Cold War Revivalism? Characterizing the U.S.-Russian Relationship in the Contemporary World Order

The Soviet Union disintegrated exactly 25 years ago this past winter. It was the final nail in the Cold War’s coffin. Yet today, a quarter of a century later, rhetoric from politicians, and pundits declare there is a “New Cold War” or a “Cold War 2.0.” While it is clear that tensions exist between the United States (U.S.) and Russia, especially with regards to Syria, Ukraine, and allegations of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, to say these elements are analogous to those of the Cold War would be a fundamental misunderstanding of history. For starters, U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles have been slowly yet surely decreasing, rather than increasing as part of an arms race. Additionally, neither state is boosting its military budget vis-à-vis the other’s moves. Next, there are no definitive examples of proxy wars between Washington and Moscow like those that existed during the Cold War. Many will argue the situations in Ukraine and Syria count as proxy wars, but that is not possible due to the lack of U.S. or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops in either state directly combatting Russian forces. Lastly, and probably most importantly, while the Cold War was fought along ideological lines, today there is no ideology and no “-ism” to which Russia adheres. While the U.S. still sees itself as the defender of capitalism and liberalism, Russia has been experiencing a dearth of ideology for it to exemplify in the world. There is no “New Cold War” between Russia and the United States because the current relationship cannot be compared to the ideologies and motives either party defended throughout the second half of the 20th century. Neither power is looking to trump the “ism” of the other, nor do they see themselves as a savior to world order in relation to each other.

        For starters, the arms race synonymous with U.S.-Soviet relations of the mid- to late 20th century is behind us. Data shows that since 1991, the U.S. and Russia have each reduced their nuclear arsenals to a quarter of what they once were. The arms race was a key component to the Cold War, with the militaries dominating each country’s federal budget. In his 1963 speech at American University, President Kennedy stated, “[W]e are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons.” Presently, neither government is forming its policies based on what the other side does. Each country’s policy remains largely independent of the other’s. True, there is still plenty of suspicion between Moscow and Washington, but that is not fuel for greater stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Additionally, Russia’s military budget is about one ninth of what the U.S. spends. Even if Russia wanted to spend the same dollar amount on its armed forces that Washington does, it would require the Kremlin to spend 45% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in military, compared to the 5.4% that it spends now. The Russian economy cannot handle that burden. Thus, it is impossible to have an arms race today like that seen several decades ago.

        It should be noted that the Cold War never involved direct military conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but rather was comprised of many smaller-scale wars around the world. These wars were fought to install governments friendly to either Soviet communism or American liberalism. These wars were known as proxy wars. Herein lies another difference between current Russo-American relations: neither state is intervening in countries around the world in order to prevent the other from “winning.” The world is no longer seen through a “zero sum” lens, which is to say an actor that does not support one state does not necessarily support that state’s enemies. For Washington, this means that a state not being aligned with the U.S. does not mean that it is aligned with Russia. While issues like Crimea can be seen as zero sum (either Ukrainian or Russian), the same cannot be said of Afghanistan, Iraq or Kosovo, where U.S. and NATO troops are stationed. The U.S. and her allies have avoided sending in troops into active combat duty in Syria and Ukraine, where Russian actions are most prevalent. During the Cold War, Washington was quick to send in troops and covert specialists when it looked like there would be a leftist swing in states like Vietnam, Honduras, and Iran. Today, states cannot “fall to Russia” or its ideology. Herein lies the last yet greatest difference between the Cold War and current Russo-American relations: the role of ideology.

        For the duration of the Cold War, a widespread fear was held in the U.S. that its geopolitical adversary would seek to spread its ideology to any and every part of the world it could. George Kennan first wrote about this in his Long Telegram, stating, “Russians will strive energetically to develop Soviet representation in…countries in which they sense strong possibilities of opposition to Western centers of power.” To Kennan – and everyone in Washington thereafter – Moscow was on a mission to turn the whole world against the West. In other words, the Soviets saw themselves as the defenders and propagators to communism, collectivism, and Leninism throughout the world. On the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. saw itself in a similar manner towards capitalism and liberalism. Thus, both sides sought to curb the spread of the other’s core ideology, or the other’s “ism.” This objective can be best seen in President Reagan’s 1982 speech to the British Parliament, where he declared, “the march of freedom and democracy will leave Leninism and Marxism on the ash heap of history.” Here the mission of the Western world was no longer to contain Soviet ideology, but to vanquish the “ism.” Such rhetoric does not exist anymore, and for good reason: Russia no longer has an “ism” to champion. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, so too did communism, collectivism, and Leninism throughout Eurasia. Russia has been experiencing an existential crisis ever since. Furthermore, because the Kremlin does not have an “ism” of its own, there is no Russian ideology for the U.S. to counterbalance. Bearing in mind that nearly every foreign policy move taken by Washington during the Cold War was to trump Soviet communism, it is clear that current relations do not resemble a “Cold War 2.0.”

        Elements that were present during the Cold War can be seen in current Russo-U.S. relations, although they do not constitute a “New Cold War” by themselves. First, there is the Syrian Civil War and the Russian annexation of Crimea. From a quick glance and brief background knowledge of either conflict, echoes of past U.S.-Soviet standoffs are evident. Both Moscow and Washington have shown support for actors who are conflicting with each other. Furthermore, these actors are operating in a “zero sum” arena – it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that President Bashar al-Assad will create a coalition government with the rebels similar to how it is unlikely that Donetsk and Luhansk will ask to rejoin Ukraine. Yet these do not qualify as proxy wars because, while Russian troops are present in Syria and eastern Ukraine, NATO and U.S. forces have limited intervention to airstrikes and aid packages. At the same time, it is evident that both the West and Russia have interest in integrating Kiev into their own respective institutions and governance systems. Therefore, Ukraine can be best seen as a sphere of influence battle, a phenomenon seen throughout the Cold War. In the Syrian case, on the other hand, all actions conducted by the U.S.-led coalition have been in the name of counterterrorism, rather than toppling the Russian-friendly regime. Thus, Western intervention has not been necessarily geared towards countering Russian actions or gaining influence over Syria, but rather as part of the War on Terror.

        Secondly, propaganda has been playing a heavy role in influencing each society’s perception of the other. Russian media outlets enthusiastically backed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign while U.S. outlets have run the story that Russia rigged last year’s elections. While the rhetoric has softened over the past 25 years, Russophobia is alive and well in the United States just as it was in the mid-20th century. However, propaganda does not equate to war. Information battles have been waged between Moscow and Washington for several years now, but they are not analogous to those seen during the Cold War. Indeed, the propaganda we see is developed under the banner of fear and alarmism rather than actual threats. Russia will not be the end of the American way of life; that will come only from the American people.



Jonathan Scolare is a senior in SIS, focusing on U.S. foreign policy towards Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. He has an academic passion for studying the intersection between religion and international relations in addition to understanding the history and development of “Russophobia” in the United States. He has studied in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and has taught English in Siberia.