Cover Story

Looming Cold War

Print edition : April 27, 2018

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump in Beijing on November 9, 2017. Russia and China are united in their opposition to the “hegemonic” policies being pursued by the U.S. and its allies. Photo: Kyodo News via Getty Images

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Danang, Vietnam, on November 11, 2017. Delivering an “America first” message, Trump denounced China for unfair trade practices. Photo: Hau Dinh/AP

March 2014: Russian forces near the Ukrainian navy ship Slavutich in the harbour of Sevastopol, Ukraine. The first signs of a new Cold War were seen in 2014 when a democratically elected government in Ukraine, aligned to Moscow, was overthrown with the active involvement of the U.S. and the European Union. Photo: VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP

A U.S. soldier sits on his armoured vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, on April 4. The U.S. still has not given up on its game plan for regime change in Syria and is backing the Kurdish separatists in the north of the country. Photo: Hussein Malla/AP

A demonstration organised by the Ghana First Patriotic Front in downtown Accra on March 28 against a Ghana-U.S. defence cooperation agreement. The latest African country to formally cede a military base to the U.S. is Ghana. Photo: CRISTINA ALDEHUELA/AFP

Presidents Hassan Rouhani (left), Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Iran, Russia and Turkey respectively after a joint press meet in Ankara on April 4. They said they opposed “separatist” agendas that would undermine Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Photo: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

A new Cold War is in the offing. But more than a battle of ideologies, it will be a fight between a declining superpower and resurgent countries such as Russia and China that want a return to a more democratic, multipolar world and respect from the West for their sovereignty and national interests.

There is a growing consensus in the international community that the world is on the threshold of a second Cold War. Recent months have seen tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats on a scale that was not witnessed when the previous Cold War was at its height. In the last week of March, Russia ordered the expulsion of 60 American diplomats. This was after scores of Russian diplomats were designated as persona non grata in several Western capitals.

The threat of a new Cold War is taken seriously in many quarters. As tensions rose between the United States and Russia in the last week of March, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that it was time to revive the Cold War channels of communication that had existed in the last century. “Those mechanisms are dismantled. It is time to revive them again,” he stressed. Otherwise, he warned, there was a danger that things could go out of control “when tensions rise”.

Another strong signal that a new Cold War was in the offing was the Donald Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review released in February this year. The document provided a blueprint for increasing the already large American nuclear arsenal and the rationale for a more permissive use of nuclear weapons. This was followed by President Vladimir Putin’s State of the Union address on March 1 in which he announced the development of new nuclear and missile systems that had the capability to strike any corner of the world. Putin made it a point to emphasise that the new weapons systems Russia possessed had the capability of piercing the much-vaunted missile defence shields the U.S. had set up all around Russia’s borders. In 2016, the U.S. installed a $800-million anti-missile system in a Romanian military base. During the first Cold War, the base belonged to the Soviet Union.

In the same month, the Chinese Communist Party lifted the two-term restriction on presidential terms in force since the early 1990s, specifically for President Xi Jinping, the architect of China’s ambitious policies that have already made it the second leading power in the world. The U.S. has been busy trying to build up a military alliance to retain its hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. Moscow and Beijing have indicated to Washington that if either of them comes under attack from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) or any other U.S.-sponsored military grouping, the two countries will counter with a united front.

China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, who was in Moscow in the first week of April to attend the 7th Moscow Conference on International Security, told the media that the two countries had a “united position” on international issues. On his first visit to Russia after assuming his post, the Minister said that China’s participation in the conference was a message to the U.S. about “the close ties between the Russian and Chinese armed forces”.

Putin and Xi have had a lot of closed-door meetings in recent years. The two leaders have agreed to replace the U.S. dollar with a gold standard as the reserve currency for trading. China has already started paying for some of its energy imports in yuan. The two countries have already established systems for global trade that bypasses the dollar. The two leaders in their many meetings have talked about the need to evolve a shared vision in global affairs centred around the need to establish a multipolar global system. They want a system in which the U.N. is preponderant and where international law is adhered to under all circumstances.

Rising tensions

Tensions between Washington and Moscow have been rising since the surprise victory of Trump. On the campaign trail, candidate Trump gave the impression that he was for normalisation of relations with Moscow. But under Trump’s watch, relations have deteriorated further for a number of reasons. Many blame the American “deep state” for the current state of affairs. The Trump administration has gone ahead and hastened the deployment of more missile systems in eastern Europe. Putin has been warning that the installation of anti-missile systems by NATO along the border with Russia was not a defence mechanism but part of America’s plan to bring its nuclear potential close to Russia’s border. Russia had no option but to look for ways to neutralise the emerging threat, he said.

