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A New Cold War?

Posted by Ryan Petersen on

Ryan Petersen

Ryan Petersen

In a recent opinion piece on CNN.com, Frida Ghitis argued that, “We have entered a new Cold War.” The Obama administration, on the other hand, desperately wants to downplay comparisons between the current situation in Ukraine and the Cold War. Anyone remember Secretary of State John Kerry admonishing us that “this is not Rocky IV”?

Russia is now not only occupying Crimea, but, as of today, is also claiming to have legally annexed the region. Military tensions between Ukraine and Russia appear to be escalating and there are even reports of shots having been fired. What does this mean for U.S-Russian relations?

Is this Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968? Have we, in fact, entered a new Cold War? Who’s right?

While comparisons with the Cold War are, to some extent, inevitable, I don’t think that’s quite where we’re headed. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have clearly misjudged Vladimir Putin and vastly overestimated the extent to which their mere presence in office would enable to the U.S. to “reset” relations with Russia. Indeed, Mitt Romney was right in his assessment that Russia was our biggest geopolitical threat (and the President was equally wrong to mock his position).

The U.S. has now been outmaneuvered by Russia twice in recent months - first in Syria and now in Ukraine. If that wasn’t enough, a Russian State TV anchor recently pointed out that, "Russia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash." While that is literally true, let’s set all hyperbole aside and look strictly at conventional forces. 

For several years now, Russia has been simultaneously downsizing and modernizing its military. What country other than the United States could currently match, let alone defeat, Russia in even a purely conventional military conflict? The Russian bear, it would seem, is back. That being said, this won’t be a repeat of the Cold War. 

For starters, it’s highly unlikely that we will find ourselves in a bipolar world again with Russia (or any other country) as our sole, peer adversary. China is still on the rise. India is spending record sums of money on military hardware. Even Brazil has the potential to emerge as a significant power in the coming decades. But the biggest difference between the unfolding geopolitical landscape and the Cold War is the almost complete lack of any significant ideological divide between the U.S. and its potential rivals. 

The Cold War was much more than just two powerful countries and their respective allies grappling with their competing interests; it was a global conflict between competing ideologies – capitalism and democracy versus communism. That larger conflict defined the real Cold War and nothing like it exists today. 

To be sure, the U.S. has cultural, economic, and strategic differences with its potential rivals, but Russia is not the Soviet Union. Not even China, which still professes to be communist, really continues to be any such thing in practice. Authoritarian? Yes. Communist? No. 

So what does the Russian annexation of Crimea mean for the U.S. and the rest of the world? My fellow Currently Speaking regular, Lee Trepanier, hit the nail on the head a couple of weeks ago when he said that the Russian occupation of Ukraine marks the end of the War on Terror and the return to a multipolar world. I think that’s exactly right.

Waging a global war against terrorism was something that was only possible in a world in which the United States was the sole superpower. The resurgence of Russia, the rise of China (and other countries) is the beginning of a return to a multipolar world, a world in which the United States will once again have to concern itself primarily with other nation-states, nation-states that will be able to check, compete, and threaten us around the globe in ways that terrorists never could.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.


Currently Speaking host Andy Rapp

Veteran journalist Andy Rapp has been hosting Currently Speaking since 1999.

Each week, he's joined live in the studio by journalists, academics, and experts. Along with viewers at home, they tackle the local, national, and global issues that matter most.