A dry smile tugs at the corners of his thin lips, pressed tightly and silently together, hinting at a mysterious sense of satisfaction but yielding no secrets. A slender finger is pressed at the base of his pale chin as his narrow eyes come to a rest on the camera positioned before him. Nothing but smooth, impermeable confidence radiates from his commanding presence—and he knows it well. He is aware to the fullest extent that millions of eyes are resting upon him at the very moment, waiting for his next move, holding on dearly for his next word, probing and piercing him.
But the man seems unperturbed. He is used to the scathing, blinding pain of the spotlight, and perhaps has even grown to enjoy it—the spotlight that naturally results from being one of the most powerful and feared men on the planet. The job of being Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation.
On the afternoon of 6th June 2017, President Putin appeared live on state media in Moscow, answering questions from viewers both in Russia and abroad via broadcasted phone calls. He appeared calm and collected, lacing his answers with humor, and slyly dodged certain questions about next year’s Russian presidential election as well as the anti-Putin protests raging in full form across the nation. It was a trying time for Russia, but Putin did not let it show.
One curt statement that the president made during this live show deserves special attention—“We do not consider the United States to be our enemy.”
We do not consider the United States to be our enemy.
This statement, when taken out of context, may seem like an admirable diplomatic outreach to the U.S. to help improve friendly ties between the nations, or simply a reaffirming of Russia’s lack of hostility towards America.
But when this claim is viewed through the lens of recent occurrences across the globe, it is among the most laughably ironic sentences that could have been uttered at this point in time. Consider but for a moment the list of tensions. Vicious cybercrimes traced to Russian officials, suspicious Russian meddling in foreign elections, the unexplained appearance of Russian military vessels in British and Alaskan waters, and large-scale protests against government corruption in Moscow. Then there is the fact that Putin possibly ordered his most vocal critics to be assassinated, Russia continues its illegal control of territory in Ukraine, there is an increased US military presence in Poland to defend the nation from possible Russian aggression, and there is Russian support for a brutal dictator in Syria. Across the ocean, former FBI Direction James Comey gave a firm declaration that Russia had infiltrated “potentially thousands of American institutions”, the world saw the unexpected firing of former American National Security adviser Michael Flynn for illegal contact with Russian officials, and the U.S. Senate began a startling investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
All this leads to a strange, uncomfortable conclusion. The Cold War is not over yet. The U.S.-Russia rivalry is alive and well, and is manifest in all sorts of bloodshed and controversy across the globe. Yes, multiple things have changed now in the Cold War—it is quite visibly different (both in ideologies, and how it is fought). For the sake of clarity, I will refer to this “new” War as the Continued Cold War, and my intent in this essay is to argue that modern Russian actions (and the world’s responsive actions) reflect a revival of the longest “war” of the 20th century.
But to have a better grasp on what the Continued Cold War means and what/whom it involves, it is imperative to review the roots of the original United States-versus-Soviet Union rivalry and how it was fought.
As is widely known, World War 2 left a crippled Europe in its wake in 1945. Before the creation of the European Union to unify the continent, or the 1948 Marshall Plan project to help fund the re-building of the European economy and infrastructure, the countries of Europe lay helpless and simply “broken.” At the time, this helplessness of once-great imperial powers made it possible for two enormous superpowers to rise up—the United States, and the Soviet Union. This dynamic paved the way for a bitter rivalry between the two powers, pitting them against each other in a battle that shaped global foreign policy for decades.
On one side—the United States, the bold bald eagle. The friendly Uncle Sam proudly flexing his muscles and military might, rubbing his palms together in jittery anticipation for the economic boom to soon come. The home of capitalism. The icon of the free market. The hive of bustling, powerful corporations. The heroic, patriotic soldier clad in red, white, and blue, dutifully reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as he leaps out of a plane to shoot Nazis on the beaches of France. The delicious taste of freedom and democracy, albeit not always for all creeds and classes.
