So why are we convinced that today’s tension between the United States and the Russian Federation is simply another chapter in a story that began in Yalta in 1945? For two reasons: the first is of psychological reassurance, the second, son of the first, is of political fogging.
The Cold War was a world order whose cornerstone rested on two pillars. The balance of nuclear terror offered an apparent stable peace around a symmetry between the Eastern bloc, far less monolithic than previously thought, and Western. The two blocks had a geopolitical, economic, ideological and, from a certain point of view, moral character. Reagan’s Evil Empire was an almost spiritual, evangelical conviction of its ethical superiority over the adversary.
The Soviet Union, although it had more in common with the Ottoman Empire than its Western rival, possessed the tonnage sufficient to withstand fifty years of bitter confrontation, also supported by a universalist ideology capable of mobilizing the masses, the elites, the people and their imperial designs. It was certainly sick, but of an illness that had a very long incubation.
The bipolar conflict also had, as defined by Lucio Caracciolo, syntaxes and shared geostrategic grammars, almost specular and therefore all in all decipherable by the adversary. The risks of misunderstanding, and therefore of catastrophic damage to the entire humanity, existed (as the Cuban crisis in 1962 or the Able Archer exercise in 1983 demonstrated) but were ultimately small. The globalization of the Cold War, contextual to the stabilization of the German question and the processes of decolonization, allowed then to vent tensions in local conflicts (proxy wars), circumscribing the conflict to prevent it from degenerating.
As we can well observe, despite the conceptual and political complexity of the historical period, there was a symmetry in the clash between the two fields. And what is symmetrical, which has an order, which can be quantified is, above all for us Westerners, reassuring. The balance of nuclear terror, the theory of deterrence, was a guarantee of stability and understanding.
The conflict that exists today between the United States and the Russian Federation escapes these classifications; because it is not an open war or a declared one. There are no direct losses but bloodshed of others in proxy theatres such as in Syria and Ukraine, to which are added cyber war, propaganda, disinformation, espionage, financial speculation, “coloured revolutions. ” At the Pentagon, in the absence of anything better, they call it a hybrid war. An academic term to define a chaotic clash that is attempted to contain to prevent it from resulting in a general conflict. Ukraine was, for example, one of the CIA’s most brilliant successes to the detriment of Moscow and Berlin; the annexation of Crimea, as Vitalij Tret’jakov effectively recounted, was also a masterpiece of Sun Tzu’s worthy strategy. “With a small act of hooliganism”, disinformation, mobilization of public opinion, contractors, and special forces without insignia, Russia has secured a territory of critical importance.
But what kind of war are we talking about then? It is appropriate to turn to an essay published in 1999 by two brilliant colonels of the Chinese People’s Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. The careful study presented by the two officers, Unrestricted warfare, circulated in the West thanks to the CIA translation service, starts from the analysis of the Gulf War in 1991 stating that, after the withdrawal of the Iraqi army, we entered a phase of war strategy similar to that of structured chaos.
According to Liang and Xiangsui, the war understood in clausewitzian terms of impact masses that collide symmetrically, following Euclidean geometrical harmonics, is to be considered obsolete. To describe the advent of an unrestricted war, which adapts to the structured chaos of the post-bipolar international order, geometric objects such as the Mandelbrot fractal are more precise. In his study of 1975, the Polish mathematician proposed the explanation of apparently chaotic mathematical behaviours through self-similarity, whose property is that of exploiting the internal dilation of the geometric object. It is a geometric transformation of the plane or of the space that contracts or dilates the objects, keeping the angles unchanged, that is, the shape. In terms of military strategy, the war remains war, but that border that established the difference between time of peace and time of war, between the instrument of peace and instrument of war, disappears. An airliner, a popular protest, the sale of government bonds, the launch of a new social network, are, in the words of the two colonels, dual-use tools capable of bringing a superpower to its knees. The purpose of their essay, inspired by the heightening of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Sudan and in the Chinese borders with the Uighur Turkish-speaking minority, was in fact to demonstrate how China could fight the United States. However, the analysis of the two strategists must not be misleading; the geometrical transformations in the plane and in the space of the fractal object do not change the angles, therefore the form, and this means that the conventional instrument of war remains load-bearing. Although unlikely, in a war scenario with Russia, the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe will be occupied in 36-60 hours thanks to the rapid advance of armoured divisions through the Suwalki Gap in Poland. The gravity will be given by the fact, as highlighted by Russian and American analysts and researchers in the meeting of the Valdaj club, that the offensive will not only concern the geographical territory but the first targets involved will be the electronic command infrastructures, the energy channels, economic-financial and submarine internet cables. A regional conflict could potentially harm global interests.
So, this is not a new Cold War, rather a hybrid war that is not well defined and whose main objective is to avoid an escalation that causes us to be inert on a dangerously inclined plane. The Great War, as Barbara Tuchman wrote, broke out when nobody wanted it. The context is very different from that of the period 1945-1991, Europe has experienced in a short time the return of the war in Yugoslavia, in Georgia and now in Ukraine. The Russian Federation is no longer the Soviet Union, it is plagued by major diseases such as demographic scarcity, excessive territorial extension, an economy unable to restructure. More than a fifth of Russian speakers and citizens of Russian ethnicity live outside the borders of the Federation.
