Does expulsion of diplomats threaten the world peace?
“I think we are coming to a situation that is similar, to a large extent, to what we lived during the Cold War … I am very concerned about the lack of mechanisms to defuse tensions, such as special channels for information-sharing between Washington and Moscow, which were dismantled with the end of the Cold War. I do believe it’s time for precautions of this sort, guaranteeing effective communication, guaranteeing capacity to prevent escalation.”— Antonio Guterres Secretary General of the United Nations
The Cold War of the 21st century, delayed by the brief post-cold-war bonhomie – or more rightly the Cold Peace – is now well upon us. Several recent pronouncements, including the releases by the Donald Trump administration of its National Defence Strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and the Worldwide Threat Assessment (WTA) report, coupled with the State of the Union address by Vladimir Putin and China’s reaction to the US documents, are evidence that the new Cold War is heating up and the world is fast moving toward anarchy and chaos. Unending conflicts, especially in the Middle East, Trump’s unrelenting assault on almost the entire world, an ever-growing threat of trade wars and a widening Europe-Russia gulf, as well as China’s growing role as an upcoming superpower, are but some glimpses into the not-too-distant future. The most recent indication of this came with the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats, or intelligence operatives as they preferred to term it, by some twenty-seven European and NATO countries.
The month of March this year was characterized by volatility in international relations. The crisis that has been brewing since the US presidential election of 2016 with allegations of Russian interference in that and the ensuing war of words between Russian and American leadership finally erupted. More than twenty-seven European and NATO countries have expelled Russian officials – allegedly spies – in a coordinated response to Britain’s claim that nerve gas attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter was ordered by Putin himself. Russia paid in the same coin when, in response to the expulsion of its officials, it expelled Western diplomats from its soil. This tit-for-tat action has led some analysts in Russia, and in the West, to describe current Russian relations with the West as a new manifestation of the old Cold War.
There has been a sharp increase in tension between the United States and Russia. The United States and mainstream media have taken a very propagandist view of what occurred in Ukraine. The Russians have taken a very different view, which, perhaps to our amazement, is more accurate than what the United States is saying. Because of these two divergent narratives, the countries have essentially plunged back into a cold war, where there’s a lot of hostility, threats of military escalations, with the US sending military teams to essentially parade along the western border of Russia. Some of those countries are NATO allies, and others, like Ukraine, may want to become a NATO ally. So these tensions are building up, that oddly don’t have much direct connection to US national interests, but have become a kind of cause celebre in Washington where everyone just wants to stand tough against the Russians and bash Putin. It has become almost a self-perpetuating dynamic. Unprecedented bipartisan hawkishness in Washington is driving the world to a precipice by blocking diplomatic talks, demonizing Putin and de-legitimizing the system in Russia.
This acrimony is building up a new and dangerous phase of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, featuring a new generation of strategic weapons. In March, President Putin unveiled a number of new weapons which, he said, was necessitated by the things the US had been doing for the past two decades that had been impacting negatively on Russian security.
Both the US and Russia (and China) have been developing a range of new weapons over the past decade and a half. But several recent developments have prompted the Russians to highlight their “achievements”. First among these is the Trump Administration’s new National Security Strategy announced in December 2017 followed by a Nuclear Posture Review in February this year.
The NSS has declared that “revisionist” China and Russia were now posing a threat to the United States security. The NPS, on the other hand, has detailed plans of developing new capabilities, in particular a new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons for a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a new submarine-launched cruise missile. Linked to this has been a new National Defense Strategy which says that the US military now had to equip itself to deal with Russia and China which posed a greater threat to the US than terrorism.
On the other hand, the episode of the expulsion of diplomats has made Russia’s relations with the United States, and now also with the United Kingdom, stoop to new lows. Their relations are, at present, worse than those in the 1950s, and the chance of a direct conflict is higher than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Given the complexity of today’s strategic nuclear weapons and the systems designed to neutralize them, one cannot rule out the possibility that some actor on either side, or a third party, could provoke escalation. Making matters worse, communication between US and Russian leaders is non-existent, owing to the lack of trust on both sides.
