It has become increasingly common to proclaim the present standoff between Russia and the West as a “new cold war,” and one possibly worse and potentially more dangerous than the first because of a lack of agreed rules of play or crisis management. But until now, one important feature seemed to be lacking—a basic ideological conflict. This had been the axis of the previous confrontation: free market economy and democracy versus rigid Marxist/Leninist ideology and totalitarian rule.
In its early stages, the present Russian-Western confrontation was still seen in Moscow as a classical 19th century–style struggle for territory, resources and spheres of influence, based on egoistic national and imperial rivalries between great powers that ideologically do not much differ. Some five years ago, in February 2013, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, in a policy speech at a conference in the capital, presented what seemed to be the official strategic Russian global threat assessment: “In the period until 2030, the level of existing and potential military threats may grow substantially. Leading world powers will be fighting to control natural energy resources, markets and ‘Lebensraum’ [‘living space’—a Nazi German concept justifying its expansionist aims in the East], actively using military means to achieve national goals” (RIA Novosti, February 14, 2013). The General Staff of the Armed Forces traditionally dominates strategic planning and threat assessment in Moscow, using data provided by the military’s dedicated intelligence service, the GRU, which is an integral part (main directorate) of the General Staff. Based on this assessment of impending military aggression by outside powers led by the United States, bent on seizing Russian territory, “Lebensraum” and natural resources (primarily oil and natural gas), Moscow launched a massive and costly military modernization and rearmament program, increasing Russian defense and national security spending to 5–6 percent of GDP (see EDM, October 26, 2017).
This threat assessment turned out to be false: Instead of being a massive oil importer, the US is now on track to become the world’s number one petroleum producer and a net exporter. Russia spent up to a trillion of dollars on an array of new fancy weapons to deter a Western grab of Russian oil fields so it could keep its population supplied during a global energy crunch, which now seems an outdated proposition. The so-called “party of war” in Moscow has thus come up with another narrative to justify its militaristic demands: The world is changing, a new world order is emerging, the West’s influence and power is diminishing, but the US rejects the new reality and is determined to maintain its historically doomed “global leadership” at all costs, “including military means.” According to Gerasimov, who, on March 24, 2018, gave another major speech at a conference in Moscow (see EDM, April 3), US attempts to hold on to its shrinking “global leadership” have brought it into a “total” confrontation with Russia. This clash is being fought by nonmilitary means but may transform into direct combat at any moment. To keep the US and its allies at bay, the military buildup in Russia and preparation for war (“hybrid,” cyber, information, local, regional and global/nuclear) must continue at full pace (Militarynews.ru, March 24).
Gerasimov is not a lone voice. Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki— SVR), known in Soviet times as the First Main Directorate (PGU) of the KGB, accused the West and the US of being unable “to face the truth and reconcile themselves with their inevitable downgrading.” Speaking, on April 4, at the seventh annual Moscow International Security Conference (MCIS-2018), organized by the defense ministry, Naryshkin asserted the West and the US are fighting the new emerging world order and resorting to “colonialist and imperialist” practices of domination, “while masquerading their dictate and blackmail with a show of Euro-Atlantic and international solidarity.” Russia is seen by the West as “the main locomotive of change in the world,” according to the SVR head, and is being singled out for attack by “retrograde and reactionary forces.” The US obsession with the “nonexistent Russian threat” has produced a new cold war, Naryshkin insisted (YouTube, April 4).
So this “new cold war” seems to finally have acquired a sold ideological backing, which appears to mimic the previous one: An existential fight between the united “retrograde” forces of evil, led by the US, and Russia—the shining star of the emerging new world order—supported by China and Iran. Both the Iranian and Chinese defense ministers spoke at MCIS-2018. The newly appointed Chinese National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe met with his Russian counterpart, Segei Shoigu, before the conference and was quoted as saying he came to Moscow to attended MCIS-2018 “to support Russia in the present situation” and “send a signal to the US about the close link between the Russian and Chinese militaries” (Militarynews.ru, April 3).
Speaking at MCIS-2018, Shoigu accused the United States of failing to counter Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan and of deploying its forces only to extend its regional influence, particularly in Central Asia. Shoigu also accused the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of deploying up to 10,000 combat troops with heavy offensive weapons on Russia’s European boarders under the pretext of a “nonexistent Russian threat.” Shoigu reproached NATO for modernizing and building up military infrastructure on the boarders of Russia while increasing the number and magnitude of military exercises in the region and increasing naval activities in the Baltic and Black Seas. The number of reconnaissance flights by Western aircraft close to Russian borders have increased many fold, and Russian jets have been scrambled to intercept. “The possibility of military incidents and provocations has increased dramatically,” Shoigu proclaimed, “Our military’s fighting potential will be maintained to guarantee the security of Russia and its allies.” Meanwhile, “NATO refuses to talk to us,” he complained (Mil.ru, April 4). Indeed, Western defense officials have ignored MCIS-2018.
On March 1, during his annual address to the parliament, President Vladimir Putin unveiled an array of nuclear superweapons, claiming Russia has secretly overcome the mighty US by maneuvering itself into a dominant military position (see EDM, March 1, 8). According to Shoigu, following Putin’s address the Russian military has been rewriting the 2018–2027 rearmament program and “military plans until 2020,” preparing to “promptly present additional requests” to intensify preparations in accordance with the president’s directives (Militarynews.ru, April 3). The new cold war seems to be raking in a war dividend—which is what they do.