The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov passed through the English Channel a couple of weeks ago, sparking questions about Putin flexing his muscles and the possibility of a new Cold War. It almost seems conventional to claim that there is going to be another period like we saw between 1945 and 1991, however with considered analysis it also seems very unlikely.
Whilst internally I do tend to agree that Putin has used the State Security apparatus to resemble something close to the notorious Soviet KGB, it cannot be considered that this will automatically juxtapose into the same thing happening externally.
Internally Putin has slowly built up the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) to a position of strength which has not been seen since the Cold War era. Much of this is to quash dissent and strenghen his own position. It used to be said that repression in Soviet times under the KGB killed any form of civil society, the same is true in crony Capitalist Russia today. One of the main reasons for this continuity of repression is Russia’s geography. Even though it lost large swathes of territory in its sphere of influence after the Cold War it is still the largest country by land mass on earth. The country, like any, is made up of various peoples and cultures. While in Moscow and St. Petersburg you will find your ardent pro-Russians, to the far East you will find people who may have little allegiance to the Putin regime. More and more Chinese immigration into this region means Putin see’s a strong FSB as necessary to halt rising Chinese soft power. It may seem unrealistic, but there is genuine fear within the Russian kleptocracy that this could lead to the formation of a pro-Chinese separatist movement in the future.
However, one of the most striking reasons for Putin bulking up the FSB in to tackle Islamic Extremism in Chechnya and beyond. This has been a problem ongoing for decades and has resulted in many deadly attacks. Nevertheless, many believe the campaign against these terrorists has been overly vicious, in some cases the FSB have tracked these separatists into the Gulf states and killed them there. Undoubtedly, Putin has used international Islamic Terrorism to further his desire to remake the FSB into a much more powerful body.
Dangerously, one of the most stark examples of Putin’s desire to remake the FSB into something resembling the KGB has come via inspiration from the infamous Yuri Andropov, former chairman of the KGB and brief General Secretary of the Communist Party. Andropov’s treatment of dissenters is well documented, especially the systematic abuse of psychiatry for political ends which was based on the premise that political opposition was a psychiatric problem. This issue is again finding its feet in Putin’s Russia. In 2006 a new law came into force that gave the president the power to assassinate dissenters at home or abroad. Dissenters are classed as extremists in Russia and this includes anyone who slanders a state official, causes mass disturbance or humiliates national pride (see Alexander Litvinenko as an early victim of this law). But in regards to psychiatry been used as a punishment I will use the example of human rights campaigner Marina Trutko. She was arrested for questioning the regimes human rights record, forcibly medicated and then locked in prison. Added to this FSB interrogations are increasingly using psychiatrists for medical style questioning to try and prove a dissenter is mentally unfit. As a result of this the Moscow Helsinki Human Rights group has claimed we are seeing a return of Soviet style punitive psychiatry under Putin.
So it is clear that Putin’s Russia is flirting with its Cold War self internally. Whether that be because of the attraction to a strong leader, or because keeping Russia together requires a strong fist is frequently argued among academics.
Internationally, there is often a lot more hysteria about Russia and a new Cold War, probably because that is more of a threat to our Western lives as we currently know them. However, I do not believe this to be a possibility. If there is to be another Cold War between the West and Russia it certainly will not last as long as the last one.
I say this because Russia is no longer a world power. It is a regional power. After World War Two there was a clear emergence of two super powers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Both were vying for their place at the top of the world stage and were in a race, whether that race was run in relation to the military or to space exploration, it always came back to the competition between Capitalism and Communism. A battle for the system under which the world would live.
Now of course there is no such battle to be fought. Communism is largely dead. Russia is a Capitalist country, albeit a very flawed one.
For the moment, the USA is the solitary super power on this earth. A blue water navy, strong army and top of the range military technology. Any future challenge to this status will not come from Russia but from China – however that is for a different article. Russia’s economic performance is largely based on its ability to sell its energy resources on the global market. That’s what makes it so influential in the central/eastern European region. Putin can literally turn off the power whenever he wants. However, as the continent starts to move towards more sustainable forms of energy and as imports of shale gas from the USA become cheaper over time, this dependence will fall.
The implication for Russia is obvious, not as much political/economic power in Europe. Indeed, if Russia were to have another arms race with the USA and NATO it would need to further increase its already high GDP% spent on defence. That isn’t easy when you take into account volatile global energy markets and a crony capitalist system where Putin and his mates rig the economy and take as much as they can. Lets not forget it was poor economic management that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.
It represents a sort of conundrum of Putin. He wants Russia to return to its ‘rightful’ place as a super power. To be seen as a power that can rival the USA. But to do so he would have to wreck the economy and bring further suffering on millions of Russians who are already living in poverty the likes of which we cannot comprehend.
The actions of Putin in the Crimea and Syria consolidate this view. They’re brash but with geopolitical considerations in mind. A NATO/EU orientated Ukraine would never be tolerated by the Kremlin who are so concerned about their ‘near abroad’. The Crimea is essential for Russia to have access to the seas and oceans, seen as the majority of Russian ports are often frozen over. Therefore, if the Ukraine had orientated towards the west it would have threatened Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol and its black sea fleet. If there is to be a new Cold War, Russia at least has to be able to project its naval power. It is in this context that the Crimean issue must be viewed.
Russian involvement in Syria holds the same geopolitical thinking. There is a small warm water port there which Assad allows the Russian Navy to use, this provides vital access to the Mediterranean. It is also a chance for Putin to displace the USA as the police man in the Middle East seen as the Obama administration has done as much as possible to avoid the region. Many people make references to the Cold War here. Citing ideas that it is the return of US-Russian proxy wars. It is not, Russia simply filled a hole the USA left. Putin saw an opportunity to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean and orient Syria towards Russia. If Bashar al-Assad emerges from the Syrian conflict still in power, it could lead to an expansion of Russia’s naval presence in the region.
While Russia may be posturing on the world stage, it is not from a position of strength. Their GDP is comparable to Italy’s, their population is shrinking and their military technology is far behind that of the West. In some ways Russia projecting from a position of weakness makes it more dangerous. But a more worrying factor is that the West is doing as much as possible not to challenge Putin.
The most worrying contribution to this debate about Russia and a new Cold War has come from a certain Donald J Trump. The potential future president of the USA claimed he may not come to the support of NATO allies, thus breaking a cornerstone of NATO’s constitution. While he has a point that some of the European NATO members need to contribute more to what is currently a lob sided relationship, it is a dangerous idea should he actually come to sit in the White House. It raises the possibility of a weak and divided West witnessing Putin pick off countries in his near abroad one by one.
If you’re sat there believing this is a fantasy, then just consider that for the first time since 2008 Lithuania has reintroduced conscription to manage what it see’s as the geopolitical threat coming from Russia.
A new Cold War will not happen. Internally, Putin maybe shaping Russia into its former Soviet Cold War self. But what we are currently seeing internationally is Russia asserting itself from a position of weakness and the West watching on and doing almost nothing. We need to be more robust in our response than we currently are being. If we decided to engage with Putin’s fantasies, Russia would be economically crushed in no time. Putin knows this, which is why his moves are calculated, taking into account the lack of appetite for conflict after the disasters in the Middle East and increasing populist insurgency throughout the West.
This post was originally published by the author 6 November 2016: https://thepoliticsguy.co.uk/2016/11/06/russia-and-the-possibility-of-a-new-cold-war/