The fog of the “new cold war”
And guess who's winning, so far
LIKE analogies involving the second world war, the “new cold war” is not a phrase to use lightly.
Or maybe at all. Russia is not now seeking military domination of Europe. It is not a one-party state. Nor does it claim to be the embodiment of an ideological success story. The once-towering edifice of Marxist-Leninist ideology is as ruined as social credit or syndicalism. An exposition of “sovereign democracy”, as the Kremlin now grandly calls its scheme of things, would barely fill a postcard, let alone a textbook.
To compare all this to the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev's era may look not only insulting, but absurd. The West’s differences with Russia seem mere nuances when set against the gulf between the modern world and the suicide bomber.
But to argue only that the old cold war is dead and gone is to risk missing the point. Whatever we end up calling it, a new period of deep-seated rivalry is approaching—and perhaps has already begun. As in the mid-to-late 1940s, such things take a bit of time to sink in.
Point one: Russia is different. Whether you think of it as Gazpromistan, or as Kremlin Inc, the Russian state now is as inelegant a creature as ever it was in communist times. It is an authoritarian bureaucratic-capitalist arrangement in which a squabbling elite, drawn largely from the security services, extracts enormous rents from raw materials, steals some, and uses the rest to vie for power, spouting nationalist and sometimes xenophobic rhetoric to maintain popularity.
In short, it turns wealth into power, and then power back into wealth. At home—and abroad.
Point two: Russia is a threat. The Soviet cocktail of communism and imperialism was a hard sell. Especially towards the end, it meant poverty and dictatorship, plus foreign domination. Russia’s main weapons now are more subtle and potent: cheap gas, and money for the right people. The orgy of greed and moral myopia in Moscow in the past 15 years has shown that lawyers, accountants and bankers are willing to forget professional ethics for huge fees.
Russia’s main weapons now are more subtle and potent: cheap gas, and money for the right people
Politicians can lose their bearings, too. Imagine that Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor until 1982, had not only been great chums with Brezhnev, but in his final months of office had pushed through huge government loan-guarantees for a project that would increase his country's energy dependence on the Soviet Union. And then, as soon as he was out of office, he had taken a lucrative post running that same project.
Fanciful? That is what Gerhard Schröder did with the planned Baltic gas pipeline. Even if it is never built or used, it shows that Russia can brazenly co-opt a Western politician, and expect only a whimper of protest from others. The West is all the weaker for its addiction to wishful thinking. Surely it is better to negotiate and compromise with Russia, than have a messy and costly confrontation?
Even now, money can’t buy everything. So there’s always murder. A veteran Kremlin-watcher in Moscow wrote to your correspondent recently: “Anna Politkovskaya was killed to warn Russians against criticising the Kremlin, especially in Western media. Alexander Litvinenko’s murder was to warn defectors. The only question now is: 'who is next?'”
Surely the Kremlin is not that brazen or brutal? Maybe. But few have won money in recent years underestimating the brazenness and brutality that lurk beneath those onion domes. We face a systemic rivalry based on conflicting values and clashing geopolitics. Not a cold war, perhaps, but it’s getting chilly.