This psychological backdrop to the bilateral relationship truly is worse than that during the Cold War. But, it does not mean that today’s tensions amount to a sequel. Such a confrontation would require an ideological component that is decidedly lacking on the Russian side.
Apparently, Russia has no intention of waging another Cold War. Although some degree of confrontation with the US does help President Vladimir Putin unite the public while burnishing Russian elites’ nationalist credentials, Russia is not an ideologically motivated state. Russia’s approach to international affairs has long centred on respect for national interests and sovereignty, and the belief that all peoples and nations should have the freedom to make their own political, economic and cultural choices. But the problem between Russia and the West is really a problem among Westerners themselves. The US establishment is using the scarecrow of Russian interference to regain its lost political control, particularly in the realm of social media, where a discontented population and maverick politicians have finally found a voice.
But even if American elites do manage to wrest back control, the deeper source of Western angst will remain.
It is to be remembered here that for, at least, the past decade, the world has been witnessing the endgame of the West’s 500-year hegemony. For a few decades in the second half of the 20th century, the West’s dominant position was challenged by the Soviet Union. But after its implosion, the US emerged as the sole hegemon, and the world seemed to return to its historic status quo. Soon enough, however, the US overextended itself by plunging into geopolitical misadventures like the invasion of Iraq. And then came the 2008 financial crisis, which exposed the weaknesses of the 21st-century capitalism.
Still, Russia, China and the rest of the world won’t allow a return to US hegemony. Putin recently made this clear by unveiling a number of new, cutting-edge strategic weapons systems, as part of a strategy of “pre-emptive deterrence.” The message was that the US cannot hope to regain absolute military superiority, even if it decides to bleed itself dry in an arms race, as the Soviet Union did.
Even if the US wages a unilateral Cold War, its chances would not be very good. The balance of military, political, economic and moral power has simply shifted too far away from the West to be reversed.
By extrapolating modern trends, one can easily foretell how US-Russian relations will evolve. The sides may try to resume consultations on the most urgent issues, but the last remaining safety mechanisms designed to reduce the risk of war will continue to degrade. Military rhetoric will become increasingly hostile, counter-elite actions will be intensified and contacts in the fields of science, education and culture will be curtailed. The threshold for the use of force by the Russian and American military in regional conflicts will go down. There are several possible scenarios for the development of US-Russian relations.
Scenario 1: Conflict negotiations
It is perhaps the most optimistic scenario. While keeping up confrontational rhetoric and flexing muscles, the Kremlin and the White House begin to work out measures to reduce the risk of war. But an agreement on a key strategic issue, that is missile defence, is unlikely. There will be two issues on the agenda: developing guarantees against Russia’s accidental collision with the US allies, and drafting a set of obligations for Moscow and Washington in the event of conflict with a third country. The latter also includes the INF Treaty of 1987. The Soviet Union and the United States had certain obligations to observe in the event of conflict with a third nuclear power. Having such commitments today is hardly possible for both of them.
In fact, this will require the two countries to be ready to negotiate and keep away from the show of force. But neither Ukraine nor Syria has eased psychological tension so far.
Scenario 2: Forced interaction
This scenario implies US mediation in Russia’s conflict with one of America’s allies in an attempt to prevent armed confrontation. The White House may be prepared to play this role if two conditions are met: first, US interference should be considered a diplomatic success helping to avoid a war, and second, a public campaign to show the weakness of Russia’s position or create an illusion of such weakness through mass media.
However, such a crisis will require that the United States have a strong regional ally, a country with substantial military power and located on the line of engagement with Russia or having historical claims against it. In this case the Americans can act, publicly or semi-publicly, together with its anti-Russian partner. Until recently, probably only Japan could play the role of a guaranteed counterbalance to Russia.
