Seven Ways a New Cold War with Russia Will Be Different

"Some of the differences would be good for America, some would be bad—and one could be ugly."

As fighting in Ukraine appears to intensify and separatists conduct a referendum on independence, observers in the United States, Europe, Russia and elsewhere are increasingly thinking and talking about a second Cold War between America and Russia. But would such a confrontation truly be a second Cold War or would it in fact be something else entirely? These seven key differences suggest that if there is a prolonged struggle between Washington and Moscow, it may not work in the ways that many seem to expect. Some of the differences would be good for America, some would be bad—and one could be ugly.

The Good

1.   The United States and Russia are not equals (or even close): Russia is no longer anything like a superpower peer of the United States. America’s economy is eight times Russia’s and the same is true of the European Union’s total economy, making a combined sixteen-to-one ratio. The U.S. defense budget is seven times Russia’s. Moreover, notwithstanding some erosion, the United States is in a stronger position internationally that it was during much of the Cold War, retains a significant technological and soft-power edge over Russia, and has expanding energy resources too. Russia’s economy has fallen into recession and is facing accelerated capital flight; Russia simply cannot sustain a long-term confrontation with the West in the way that the Soviet Union did. A new Cold War would not be a seventy-year endeavor.

2.   Russia has not (yet) articulated an attractive alternative ideology: The Soviet Union was a complex and long-term challenge in part because it attracted supporters. Though Moscow won some friends with generous arms shipments and loans on which it rarely collected, the U.S.S.R. also genuinely managed to inspire some with its combination of authoritarian rule (comfortable for elites) and populist socialism (appealing to publics—until it failed to deliver). Thus far, post-Soviet Russia has not defined a global message that mobilizes followers. It has a few clients, but no disciples. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s active defense of conservative social values from liberal Western encroachment looks like an effort to do just this, and might be appealing in some non-Western societies, but has not yet resonated in a politically meaningful way.

The Bad

3.   Globalization and technology empower spoilers: Many have described how the modern interconnected world empowers individuals for good and ill. A more accurate assessment might be that globalization and technology empower the weak (in relative terms), whether individuals, organizations, or governments. Incorporating the sad and permanent reality that it almost invariably takes many to build but only one to destroy, Russia’s capability to utilize modern technologies like cyber-attacks toward disruptive ends could help Moscow to level the playing field with America and Europe. Science fiction fans will recall Paul-Muad’dib’s statement in Dune that “the power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it”—and observers of Russia’s foreign policy will recognize echoes of this mindset in Moscow’s conduct.

4.   Being a regional power isn’t necessarily a weakness: President Barack Obama has derided Russia as a “regional power,” but this is not as problematic for Moscow as it may seem on the surface. First, Russia does not have the U.S.S.R.’s global interests and commitments and is therefore free to concentrate its resources in its immediate neighborhood. Second, because the United States is a global power, its far greater resources are thinly spread to rebalance to Asia and maintain readiness for Middle East and other contingencies. Third, and related, is the factor of time and distance—forces in Russia’s western military districts are much closer to potential conflicts in central Europe than most of the (dramatically reduced from Cold War levels) U.S. forces in Europe.

5.   Cold War 1 developed rules; Cold War 2 has none. By the time the Cold War ended, the United States and the Soviet Union had constructed an elaborate system of rules and signals to regulate their competition and mitigate risks. All of this is now gone—in fact, few remember its existence, much less its operation. If the United States and Russia enter a new Cold War, it will reset to 1945, not 1985. This means a new iterative trial-and-error process to define the rules—this time, starting with thousands of nuclear warheads, cyber-weapons, precision munitions and drones. And don’t forget sanctions, energy dependence, and angry Russian minorities in neighboring states. With global 24-hour television and the Internet, this mess will play out in real time. Governments on both sides will struggle to shape messages and manage public opinion in an environment totally unlike that of decades ago. This could produce powerful domestic pressures well beyond what early Cold War leaders had to handle.

6.   Geopolitics will be different: The Cold War was a period of bi-polar competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during which it was difficult for many to avoid taking sides. The United States amassed important second-tier allies and partners—Europe, Japan and eventually even China, when Richard Nixon successfully split Beijing from Moscow. Any new effort and containment and confrontation with Russia will run up against some unpleasant geopolitical realities in China, Europe and elsewhere.