The U.S. has not forgiven Russia for its timely intervention in the Syrian conflict at the invitation of the government in Damascus. That intervention saved Syria and probably the region from disintegration and further chaos. The U.S. still has not given up on its game plan for regime change in Syria. It is backing the Kurdish separatists in the north of the country by getting boots on the ground. The Kurds, backed by the Americans, have also taken charge of most of the oil-producing areas in the country. In March, the Kremlin had to issue a strong statement warning Washington against attacking Syrian security forces engaged in liberating their country from the clutches of extremist groupings.

The U.S. and the West blame Russia for many wrongdoings, including the alleged intervention of Russia in the U.S. presidential election and the poisoning of a Russian double agent in the United Kingdom. Sergei Skripal was a former Russian military intelligence official who spied for Britain. Moscow has vehemently denied all accusations that it was responsible for the attempt on the life of the former agent, who had double-crossed it. Russian officials say that they would not have released him from a Russian jail if he was really considered a dangerous enemy of the state. The Russian Foreign Ministry has accused the U.S. of encouraging and fomenting a slander campaign against Russia. The Kremlin spokesman said that Western actions amounted “to gangsterism in international affairs”.

Turning point

The year 2014 may be the turning point that marked the beginning of the new Cold War. A democratically elected government in Ukraine, aligned to Moscow, was overthrown with the active involvement of the U.S. and the European Union. This set in motion a chain of events. Civil war broke out in Ukraine, and the people in the Crimean peninsula voted overwhelmingly to revert to Russia.

In retaliation, the West introduced draconian sanctions on Russia. Things have since gone from bad to worse as far as relations between the West and Moscow are concerned. The concerted efforts to malign Moscow on unproven charges that it had influenced the election outcome in the U.S. and the recent poisoning of a former Russian double agent have ignited a diplomatic row that shows no sign of dying down soon.

The first Cold War was sparked off by the West in the late 1940s with its bid to stop the spread of communism and socialist ideas. Communist parties and their allies were threatening to come to power through the ballot box in western Europe. China had become a communist country. Liberation struggles to free people from the colonial yoke had started all over Asia and Africa. The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the biggest tragedy of the 20th century. But he is no longer a fan of the Bolshevik Revolution and had refused to officially commemorate the centenary of the Revolution which brought the Soviet Union into being.

A new Cold War will not be a battle of ideologies as the first one was. It will be more of a fight between a declining superpower and resurgent countries such as Russia and China that want a return to a more democratic, multipolar world and respect from the West for their sovereignty and national interests.

The end of the Cold War saw the Western alliance expanding its influence up to the borders of Russia. The assurances given to the Soviet Union on the dissolution of NATO were not honoured. George Kennan, one of America’s leading Cold War ideologues, warned in 1998 that the expansion of NATO signalled “the beginning of a new Cold War”. Putin has said that the expansion of NATO eastwards to the Russian border has been “a geopolitical game changer”.

John Feffer, the Director of the American journal Foreign Policy in Focus, apportions much of the blame for the onset of a new Cold War to Washington’s policies. “If the United States had disbanded NATO, pushed for nuclear abolition, and helped to create a new security architecture in Europe that included Russia, the Cold War would have died a natural death. Instead because the institutions of the Cold War lived on, the spirit of the enterprise lay dormant, only waiting for the opportunity to spring forth,” Feffer predicted in 2014.

U.S.-Russia relations

The situation is going from bad to worse as far as U.S.-Russia relations are concerned. President Trump has authorised the sale of heavy weaponry, including anti-tank missiles, to the pro-Western government in Ukraine. Pro-Russian Ukrainians in the east of the country have refused to recognise the government in Kiev. Putin’s decision on the Crimean peninsula was dictated to a large extent by the anti-missile shield NATO had put up on Russia’s borders. “Missile defence is no less, and probably more, important than NATO’s eastward expansion. Incidentally, our decision on the Crimea was partly prompted by this,” the Russian President said in 2014.

In his speech to the Russian parliament in March, Putin outlined the revanchist steps taken by Washington in the past three decades, including the American decision in 2002 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). Putin described the treaty as “the cornerstone of international security system”. The Russian President said that the ABM Treaty “not only created an atmosphere of trust but also prevented either party from recklessly using nuclear weapons”. Putin reiterated his offer to sit down at the negotiating table to “work together—to ensure global security”. In his speech, he said the West should reconcile to the fact that Russia had once again achieved “strategic parity”.

The West was consumed by a “winner takes all” mentality after the end of the first Cold War. Only after Putin came on to the scene and started making serious efforts to bring multipolarity back on the global stage was there a change in the global security scenario. Meanwhile, China was inexorably rising towards superpower status and America was in steady decline. In Xi Jinping, Russia has a reliable strategic and economic partner. China has the financial muscle and Russia has the necessary military expertise to thwart the machinations of the war hawks who now stride the corridors of power in Washington.

