The New Cold War

by Nathan Hamm on 5/8/2006 · 12 comments

In a commentary published at EurasiaNet today, Justin Burke writes on US and Russian policy differences in Eurasia that the US and Russia appear to be preparing for a new cold war and that the US is ill-prepared to win this time. Burke clearly thinks that the US is initiating a conflict with Russia–he goes so far as to say that the US is “picking a fight”–and that in doing so, the Bush administration is “making dangerous assumptions about the United States’ current strengths and weaknesses, while ignoring the old Wall Street caveat that says ‘past performance does not ensure future results.'”

While Burke is correct that the US and Russia look to be increasingly in conflict with one another and that the center of that conflict is in the states of the former Soviet Union, he misreads US intentions and overstates its goals. Part of this is due to the very nature of the historical analogy at play. It was not long ago that analysts tossed about variations on the argument that we were seeing the beginnings of a New Great Game. These arguments easily lent themselves to overstatment of actors’ intentions by too heavily relying on the original Great Game as a roadmap of things to come.

If Burke’s article is any indication, perhaps one should get used to analyses of US-Russian differences as the New Cold War without any real explanation of why strategic conflict between the US and Russia (as opposed to say, with China or anyone else) should be called a cold war. And with it, one should expect talk of proxy governments, zero-sum strategizing, and the like.

Personally, I do not find it any more believable the US moreso than Russia is bent on ushering in a new era of conflict and suspicion. (And I find it incomplete if not dishonest to give any summary of the cooling of US-Russian relations without at least a passing mention of, for example, Russian attempts to guarantee pliant governments in its near abroad.) To suggest otherwise is tantamount to saying that Russia’s merely trying to get along and that the US is stepping in to muck it all up for them. One certainly can make that argument, but it is no more valid than arguing the converse.

The US has its goals in Eurasia and Russia has its own. These are different and it is these differences that breed conflict moreso than either side’s intention to create a conflict. And since Russia’s goals are the ones that involve, among other things, using energy companies subservient to the state to bring its neighbors to heel, I am more inclined to point to it as the party guilty of inciting a conflict if either can be said to carry guilt.

That said, Burke is right that a conflict between the US and Russia will center on the Caucasus and Central Asia and that it will be primarily economic. He is also right to say that it is one Russia is much better positioned to come out on top in. However, standing between Russia and unassailable dominance is Kazakhstan–both geographically and in terms of oil and natural gas production. It is, in my opinion, far too soon to be proclaiming the inevitability of a new cold war between Russia and the United States. The new conflict will… well, already does involve new actors such as Kazakhstan, India (even without US policy pushing for a reorientation of Central Asia to the south), and China.

For some relevant recent coverage, see these reports from Vladimir Socor and Marat Yermukanov on Dick Cheney’s visit to Kazakhstan and this report on a Trans-Caspian pipeline from Civil Georgia.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Matt W May 9, 2006 at 2:17 am

On the level of rhetoric at least, Russia seems to desperately want a Cold War enemy, and, indeed, the Putin years have seen a narrowing mentality and a massive return of xenophobia in Russia. While some of the same can be said about the US, Russia just doesn’t make the cut for satisfaction of our xenophobic impulse anymore, as much as they would like to. Most of Russia’s cold war posturing just rings hollow now and makes it look ridiculous (one need look no farther than, well, any Olympic games). Much of Putin’s foreign policy, I think, can be summed up as “What if we declared cold war and nobody came”.

Rustam May 9, 2006 at 4:05 am

I don’t understand one thing – WHY EVERYONE IS FORGETTONG ABOUT UZBEKISTAN!!!!!!! Is it not the most populous nation in the Central Asia, the most volatile in the Central Asia and the best candidate for democratization????
Why Nathan do You think that Russia will come on top, if the US will support the opposition in Uzbekistan to win the elections in 2007, the opposition which has been living in the US itself and in Europe, the members of which had to leave Russia after Putin’s cooperation with the dictator Karimov, the opposition that can easily change the foreign policy vectors for 180 degrees towards the US using the resentment and sense of betrayel towards the Russia after Andijon, the US will have Uzbekistan on its side, i.e. UZBEKS on its side!!!!!!

Rustam May 9, 2006 at 4:08 am

Nathan I have been having problems commenting, is seems I can’t see the code that it asks to submit and as a result I lost the comment to this post. Can You do anything about it?

