Commentary: Current U.S.-Russia tensions are dangerous -- but not ‘Cold War Two’

Since Russian-American relations spiraled downwards after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, analysts and politicians have begun to raise the once unthinkable: the advent of Cold War Two.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) listens to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a news conference at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Both American and Russian commentators have declared “Welcome to Cold War Two,” while NATO’s retiring supreme allied commander, Europe stated that “trying to prevent a Cold War” was now his successor’s responsibility. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went one step further, arguing “one could go so far as to say we have slid back to a new Cold War.”

So is a new Cold War underway? On the surface some similarities exist. Russian jets buzz U.S. planes and ships in the Baltic Sea, while American armored brigades deployed to Europe and NATO start military drills near the Russian border. Tensions are clearly rising. Nevertheless, the current situation misses several elements of the Cold War -- and provided both sides act wisely, Cold War Two need never arise.

First, current American-Russian competition does not possess the same ideological component that existed during the Cold War. While Soviet communism ultimately proved to be a bankrupt ideology, for nearly 45 years following World War Two a genuine battle of ideas raged between Moscow and the West. While the United States and Europe emphasized the primacy of democracy, free markets and individual rights, Soviet ideology promoted economic equality and prioritized the collective and the state over the individual. From the Soviet perspective, communism offered a genuine alternative for structuring a society – beliefs Communist leaders did not hesitate to enforce by the most murderous means.

Today’s competition between Washington and Moscow lacks this clash of ideologies. Contemporary Russia possesses its own version of capitalism – albeit one skewed by corruption and oligarchic control of key assets – and Moscow offers the world no overarching message for how to organize a society. Russia sometimes struggles to assert unique messages based on so-called “Eurasianism” or opposition to European and Western “decadence,” but ultimately neither of these represents coherent alternatives to the West’s message in the same way communism did.

Current Russian-American tensions also lack the global component which existed during the Cold War. From Angola to Nicaragua and Vietnam to Afghanistan, Washington and Moscow faced off in a series of proxy wars and competitions. Although contemporary Russia did return to the Middle East with its deployment of military forces to Syria, the most serious current tension between Washington and Moscow largely centers on Europe – and even then lacks the millions of troops on hair trigger alert each side possessed during the Cold War.

Additionally, the economic imbalance between Russia and the United States is far greater than that which existed during the Cold War. In 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev boasted that within 20 years the Soviet standard of living would exceed that of any capitalist country. Despite the inefficiencies of the command economy, Khrushchev’s boast was not an implausible one. From the early 1960s through 1975 the Soviet economy grew faster than the U.S. economy, reaching a high of 58 percent of the size of the U.S. economy by that year.

Currently, however, the $18 trillion American economy is approximately ten times the size of Russia’s. Moreover, the Russian economy remains in deep recession, with predictions of ongoing decline or stagnation lasting several years. The heavily natural resources-based Russian economy remains hobbled by corruption, while the U.S. economy – despite the challenges it faces – remains one of the most innovative and dynamic in the world. Put simply, global power in the twenty-first century is increasingly tied to nations’ economic vitality, and Russia lacks the economic base to engage in a Cold War-style global competition with the United States.

Finally, the difference in power between the Soviet military and today’s Russian military is dramatic. During the Cold War, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies could muster 173 divisions in Europe to fight NATO forces. The Soviets possessed three times the number of tanks, anti-tank weapons and artillery pieces, plus more than double the number of armored personnel carriers. To support these ground forces, the Soviets could bring more than 7,200 combat aircraft to bear against barely 3,000 for NATO.

A NATO-Russia comparison today tells a very different story. With a 2015 military budget of $600 billion, Washington spends approximately ten times the amount on defense as does Moscow, and while Russian combat forces are modernizing, American military technology largely outclasses the Kremlin’s. While the Russians could certainly sustain some initial successes in places like the Baltics, the Russian military of today is nothing like the fearsome machine the West confronted during the Cold War.

Clearly, the conditions that made the Cold War what it was do not exist today, largely because Russia possesses a fraction of the power the former Soviet Union did. Nevertheless, the risk of Western-Russian tensions spiraling into an outright military clash is very real - in many ways just as real as during the Cold War. Much of the blame for this rightly lies with Moscow, as the Kremlin’s bellicose rhetoric combined with the Russian military’s risky and irresponsible aerial games of chicken against NATO aircraft in the Baltic and Black Seas leave little room for error.

To prevent the current tensions from leading to war, the United States should take the following steps. First, Washington and Moscow must establish specific protocols for the military interaction of each side’s forces, to better establish the “rules of the game” so to speak. Washington bit the bullet and worked with Moscow to “deconflict” the risk of accidental clashes in Syria, and it’s worth making the same effort here.

Second, the United States should avoid the temptation to bypass its European allies and engage directly with Russia. This ensures the United States does not allow Russia to split the alliance by allowing the West to speak with one voice.

Finally, the United States should pick and choose its battles with Russia, confronting where necessary but cooperating where possible. The United States must make crystal clear via both words and actions that it intends to honor its Article 5 commitment to defend the Baltics, however militarily challenging that may be.

The West must oppose Russia’s “hybrid warfare,” which in Ukraine included fomenting local pro-Russian demonstrations in the eastern Ukraine, flooding the media with false claims Maidan was a “neo-Nazi” coup, supporting local military proxies, and infiltrating Ukraine’s intelligence agency. The West should respond to Russian propaganda – such as the Russian media’s false claim that a thirteen year-old Russian-speaking girl was raped by migrants in Berlin. It should counter Russian spying operations in the West with beefed up counter-intelligence, and control the flow of dirty money to Western financial institutions.

The West must also maintain sanctions on Moscow until it fully honors the Minsk agreement - which provides a structure for ending the Russian-sponsored war in eastern Ukraine - and completely withdraws its troops from Ukraine and returns full control of the border to Kiev. The message should be clear – no normal relationship is possible until Moscow ends its hybrid war against Ukraine.

By the same token, the West can also seek opportunities to cooperate with Russia – provided these promote Western interests. Preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism represents one possible space where each side’s interests overlap, while stabilizing Afghanistan, environmental cooperation and sharing intelligence on Islamic State are others.

Current tensions lack numerous elements of the Cold War, and with a combination of luck and level-headed policies we can still ensure the “dogs of war” are not unleashed.

About the Author

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He tweets @jkc_in_dc The opinions expressed are his own.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.