Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

Why Russia can’t afford a Cold War

Will there be a new Cold War between Russia and the West? I have been asked the question so many times that I thought it relevant to write down my answer.

Let me first define Cold War. To my understanding, a Cold War is a protracted period of rivalry between two major powers that is caused by an irreparable incompatibility of political, economic, and territorial interests. While direct military confrontation is deemed too costly, a Cold War is about relentless competition to build superior alliances, to attain military supremacy, to excel economically, and to seize the moral high ground – which implies the ability to advance values, norms, standards, and political institutions.

Departing from this definition, I simply do not see Russia capable of initiating a new Cold War. Do not get me wrong: the Vladimir Putin does want to revise the international order and to finish American primacy… but he cannot do this alone, and certainly not like the Soviet Union did in the previous century. There is a large gap between Putin’s intentions and his capabilities.

Yes, Russia has repaid its foreign debt, which is an argument that I often hear. But its total reserves, including gold, remain far below those of the NATO-members. And, yes, Russia has a lot of energy, but its proved oil reserves are actually smaller than those of the NATO-members and the shale gas revolution also has expanded the latter’s proved natural gas reserves to 15 trillion cubic meters. I am aware that the European Union remains heavily dependent on Russian gas, but if there would be a real new Cold War, it has plenty of alternatives.

Also consider the charts below: Russia’s gross domestic product at purchasing power parity is just 10 per cent of of NATO’s, its net savings 9 per cent, its industrial output 7 per cent, and its high-tech exports 1 per cent. This is not exactly the economic condition that allows Vladimir Putin to unleash a new battle of attrition.

Schermafbeelding 2015-06-18 om 11.29.48

I also doubt that Russia will be capable to compete for military superiority with a defence budget that remains ten times smaller. Yes, it still possesses a huge nuclear arsenal, and it clearly shows a greater ambition than many European countries to modernize its armed forces, but its progress is definitely not of the magnitude of the Cold War period.

What Russia aims at today is not a Cold War. It is just not ready. It would ruin the country. Instead, Russia opts for guerilla under cover of its nuclear weapons. Hybrid war, it is called.

Hybrid war is nothing new, but it is completely different from a Cold War. It is more about exploiting weakness than about gaining strength. The immediate aim for Russia is not to become the strongest power in the world, but to exploit the weaknesses of its rival and to reduce its power. I do not argue that this could not escalate into a real war. A cornered cat, the old saying goes, can become as fierce as a lion. So, even if Russia cannot afford a new Cold War, it can still be dangerous.

Moreover, and I have been making this argument for years, Russia could in the end create a formidable alliance with China. Today, indeed, this is unlikely. Several politicians and members of the Russian security establishment are deeply concerned about China as a long-term challenge, criticize China’s growing influence in the East, and loathe the prospect of an unequal partnership with it. History shows, however, that alliances are not formed because two countries like each other, but because both they hate another country more. If this were to happen, if we would see the creation of an Axis of the Frustrated, the West has a serious problem. Such a formation would also be able to start a real Cold War.

We are not yet that far and the challenge is to prevent both scenarios – an escalation and an alliance between the main continental powers.

In the short term, we should go on to pressure Russia to refrain from interference in other countries that are important to us and to respect the Minsk Agreements. I still believe that economic sanctions are an appropriate instrument to that end. Simultaneously, we should display military power to reassure eastern allies, but refrain from creating a new military frontline in Eastern Europe. Reassurance must be proportionate and intelligent. I also find that Europe has to play a larger role, instead of letting the United States pick our chestnuts out of the fire.

Subsequently, we have to neutralize the threat, which is not Russia, but the aversion of the Russian leadership towards the West. This implies a serious dialogue about long-term cooperation, taking into consideration both sides’ core interests, and offering Russia a better alternative than an unequal alliance with China – the ultimate sell-out of Russia’s sovereignty and interests.

The baseline, of course, remains that the West too should regain its inner strength. We should try harder to end economic stagnation, to build more satisfied societies, and to maintain resilient democracy. We should make sure that the West inspires again as a role model, and that it retains the full spectrum of hard power capabilities to defend itself, whenever the soft power and diplomacy fail.

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