Russia: is this a new Cold War?
The Russian government is now routinely portrayed as a threat to the West, both on the international stage and in domestic politics. In Syria, a close alliance between Russia and the Assad government has been effective against rebel forces, causing consternation among Western governments who are fretting over Russian influence in the Middle East, yet have no clear strategy for the region themselves. Russia also responded to closer ties between Ukraine and the West by annexing Crimea in March 2014 and continues to back pro-Russian forces fighting in the east of Ukraine.
During the US presidential election campaign, confidential emails from the Democratic party were leaked by hackers assumed by many to be under the control of the Russian government. Suggestions of inappropriate links between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia continue to dog his administration, with the sacking of FBI director James Comey widely viewed as an attempt to block an investigation into possible Russian influence. In Europe, Vladimir Putin’s government has been accused of supporting ‘populist’ parties that may work to undermine NATO. One commentator, James Kirchick, argues that Russia is ‘meddling in European and American politics so as to install governments acquiescent to its primary objective: supplanting the values-driven, rules-based international system with what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently called a “post-Western world order” wherein might makes right’. NATO is remilitarising the Eastern border in response to what it claims is an existential threat to the Baltics and Poland from Moscow. Claims of a ‘new Cold War’ have become commonplace.
Nevertheless, the Russian economy is still very weak and highly dependent on natural resources. Without greater economic development, Russia’s ability to project military power is limited to much weaker states like Ukraine and Syria – and even in those cases, Russia has hardly been a decisive factor in the way that the US and UK were able to invade and conquer Iraq in a matter of weeks, for example. While it may be true that Russia is ‘meddling’ in other countries’ affairs, this is hardly new or confined to Russia. The CIA has notoriously intervened in other countries for decades in an effort to put in place governments friendly to the US.
Russia is certainly back on the world stage and no longer prepared to accept Western-backed regime change, but to what extent does Russia represent a threat? Does Russia have legitimate interests that it is entitled to defend as much as Britain is? Is Putin simply playing a weak hand well? Does Russia loom large, not because it is relatively strong, but because Western governments themselves lack direction?