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The New Cold War Myth

News & Features | October 26, 2015

The first Democratic debate of the primary season saw Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and other contenders face off over the issues that will define next year’s race for the White House: among them, Washington’s stance towards Russia. While the candidates were quick to confidently stake out their stances on the domestic economic issues that have become the focal point of the primary, when discussion turned to policy, the Democratic hopefuls hit some unexpected turbulence.

Moderator Anderson Cooper pressed the contenders on how they would respond to Russia’s “challenging” of the US in Syria—a reference to recent Russian airstrikes targeting rebel groups ranging from ISIS to US-funded “moderates” fighting to topple the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The best the candidates had to offer in response were vague answers, backed up by a little saber rattling.

Hillary Clinton demanded that we “stand up to [Putin’s] bullying…specifically in Syria,” but didn’t specify how, aside from taking on “more of a leadership position.” Bernie Sanders unconvincingly grumbled, “Mr. Putin is going to regret what he is doing,” but didn’t offer a clear policy prescription for how we might resolve what is starting to look like the beginnings of a Middle Eastern proxy war.

Although the debate quickly veered back to domestic issues, in all likelihood the candidates running for office in 2016 won’t be able to put the topic of US-Russian relations behind them. With Russia’s intervention in Syria making international headlines and the Kremlin-fueled conflict in Ukraine still festering, whoever wins the next election will face a crucial decision about how to interpret Russia’s increasingly assertive role in global affairs. And the tone used to discuss Russia will likely have real implications on Washington’s foreign policy.

To say that US-Russian relations were entirely pacific until last year’s upheaval in Ukraine would be to gloss over some pretty significant rifts. Tensions flared when the US announced plans (later aborted) to install a missile defense system in Poland on Russia’s doorstep in 2008. The same year, Russia earned the Bush administration’s condemnation by invading neighboring Georgia, ostensibly to protect resident Russian ethnic minorities.

However, the real turn for the worse came with the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2014. While the US backed a fledgling pro-Western regime in Kiev, the Kremlin funneled money and troops to separatist forces fighting for autonomy in the country’s east. Several rounds of economic sanctions later, diplomatic relations between the two nations had thoroughly soured and major American newspapers were heralding the coming of a “New Cold War.”

Now, with Russia and the US backing opposing sides in Syria’s civil war and flying regular missions over Syrian airspace, the potential for escalation lends the catchy media trope some credibility.

The reinvigorated standoff on multiple fronts indeed echoes the tense stalemate the Soviet Union and US maintained throughout much of the 20th century. But the “New Cold War” narrative also implies the return of mistrust between Russia and the US on a deeper societal level. After all, the character of US-Russian relations over the last hundred years was not formed solely by elite policy makers. Animosity between the two great powers also sent ripples through domestic politics, spawning McCarthyism, the “Red Scares” of the 1950s, and widespread fear of the perceived threat posed by Russia. If the Cold War was characterized by generalized anxiety on such a large scale, does the idea that we’re witnessing a second Cold War today hold water?

Public opinion suggests the answer might be yes. Just last year, Russia edged out North Korea as the country Americans consider to be the US’s greatest enemy, according to a Gallup poll. If we trust in experience, Americans who lived through the peak of Cold War tensions in the 1950s and ‘60s should be the most accurate judges of whether current hostilities resemble those of their youth. Indeed, those Americans 65 and older were reported to both follow news about conflicts with Russia more closely than any other age bracket and display the strongest conviction that the US is headed towards another Cold War-esque conflict with Russia.

Meanwhile, Russians’ animosity towards the US has also grown. According to survey data gathered by the Moscow-based Levada Center last year, a full 62 percent of Russians hold the view that “relations between Russia and the West will always be rooted in mistrust.” A poll conducted at the same time by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago suggests 65 percent of Russians hold an unfavorable view of the US—up from just half that figure in 2012. The increasingly conflictive dynamic between Russia and the US has sent shock waves beyond the walls of the White House and the Kremlin.

But despite roiling tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, some remain skeptical of comparing current US-Russia relations with the colossal face off of the Cold War, which pitted ideologies of capitalism and market democracy against communist authoritarianism. In an interview with the Tufts Observer, Tufts Professor of Modern Russian History Rachel Applebaum cast doubt on the integrity of the historical analogy. While acknowledging certain parallels with the Cold War era, Applebaum stated, “I don’t find the notion of a new Cold War a very useful paradigm for understanding the current state of relations between the US and Russia…During the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet governments thought of the tensions between them as an ideological struggle for systemic supremacy.” In contrast, she noted that today, “both the Russian and the United States governments have a much less clearly defined mission on the world stage; it’s much less clear what ideas they stand for.” In the absence of the broad ideological framework that characterized Cold War contestation, the current downturn in relations with Russia stops short of instilling fear on a massive scale.

Even if feelings of hostility haven’t, and probably won’t, return to their Cold War peak, it seems unlikely that the Russian-American rift can be easily smoothed over. Professor Applebaum explained that growing animosity in both nations is linked to deeper sentiments of patriotism and nationalism. “I would argue that for many Russians, seeing their country as a great power is just as important as it is for many Americans,” she said. “We are all familiar with American politicians who worry the US is being eclipsed on the world stage by other countries, like China. Similar anxieties exist in Russian politics.” Competition breeds anxiety and anxiety fuels increased competition. Ironically, the striking similarity of the calculations that lead Russians and Americans to fear one another complicates, rather than simplifies, the path towards a resolution.