Are Russia-West tensions a 'new Cold War'?

November 8, 2015

Russia's initiation of air strikes in Syria on September 30, a year after a US-led coalition began air strikes in Syria — both officially targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — began the latest round of speculation of a “new Cold War” with Russia and its allies pitted against the US and other Western imperialist powers.

Speculation that the world is entering a new Cold War has been high for the past year-and-a-half since the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine between the Western-backed government and Russian-aligned breakaway republics in the Donbass region and the annexation of Crimea by Russia.

The “Cold War” was what defined global politics between the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — the division of the world into two superpower-led antagonistic blocs, one led by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, the other by the US.

The demise of the Soviet Union was as much to do with its internal contradictions as being out-competed by the West in an expensive arms race, but it nonetheless represented a victory for the US and its Western allies.

Stalinism, the distorted and profoundly undemocratic form of “socialism” that characterised the Soviet Union and its allies, disappeared as former Stalinist bureaucrats transformed themselves into capitalists. They made fortunes selling off their countries' resources and infrastructure to themselves and to Western corporations.

NATO and the European Union expanded across the formerly Soviet-aligned Eastern European nations — and even into countries that had been part of the Soviet Union, itself, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The 1991 US-led invasion of Iraq was more a triumphal declaration of global hegemony than an intervention into a regional conflict.

However, despite severe economic and social dislocation, the loss of most of its allies and the independence of the non-Russian soviet republics, Russia remained a significant military power with the world's second largest nuclear arsenal.

Russian elites embraced the global capitalist economy, but were less enthusiastic about a US-led unipolar global political order.

Since the start of the century, Russia has tried to reassert its position as a world power. This was symbolised by the transition in leadership from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin.

In the 1990s, Yeltsin — an alcoholic and opportunistic bureaucrat — presided over the wholesale selling off of state-owned assets infrastructure and the rise of a corrupt capitalist oligarchy.

His regime was characterised by a relative liberalisation of the political system, a retreat by Russia in global politics and a fall in ordinary peoples' living standards as spectacular as the rise in those of the oligarchs.

Life expectancy in Russia dropped by 10 years during Yeltsin's rule.

Putin, his hand-picked successor, had been head of the KGB and its post-Soviet successor. Under his rule, the oligarchy has been streamlined. Uncooperative, or simply unlucky, oligarchs were driven into exile, jailed or even assassinated.

Increasing authoritarianism in politics was balanced with a moderate rise in living standards. This was facilitated by rising global prices of hydrocarbons and other minerals. Export of these resources became the basis of the Russian economy, monopolised by Putin-aligned oligarchs.

Putin's socially conservative, nationalist political narrative has a nostalgic emphasis on restoring Russia's former greatness.

In the US political narrative, fears of a new Cold War are part of anxieties about imperial overreach.

The death of the Soviet Union left the US as the world's only super-power, but it also took away the standard justification for US and Western militarism. During the '90s, new pretexts for war were experimented with — from “humanitarian interventions” to the “War on Drugs”.

'War on Terror'

After 9/11, Western leaders used Islamist terrorism as the default excuse for war. Using this pretext, the militaristic administration of then-president George W Bush launched the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 invasion of Iraq. It sought to fulfil an ambitious plan for the US to establish total mastery over the Middle East.

But the plan failed. Invading countries worn down by decades of conflict combined with punitive economic sanctions proved easy. Maintaining occupation regimes and creating viable client states proved harder.

The failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, with mounting US casualties from conflicts based on increasingly blatant lies, created a domestic backlash against the wars in the US in other Western countries.

Rather than establishing a precedent whereby the US could knock over and install regimes at will, it demonstrated the US empire's weakness. The US-led coalition was only able to avoid being militarily driven out of Iraq by fomenting a civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Moreover, the eventual withdrawal of most US troops in 2011 was only possible by the US relying on Iranian-backed groups to create a new Iraqi regime, despite Iran being a prominent regional rival of the US.