Peter May 9, 2006 at 4:27 am

Matt W,

I’m afraid that all the heat in rhetoric is coming mostly from the United States. Consider that while Dick Cheney is running off his mouth at the moment, to what discernible end is not given for us to know, AFP reported this item yesterday:

“MOSCOW, May 8 – Russian President Vladimir Putin will use his state of
the nation address on Wednesday to send the message that 15 years after the
collapse of the Soviet Union Russia remains fundamentally committed to the
West despite tensions on several fronts, experts forecast.”

Indeed, though Russia has toughened its posture in many areas, it is the United States that has repeatedly ramped up the rhetoric. Myabe I’m being naive, but I don’t see all this evidence of the clash of interests that so many people are currently itching for.

Rustam May 9, 2006 at 9:05 am

Peter why You believe the words of Putin in his state of the nation address will change anything regarding the slide to authoritarism in Russia that no serious political analyst is denying; what Putin has done to make You believe his words? He does talk about democracy, that there is no way back to communism and all that and at same time punishes Georgia and Ukraine for orange revolution and supports blood thirsty Karimov!!!!! It is the same as Karimov talks about democracy everytime and at the end says one has to take into account our national characteristics, the same is reapeted with Putin.
When You say that You don’t see any clash of interests then perhaps first of all one has to determine what the interests of the US are, is it the US interest to betray allies in the ever more crucial Caspian region with its oil reserves, is it US interest to see Ukraine being bullied from Moscow and not be part of the EU, is it the US interest to have dictator Karimov in Uzbekistan, who openly and publicly humiliated US and the consequences of his dictatorship that very likely to bring about chaos in the Central Asia which will destabelise the whole of Central Asia, first of all Kazakhstan? If the opposite is the US interest then well done Mr. Vice-President!!!!

jonathan p May 9, 2006 at 10:20 am

What Russian slide toward authoritarianism? Did I miss something? When was Russia not authroitarian? Hmmm…

Putin is not punishing Georgia and Ukraine for their democratic movements as much as he is trying to reassert Russia’s dominance. The U.S. does the same thing to its little brothers in the western hemisphere.

Rustam, we still haven’t determined what the interestes of the US are. The list above speaks to some extent about what our interests are not, but I think Peter’s point may be that we do not necessarily have to clash with Russia in order to support our real, potential and imaginary allies in Ukraine, the Caspian region and elsewhere. As far as I know, Russia has not given the US an ultimatum demanding that it stop meddling in the region’s affairs, or else.

And regarding the Karimov thing: I really think Karimov (and the Uzbek economy he’s milking) are wielding less and less influence in the region as each day goes by. Barring the stunning success of a Taliban-like takeover in Tashkent (yeah, right), I don’t see his increasingly insignificant fiefdom having negative consequences for anyone in the region except for his own people (unfortunately).

Maybe you know something I don’t, but how would Karimov’s government (or its collapse) destabilize Kazakhstan today? The Kazakh government would have to be made up of complete idiots to allow this to happen. Maybe 10 years ago Kazakhstan might have been in a weaker position. But now … at worst, Kazakhstan might suffer temporarily from the hordes of people fleeing Uzbek territory for a better life to the north. As far as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are concerned, the only thing they really rely on Uzbekistan for is natural gas. That’s it. But there are only two things that will prevent its delivery to those countries: a large-scale radical Islamist-led civil war (not going to happen) or Karimov’s spite (the Kyrgyz and Tajik people are well-acquainted with Karimov’s use of gas to bully their governments).

OK, I’m done. Back to finals. …

Rustam May 9, 2006 at 11:25 am

Jonathan I did expect that the reply would be similar that I got from You, You are right and it is sad for me to admit but may be You are right that it is true that Uzbekistan is less and less important for the Central Asia and for the world in general. However, Southern Kazakhstan, Southern Kyrgyzstan and Tadjikistan are all valnurable to the wave that will come out with the collapse of the Karimov regime and it will for sure affect them badly, issues of ethnicity and religion are there to enter in to the scene and there is nobody to guarantee that it will not bring a snowball effect with it.
Regarding the Cheney and US interests in the region – just wanted to say that having listened to the last State of the Nation address of President Bush and having read the The National Security Strategy 2006 I thought that what I pointed out is indeed US interests!!!!
And it is my personal view that I would chose Cheney as opposed to Putin, even taking into account all his infamous history!!!