The Russians are deeply aware of their weaknesses, they fear NATO much more than one thinks and for this reason they want to avoid a conflict at all costs. On the other hand, although they do not believe in the existence of the European Union as a political entity, they would instead be very favourable to the birth of a European army capable of weakening the internal cohesion of the Atlantic Alliance.
The fact that Russia is no longer the USSR also means that Vladimir Putin is not the Secretary of the CCP and not even the Czar we imagine, rather a CEO of interests of a larger oligarchy from which he must watch carefully. He is a perfect homo sovieticus who does not believe in soft power but in nineteenth-century power politics: a state is powerful if it is recognized as such, if it exercises a recognized influence over a well-defined geographical area, if it can intervene when and where his interests are threatened, even violating international laws, and if his position is considered essential even in regions and crises where his interests are not directly at stake. However, in pursuit of this vision, Putin knows that the conflict with the West would be catastrophic and a loser.
In the Kremlin there are no chess players who plan every move, just as there is no general plan or grand strategy that is cynically developed and pursued. There has been no careful and prolonged planning of the crisis in Ukraine, no chess strategy, only an adaptive response to a regional crisis to secure its interests. Moreover, Putin himself has become a lazy autocrat. He is tired, bored and he too begins to feel the weight of age. The first presidential mandates were more stimulating: the West was engaged in the War on Terror, it was easier to run money, to finance the oligarchs and to exploit the revenues of petrodollars and gas. Today everything is less fun, more rigid, dangerous maybe. If until recently the President used to read with greed a briefing, memorandum, reports, listened to councillors and ministers, today he hardly does it anymore. Apparently even ministers with sensitive dicasteries risk waiting for days before being received. For this reason, we must not assume that every event originates in Putin’s head, often the opposite is true; since the summit is retreating, it is the bureaucracy that works and carries with it the executive. An example is the attempted coup d’état in Montenegro organized by Konstantin Malofeev in 2016, a clumsy operation of which the Kremlin became aware only of things almost done.
Although there are undoubtedly hard liners alongside Vladimir Putin who fear, should the regime turn to an accomplished democracy, a Russian Maidan, most of the siloviki believe that the new tensions with the United States are totally harmful. For oligarchs and high-ranking military personnel above all, who want to continue sending their children to European and American universities, to keep their mistress between Paris and New York, and perhaps retire in old age in London or in Tuscany, tones of “Cold War” they are completely contrary to their interests. The Russian oligarchies are composed of intelligent kleptocrats who would accept Putin’s substitution, forced or otherwise, only for someone willing to guarantee their current privileged positions. They are not willing to pay the price of being a great power to the full.
What has been said so far may seem a speculation, so to speak, of doctrine. Looking for the pulp, the bone of contention between the Russian Federation and the United States has been well described by the analyst Rostislav Iscenko: the Kremlin’s paranoia is due to the historical sense of Russian insecurity that leads it to fear an American encirclement “with a Eurasian sanitary cordon based on NATO”. The solution is for Moscow to create a quantity of transit routes that are so high as to prevent Washington from cutting them all; from the extension of the submarine gas pipelines to the ports on the Baltic, from the approach to China and Japan to the Belarusian passage for Europe and Germany, up to the Kazakh and Armenian routes.
From this perspective we must also look at the Russian intervention in Syria, the ambiguous relations with Tehran and Ankara, the operations of influence in Libya and in the Gulf; all moves that caught the West by surprise and served to demonstrate how “regional power Russia” was only Obama’s rhetoric.
Uncertain program, at times even propagandistic, that of Moscow, but which responds to the American logic of preventing Russian, Chinese, or a group of powers (i.e. Germany) from controlling the Heartland, the Eurasian land mass that allows, as stated by Brzezinski, to bring the United States to its knees by isolating and prohibiting maritime communication routes. The American power is moreover a naval and air power, certainly not an earthly one. This threat is perceived at the Pentagon in a very smoky way and therefore, for ground operations in Eurasia, the Obama administration has preferred to do consolidation work and containment.
Returning to the subject, talking about Cold War is not so correct, and this shows that Mark Twain was right when he said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. The reason why we call this new phase of tensions “Cold War 2.0” derives only from the psychological assurance that gave us a phenomenon that, in the end, we were able to understand and more or less dominate. This need to interpret contemporary international relations with other schemes is the result of the fact that today the United States and Russia cannot understand each other, and it is a factor that goes beyond the personal hatred that may have existed between Obama and Putin. And failing to understand the other, but above all not being able to make one’s messages intelligible, can be very dangerous. Too many wars have started because it was believed that they were inevitable; and the attitude inside the Atlantic Alliance is certainly not helping. In an international context dominated by mutual distrust, an Allied bloc is discovered divided between those who brake a certain war language such as Italy, Germany, France, and who, especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltic, considers the final clash with Russia a fact at most postponed.
The new American administration seems to want to temper these tensions by strengthening the pivot to Asia and the containment of China. Although crippled by the Russiagate investigation, Donald Trump’s design could allow for a relaxation of tensions with Moscow. The fear of the White House is in fact that Russia can be pushed by inertia towards the arms of Beijing, unwillingly accepting the role of junior partner in the couple. Recognizing in Moscow the legitimacy of great power and its security interests near its borders, it is for Trump the instrument by which to isolate the Federation and prevent China from definitive penetration into eastern Siberia and the Caucasus. Nevertheless, the real challenge to this design will certainly not come from Putin or the oligarchs, but from the Atlantic allies, confirming the old adage that NATO’s history is the story of its internal discord.