Whether reliance on nuclear weapons will decrease, too, like it did for the United States in the 1990s depends almost solely on the United States. Until recently, the United States held a monopoly on long-range conventional strike capability so it could afford reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. Whether this U.S./NATO policy will continue now that monopoly is almost lost, remains to be seen. I am particularly concerned that NATO—especially the newer members—might want to enhance reliance on nuclear weapons and then Russia will certainly respond in kind—i.e., conventional missions will supplement nuclear instead of replacing them. That’s the key dynamic to watch in the next five to seven years.
Despite Russia’s relative weakness compared to the West, President Vladimir Putin has played a weak hand extremely well. Indeed, as Trenin notes, it is “truly an irony of history” that today’s Russia can directly challenge Washington with a tiny gross domestic product compared to the United States and a defense budget that is roughly a tenth of what the Pentagon spends. Although there is a massive disparity in national power, Russia has managed to successfully challenge Washington and the liberal international order.
Whether one wants to refer to this new U.S.-Russia confrontation as a new Cold War or by some other name, the fact is that the Washington and Moscow are now set to face off against each other over the long term. But this new Cold War is fundamentally different from the original. This new confrontation is as, or possibly more dangerous, because of Russian insecurity and relative weakness compared to the United States and its allies. Russia, despite its recent resurgence compared to the chaotic days of the 1990s, has been shorn of the strategic buffer space it had gathered through centuries of imperial expansion, devoid of allies and surrounded by what it considers to be potential threats, is deeply insecure and much more prone to acting provocatively than the Soviet Union was during much of the original Cold War.
In event of an inadvertent military confrontation between the United States and Russia—in Syria, for example, and such an eventuality nearly came to pass during the Trump administration’s strike on Damascus on April 13—a resultant crisis could spiral out of control into an armed conflict.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.