On the other side—the Soviet Union, the great bear. The political legacy of Joseph Stalin, and the economic legacy of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. The stronghold of communism. The home of the state-run market and media. Truly the military Goliath of World War 2, suffering the most casualties of all the Allied powers, but possibly contributing the most to the downfall of the German Nazi regime. The notorious abuser of human rights, oppressing the masses and sending political dissidents to labor camps.
Between these two sides did the Cold War rage. Capitalism against communism. Free markets against state-run markets. Democracy versus authoritarianism.
Keep in mind that the Cold War—by definition—did not involve direct military conflict between American and Soviet forces. Instead, they fought via a series of “proxy wars”—puppet wars played out in different countries and on different continents, with one side supported by the U.S., and the opponents backed by the Soviets. Notable examples include the Korean War (with South Korea, allied with Americans, battling the communist North), and the Vietnam War (the only war that the United States officially lost). The United States toppled communist governments in Latin America, often installing pro-West dictators (such as the oppressive leader of Chile, Augusto Pinochet) in their place. An additional notorious example—when the Soviets prepared to invade Afghanistan in the early 1980s, the United States provided billions of dollars in funding to a small group of rebels called the mujahideen to fight back against the communists. The rebels won, but later ended up forming the terror group known as the Al-Qaeda—which later committed the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
None of this is to say, of course, that the two sides never directly threatened each other. In fact, the world was “inches away from total annihilation” multiple times during the Cold War. The United States had placed the infamously destructive Jupiter missiles in Turkey, bordering the Soviet empire, with their fingers braced near the launch button to press down at a moment’s notice. The Soviets’ actions paralleled the Americans—several offensive missiles were placed in Cuba, a neighbor of the U.S. The missiles were later withdrawn after a tense two weeks of negotiation between American President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.
The end of the Cold War was gradual. The Soviet Union underwent the Era of Stagnation starting from the sixties, in which the economy weakened and deteriorated. Anti-communist protests were widespread, but the government responded by staging mass arrests and overseeing police brutality and torture of political rebels. But the true end of the Soviets was ushered in by the new leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who honestly recognized the poor state of the empire, and wished to make the Union great again. His plan was to rebuild the empire by modeling it after the West—bringing in elements of capitalism and democracy.
Sadly, it was catastrophic. The economy collapsed. Unemployment and homelessness soared. The “revolution”, not planned and executed with proper guidance, fell flat on its face—apparently dragging down the Soviet Union with it. Communist states such as Lithuania, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and others, broke away from the Soviets quite easily, due to the weakness of the central government.
And so, in the year 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.
In the two decades since then, the United States has seized its position as the single superpower of planet Earth, and there has been no debate about that fact. Its unparalleled military strength, combined with the great economic boom of the 1990s, has consolidated America’s occupation of this role.
During this time, Russia had accomplished very little to reclaim its greatness on the global platform. The Russian president after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Boris Yeltsin, was a rabid alcoholic, a laughingstock, and widely considered a fool. The Russian economy suffered, controlled by only a handful of super-wealthy business owners who paid off politicians, generating enormous financial inequality. However, this was before the rise of an emerging strongman in Russia, a man who sought a future of greatness for his country—Vladimir Putin.
After becoming the president of his nation (for the third time), Putin lit the old flame of the Cold War once more. Russia has established itself as a force to be reckoned with, and the United States—under the Obama administration, that is—had done its part in trying to keep Russian power under wraps and under control. The U.S.-Russia rivalry is lit once more. Modern headlines, announcing and denouncing new cases of Russian aggression, seem to be a classic throwback to the times of the Cold War. (For clarity and ease of understanding, I will refer to the modern battle as the Continued Cold War.) But what is different about the War this time?
Let’s first discuss what the Continued Cold War is not. It is not “capitalism against communism.” Russia is definitively not a communist state any longer, and neither are its closest allies, such as Syria and Iran.
