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Putin’s new Cold War

Assassination attempts, cyber-attacks, military interventions – Russia is once again playing a deadly game with the West. Yet beneath the bravado is a nation riddled with insecurities.

Vladimir Putin is not one to accept criticism from the West, even when his country stands accused of attempted murder using military-grade nerve agents. Russian responses to the accusations have been dismissive, even suggesting that British intelligence was really responsible for the attempted murder on 4 March of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, combined with knowing observations that their fate should be a warning to other traitors.

Russia has been on the receiving end of sanctions and diplomatic slights ever since Crimea was annexed in March 2014, and Putin will expect to ride out whatever punishments the British can put together in the same way that he has ridden out those of the past. He will talk up the resilience of the Russian state and identify appropriate forms of retaliation that his adversaries will find difficult to match.

He may even wonder whether heightened tension with the West will help him with his other main preoccupation this weekend – the first round of his re-election as president on 18 March. Putin’s message to the Russian people has been for some time that they are under attack from old enemies and that this requires national unity and a readiness to sacrifice. He does not need to worry about the result. His victory is taken for granted. Polls show him romping home with about 65 per cent of the vote, with the other seven candidates all managing about 5 per cent each.

There are no credible opposition figures because murders, imprisonments and denunciations have left few capable of taking on this role. The anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny might have made a dent on Putin’s majority, but he was barred from standing by the Central Election Commission. The only thing that might worry Putin is that too few people will come out to vote and so detract from his victory. Given the lack of a real contest, minimal actual campaigning, calls for a boycott from Navalny and his supporters, declining living standards and little for the Russian people to look forward to, the turnout could well be less than the 65 per cent achieved in 2012, which was itself down from 70 per cent in 2008.

This will be Putin’s fourth term (five if you include the 2008-2012 period when he swapped places with his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev). He may not be following China’s Xi Jinping in getting himself declared president for life, but he has already had the presidential term extended from four to six years. This means that he should be in power until he is 71. As Western governments work out what to do about Russian disruption, there is not much point looking forward to a new leadership in Moscow that might be interested in starting afresh. They need a policy for Putin that can last for some time.

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This is one reason comparisons are being made with the Cold War – a period that began after the Second World War and lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Over this period relations between the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies were tense and dangerous. There were many vicious conflicts, often involving client states, but a third world war, which was expected to involve massive use of nuclear weapons, was avoided.

In the 1990s it was hoped and believed all this could be consigned to history and that a new period of peace and prosperity could be enjoyed by all. Well before the start of the Ukraine crisis in March 2014 it was apparent that these hopes were not being fulfilled. Russia complained about the West demanding a rules-based international order while regularly breaking its own standards.

An election campaign poster for Vladimir Putin in Grozny, Chechnya. Credit: Dmitrij Leltschuk/ Laif/ Camera Press 

How useful is it to think about the new situation as a cold war? Comparisons with the previous one can be, as we shall see, instructive, if only to explain why things are very different now. But “cold war” is also a more generic category. The term was first used in France before the Second World War to describe circumstances that had not yet led to actual hostilities but were likely to do so at any time. This was how the phrase was understood when employed by American commentators in the late 1940s – they had no reason then to expect a long stalemate but were looking ahead to a period when the possibility of a “hot war” was very real. And this is how we might think of a cold war now. It is not so much a replica of what we might call Cold War 1.0 but a new version with its own characteristics. Cold War 2.0 deserves the designation because it might turn hot. That is the risk that demands attention.

In some respects it is already quite warm, given the number of active measures recently taken by Russia against the West. As a reminder of the most dreaded aspect of Cold War 1.0, Putin started this month introducing a collection of new nuclear weapons, including a cruise missile that could “reach anywhere in the world” and bypass all forms of defence. Meanwhile, in tones reminiscent of the early 1980s, Nato generals have been describing the extent of the recent Russian build-up of conventional forces facing the Baltic states and the struggle the alliance would face when responding to a quick offensive, even if over time (if there was time) its superior strength would win out.

The emphasis on nuclear power is one of the major continuities between the two cold wars. It is the foundation of Russia’s claims to great power status (which is why Putin refers to it with alarming regularity). The other is its permanent membership of the UN Security Council, which allows it to prevent other great powers from ganging up on it. Yet the differences between the cold wars 1.0 and 2.0 are profound.

The most obvious and major change is that Russia is in a far weaker position than the Soviet Union was. At the end of 1991 the Soviet Union split into 15 republics and they all went their separate ways. Three – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are now members of Nato. All its former allies in the Warsaw Pact have now joined Nato too. Moscow’s sphere of influence has therefore shrunk dramatically. Unsurprisingly this has led to a sense of isolation and insecurity. The priority for Russian foreign and security policy has become the old Soviet space – its “near abroad”.

Second, Cold War 1.0 was a global affair. Although it began in Europe, it soon spread to Asia and then on to the Middle East and Africa. In Cold War 2.0 Syria is the major exception to Russia’s European focus. Moscow stepped up its engagement in 2015 in order to prevent the defeat of President Bashar al-Assad. This operation was more successful than the one in Ukraine where Russia is stuck sustaining an unstable enclave. Putin is now a major player in Syrian affairs, although, as he is discovering, this is a mixed blessing.

Despite having done enough to ensure the survival of the Assad regime, Putin has not yet managed to work out how to bring sufficient peace to allow Russia to withdraw. Nor is this really part of Cold War 2.0 as a new arena for conflict with the West. Neither President Obama nor President Trump was inclined to get directly involved in Syria, despite the unfolding humanitarian disaster. They both largely confined themselves to mounting air strikes against Islamic State and its supporters.

