- Posted July 23, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
A Myth: The New Cold War
Putin’s annexation of Crimea has led many to believe it is the start of a new Cold War. Yet, an array of American led sanctions against Russia can hardly be categorized as a war, let alone a new Cold War. Conflicts are not only defined by the actors involved, but also the context which has given rise to the dispute. Neither America nor Russia are the states they were twenty some years ago. More importantly the dynamics of the conflict between the two countries today, are entirely different from what they were several decades ago.
The global stage has changed dramatically, leaving no room for exercising 20th century politics. Whereas the Cold War world was organized around two poles, today’s world structure consists of connected and highly interdependent states, all fused under the robust leadership of the western democratic principles and norms. States must adhere to them, at least symbolically, to gain legitimacy in the international community. Even Russia does not dispute the primary of these principles.
Today’s conflict between Russia and America is limited in scope, unlike the Cold War era, which embroiled both superpowers in far flung proxies around the world. At the time, the U.S. and USSR were well matched militarily, resulting in extended wars that often ended indecisively. Today Putin cannot afford to stake out multiple fronts against a far-superior American military. Obama cannot afford it either – politically at home.
Where once political insecurities would translate into an aggressive arms race, American military capabilities have soared light years ahead. U.S. military expenditure surpasses those of the next ten countries collectively. America has positioned itself as the sole economic and military superpower following the fall of the Soviet Empire, and this is an incontrovertible fact.
The fear of nuclear annihilation was at the core of the Cold War. Now, one hardly even hears of discussion of nuclear warfare between India and Pakistan. The possibility of nuclear war between states is perceived to be abhorrent and has been shunned from international imagination.
The Cold War was once extended into the outer depths of space. This enhanced competition between the two states while avoiding direct military conflict. Ignited by the Soviet Union’s launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, fresh fears of trans-continental warfare gripped the Western Bloc. Even this anxiety and mistrust have since been synergized into mutual reliance, with both America and Russia striving for new frontiers in space exploration. The International Space Station, an orbiting laboratory, serves as a destination of all space-bound astronauts. Constructed largely with American funding, astronaut access to the ISS facility is only made possibly via the Russian Soyuz Launch System. This cooperation between the two countries further extended towards the safe and continuous operation of the ISS. Equally dependent on each other beyond Earth’s orbit, Russian isolationism is hardly achievable.
Winston Churchill referred to the bloc-against-bloc ideological confrontation as an Iron Curtain descending across the continent. Russia no longer has a bloc to call its own, at best it can exhort influence in former Soviet territories, explicitly constrained under Western principles. In view of the economic sanctions, Russia has directed its focus from Europe towards the East, in an effort to tilt the balance. Thus viewed, Russia is fully acknowledging that participation in the capitalist global economic system is essential for survival.
The resulting economic troika would make China the major economic pivot for both the U.S. and Russia. This mutual dependency is testimony that Russia cannot be isolated, at best U.S. led sanctions can serve as a punishment for Putin’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. Russia being the world’s largest exporter of energy, serves as a furnace for Europe’s heavily industrialized economies. Considering Europe’s voracious appetite for energy, sanctions targeting Russian oil and gas exports would result in spiking commodity prices. Still reeling from a crippling financial crisis, many European countries would be reluctant to comply with the sanctions, effectively testing the limits of their loyalty to America.
Despite repeated accounts of chemical weapons use by Syria’s Bashar al Assad, Obama was reluctant to respond militarily. In a rare account of setting diplomatic precedence over coercion, America looked towards their Russian allies as an intermediary. Reigning successful, Russia’s proposal to the Syrian regime to hand over its trove of chemical weapons proved to be a breakthrough from a perceivably intractable situation for Obama. American reliance on Russia in such diplomatic endeavors indicate how much their respective foreign polices share – that an ideological outlook no longer distance the two.
Putin’s brazen act of harnessing Crimea does not mean the international community has been catapulted back to a Cold War like setting. Instead, it suggests what the near-future of international relations may shape out to be. America’s growing reluctance to engage in global conflicts far from its borders inadvertently create enabling space for Russian efforts to reassert itself within the former Soviet territories.
America’s concern is not explicitly with Putin’s military response, but that its actions could set precedence for other countries that too are willing to surpass diplomatic or legal channels and employ coercive measures to settle land claims. Consider China’s dispute with India over Aksai Chin or new assertiveness by India or Pakistan over Kashmir.
Putin’s actions within his region has deeply irked the United States, but it certainly is not the basis for a renewal of the ideological fault lines that once divided the two. The contemporary arena limits both state’s political and economic appetite for a renewal of protracted conflict. The protagonists may look the same, but this may be the only reason that today’s conflict reminds us of the Cold War.
Faqir Hamim Masoom holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Electronics from Comsats University Islamabad and is a recent graduate of International Relations from National Defense University Islamabad.