The Continued Cold War is also not “democracy against authoritarianism.” Yes, much of Russia’s greatest enemies—such as the U.S., U.K., Germany, France—are popular democracies. But the anti-Russia coalition is not a purely democratic venture. Russia’s participation in the Syrian civil war (allying with the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad) is directly opposed by Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, which is not a democracy in any sense of the word. In addition, the most recent addition to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created essentially to oppose Russian expansion) is the country of Montenegro—a democracy by name, but ravaged by anti-government protests against an authoritarian Prime Minister in power. The anti-Russia alliance, once largely a group of Western democracies, has now become a mingled mix of nations with one trait in common—fears of a powerful Russia.
So what is the Continued Cold War? It is a war of ideologies, just like the original War— but of different ideologies now. On Russia’s side, communism has been replaced by aggressive nationalism, Putin’s sinister desire to return his nation to its former glory by expanding its territory and boosting its military presence abroad. In 2008, Putin ordered Russian forces to invade the neighbor nation of Georgia. Later in 2014, the Russian military led an attack on Ukraine and illegally seized control of the city of Crimea. In more recent years, Russian warships were spotted in regions such as Sweden, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and more. This reflects a new pattern in Putin’s approach to the Continued Cold War—conquering neighbor territories with disregard towards international law, and keeping an eye on countries of interest via espionage and increased military presence. Perhaps this strange military presence could even be a message to the world—after a decade of failure, the Russians are ready to wage war and win.
Another deeply important property of the Continued Cold War—the role of cyber technology. When the Russians attacked Georgia in 2008, one of the primary targets was the Internet and communication systems—which Putin’s soldiers attacked and disabled, weakening Georgia on a fundamental level. Russian forces have been accused of using cyber technology to spread pro-Putin propaganda in neighboring countries. During the decisive French election of 2017, the email account of the more liberal candidate (Emmanuel Macron) was hacked, leading to the leak of sensitive information—this attack, too, was allegedly traced to Russia. And of course, Russians seem to have hacked the database of the Democratic National Committee in America, releasing extremely damaging information.
One final point, and perhaps a controversial one that may easily be proven wrong in the coming years—I argue that the United States will not be at the forefront of fighting Russia. No, I do not claim that the U.S. will become an ally of its historic enemy or fall prey to its propaganda. The reason that the U.S. will gradually shift away from the head of the anti-Russia alliance will be due to internal conflict of interest within its own government. The Commander-in-Chief, President Donald Trump, has repeatedly expressed his support for the improvement of bilateral connections between America and Russia, and has even publicly admired Putin. True, most of the American government and public do not support Russia. But the new president’s links to Russia may prove to be an obstacle for American forces (such as the CIA, FBI, and Department of Defense) to effectively and efficiently investigate Putin’s dictatorship. In addition, Trump’s lack of confidence in NATO, and his nasty reputation among his G7 and NATO allies, renders the U.S. a less dependable ally than before.
As America’s actions against Russian aggression weaken, new forces will certainly take its place. I am confident that this new forefront of the anti-Russia coalition (if America does indeed shift away) will be the European Union—spearheaded by Germany and France, the two most militarily and technologically formidable enemies of Russian expansion and propaganda.
In conclusion, the Continued Cold War will be fought on three levels—the control of territory, puppet wars in Syria and abroad, and cyber technology. These three factors seem to work in unison to promote Russian propaganda and boost its presence on the world stage. The ascent of Russia from the ashes of the Soviet Union, sleek and silent like a secretive phoenix, has come to a stage of explosive military aggression and a virulent thirst for expansion. The players of the Continued Cold War will be different as well. Non-traditional characters will step in. New methods of warfare will seep in.
As the situation of the globe is so readily and constantly changing, there is only one guarantee I can confidently make about the next coming age of Russian and the rest of the world—it will indeed be eventful.