Stratfor - A new Cold War?

10 December 1999


Recent exchanges between the United States and Russia – particularly in light of the Beijing summit -- hearken back dramatically to the Cold War. But Russia’s recent posturing is a reassertion of its status as an international power, rather than a return to the Cold War. While neither the United States nor Russia is eager to return to Cold War relations, Russia faces conflicts in its attempts to rebuild which could lead both nations down that road. If Russia moves into the Southern Caucasus to secure its southern border, relations between the two powers would be forced into deep freeze. 


Russian President Boris Yeltsin returned from his informal summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Dec. 10. While in China, the obviously ailing Yeltsin heightened tensions between the United States and Russia by publicly reminding U.S. President Bill Clinton that Russia had a full arsenal of nuclear weapons. Clinton responded in kind, saying he assumed Russia had been keeping U.S. military power in mind in tempering its disapproval over Kosovo.

This exchange is only the most recent of a series of events reminiscent of the Cold War. Russia is currently attempting to use the prospect of START II ratification as a bargaining chip in relations with the West. The last two weeks have seen the latest episode of the spy wars, with Russia and the United States ferreting out and deporting token intelligence agents. Just last month, Russia deployed its Topol-M missiles in response to a proposed Anti-Ballistic Missile deployment. And, in the preceding months, Russia has made aggressive moves such as sending bombers around Iceland and Norway, and marching troops in to the Pristina airport in Kosovo, in defiance of NATO command. 

These moves don’t represent a return to the Cold War, but are aimed at portraying Russia as an effective world power and drawing domestic attention away from internal problems. Russia wants to use Western fears that economic instability will lead to increased militarism to draw continued funding from the West. An indication of this, the state-funded daily Vremya reported Dec. 8 that continued international pressure would only fuel Russian nationalism and militarism.

So far, the exchanges between Russia and the United States have not crossed from words into action. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart’s said on Dec. 7 that withdrawing aid to Russia would only result in undermining Russian democracy, suggesting IMF loan installments will continue. However, the United States will only be able to maintain this support so long as Russia’s militarism remains within its borders, which is far from guaranteed.

The greatest danger of Russian expansion lies within the Caucasus. There are several recent precedents for a Russian interference in the Southern Caucasus. Russia has already used the Chechen conflict to pressure Georgia and Azerbaijan. Moscow has been accused of backing the 1998 attempt on Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s life. As well, Russia attempted to increase its influence in Armenia after the October parliament assassinations, either by opportunism or design.  

Were Russia to invade, or sponsor a coup in, Georgia or Azerbaijan, the United States would be hard-pressed not to react strongly. Both states are U.S. allies in the region. The need to maintain the confidence of other countries in the region would pressure the United States to at least suspend economic aid to Russia, if not make military threats.

If the United States did not respond to such an instance of Russian expansion, other U.S. allies in the region would have few options besides turning to Russia for security. Russia may already be trying to convince Azerbaijan that Russia is a better guarantor of security than the far-off and internally-focused United States. Baltic and Eastern European states might as well be tempted to enter freely into a Russian union rather than wait uncertain U.S. assistance in the event of Russian aggression.

Washington knows that accepting Russian expansion would likely lead to such alliances. It also knows that changes in alliances – or even allegiances – would threaten U.S. hegemony. The United States is in a position of economic and political power from which it can afford to ignore many of the threats Russia can make. However, it cannot afford to ignore Russia if it forcefully extends its influence into foreign territory.

This said, there are reasons for Russia to temper its quest for influence. Russia wants to see a return to perestroika, not to the Cold War. Returning to Cold War relations would mean no more Western aid, and the freezing of Russian assets. Continued U.S. economic aid to Russia provides it with an incentive to stay within its borders.

At the same time, Russia is hoping for Western investment to help rebuild its infrastructure, and to jump-start new industries. Attracting investment depends in part upon maintaining internal stability. If Russia cannot control the flow of rebels and weapons over its border with Georgia – a difficult proposition – it will face a dilemma. Forcing Russian influence upon Georgia, whether by military might or by establishing a puppet regime, would help establish the stability necessary to attract investment. But it would deteriorate relations with the United States.

The recent series of events can therefore be read more as short-term power-brokering rather than a return to Cold War relations. It does, however, illustrate just how easy it would be for both countries to step back into their old, familiar roles. There are many reasons for each nation to maintain current relations. However, Russia has a serious conflict between the stability needed for investment and the consequences of the actions necessary for such stability. With a precarious balance of interests in Russia, the tactical use of Cold War rhetoric could easily lead into a Cold War reality.

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