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I have to admit that, for the last couple of weeks, I have been almost wholly absorbed in reading about the deepening crisis between Russia, Georgia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the USA, and — seemingly — the whole entire world. The kinds of things being said and done right now are the kinds of things I’ve only read about in history books, or learnt about in History class. The kinds of things being said and done right now feel like the kinds of things which will have an immense impact on our future.

It has been almost three weeks now since this conflict began, and already the media is going wild, speculating about the possibility of a “Second Cold War”. I have to confess that — despite the title of this entry — I do not believe another “Cold War” is on the (immediate) horizon, but there is no doubt that the international political landscape has been irrevocably changed. Russia has occupied huge chunks of a neighbouring independent country, and there is nothing the Western world can do about it. That is significant in itself. War with Russia is out of the question, just as it has been out of the question since 1949. Sanctions can’t be imposed when half of Europe relies on Russia for its energy supplies. All the Western world can do is criticise. “My God, Russia, it’s not 1968 any more!” That’ll show them!

Except, of course, it doesn’t. Regardless of the criticism they incur, Russians remain in Georgia. Russia has threatened to fire nuclear missiles at Poland. Russia is eyeing a deal in which they would sell weapons to that enemy of the Western world, Syria. Russia has recognised Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence, even though Western leaders spent a week preemptively labelling such an act “unacceptable”. Russia is building that nuclear power plant in Iran the US wants dismantled immediately. It should be blatantly obvious to the Western world that Russia doesn’t care what we think, and is determined to be a power free of Western influence.

Having said all of that, I don’t think a “Second Cold War” is imminent. I don’t think Russia has the power to challenge US hegemony. Yes, they can flatten Georgia, but Georgia’s population is 4.6 million. Who couldn’t flatten Georgia? Economically Russia is extraordinarily powerful, but then again so is the US, and militarily the US has the upper hand.

The other reason, of course, is that the ideological battle which characterised the “First” Cold War is completely gone here. Both the US and Russia are capitalist democracies. However, Russia’s political system is a mess, and no one would ever want to emulate it. Contrast this with the Soviet Union — there were communist guerrilla movements in seemingly every developing state. Fledgling communist states would line up to support and get support from the Soviets; fledgling dysfunctional democracies can just get support from the US. Their political system makes Russia look bad, and Russia has very very few friends. In fact, their only “friends” seem to be the states the US rejects, states like Iran and Syria. Russia does not have the international following that would be expected of a cold war belligerent, and until they do, no “Second World War” can ever eventuate.

So what do I think, then? Right now, I’d say that the US-Russian relationship has already nosedived, and is not going to recover any time soon. Russia will continue to emphasise the power it has, something which will continue to get on the US’s nerves and something we haven’t been seeing for many years. However, Russia will not seriously challenge the US, because it cannot seriously challenge the US. There will be animosity, but no “Second Cold War”. But then again, I’m speculating after only three weeks — I could turn out to be very, very wrong.


One Comment

  1. The media, and those analysts who make money from their Op-Ed contributions to the dailies, certainly love to stick a familiar label on events. Even Francis Fukuyama is back in the papers trying to make “The End of History” relevant again! Watch out for Samuel Huntington to weigh in next.

    Singapore’s former ambassador to the UN and current NUS academic, Kishore Mahbubani, offers an interesting analysis of Russian/Western relations from a non-Western perspective in the Financial Times: Seamus Milne, in the Guardian, follows up on this here:

    It’s interesting that current world events seem to finally provide Condi Rice something to offer in her area of expertise… just as her patron is about to check out.

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