By: Christopher Estep
It would be imprudent to describe the growing tensions between Russia and the West as a “new Cold War,” primarily because doing so risks inviting inaccurate historical comparisons between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Cold War-era Soviet Union. Formulating these modern tensions as such would require exaggerating Russia’s current economic and military strength as well as its internal political stability, while also underestimating the asymmetry between the West and Putin’s Russia when it comes to all of these categories.
First, the gap between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was far narrower than the gap that exists between just the United States and Russia today, in terms of both defense spending and economic vitality. A declassified CIA report drafted in 1985 estimated Soviet defense spending as running between 12 percent and 13 percent of the country’s gross national product (GNP) between 1965 and 1983; according to the World Bank and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russian defense spending was roughly five percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014.
A similar disparity exists today when it comes to Russia’s economy; the same CIA report estimated the Soviet Union’s GNP at 57 percent of U.S. GNP in 1975. Today, based on recent World Bank data, Russia’s GDP in 2015 was little more than 15 percent of the U.S. GDP. Thus, it can be simultaneously true that both sides are engaging in heightened competition when it comes to defense spending and that these developments do not merit being described as a “new Cold War.”
There are also major differences between Russia’s ability to shape world events today and the influence exerted by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Russia’s military intervention in Syria, annexation of Crimea, and less-than-subtle support of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are the three most commonly used examples of heightened Russian aggression today. However, in these three situations, we see Putin’s Russia reacting to urgent crises in nearby areas, rather than proactively shaping political developments from a distance.
When it comes to this reality, Daniel Treisman described Vladimir Putin in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs as “a leader who is increasingly prone to risky gambles and to grabbing short-run tactical advantages with little apparent concern for long-term strategy.” Clearly, Russia today is capable of limited action, of occasionally disrupting the aims of more powerful actors, but less capable of shaping world events to the same extent that the Soviet Union could during the Cold War. Considering these reasons, describing the current state of relations between Russia and the West as a “new Cold War” appears to be too deeply problematic to justify using the term.
This is not to say, however, that Russia and the West currently enjoy placid, non-controversial interactions. The ongoing developments in Ukraine, for example, illustrate Russian concerns about the continued growth of NATO’s influence as well as Western concerns about the heightened aggression on Russia’s part when it comes to nearby trouble spots. Yet, in the end, the most important factors involved in the current state of relations between Russia and the West bear little resemblance to the forces that shaped the Cold War of the previous century, especially when the sheer magnitude of that conflict is considered.
Accurately examining historical precedent is undoubtedly helpful in understanding and addressing contemporary challenges; conversely, incongruous comparisons between past developments and present issues can be dangerously ill-advised. One particular error here would be viewing a multipolar geopolitical climate with new actors like China and India through a “new Cold War” lens that assumes a more bipolar geopolitical dynamic. In the case of Russia and the West, resorting to “new Cold War” kinds of language can create the false impression that the continued conflict between those actors is somehow on the same scale or occupies the same central place of importance as the Cold War itself. Russia is far less able to compete with the West in terms of its defense spending and economy now than the Soviet Union was for most of the Cold War.
Additionally, Russia’s future will be as characterized by concerns about internal stability and political continuity as its present is characterized by concerns over Putin’s foreign policy recklessness and the national economy. Importantly, it is hard to believe that a political system that revolves entirely around Vladimir Putin will enjoy the same longevity of the Soviet Union’s political leadership.
Therefore, in spite of what may seem like heightened tension between Russia and the West, we are far from anything that resembles the protracted contest that shaped the latter half of the past century, far enough to argue that we are not entering a “new Cold War.”
This essay was the first place winner in the 2016 Nextgen Essay Contest. Mr. Estep is currently a junior at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, double-majoring in history and religion. Upon completing his undergraduate degree in 2018, Estep hopes to pursue further education and a career in public policy, international relations, and American politics. In addition to his interest in these areas, Estep is passionate about integrating the responsible use of history and historical research with other professions, as well as educating young people about the American political process.