and peaceful process of post-Soviet normalisation, driven by democratisation and the market economy, will continue to be misdiagnosed as pathological and inherently threatening.
What the West needs to do – Step One
Although the causes of the new cold war are systemic, it does not mean that the conflict cannot be moderated. After all, structures and systems are not immutable and, given the requisite presence of statesmanship, the new cold war may still turn out to be a farce, rather than a tragedy.
What needs to be done is to flip from the increasing divergence to convergence, a process that might be started by taking two decisive steps we outline here. However, since there is no hope currently that these recommendations will be implemented, this exercise also provides a further indication of the difficulties of breaching the gap between Russia and the West discussed above.
As the first step, the West needs to abandon its stultifying dogmatism and accept that Russia is not moving towards all-embracing and lasting authoritarianism, but is constructing a bona fide democracy. It should not be so difficult to grasp that, because of its experience (historical as well as more recent), Moscow is justifiably concerned about the risks of foreign-abetted disintegration. Equally, the West should be able to understand that, having gone through the traumas of totalitarianism and tasted the economic and civic fruits of liberty, the reconstruction of a rigid closed system is the last thing Russia would strive for.
Russia’s economic rebound during this decade testifies not only to the success of the Putin regime’s strategy. It also confirms that post-Soviet changes cannot and will not be reversed. The regularly noted “explanations” of its economic turnaround as being due exclusively to the high price of hydrocarbons are misconceived. Were it not for the government’s credible economic policies and the quality of its legislation (a result of effective democracy), the windfall income would have only revived the threat of federal disintegration. The standard market based management of the economy underpinning this success will, therefore, remain safely in place.
The West must also accept that genuine, stable democracy cannot materialise on the basis of a dysfunctional economy and widespread poverty. Russia first needs to overcome the deep-rooted economic consequences of communism and develop a property-owning middle class. And this is exactly what the regime has been doing.
What the West needs to do – Step Two
As a second step, the West needs to accept that genuine and durable peace on the European Continent cannot materialise as long as the Atlantic nexus and NATO are perceived as actually or potentially anti-Russian. This implies that the West needs to convincingly explain the rationale for an unreconstructed Atlantic alliance. With the Soviet bloc gone, exactly what is its raison d’etre? Does it exist to defend Europe – and if so against whom? Does Europe really need it against an isolated, third-rate power such as Iran? And is the ill-conceived NATO campaign in Afghanistan really advancing Europe’s vital security interests?
Alternatively, if it is acknowledged that Russia is no longer a menace, is the Atlantic alliance primarily a tool for the promotion of a new division of the Continent, designed to prevent Europe’s emergence as a truly sovereign global player?
It could be argued that this tried and tested bulwark against totalitarianism has been allowed to degenerate into a dysfunctional anachronism. Instead of promoting stability and unity, the alliance has turned into a destabilising structure, stunting the healing of the European Continent.
Apart from keeping Europe and Russia divided, the Washington-oriented Western neophytes (the former members of the Soviet bloc) also cannot resist the temptation to use their disproportionate influence against their other historical foe – Germany. And they are finding willing allies in this sorry game across the Atlantic. Thus, despite the sweeping changes of the last 20 years, Europe remains stuck in the post-war paradigm, with old divisions deepening rather than being overcome.
This is not necessarily to imply that the Atlantic alliance has been captured by anti-Russian conspirators, driven by the desire to divide and rule Europe. The problem is, rather, that the triumphant alliance has proved it is simply unable to summon the internal impulse towards its reconstruction. And an anachronistic structure without a clear raison d’etre inevitably will come to be misused. In this respect, Russia can play a constructive role by delivering such an impulse externally.
The risks of inaction will soon exceed the risks of action
Expecting Europe to fundamentally redesign its defence architecture to wean itself off its pathological dependence on the US (“pathological” because relying on foreign power for its security is not healthy) while striking a new relationship with Russia might be in the realm of utopia. Surely, as is habitually pointed out, the alliance is the foundation of Europe’s security and any tinkering with it would be suicidal.
However, European leaders have to ask themselves whether it really is in their countries’ interests to perpetually poison their relations with Russia and renew the Continent’s division for the sake of a warped loyalty to the new cold war warriors among their ranks.
By the same token, Washington has to ask whether its interests are served by treating its long-standing European partners in this manner. Would America’s own security be enhanced by fuelling new divisions in Europe and by keeping the Continent frozen in its post-war paradigm in perpetuity? It seems that the answer is obvious.
We have noted that the prospects of such sweeping transformation on the European Continent seem to be in the realm of utopia. Not so long ago the suggestion that the Soviet bloc would peacefully vanish and Europe re-unite was viewed with an equally incredulous air. Yet these things have come to pass.
Based on that experience, there are reasons to believe that Europe’s new anomaly – the unreconstructed Atlantic alliance – will in time also undergo a peaceful metamorphosis. It does not even need to disband, but merely abandon its anti-Russian posture and replace outdated deference to Washington with a genuine European autonomy – that is, with Russian-style sovereign democracy.
If nations were to take responsibility for their own affairs, the globe would tend towards greater stability, bringing to an end the over-leveraged dependence on the US. It is reasonable to assume that the global system will automatically tend towards the winding down of its anachronistic de-stabilisers.
The role Russia can play
Against this background, Russia has a historic responsibility to assist those currents in Europe that are ready for and willing to work towards the realisation of this paradigm shift. As noted, an external impulse may be needed, and Moscow should be ready to deliver it. If totalitarian Russia was responsible for the Cold War and the division of Europe, the new Russia has the opportunity to assist the speeding up of the post-Cold War healing process.
To most effectively fulfil this function, Russia should literally and figuratively “stick to its guns” by pursing the “assertive” but transparent course heralded in President Putin’s speech in Munich in February 2007. It should uncompromisingly defend its sovereignty and legitimate geo-political interests, while effectively countering widespread disinformation about its internal development. Above all, however, Moscow should continue to concentrate on the country’s economic development, as nothing is more telling than success on this critical front.
However, it should also show flexibility and patience towards – as well as understanding of – Europe’s difficult predicament. Arguably, Europe’s hostility towards Russia is fuelled by its anxiety in a changing global and European environment, rather than by incurable, systemic Russophobia. But by often inadvertently appearing to threaten Europe, Moscow makes the problem worse. The exuberance of an emerging Russia is in stark contrast to the often stultifying political correctness of Europe, supplying new ammunition to the new cold warriors.
Nevertheless, while modulation of Russia’s message may well ease the tensions, the new cold war will persist as long as the West fails to tackle its structural causes.