Are we already in a New Cold War?

By definition, a ‘Cold War’ is a period of sustained hostility with no actual direct confrontation between the parties involved, so recognising whether this condition is prevailing between nation states is not simple or easy. Observations about Cold War relationships between the US and NATO versus the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies may help us to identify any similar contemporary trends in geopolitics.

A good starting point is to consider the beginnings and [officially proclaimed, but perhaps not in reality] end of that Cold War.

When the Cold War Started and Ended
There was no formal declaration of hostilities in the Cold War, although the militant rhetoric and threats to use nuclear weapons were perhaps the single most aggressive actions taken in the history of warfare – a single exchange of fire had the potential to kill billions of people and leave the majority of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable.

Whilst proxy wars did occur, the superpowers themselves did not get drawn into direct conflict, persisting instead in a state of hair-trigger tension for over forty years.

So when did the Cold War start? Historians often say it began with the ‘Truman Doctrine’ of Soviet containment in 1947. But many other starting points are equally plausible, like the seeds of mistrust that were sown between East and West during the Russian Revolution, for example.

Up to the end of World War 2 in 1945, the United States, Britain and Russia were allies in the fight against Hitler’s Third Reich – those relations soured very quickly. By March 1946 Churchill was announcing that:

“… from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent… famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere…

… except in the British Commonwealth and in the United States where Communism is in its infancy, the Communist parties or fifth columns constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilisation…

…I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines…

… From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness. For that reason the old doctrine of a balance of power is unsound. We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength…

If the Western Democracies stand together in strict adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter, their influence for furthering those principles will be immense and no one is likely to molest them. If however they become divided or falter in their duty and if these all-important years are allowed to slip away then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all …(1).

Did the Cold War begin with this speech, when Churchill publicly acknowledged the entrenchment of Soviet spheres of influence and exhorted the West to stand strong against their threat to ‘Christian civilisation’?

… or had it already begun earlier, in February 1945?

Mistrust, an unwillingness to recognise Stalin’s legitimate concerns about securing Russia’s western borders from another invasion, and yet the necessity of having to work together to defeat Hitler, all combined with a deliberate choice by Roosevelt to leave the 1945 Yalta Conference with obvious differing interpretations of the decisions still having been left unclarified. As Staughton Lynd quotes from William McNeill of the University of Chicago (2).

[merging two quotes to make a point, but not out of context]: “… from early in 1942 the American Government has repeatedly proclaimed the principle that no final decisions on matters of postwar frontiers or systems of government should be made until the end of the war… [and] clearly Roosevelt did not wish to grasp the nettle [about what would happen to Poland after the war]” (3).

He then recounts how Admiral Leahy warned Roosevelt at Yalta that the accord was too vague, leaving the Russians clear to make their own interpretation, to which the President replied “I know, Bill, I know.”

… or maybe the Cold War began in August 1945 at Potsdam, when President Truman told Stalin, in vague terms, about the new atomic bomb?

Stalin was not told the complete story about this weapon and its development had been concealed from him, although he already knew about it from espionage at the Manhattan Project. This moment prompted Stalin to tell Molotov that they needed to accelerate their own atomic bomb project (4).

I don’t personally find it overly helpful to define a particular date for the start of the Cold War – the secrecy and emergent paranoia were present even as East and West were cooperating as Allies during WW2.

The end of WW2 allowed each side to exploit their ideological and political differences, with neither willing to expend the effort to settle them through force of arms. It is interesting to note Churchill’s opinion at Fulton that the Soviets were not seeking war with the West in 1946. Whilst it would be tempting to assert that adoption of the Truman Doctrine a year later formally entrenched a hostile posture from the US towards the Soviet Union, perhaps the declaration of the Iron Curtain is the defining moment when this global conflict crystallised?


Defining the end of the Cold War is a paradox – both easier and harder to achieve.

Taking a limited view that the Cold War was a conflict between the US and NATO versus the Soviet Union and its allies, then there are clearly defining moments when it was ending:

  • The opening up of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
  • The official demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
  • The dissolution of East Germany in 1990 and Reunification of the German state.
  • The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The sharpest end point is the December 25-26 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union – the Soviet state had ceased to exist, ergo it had ‘lost’.

However, despite the humiliation of seeing its immense ideological ‘empire’ collapse, Russia itself had not disappeared as global power. After years of struggling that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy returned to GDP growth, either matching or exceeding US growth rates since 1999 (5).