Third, the shrinkage from the Soviet Union into the Russian Federation had major economic consequences. Almost until its fragmentation the Soviet Union had the second-largest economy in the world. It now vies for 13th place in the economic league table with Australia, a country with about a seventh of the population. Its GDP is about 60 per cent that of France and Britain, 40 per cent of Germany’s and not even 8 per cent of the US’s. In addition its economy is severely unbalanced. It is extremely dependent upon energy exports, which is why it gained in strength during the 2000s, as energy prices rose to new heights, and slumped after prices fell in 2014. Rebalancing the economy was one of Putin’s objectives early in his presidency, but chronic corruption and disregard for the rule of law have held it back.

Fourth, during Cold War 1.0 the interaction between the Soviet bloc’s economies and those in the rest of the world was minimal, other than in the energy sector. Since 1991 the Russian economy has engaged much more directly, using Western capital markets, importing Western goods and technology, and exporting oil and gas in return. Russia has always seen its position as an energy exporter as a source of leverage as well as revenue, a means of demonstrably rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Over time this has weakened Russia’s position in the market as customers become wary of being too dependent upon it as a supplier. At the same time, substantial economic connections with Russia provided the West with opportunities to impose sanctions, although these have largely been on individuals rather than whole sectors of the economy.

Fifth, Moscow can no longer claim leadership of an international ideological movement. There are some old leftists who still find it hard to think of Moscow as anything other than a leader in the struggle against global capitalism and imperialism. Its main messages, however, are now crudely nationalist, and so its natural supporters are on the xenophobic right – figures such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán. Russian sympathisers are now most likely to be found among misogynistic, racist and homophobic parties and movements.

These have gained ground in Europe largely because of the migration crisis, and Russian propaganda has done what it can to encourage this. Putin can appear to be more sympathetic to popular concerns than Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Yet this is not the same as leading a movement with a clear ideological identity. A number of pro-Putin politicians have come to power in EU states, including Viktor Orbán in Hungary but Russia’s lack of economic power means that these leaders end up complying with mainstream EU policies (including sanctions).

Sixth, Cold War 1.0 was a struggle of the pre-internet age. Cold War 2.0 has been shaped by the internet. This has provided opportunities for new forms of coercion and influence that have the advantage of being relatively cheap and potentially covert. They allow for provocations just below the threshold of what might lead to a hot war. In this way conflict can be carried on in a grey world of actions that are hard to attribute, and may be enacted by private individuals and groups acting as agents of the state. When critical information systems go down suddenly, affecting banking or a government bureaucracy, or fake and inflammatory messages overwhelm social media, the fact that Russia is responsible may be obvious but hard to prove. Even when the evidence is overwhelming the response is often simple denial.

Military personnel in Salisbury following the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/ Getty Images

The intensity of Russian activity below the level of actual war is worth noting. Attention in the UK is focused on attempted assassinations. But the other high-profile issue concerns the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller has reported on the role of the Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg-based “troll farm” which was part of an effort to develop links with far-right and far-left groups opposed to “globalisation” and liberal interventionism. Russia has also been blamed for the Petya ransomware attack of June 2017, which was originally directed against Ukraine’s financial, energy and government institutions – but its indiscriminate character meant that it spread further to other European businesses, causing many millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

The opening ceremony of the South Korea Winter Olympics was also attacked, with the official website going down and on-site technology failing, in such a way that North Korea might have got the blame at a time when South and North Korea were engaging in talks to reduce tensions. A likely motive was revenge for the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban the Russian team from the Games because of its history of doping violations (a practice that showed how ready Russia is to gain advantage by breaking the rules). The German government has disclosed that federal computer systems have been penetrated by Russian hackers.

Responsibility is always denied, without much attempt to make the denials plausible, and often with a knowing sneer. Refusal to be held accountable for actions is combined with satisfaction at giving an impression of deliberate menace.

Does Cold War 1.0 provide any guidance for how we should cope with Cold War 2.0? For a start, we should accept it is not going to end soon. For this reason, and to prevent small incidents escalating into something much worse, we should keep open lines of communication and be prepared to c0-operate when it is in our mutual interests to do so. There are, for example, some decaying arms control agreements left over from easier times that need some attention. In addition, while bad behaviour must be called out, we should also recognise that suitable sanctions will be hard to find. A tit-for-tat response to attempted assassinations is hardly appropriate.

Although our media continues to challenge Russian narratives, Western governments are never going to be much good at state-sponsored information campaigns. It is worth noting, however, that Russians are convinced that the West is quite brilliant at undermining governments this way, citing as examples the Arab Spring of 2011, demonstrations against Putin in Moscow in 2011, and the uprising in Ukraine in 2014 (indicating their difficulty in believing that popular movements can develop without substantial help from foreign agents). There are also reasons to be wary of engaging in offensive cyber-operations, as they can get out of control, although temptations to move in this direction are likely to grow.

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It is important to keep all this in perspective. China is a far more important player in international politics and economics, and bigger issues are posed by the wayward course of President Trump’s foreign policy. There have been complaints from Russian dissidents that exaggerating Moscow’s prowess in cyber-attacks or overstating its role in Western elections gives Putin an aura of power that he does not deserve (as well as discouraging honest assessments of why certain political messages turned out to be popular in the West). Putin wants to be talked up and not down, for Russia to appear as a great power whose interests must be accommodated and that must have a say in all important issues.

As Cold War 1.0 ended, it became apparent that a country that had been worrying us so much was hollow inside. Russia should be taken seriously, but in the end it is a minor economic power. It has allowed its insecurities to lead it into behaviour that can hurt its adversaries, but in the end will prevent it from addressing the aspirations of the Russian people. 

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. His latest book is the “The Future of War: A History” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game