The U.S.’ battlefield misadventures in West Asia and Afghanistan have hastened the pace of its decline. Its efforts to instigate a new Cold War can therefore be viewed as part of the attempt to hold on to its status as the only pre-eminent superpower and stop the international community from viewing it as a declining one. Already, the contours of the nascent “Cold War” have started replicating that of the old one. The Cold War in the 1960s and the 1970s was most intense in the continents of Asia and Africa. The U.S. and its allies during the Cold War days either intervened militarily or backed their surrogates with arms and money in “Third World” countries where progressive political movements had either gained power or were on the ascendant. In contemporary times too, the West has targeted broadly progressive governments and countries such as Iran that have refused to bow down to the diktats of the U.S.

Russia, like the U.S., is now an avowedly capitalist country, and ideology is not the key guiding factor behind the new alliances that are emerging. However, Russia and China are united in their opposition to the “hegemonic” policies being pursued by the U.S. and its allies. Like in the latter half of the 20th century, there is a furious scramble for military bases by the leading powers in the African and Asia-Pacific region. In the last decade, the U.S. has built a network of bases on the African continent. In 2007, using “war on terror” as a pretext, Washington set up the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Scramble for Africa

After the West-initiated regime change in Libya and the rise of Islamist forces such as Boko Haram and other Al Qaeda affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S. and its allies such as France further expanded their military influence by adding on more bases. The latest African country to formally cede a military base to the U.S. is Ghana. In the last week of March, thousands of people protested on the streets of Accra against their government’s decision. U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis had announced at the end of the last year that the number of U.S. boots on the ground on the African continent would increase further. A new “scramble for Africa” seems to be in the making as another Cold War looms on the horizon.

China is busy in its own way on the African continent. Unlike the Americans, it does not depend on the military option to gain leverage. The region is very important for the success of the country’s ambitious Belt Road initiative. Beijing’s aim is to avoid geopolitical collisions with the West by laying most of its emphasis on trade. “Make trade, not war” seems to be China’s mantra worldwide. Since the beginning of the decade, the Chinese have invested huge amounts of money in infrastructure projects in the continent.

In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner. Russia is taking a page out of China’s playbook in Africa. Moscow is cashing in on the goodwill it has in most African countries because of the support its predecessor state, the Soviet Union, had provided for the decolonisation struggle on the continent. Russia is offering favourable trade terms and arms deals.

Many African states are keen to escape from the American strategic embrace. The Sudanese President, Omar al Bashir, who until recently was bending over backwards to please Washington and get his country’s name removed from the U.S.’ terrorism list, visited Moscow last year. He told Putin that his country was “in need of protection from the aggressive acts of the United States”. Russia has become a player in the conflict in Libya by throwing its support behind the forces of General Khalifa Haftar.

After taking over power, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi chose Russia as the first destination of his official visit. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was in Moscow last year, becoming the first Saudi monarch to undertake a visit to Russia. Egypt is already buying advanced weaponry from Russia and the Saudis have signed big petroleum deals with Russian companies.

For the first time, Turkey, a NATO member, has signed a deal to purchase the Russian-made S-400 long–range missile-defence system. Russia is also contracted to build a nuclear plant in Turkey, whose relations with the West have become frosty. Ankara suspects that Washington was aware of the coup attempt that almost succeeded in overthrowing the civilian government. Turkey accuses the European Union of tacitly supporting the Kurdish separatists and stymieing its long-pending membership of the organisation. In the first week of April, the Turkish President hosted his counterparts from Russia and Iran. The three countries are guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria.

West Asia and China

West Asia is a key corridor for China’s Belt Road projects. China will be spending billions to improve the region’s infrastructure, especially in the war-ravaged areas of Syria and Iraq. China has become the largest exporter to West Asian countries; 40 per cent of the county’s oil imports are from the region. China has been consistently supporting the Russian government’s stand in the region.

China is also beefing up its defence forces. It now has the world’s second largest military budget, but it is paltry in comparison to the gargantuan defence budget of the U.S. America’s 2017 National Strategic Review identifies China and Russia as the main challengers to its power and influence in the world. “It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model,” the document states.

The international community has reasons to be wary of the possibility of a new Cold War. During the first Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had broad strategic and military parity. Russia's military spending is now only 8 per cent of that of NATO. Today there is no Warsaw Pact, which worked as a counterbalance to NATO. The budget for the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency is more than that of Russia’s military budget. This has made the West overconfident with a tendency to overreach.

Today there is also a proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons. This has increased the chances of an accidental flare-up which could lead to a full-scale nuclear war. The new generation of leaders, especially those currently holding the levers of power in some Western capitals, seem to have forgotten the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The revised “Nuclear Posture Review” released by the Trump administration in November envisaged a nuclear response to a conventional arms attack and even to a cyber threat. The Barack Obama administration had decreed that nuclear weapons could be used only “in extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the country and its important allies. The previous administration, however, had announced a long-term, trillion-dollar plan to modernise America’s nuclear arsenal. Trump now threatens to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea. Any war that erupts on the Korean peninsula will no longer be a conventional one.

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