Cold War 2:
the New Cold War Between the US and Russia
As Moscow moved to annex Crimea in 2014, many people wondered if a new Cold War might be starting between the West and Russia. “Tit for tat” propaganda exchanges by the US and Russia at the UN and in the media were certainly reminiscent of the US/Soviet Cold War, as were US-led sanctions against Moscow as the Ukraine crisis expanded.
The parallels were reinforced by the stony visage of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who served during the Cold War. Putin famously commented in 2005 that the fall of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century.
By 2016 it was clear the United States and Russia were indeed in a Cold War 2, or New Cold War. This one included aggressive military confrontations, such as the buzzing of a US ship by a Russian jet in 2016 (see below) and Russian attacks on US-supported forces in Syria, among other flash points.
While there’s no doubt the Obama Administration’s early “reset” of relations with Russia collapsed into a generally hostile relationship, in critical ways “Cold War 2” or the “New Cold War” is not, and could not be, the same as the “First Cold War” or “Old Cold War.”
The primary difference is that while Russia represents a threat to specific Western interests and allies, unlike the old Soviet Union it is not the leader of a global movement against democracy. During the real Cold War, the Soviet Union imposed communism on numerous countries and armed the communist site in proxy wars from Korea and Vietnam to Central America and Europe (including during the terrorism wave of the 1970s and ’80s.)
The Soviet Union claimed to represent a doctrine that would one day rule the entire world. Putin, on the other hand, claims to represent “Russian-speaking” people who were stranded in potentially hostile territory after the fall of the Soviet Union.
While Putin is willing to take military action to “protect” Russian-speakers in countries such as Georgia and Ukraine (and, many fear, other former nations of the Soviet Union, such as the Baltic States), he makes no claim on the rest of the world. He is willing to help enemies of the US such as Iran and Syria for strategic and financial reasons, as well as to thumb Uncle Sam’s eye, but he does not support a worldwide subversive movement.
Aside from his narrower nationalistic, rather than ideological, self-justification, Putin faces constraints that did not exist during the Cold War, such as deep trade relations with Western countries. Russia depends on natural gas sales and business relations with the outside world in a way the Soviet Union, with its essentially closed economy, did not.
To be sure, “Cold War 2” is plenty risky, creating tension between the world’s two major nuclear powers. It also threatens to shake up long-time assumptions about European security, including the role of NATO and America’s willingness to protect its allies, especially the new ones. It is also fueled by Cold War emotion, from Russian frustration at the loss of Soviet territory to memories of bitter combat (see information below on the connection between Cold War guerrilla warfare and the current Ukraine crisis). But it does not mirror the global “death-match” between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, in which each side believed the world would not be safe as long as the other existed.
Cold War Guerrilla Battles in Ukraine
During the 1940s and ’50s, Ukrainian partisans battled Soviet troops in a bid to gain the independence of their nation. The CIA and British intelligence supported this movement and other guerrilla and political campaigns against communist occupiers in various nations.
During the recent crisis in Ukraine, both sides have alluded to the Ukrainian guerrilla war, and World War II battles before it, which provide emotional context to current disputes.
The ideological leader of the Ukrainian resistance, Stefan Bandera, was killed in 1959 by a KGB assassin using a specially-designed cyanide gun.
Read more about that gun and the guerrilla war in Ukraine at our sister site here.