This is not the beginning of a new Cold War

The growth of asymmetrical forces has changed the complexion of geopolitics

Russian prime minister Dimitry Medvedev warned on Saturday that the world has been thrust into a new Cold War. Citing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, Mr Medvedev said that “almost every day we [Russia] are accused of making new horrible threats either against Nato as a whole, against Europe, or against the US or other countries”. During an international security conference in Munich, US secretary of state John Kerry and other world leaders responded to the comments by renewing calls for Russia to abide by all aspects of the Minsk agreement to end hostilities in Ukraine.

The fault lines in Syria and Ukraine have presented serious challenges to the world order established after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia has solidified its military might and shown a willingness to use it in neighbouring countries and farther afield. At the same time, Nato has expanded into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in places such as Estonia and Lativa. While these geopolitical movements could be narrowly understood as the beginnings of a new Cold War, there are many other factors at work that discount the prospect of another such stand-off between Russia and the West.

The Cold War was fought between nations vying for global influence. A balance of power emerged as the conflict intensified. There were episodes where state power was challenged by non-state actors such as the mujahideen, but they were supported and trained by the United States to weaken the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Today, the picture is muddier. From extremist groups such as ISIL and Al Qaeda to rogue regimes such as North Korea, asymmetrical forces operate outside of the influence of the United States and Russia. This is doubly worrying because these groups have a demonstrated willingness to use force recklessly and without warning. The concept of mutually assured destruction, which prevented the superpowers from attacking each other, no longer applies.

In conflict areas like Syria, warring factions multiply, shift allegiances and use force indiscriminately. State borders are being destroyed, leaving the international community without traditional definitions for who is fighting whom. It is this situation that threatens the world order and demands cooperation between traditional superpowers such as Russia and the US to overcome the new challenges that face us all.