Before the 2003 invasion,, Sunni Islamist terrorist groups had little presence in Iraq and the government was hostile to Iran. Ironically, the US-led occupation changed both.

Western global dominance was also weakened by the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. At first, like Australia, Russia appeared to have evaded this with an economy based on mining and energy and China as a main market.

But since last year, the price of these commodities has been plunging as a result of the slowing of China's industrial growth. This is partly result of the downturn in the Western economy shrinking the market for the products of Chinese industry.


Western interference in Syria since the 2011 uprising has been tempered by both the failure of, and the lessons learned from, the post-9/11 adventures. Syria under dictator Bashar al-Assad was an ally of Russia and Iran and benefactor of the Lebanese anti-Israel resistance movement, Hezbollah.

However, the Assad regime had also collaborated with the US during the “War on Terror” and implemented Western-directed neoliberal economic reforms.

Western policy in Syria seems confusing: providing aid directly, or through regional allies, to various armed opposition groups but not enough to allow any to prevail over the Assad regime on the battlefield.

Despite their rhetoric, the Western powers see as much potential danger in democracy as they do in a sometimes-hostile regime such as Assad's or in Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. The overall pattern in the West's interference in Syria has been to weaken and neutralise the regime, while stopping short of regime change.

For Russia, the question of Syria is simpler. Under Assad, Syria was Russia's main trading partner and diplomatic ally in the region. It is the location of Russia's last remaining military base outside of Russia — the naval base at Tarsus. Russia wants to protect these assets.

The rise of ISIS in Syria further complicated the picture. Its invasion of northern Iraq last year meant the US could not ignore the group, while its ultra-violent self-promotion is useful propaganda to justify the West's interventions in the region.
In Iraq, this meant that the US and other Western powers have, since August last year, been fighting on the same side as Russia and Iran.

When Russia joined the fray, it bombed targets belonging to the array of groups sponsored - to varying degrees — by the US and its regional allies, as well as targets belonging to ISIS and the al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front. This provoked howls of outrage from Western politicians, but Russia's intervention in defence of Assad has appeared decisive compared with the confused Western intervention.

However, this is illusory. The US-led intervention follows the pattern of all Western imperial adventures since 1991: creating and then attempting to manage chaos to maintain their role as arbiters of the world order. Russia's intervention represents a weaker power protecting its far more limited interests.

Likewise in Ukraine. The Russian annexation of Crimea last year, and support for the breakaway republics in the Donbass, has appeared bold and decisive, but in reality reflects weakness.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and until last year remained economically close to Russia. The “Maidan” uprising against the corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych, was, like the 2011 uprising against Assad, lacking in any vision except opposition to a hated ruler.

Naive illusions in the benefits of a proposed free trade deal with the EU fuelled the uprising, which was confined to the central and western parts of the country.

Hijacked by fascists and politicians sponsored by the West, the uprising created a new regime that was hostile to Russia and favoured joining NATO. It was also hostile to the Russian-speaking population in the south and east.

The uprisings that followed in Crimea and the Donbass were equally incoherent. Paradoxically, both uprisings were to large degrees motivated by opposition to corruption but hijacked by competing elements in the kleptocratic state.

Both the movement in Kiev and those in the Donbass included ultra-nationalists and fascists (of competing types), although in the Donbass this has been disguised by a penchant for Stalinist iconography.

As well as a linguistic division between the Russian and Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country, there is an economic division between the industrialised Donbass, whose markets are in Russia, and the western and central regions with more economic ties to the EU.

Fuelling the war in Ukraine is a zero-sum-game being played by the Kiev government and its Western backers to definitively pull Ukraine out of Russia's orbit. The Russian response — annexing Crimea and giving support to the Donbass republics — is essentially reactive, if aggressive.

Unlike during the actual Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the Western powers had different economic models, Russia and the West are now part of same global capitalist economy. Their national economies deeply intertwined, despite real rivalries.

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