Rapid, strong economic growth has encouraged Russia to take a more prominent stand on the world stage. Despite its economy being about 8% of the size of the US (circa $1.7 trillion gdp versus circa $21 trillion, 2018/2019 averaged (6)), Russia is a formidable global power. It holds an inventory of c6,370 nuclear warheads (after the dismantling ot return of all strategic and tactical nuclear weapons from the new independent states declared after the dissolution of the USSR to Russia (7), estimated at 1,572 deployed, 4,310 stockpiled, the remainder ‘retired’ (8)). It continues to restructure and modernise its military forces, especially under the New Look Program which is allocating 1.1 trillion rubles (circa $0.2 trillion, costing 4% of gdp in 2015) over 10 years in order to create a military force with 70% new or modernized equipment by 2020 (9).

Russia is developing new weapons and platforms like the Dolgorukiy-class SSBN (armed with 16 SS-N-32 Bulava SLBMs, each carrying 6 × 100-150 kt MIRVs (10), the Avangard hypersonic glide missile (11) with potential abilities to evade ABM technologies like Patriot, and the S-350E Vityaz air defence system that can simultaneously engage up to 8 ‘high-precision weapons’ like cruise missiles and tactical UAVs, or a multi-role battery of up to four launchers armed with 32 ‘small’ missiles.

The development of new capital ships like the Dolgorukiy-class SSBN, high tech missiles and ABM systems, improvements to communications and leadership, the retention of 1,572 deployed nuclear warheads, all suggest that for Russia the Cold War has not ended. The US is feeling pressure from this resurgent Russia, as the 2017 DIA paper highlights:

“… the resurgence of Russia on the world stage – seizing the Crimean Peninsula, destabilizing eastern Ukraine, intervening on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and shaping the information environment to suit its interests – poses a major challenge to the United States.”

And yet, what is this threat to US security?

For a nation with about 12 times the defence budget of the Russian Federation, what is the US afraid of?

The nuclear stand-off is obvious and the US will now be feeling pressure to counter the Avangard missile, but such tensions have persisted ever since Russia developed ‘the bomb’ in the 1950s. Perhaps the greater threat is now coming from Russia’s expansionist success in Crimea and its exertion of power across a growing sphere of influence, which is starting to pose a challenge to an otherwise prevailing US economic-political dominance?


So a Cold War persists again between the US and its allies, Russia and its allies.

But the old fronts of the Cold War are not the only lines of conflict today.

China has recently emerged as a belligerent, regional and global power. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping the country has essentially torn up its agreement with Britain over the treatment of Hong Kong (and hence facing down its old Empire rival), fixed Taiwan in its sights, built military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, and developed a strong domestic space technologies industry. The US sails ships and flies B52s over the South China Sea, supports Taiwan and rejects Chinese telecommunication technologies – strong actions against a nuclear-armed state, with undertones of Cuba-Korea history. The new battle lines are forming and this time China has the critical mass needed to challenge the US economy and military-industrial complex head on, on equal terms.

New Cold War with Russia.
New Cold War with China.

If we are returning to 1950s levels of international tensions, let us hope that the World’s leaders have not forgotten how close they took us to the brink last time.


References

1 – “The Sinews of Peace” speech – Winston Churchill, Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri – 5th March 1946 – https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1946-1963-elder-statesman/the-sinews-of-peace/

2 – ‘America, Britain and Russia: Their Cooperation and Conflict, 1941-1946’ – William McNeill, London (1953)

3 – “The Cold War: A Conflict of Ideology and Power” – ‘How the Cold War Began’ – Staughton Lynd – edited by Norman A. Graebner – D. C. Heath and Company, 1976

4 – “How Much Did Stalin Know?” – Micheal D. Gordin – The History Reader – https://www.thehistoryreader.com/military-history/much-stalin-know/

5 – “World Development Indicators’ – Google – https://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&met_y=ny_gdp_mktp_kd_zg&idim=country:RUS:CHN:USA&hl=en&dl=en

6 -“World Bank gdp data” – https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?locations=RU

 and https://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states?view=chart

7 – “What Happened to the Soviet Superpower’s Nuclear Arsenal? Clues for the Nuclear Security Summit” – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School – Graham Allison, 2012 – https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/what-happened-soviet-superpowers-nuclear-arsenal-clues-nuclear-security-summit

8 – “Status of World Nuclear Forces” – Federation of American Scientists – https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/

9 – “Russia Military Power – Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations – 2017” – Defense Intelligence Agency

10 – “RSM-56 Bulava” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSM-56_Bulava

11 – “Russia deploys Avangard hypersonic missile system” – BBC News – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-50927648

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