Ever since Putin took the reins of power in Russia the idea of a “new Cold War” has been the go-to metaphor for lazy journalists. As is typically the case, all events in Russia and Russian history must be reduced to one guy, and that guy can only be compared to someone else in Russian history, such as a Tsar or Stalin. Therefore when hostile rhetoric flies between Russian and Western leaders it must mean that the Cold War is back, because this is the only way they can imagine to comprehend this conflict.
Let us first consider the definition of the Cold War. It was typically defined as the struggle between the two superpowers and their allies, specifically the United States and the USSR. What good is this in proving that the Cold War is over? First, there is no USSR and no Warsaw Pact; this should be enough for most people to understand. But even if you’re one of those poor, confused souls who thinks that Russia is the continuation of the Soviet Union, you’re still wrong. Russia is not a superpower. I’ll repeat that. Russia is not a superpower. Yes it has nuclear weapons, but it’s pretty obvious that no sane government is going to use those in a first-strike role. Therefore it’s going to come down to conventional military power. NATO has 28 member countries, one of which is indisputably the most powerful military on the planet, plus 22 countries in its “Partnership for Peace”, one of those being Russia. It is unlikely that Russia will be able to call upon any allies, and if China gets involved it will probably want something in return for coming to Russia’s aid. No doubt such a move would lead to Russia playing a subordinate role to China, a nation which in modern times deserves the status of superpower far more than Russia. So what is Russia’s military power if it cannot use its nuclear weapons and it has no true allies to support it? Well according to the Ministry of Defense, among the new reforms slated for 2014 is that conscripts will now have socks instead of foot-wraps, and they will be able to shower every day instead of a couple times a week.
Now at this point the Team Russia fanatic is gritting his teeth and his face is redder than the Soviet flag. He silently screams, “But what about the T90/Sunburn anti-ship missile/S300 SAM system/etc.” Couple things to say to that. First of all I hate to play these stupid pen-and-paper war games but military weapons are rarely better than the men who wield them. Russian conscripts now serve for one year, and this time obviously includes basic training. Training and field exercises (among many other conditions) determine how fast that SAM battery is operational or whether a high end main battle tank ends up rolling into a ditch due to an inexperienced driver. Furthermore, many of Russia’s latest weapons are largely for export. Russian aviation has produced some amazing planes and helicopters but that doesn’t mean it is deploying squadrons exclusively made up of these aircraft. Lastly, there is this tendency, even for people with military experience, to assume that the problems one encounters with high-tech Western equipment don’t occur with Russian or Chinese counterparts. Anyone who has served in the US military knows that those high tech weapons and systems don’t always work the way they do in Tom Clancy novels, yet for some reason we assume that these kinds of Murphy’s Law defects are totally absent from Russian weapons. So much for Russian wunderwaffen.
The whole point of that war nerd exercise is to show that Russia is not a military superpower, and more importantly it lacks the ability to project military power around the world. As for economic power, we see that it only has the ability to lean on former Soviet republics. Therefore it is not a superpower, nuclear weapons notwithstanding. You cannot have a Cold War without more than one superpower.
Now if the reader still objects, citing the Syrian conflict as an example of Russia projecting its power in the world, just keep in mind that another country is doing far more to fight for Assad than Russia has. This is Iran, a regional power which strikes fear into the heart of both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran of course has been engaging in a war of rhetoric against “the Great Satan” since 1979. Unlike Russia, Iran is neither a member of US CENTCOM nor NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Do you see any journalists talking about a Cold War between Iran and the US? Nope. Can it really be solely due to Iran’s lack of nuclear weapons that it is unable to be called a superpower, and thus unable to be in a Cold War? I would say no, because Pakistan, India, and Israel all have nuclear weapons and aren’t typically referred to as superpowers. If there is anything resembling a struggle between superpowers in the world today, it is happening in the Pacific and the “winning side” so far is China.
I write this because in Russia there is a certain community of nationalistic-minded people who obsess over this idea. More importantly because there is also a community of Western hucksters who are more than happy to feed them with tales of an “information war” between the United States and Russia. If you’re a Westerner with an identity crisis that only a distorted, romantic version of Russia can assuage, by all means take up this career. It obviously worked well for Tim Kirby. Or you can work for the “other” side and warn your countrymen of the “rising” Russian bear that is restarting the Cold War. If you’re allowed to use pen-names and aliases perhaps you can work for both sides.
As for my position on the question? The Cold War has ended, at least between the USA and Soviet Union, and there is not and has never been a Cold War between Russia and the United States. If there is a true Cold War at present or if there shall be one in the future it will most likely be between the USA and China, with Russia possibly siding with the USA since that country cannot possibly outright annex any territory as China could theoretically do. The truth is that despite the sensationalist press, most Americans do not care about Russia or Putin, and among those who do there is probably a significant number of those who look favorably on Russia. In fact the more America’s mainstream media outlets and politicians attack Russia, the more favorable many dissatisfied Americans look upon her. At the same time, Western media attacks on Russia often unite Russians behind the government, including many who are at other times fervently opposed to the regime. If America toned down its rhetoric against Putin, it would no doubt lower the opinion of that country among those Americans who have taken up its banner. If Russia toned down its rhetoric, more Russians would realize that they are living under a puppet regime which has merely cut a few of its strings.
A marionette with some freedom of movement is the best term to describe Russia in a geopolitical sense. It’s certainly a regional power but not a superpower, unable to project military force globally and incapable of waging even proper proxy wars. Most likely both the European Union and United States dream of collaring that puppet to work exclusively for them, but since Putin cannot be unaware of this it affords him some freedom to play both sides against each other and wrangle for better deals, much like the way Mobutu Sese Seku of Zaire manipulated the Belgians, French, and Americans. Russia can also serve as a source of fresh manpower in various global hotspots, and it would certainly excel in its 19th century role as the Gendarme of Europe if workers in Eastern Europe or Central Asia become unruly(as they did in Kazakhstan in 2011). Perhaps if we expanded our analysis of Russian politics and leaders beyond the narrow confines of a simplistic, Western Cold War narrative of the second half of the 20th century, we could fully analyze what’s going on with Russia and paint a more accurate picture for people who are unfamiliar with the topic. I don’t see that happening any time soon, however. It’s simply too easy to pigeonhole everything as a “new Cold War” and compare Putin to Stalin or Ivan the Terrible.