Peter May 9, 2006 at 4:46 pm

This op-ed column from the New York Times puts it mcuh better than I could hope to:

Brian May 9, 2006 at 6:54 pm

I couldn’t help notice the juxtaposition of these two articles today:

Uzbek Leader Calls For Closer Ties With Russia

US offers aid to Tajikistan with security and hydroelectric energy

Perhaps not a “cold war” but sounds like a rivalry is definitely brewing.

elizabeth May 9, 2006 at 10:25 pm

I suppose it’s just so much easier for Russia to be nostalgic for the ‘good ol days’ when your enemy was easily identifiable and distant.

Lyndon May 10, 2006 at 7:44 pm


it’s so much easier for ex-cold-warriors in DC also. What if they didn’t have to, you know, think about how to engage Russia anymore? Wouldn’t that be easier? Just as Russia has people nostalgic for their glory days in the KGB, the US has a generation of Cold-War-trained Sovietologists who have not yet passed from the scene, some of whom have not changed the lens through which they view Russia. I would love to see a comparison of the number of Russian-speakers on the US gov’t (including military / intel / diplomatic) payroll vs. the number of Arabic-speakers – I would bet money that there are still many more Russian-speakers. The aircraft carrier turns slowly. And don’t discount the possibility that people in DC are using this debate as a way to play out rivalries (Defense Dept v. State Dept) that have plagued the Bush Administration as much as they have several other previous Admins that come to mind.

Of course it’s more important for Putin to resurrect the external enemy for domestic consumption – or at least show that he is taking a stand in the “near abroad” and that Russia still has some shreds of influence remaining in its own backyard – in Russia, where people are concerned about their country’s international image, than it is for the US to step into this (mostly imagined) fray. We appear to have enough on our foreign policy plate at the moment without jumping into new conflicts. But at the same time, I guess we can’t pass up the opportunity to defend democracy in speeches made in countries where people still believe what Cheney has to say about such concepts (sorry, Nathan, I can’t resist at least one dig). And, more seriously, I’m sure our allies in “New Europe” will remember our loyalty the next time we might ask to, you know, land a couple of planes and use a jail or two.

Interests will clash in CAsia as they have in Ukraine and Georgia, and things will be interesting to watch, though probably the back-and-forth will not ultimately be beneficial to your average person in the street in those countries. It was ever thus.

Hopefully the rhetoric about the “New Cold War” will pass and be forgotten as quickly as the “Who Lost Russia” debate of the late 1990’s. But of course it is tougher to talk about real and complex issues than it is to throw around pat phrases.

Belated happy Den’ Pobedy. I guess we could all be speaking German and/or Japanese if the US and Russia hadn’t found a way to cooperate back in the day.

Andy May 15, 2006 at 4:59 am

Coming a little late to this discussion, I see.

Lyndon’s right – the new cold war rhetoric is a bit hyped, just like the ‘new Great Game’ and the ‘Who lost Russia’ catchphrases.

It’s good to see, though, that the US seems to be belatedly realising that a mini-monster is emerging in the East, one that is feeling quite buoyant on its sea of oil, and that sees little reason to defer to an often far away superpower.

One thing I don’t see mentioned much here – or elsewhere, for that matter – though, is the role of the EU. Europe is becoming heavily reliant on Russian energy, particularly gas, and, although it also increasingly worried about Russia’s intentions, hasn’t yet found any courage to act directly.

Western European countries seem far more inclined to be relatively pro-Russia (particularly Germany and France) as they are both becoming reliant on Russia, and haven’t directly experienced the consequences of such reliance. At the same time, Eastern European EU countries are usually quite direct about their concerns re: Russia. Which doesn’t really help in putting together a pan-EU consensus on Russia, but certainly makes for some interesting debate (not something the EU is accused of often).

Germany, I think, will hold the key to the EU’s future direction, with regard to Russia policy, over the next few years. It’s got a much more pro-US government, under Angela Merkel, and is becoming more and more aware of its vulnerability. But, it has also recently signed a pipeline deal with Russia and has pretty close ties with the Russian gas industry through former Chancellor Kohl, who is now a director (chairman? I’ve forgotten his exact title) of Gazprom. I wouldn’t like to call which way Germany will go, but I think they currently hold what is effectively the swing vote in a quite finely balanced internal EU debate.

(The UK, by the way, is beginning to lean towards the anti-Russia side of the deabte. Gazprom made some threatening noises when they intimated they were going to begin investing in the UK – particularly in British Gas), and the government has, I think, decided that, free market be damned, letting Russia invest heavily in British (and EU) energy companies would be bad for national security, and is beginning to frame the debate in such a way).

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