Scenario 3: Armed conflict
Unfortunately, this cannot be ruled out. Mutual enmity has been building up for too long and simply must burst out sooner or later. The most probable scenario, however, is a large regional conflict directly involving Russian and US armed forces. The two countries will preserve diplomatic relations and the institutions created within the Yalta-Potsdam world order. The Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s, when Soviet aircraft fought Italian and German ones, may serve as a model.
Such a conflict will lead to the collapse of the modern world’s economic structure. Anti-Russian sanctions tested by NATO countries during the Ukraine crisis may be used again but on a larger scale. Further isolation will leave Moscow confronted with a difficult choice: retreat, lose face and attack elsewhere (for example, by striking at the non-proliferation regime which is important for the United States) or opt out for the mobilization economy. The latter may leave the West with a crumbling global financial system. After such a conflict the world will resemble a Versailles-Washington order rather than a Cold War.
Possible Impacts on the Middle East
This escalation could go further than diplomatic measures, as there is potential for confrontation between Russian and Western interests in the future of Syria as well as the Mediterranean. From the beginning of this year, the US administration appears to have taken a more aggressive position against the allied group in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Russia. While not many EU countries have followed the US in some of these broader policies, the poisoning of a former spy in the UK appears to have brought the EU countries into alignment with the US on Russia, at least.
The recent changes to the US administration, with John Bolton as the National Security Adviser and Mike Pompeo as the Secretary of State, are likely to result in more hardline positions, especially with renewed alignment with the EU on anti-Russia positions. We may see this renewed alignment in Syria as well as further escalation against Iran and its allies in the region.
Turkey is increasingly finding itself in a difficult position as a member of NATO and its strategic alliance with Russia. US-Turkish relations are struggling and Turkey’s relations with the EU are under strain, given recent policies that Ankara is adopting against EU members in the Mediterranean. With unity between the US and the EU, Turkey is likely to face greater pressure.
The current diplomatic crisis between Russia and Western countries could lead to increasing tensions, especially as Putin has a new mandate from his recent election win. North Korea also appears to be de-escalating with a planned leadership meeting with the US, and Kim Jong-un’s recent trip to Beijing. This will allow the US to focus on its other targets in Russia, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and potentially Turkey, given its shift in alliance over the last few years.
If the escalation with Russia continues, we are increasingly likely to see further actions. Syria would be the logical first step where proxy actions are likely, so we could see further escalation between groups on the ground in Syria over the coming months.
The Balkans: A Testing Ground
Cradle of the First World War, the Balkans have been a flashpoint, a place where empires, ethnicities and religions abut and contest. Now, the region is becoming a battleground in what feels like a new Cold War.
Russia is expanding its influence and magnifying ethnic tensions in countries that hope to join the European Union. Its involvement has already spurred Brussels to revive dormant aims for enlargement. It is also prompting fresh attention from Washington about security risks to NATO members.
Russia looks to the Balkans as a battlefield in its political war, seeking to create distractions and potential bargaining chips with the European Union. It means the Russians are taking advantage of the last part of Western Europe that remains politically dysfunctional.
The situation bears distant echoes of Ukraine, where Russia originally agreed that Kiev could join the European Union — though not NATO — and then changed its mind, leading to the revolution that prompted Moscow to annex Crimea and foment secession in eastern Ukraine.
In the Balkans, the competition with Russia has the potential to sow fresh instability in a region still emerging from the vicious war of 1992-95 that broke apart the former Yugoslavia.
In Sarajevo, many of the scars of the war have been erased. Yet Bosnia and Herzegovina, the broken country patched together in 1995 at the end of the war, remains a fragile construct, riven by corruption, weak leadership, and ethnic and nationalist strains among communities — a metaphor for the Balkans. It is one of several key entry points that Russia is seeking to exploit.
Wary of Russian meddling, the European Union is holding out a renewed prospect of membership to Bosnia and to the other five nations of the Western Balkans — Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo — in return for fundamental structural reform.