Michael McFaul is a professor of political science at Stanford University. He served for five years in the Obama administration, first as special assistant to the president at the National Security Council and later the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. He is the author of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference two years ago, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev shocked the hall when he argued, “Speaking bluntly, we are rapidly rolling into a period of a new cold war. … I am sometimes confused: Is this 2016 or 1962?” Today, Mr. Medvedev’s remarks seem unremarkable. Many now agree – it’s Cold War 2.0. U.S. President Donald Trump has gone a step further, tweeting last month that “Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War.”
This Cold War analogy is imprecise. The West’s new confrontation with Russia resembles some aspects of the Cold War, but also features new dynamics, some of which may be even more dangerous than the Cold War. Rather that labelling our era a new Cold War, I call it a Hot Peace.
As was the case during the Cold War, Russia and the United States are the world’s two and only nuclear superpowers – the only countries that can blow up the planet. There were moments during the Cold War when both sides feared the possibility of an actual nuclear war; thankfully, such catastrophes now seem remote. Since the Cold War, successful arms-control treaties have reduced dramatically the number of nuclear weapons in both countries. That’s progress. But we could still destroy each other in a matter of minutes; the mutual assured destruction (MAD) born during the Cold War still lingers ominously.
The Hot Peace has added a new destabilizing dynamic regarding our nuclear standoff with Moscow. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a quantitative nuclear arms race, in which we eventually counted the number of nuclear weapons in the two countries by the tens of thousands. We have now begun an equally frightening qualitative nuclear arms race. In March, 2018, Vladimir Putin revealed Russia’s development of several new types of offensive nuclear weapons, including a nuclear-armed long-range torpedo. The United States will have to respond. Russia and the United States also are racing to develop new missile-defense systems. If left unchecked, future military advances could make the Cold War look stable by comparison.
The United States has for several decades now outpaced Russia in annual military spending. But Russia has re-emerged as a major military power in Europe, and a growing military actor in the Middle East. The shift from quantitative to qualitative advancements, especially within Russia’s military, makes this new balance of conventional military capabilities just as frightening as the Cold War. Some military analysts assess that Russia today has even greater conventional capacity – faster and lighter tanks, more accurate missiles, debilitating cyber weapons – to launch a war and seize territory in Europe than the Soviet Red Army did during the Cold War.
A new military asset is the emergence of cyberweapons. These can destroy energy grids, collapse financial markets and degrade conventional military capabilities. Doctrines, norms and treaties to manage these new cyberweapons have not kept pace with technological advances.
Unlike during the Cold War era, Russia does not currently anchor a serious military alliance. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) today is supposed to serve as a mutual defense alliance between Russia and five former republics of the USSR: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In practice, the purposes and capabilities of this alliance remain unclear. But were the loyalties of citizens or capabilities of militaries of Warsaw Pact countries ever clear during the Cold War? The Hot Peace also exhibits a new dynamic detrimental to the United States: the Russian-Chinese rapprochement. The Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War marked a major diplomatic victory for the United States and the West. Today, Mr. Putin describes Russia’s relationship with China as a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Chinese President Xi is not so effusive regarding relations with Russia, but this bilateral relationship is most certainly closer today than during the Cold War.
With its powerful and loyal alliances, the United States still maintains a major advantage over Russia, but the strength of these military ties has waned. The United States’ alliances help it maintain a major advantage over Russia, but Mr. Trump’s governance has weakened some of those bonds; a Pew Research survey shows citizens in nine of its allies – France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey – now trust Mr. Putin more than Mr. Trump to do the right thing in international affairs.
American alliances will survive the Trump presidency, but they may not be as strong as they were in the Cold War.
Economically, the United States and its allies continue to maintain vast advantages over Russia, which suffers from corruption, a predatory state, weak rule of law and even weaker institutions of accountable government. Nonetheless, Russia’s flawed market economy today performs much better than the Soviet Union’s command system of the Cold War. Russians on average are much richer today than Soviets three decades ago. They own better-quality consumer goods than their grandparents ever did.
These higher standards of living translate into greater support for Mr. Putin and his system of government than Soviet leaders enjoyed in the last decades of the Cold War. Russia’s economic base today is most certainly strong enough to support Mr. Putin’s massive defense-expenditure increases over the past two decades, especially as the state has assumed greater ownership of Russia’s most valuable companies and redistributed many valuable properties from 1990s-era oligarchs to Putin loyalists.
Ideologically, the Soviet Union represented a greater challenge to the United States and our allies during the Cold War than Russia does today. Communism had appeal in nearly every country in the world. To believe that Mr. Putin’s Russia represents no ideological challenge to the United States, however, is naive. Over the past decade, Mr. Putin and his regime have propagated two different kinds of ideological challenges to the United States. The first strain of this attack echoes old Soviet criticisms of the United States as an imperial aggressor, wielding unilateral power for illegitimate gains. This message remains targeted at leftist leaders and movements, especially in Africa, Latin America and Asia, but also Europe. A second and even more virulent message casts Mr. Putin as the leader of a worldwide conservative Christian movement seeking to push back against a decadent, godless liberal West. Mr. Putin actively propagates populist national themes, and the need for strong leaders and powerful states. Those photos of Mr. Putin riding horseback without a shirt were not leaked; they were circulated by design. Putinism seems to be growing in popularity in several European countries, as well as in Turkey, Philippines, and the United States.
To push his ideas, Mr. Putin has invested hugely in new propaganda platforms, including the television network RT, the news agency Sputnik and new companies adept at infiltrating American social-media platforms. He also gives direct financial assistance to movements and parties sharing his ideological orientation.
Our hyperconnected world offers Mr. Putin and his agents new opportunities to pursue this ideological war through the use of disinformation, bots and fake identities now capable of reaching deep into democratic societies to push anti-democratic ideas and fuel societal discord. The asymmetries of openness also favour Moscow. Kremlin propagandists and their proxies can penetrate democratic societies through cable television, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or Instagram much more easily than we can influence Russian society. Putinism shares few themes with communism from the Cold War, but the scope of Russia's new campaign, like the old, is international and messianic again.
At the same time that Putinism is surging, democracy is waning. In the immediate wake of communism’s collapse, all countries, including Russia, seemed on a path towards democracy. However, the practice of democracy has eroded for several years in a row, while democracy as a value enjoys less support today than at the end of the Cold War.
In parallel, and perhaps not coincidentally, the appeal of the American model also has waned. International polls show that just six months into the Trump presidency, only 22 per cent of people across 37 countries had confidence in Mr. Trump to do the right thing in international affairs (comparing to 64 per cent at the end of Obama presidency). Mr. Trump himself has shown no passion at all for advancing democratic values abroad. Democracy, both as a system of government and as a universal value, will survive Mr. Trump; nonetheless, a major ideological dimension of our contest with Russia is back.
Mr. Putin’s will to use his power in risky ways is another new element. His proxies have poisoned and murdered so-called traitors and political opponents. Mr. Putin attacked NATO member Estonia in 2007 with cyberweapons, invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and intervened in Syria in 2015 to support a horrible tyrant. When Mr. Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, he defied several international treaties and norms to which Soviet leaders adhered during the Cold War. Mr. Putin also used his propaganda instruments and cybercapabilities to intervene in several elections in Western democracies, including, most boldly, the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Mr. Putin has not yet pursued a policy as risky as Khrushchev’s attempt to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba. But Russian international behaviour seems much more unpredictable now than during the last decades of the Cold War.
Are we better off in the Hot Peace than we were during the Cold War? I think so, but I’m not sure.