Akram Bunni

What Kind of Cold War Awaits the World?

It is not a hasty conclusion or a kind of simplification to consider Russia’s war on Ukraine to be a turning point for Russia’s relations with the West, creating a total rupture and replacing dialogue and cooperation with quiet hostility. In other words, those who thought the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall should follow the news… President Putin’s decision to put his nuclear deterrence forces on high alert days after declaring his war on Ukraine and sending his forces in from multiple axes to take control of the country. Unprecedented economic and financial sanctions were imposed on Russia; then came the decision to ban its airplanes from the Western skies and its ships from Western ports. Its sports teams and athletes were expelled from European and global sporting competitions, like European countries, the US, and Canada rushed to send the Ukrainians weapons to enable them to hold off the Russians and stand their ground, as well as opening the door to millions of Ukrainians.

All of that is reminiscent of the decades of the Cold War, which began after World WarII ended and finished with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union (1990). However, this version of the Cold War is different in that it lacks the ideological dimension that had been extremely strong in the previous struggle between the Liberal and Communist camps. The ruling elite in Moscow has abandoned Communism and become part of the capitalist world. This fact does not bear on the criticisms of its record on democracy and human rights, how it clamps down on the opposition, or use of force to impose its will.

The camp facing NATO, led by China and Russia with Iran and Venezuela orbiting around them- after the Warsaw Pact collapsed- is also different. The utilization of financial and economic sanctions, as well as cyber warfare, also distinguishes this version. The most crucial distinction is the project President Vladimir Putin, who had been in power since 2000, harbors. The crux of this project is reviving the Soviet Union by enhancing Russia’s presence on the world stage, which manifested in his repeated attempts to expand his country’s influence and control outside its borders: Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine itself in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and the imposition of the Minsk Agreement to pro-Russian forces in its East, Syria in 2015, and months ago, in Kazakhstan, where Putin sent troops to put down popular mobilizations.

True, the Kremlin is annoyed at having lost its role as a global power, and it is overwhelmed with desire to retrieve its old stature and position and is not happy to see the West dominate the world alone. It is true its biggest grievance stems from the approach that NATO has taken on its borders and the alliance’s ability to install missile defense systems in European countries that, until very recently, had been part of the Russian orbit.

However, it is also true that this leadership- which had been flexible in dealing with the West given their intertwined economic interests and seemed to shape its policies in accordance with diligently considered competition, choosing safe battles over shares of control and influence- wants to change the rules of the game today, expand the scope of the conflict, and push this competition to a higher level, perhaps to the maximum level.

Those are right who believe that Moscow would not have launched its war in Ukraine if it had not been for the steep decline in Washington’s role in the world (as its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan made clear), as well as NATO’s fragility and the laxity and weakness of the European Union (which became more vulnerable after Britain’s exit). Also right are those who believe that the success of Russia’s military intervention in Syria has tempted the Russian leadership to resort to force to strengthen its influence and impose its terms.

However, does Russia really have the economic capacity to play its old role and occupy the position it had held as a global power? Is it right to restore the Soviet’s past through pure military force and the threat of nuclear weapons? To what extent can Moscow build its stature after its bet on severing ties between Europe and the US failed and its war on Ukraine reinforced solidarity among NATO members? Can the Kremlin leadership win in Ukraine? Or will it find itself in a position similar to that which it had been in when it invaded Afghanistan and even Syria, where it had the capacity to wage war and wreak havoc but not to rebuild? Moreover, how is it in the interest of the government in Moscow or its people to turn back on the strategy of coexistence and give up on the interdependence of Russian and Western economic and financial interests, which has developed over the past three decades? What fruits does it intend to reap from pushing its conflict with the West and the arms race to the end? This path has been tried for a long time and has yielded nothing but hindered development and the suffering of the Russian people.

Some tyrannical regimes began rubbing their hands with joy at the emergence of a Cold War atmosphere and the renewal of the rupture and the arms race, as well as the return of the logic of resorting to force or the threat of force to manage relations between peoples and states. At the forefront of these regimes is the one in Iran, which is still enchanted by violent and divisive rhetoric and seeks to revive the Persian Empire. Instead of addressing its exacerbating domestic crises- spurred by delusions that its Islamic Republic has the capacity to dominate the region and subjugate its states and peoples- it is deepening its military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Regardless of the outcomes of Russia’s war on Ukraine, it will have deep implications for the European continent beyond the grave suffering and pain that the Russian and Ukrainian people will endure. It will affect the climate of the global conflict, unfairly imposing a new Cold War to revive the old world order that will have drastic implications for humanity as a whole, a world of empires and dominance, even if it is multipolar! A war much more dangerous than those that preceded it, and it raises the specter of slipping into a hot war that could squander everything humanity had accumulated over hundreds of years.

We don’t know if there is hope for using what is happening to make public opinion besiege this violence and unfettered selfishness and foster solidarity among the powers that share humanitarian values and have a real interest in a world without oppression or discrimination. We don’t know if they will seek to restructure the United Nations and the Security Council to preserve peace and coexistence instead of leaving a few countries with the power to veto, which goes against the principles of collective representation and decision-making.