Is a new Cold War brewing?
Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the military operations in eastern Ukraine, the concept of a “Cold War” has become part of our daily lexicon again. While the U.S.-led Western alliance hasn’t fully digested the annexation of Crimea and has been busy developing strategies on how to best confront Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe, the Kremlin decided to get directly involved in the Syrian War in September 2015 in what came as a game changer with regional and global repercussions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to back his allies at a time when the country faced severe economic constraints came in stark contrast to the disillusionment U.S. President Barak Obama caused when he let his red lines fade in the aftermath of the Gouta chemical attack in Syria in 2013.
It is possible to say that the power vacuum created by the Obama administration emboldened the Kremlin further to expand its area of influence on a global scale.
Especially in recent weeks, U.S.-Russia ties have deteriorated sharply due to accusations and disagreements over Syria.
On Oct. 3, Moscow announced its withdrawal from a nuclear security pact on plutonium disposal. Within a few days, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes investigation of Russia and Syria’s bombing campaign for their alleged attacks on Syrian civilians.
In response, Russia’s Parliament ratified a treaty that authorized the indefinite deployment of the Russian Air Force to the Hmeimim airfield in Latakia on a pro-bono basis. Moscow also announced the deployment of S-300 missiles to Syria – an effective move to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. Last but not least, the Russian Defense Ministry made a statement about plans to return to military bases in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa that they used during Soviet times.
But are we really facing a new Cold War or is there a more complicated power configuration taking shape? The issue was discussed at length and from different angles during a timely panel last week at the Second Kadir Has University International Relations Conference.
While the Cold War discourse provides a simple pattern for many to interpret the U.S.-Russian confrontation, it can be misleading for a number of reasons. To begin with, the Cold War structure rested upon the division of the world into spheres of influence between the U.S and Soviet superpowers. Today, however, there are multiple players such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea with conflicting interests who have a common interest in limiting U.S. power.
“Despite its vast nuclear capabilities, Russia is far from being a superpower on the world scene on both economic and military terms. In comparison, China has relatively more potential to challenge the U.S. predominance, however, the interdependent relations between the U.S. and China –for example China holds 31% of all U.S. government’s foreign debt – discourage the latter from disrupting the existing order for the time being,” asserts Professor Ahmet Kasım Han of Kadir Has University who chaired the panel on the New Cold War.
“What we see today is a loose, multipolar system due to the incremental regression in U.S. power. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has not been able to consolidate as much momentum as necessary to create hegemony. The “unipolar moment” of international relations didn’t last as long as some predicted, in part due to the reckless foreign policy decisions of the U.S. leaders, but there were also external forces at work such as globalization which paved the way for the transfer of technology, knowledge and economic wealth and therefore led to the rise of other power centers all across the world,” says Han. “Thus, it is not accurate to squeeze the complex geopolitical rivalry in world politics into a dichotomous, Cold War style bipolarity. Even though Russia is challenging Western security, such rivalry is not sustainable for Moscow either economically or demographically.”
Another point in which the current political outlook differs from the Cold War era is that there is no strong ideology that would challenge the neoliberal capitalist order, despite the obvious vices it is burdened with.
“Ironically and worryingly it is perhaps only the radical Islam which presents an ideological challenge to the existing order, but it clearly lacks the positive pull and certainly offers no hope for humanity’s future,” suggests Han.
Influenced so much by the Cold War perspective that is dominant among intellectual circles, Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia is perceived as a shift of axis, especially since Turkish-U.S. relations are strained to a breaking point.
However, Turkey’s experience throughout the Cold War years should provide guidance for sailing through turbulent times today. Revisiting the historical process that led to Turkey’s inclusion in NATO might especially be helpful when considering Russia’s proposal to provide air defense system to Ankara.
Uncertainty is the main characteristic of any period of transition, particularly on the current path to a multipolar world. For a middle-sized power like Turkey, leadership endowed with diplomatic skills, caution and restraint gains the utmost importance. Needless to say, however, an adroit assessment of friends, enemies, ultimate goals and means is required to pursue diplomacy on such precarious grounds.