Recent allegations by the U.S. that Russia is trying to interfere in its presidential election underline a grim but unavoidable point: Whether America likes it or not, it's in a new Cold War with Russia. All of the hallmarks of the first Cold War — the standoffs, the propaganda, the wars of words, the covert actions, and the proxy warfare — are all back. With a vengeance.
Welcome to Cold War Lite. Now what?
The first Cold War lasted from the end of World War II until the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1989. The conflict was an ideological one, between a democratic, capitalist West centered around the United States and a communist East, centered around the Soviet Union. The two blocs found themselves in military, economic, political, and even cultural competition with one another. Hovering over both was the possibility that each new crisis could spiral out of control into nuclear Armageddon.
This new Cold War is different.
On one hand, both sides are in military and political competition again in places like the Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Syria. On the other hand, the collapse of the Soviet Union took the ideological — and existential — struggle off the table. That's why it's only Cold War Lite.
And yet it is clear the new Cold War is largely the result of one individual — Vladimir Putin, who came up during the days of the Soviet Union and yearns for the glory of that age. A former KGB agent, he longs for the security belt of the captive nations of Eastern Europe, Soviet influence felt worldwide, and absolute power for the very few at the top.
The struggle is personal. Putin's Soviet Union not only lost the Cold War, it broke apart into 15 often bankrupt states. The old humiliations of the 1990s, when Russia was in the grip of poverty, will not be repeated. The hard, lean years are still recent memories in Moscow not easily forgotten.
This new Cold War results from Putin's zero-sum game way of thinking, which was common on both sides of the Iron Curtain. For one side to win, the other side must lose. It's not enough for Russia to rise by itself, it must do so at the expense of someone else. Furthermore, Putin will needlessly expend resources to "win." There was, for instance, no justifiable reason to annex the Crimea and trigger Western sanctions. The cost to the economy and the standard of living of the average Russian citizen were much greater than the reward, but in the end Putin can look back and say that Russia got what it wanted and the West didn't. To Putin, that's all that matters in the end.
But are we doomed to the same kind of Cold War? Not necessarily. The lack of an ideological struggle takes the existential threat off the table. Another reason is the interdependent nature of the global economy. Russia has spent more than two decades integrating itself into the global economic system. The great thing about the global economy is that the more money you make off of it, the more dependent on it you grow. As Western sanctions demonstrated, Russia's economy can be hurt by punitive economic action.
We aren't necessarily locked into a new arms race, either. Russia spends $66.4 billion on its military — less than Saudi Arabia and about 11 percent of the United States. Thanks to Western sanctions over aggression in the Ukraine and falling oil prices, defense spending will fall 12 percent in 2017 — a huge hit that will likely end the idea of Russian military intervention abroad. The United States should be able to easily outspend Russia for now and into the foreseeable future. Any arms race Russia chooses to pursue will be a losing one.
Russia knows it is locked into a straitjacket and is trying to change its strategic environment. It engages in propaganda campaigns online attempting to influence foreign populations, which will in turn influence their governments. Rather than try to challenge the U.S. globally, it's easier just to interfere in the upcoming presidential election and help a pro-Russian candidate, Donald Trump, win the election. But the means for it to do so are not so easy to hide, and Russia has already been called out by the U.S. government over its interference.
So what should the U.S. do about Cold War Lite? Absent our meddling in Russia's own affairs — which would be equally hard to mask and just prove Putin's point — there's little it can do. It must stand by the NATO alliance and smaller, weaker states that could be intimidated into flipping to a neutral, or even pro-Russian position. The stronger and more united the West appears, the less likely Putin could see a way to eke out a victory, however small.
As frustrating as it is for a single man to troll the entire world, the only way out of this situation may be to simply wait him out. Putin won't live forever, and as long as Russia maintains some vestige of democratic government someone — preferably less aggressive and more interested in working peacefully with the international community — may take power. Or maybe not. We'll just have to see.