Claims about a new Cold War are unconvincing. But ignoring them is unwise because behind the escalation lie important messages for Europe and the Middle East, which have often served as an arena for conflict.
In his annual speech to the Russian parliament, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted about new “super powerful” ballistic missiles and pledged to deploy them in response to US threats and Nato movements in Europe. But while he was talking up an expensive armament programme, he also admitted to Russia’s economic hardship, which hinders its ability to spend on defence.
According to Mr Putin, 19 million Russians are currently living under the poverty line, with millions more on the brink. Realistically then, Mr Putin will have to choose between improving the livelihoods of his people or engaging in an arms race to prove that US military superiority is, as he said, an illusion.
In reality, the US is truly militarily superior. What Mr Putin seems to be aiming for, however, is to suggest to the Europeans that they would be the victim of any US-Russian arms race and therefore that they must pressure Washington to avoid destabilising the continent. But it is not easy for the Kremlin to create a rift between the US and the rest of Nato and might instead isolate Russia further, which could push Mr Putin to compensate in the Middle East.
Mr Putin is not the only one trying to distract from his domestic problems by flexing his military muscles. US President Donald Trump finds himself in the same boat, issuing threats to Europe and creating crises. Both Mr Trump and Mr Putin lack the ability to revive the Cold War, knowing that the world is no longer bipolar, with China emerging as a third major global power.
In his speech, Mr Putin threatened not just would-be aggressors but also “those territories where the centres of decision-making are located”, meaning the US. Nato has since responded, with a spokesman saying threats to target allies were “unacceptable”. Although Nato does not want an arms race, the spokesman said, it is ready to defend itself against any threat.
Washington had accused Moscow of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which was signed in 1987 between the US and the Soviet Union, and suspended its participation in the treaty earlier this month. Russia followed suit the following day. Mr Putin said Russia was prepared to negotiate but accused Washington of inventing claims about Russia to justify withdrawing.
Days after his speech, the Russian leader told the press that he was prepared for another “Cuban missile crisis”, in reference to the 1962 nuclear stand-off between the Soviet Union and the US.
But Russia today is not the Soviet Union of yesterday. Mr Putin himself often follows threats with charm and he has said that relations with Washington are not in crisis and that the current tension is not a cause for escalation.
So what does Mr Putin want? The answer is a psychological war, not a real one, but less severe than another Cold War, which would be too costly for Russia’s strained economy.
Andrei Fedorov, chairman of the Fund for Political Research and Consulting in Russia and former deputy foreign minister, tells me Mr Putin wants to test European partners of the US and that if the EU supports new US military plans, it means that Russian relations with EU will fall apart. He says Russia might try to take a more active role in the Middle East to compensate losses in its western alliances.
Mr Fedorov’s view is that an arms race is inevitable and will be accompanied by political manoeuvres. For Russia, he says, it is crucial to reach certain positive outcomes in Syria and to ensure the US is surplus to a political settlement there.
He foresees more tension between Russia and the US and more tension over the situation in Syria. “Russia finally will come to the position that its new weapons will defend not only Russia itself but also close friends like Tehran and Damascus,” Mr Fedorov says, warning of a “new expected crisis over Iran in the coming months, especially since “the new arms race might push countries like Iran to play more actively on contradictions between Russia and the US and it might lead to dangerous consequences”.
To be sure, recent statements by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani suggest he has interpreted US-Russian tensions to be in his country’s favour and shut the door on any international negotiations regarding Iran’s role in the region. Mr Soleimani cautioned his government against negotiating with western nations over Iran’s regional role because any agreement to curtail or contain this role would “dry the soul of Iran and its movement”.
These statements highlighted negotiations Europe is seeking with Iran regarding Tehran’s cross-border activities. They also highlighted the sway of the Revolutionary Guard on foreign policy, particularly since he also spoke about support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and threatened Pakistan on account of its special ties with Saudi Arabia, warning Islamabad against “testing Iran”.
Iran is thus likely to be a key strand to expected US-Russian escalation, in light of the INF treaty developments and the emerging arms race. However, harsh economic realities are going to provide a reality check to any delusions of reviving the Cold War.
Mr Putin does not have the ability to retaliate in Europe beyond bullying weak governments. Meanwhile, Europe finds itself trapped between the White House and the Kremlin and is feeling resentful of Mr Trump’s attempts to export his domestic woes to its shores. Yet if the Russian president pushes for an arms race, this will backfire at home, where people want better living standards, not more posturing.
In short, all talk of a new Cold War is exaggerated, premature and unconvincing.