Saturday, 18 January 2014

The New-Old Cold War

As far as most people know, the Cold War between the capitalist Western bloc, led by the U.S. and the communist eastern bloc, led by the Soviet Union, ended when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 and broke into several different states.  But did it really end?  I ask this question because since 1991, the governments of both the U.S. and Russia have often behaved as if the Cold War were still going on.  The Russians, who were the dominant force in the old Soviet empire, have been striving to either keep or reassert their dominance in former Soviet states, like Ukraine and Georgia ever since they broke away from the USSR and became independent.  At the same time, the Americans have made efforts to increase their influence in both the former Soviet states and the former satellite states of eastern Europe.  So it's no surprise then that ever since communism lost its grip on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the United States and Russia have been at loggerheads over major conflicts since the early 1990's, from the Bosnian civil war in the early-to-mid 90's, to the current civil war in Syria.  Perhaps the Cold War is still going on.  Then again, it may not be that simple.

If there is still a Cold War taking place, it is significantly different than the clash of ideologies that characterized the period from the end of World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union.  Russia now embraces capitalism with open arms and is in fact an important player in key economic sectors, such as oil and gas.  So the ideological conflict that was a main ingredient of the old Cold War no longer exists.  Also, although the U.S. and Russia are still the two main rivals of a resurgent cold war, the battle lines are quite different.  Most of us know that the original cold war pitted the U.S. and its western European allies, brought together by the NATO military alliance, against Russia and its satellite states in eastern Europe, held together by their own military alliance, the Warsaw Pact.  Today, the U.S. and its European allies are still bound together by NATO and the Europeans themselves are much more closely integrated by the European Union, which has broken down most economic and political barriers between the European states, leading to a situation where people can cross from France into Germany as easily as people in Ontario cross into Quebec, without having to worry about borders or customs.  The Russians, on the other hand, no longer have a major military alliance binding them to other countries, though they do still have significant political, economic and military ties with some of their neighbours and are continually making efforts to make new alliances and solidify old ones.  Finally, one major factor that significantly distinguishes the new Cold War from the old is the fact that Russia is no longer the only major cold war foe.  It is now joined by a up-and-coming superpower, China, and an increasingly assertive Iran.  Since the end of Soviet Union, the ties between Russia, China and Iran have grown significantly close, and I believe that they will only grow closer.  Unlike in the original cold war, there is no ideology that binds these three countries, but simply a common goal to counter the influence of the United States which emerged as the world's only superpower after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.  So now the old cold war between the U.S. and the USSR has given way to a new one pitting the U.S. and its allies against the regimes of Russia, China and Iran.  Let the games begin!

If I continue on the premise that a new cold war began almost immediately after the old cold war ended, I would say that so far, the U.S. and its allies have had the upper hand.  The European Union has expanded into the Eastern European states once dominated by Russia and the former Soviet Union and has even reached the borders of Russia itself.  In southern Europe, the Russian-backed leaders that perpetrated many of the atrocities associated with the breakup of Yugoslavia in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, have been driven out of power, making way for further EU expansion.  The most recent victory of the U.S.-led West over the triple axis of Russia, China and Iran took place in Libya where rebels, backed by NATO air power, toppled long-serving dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who maintained friendly relations with Russia, China and Iran.  I sense, however, that the tide may be beginning to turn.  For example, in Syria, the site of a civil war that has now dragged on for approximately three years, U.S.-led efforts to topple the ruling dictator, Bashar al-Assad, have unraveled.  In recent months, Al-Assad has been gaining ground against the opposition, whose Western allies have wavered in sending them the weapons they would need to topple the dictator.  At the same time, Russia, one of Al-Assad's strongest supporters, continues to provide him with a steady supply of weapons and other equipment (see for example this article).  Iran also supplies the Syrian regime with both weapons and soldiers, while China provides moral support to ensure that no regime change occurs.  Also, the recent deal on Iran's nuclear program has demonstrated increasing weakness on the part of the U.S., which has shown that it is no longer willing to risk a military conflict to counter growing Iranian power in the Middle East.  The deal has also brought to light the resurgence of Russia under its autocratic president, Vladimir Putin.  On the European front, President Putin has practically blackmailed Ukraine into signing an economic cooperation pact that would strengthen the country's ties with Russia, instead of signing on to a trade deal with the European Union, which would have put the country on the road to EU membership.  A smaller, much lesser-known pact was also concluded between Russia and Armenia with the former using similar blackmailing tactics to persuade the latter former Soviet state to comply.  Meanwhile, the growing Chinese economic juggernaut is continuing to make inroads into Africa and South America in a race for raw materials.  China's military is expanding rapidly and so recent spats over tiny islands in the East and South China Seas are likely to become more frequent - and more dangerous.

I would say that overall, the tide will continue to turn against the U.S. and its allies, in favour of the Russian-Chinese-Iranian axis, at least in the near future.  The influence of the U.S. and the rest of the Western world will continue to decline in the midst of economic hardship, mounting debt levels and the weak, Neville Chamberlain-esque leadership of Barack Obama.  America and its NATO allies will significantly reduce their military capabilities in order to cut spending and control ever-increasing levels of debt and budget deficits.  At the same time, Russia, China and Iran will increase their military capabilities as well as their political and economic spheres of influence.  Where there were once American and European military bases, you may soon see Russian and Chinese military bases in their place.  In the worst-case scenario, we may wake up one day to find ourselves outmatched by the Russian-Chinese-Iranian triangle of terror.  At that point, the only question I would ask is, how long before we see tanks and troops of the three countries' armies on our streets?  Okay, maybe you find this last thought laughable, but consider that many in western Europe had the same reaction when Winston Churchill tried to warn them about Hitler's Germany.  It's a safe bet that these same people weren't laughing once nearly the entire continent was under the boot of the Nazis.


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