No one should casually label the current confrontation between Russia and the West a “new Cold War.” After all, the current crisis hardly matches the depth and scale of the contest that dominated the international system in the second half of the twentieth century. And accepting the premise that Russia and the West are locked in such a conflict could lead policymakers to pursue the wrong, even dangerous strategies. Using such a label is thus a serious matter.
Yet it is important to call things by their names, and the collapse in relations between Russia and the West does indeed deserve to be called a new Cold War. The hard reality is that whatever the outcome of the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe won’t return to business as usual, as they did after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
The Obama administration enjoyed some success in lifting the U.S.-Russian relationship from its 2008 nadir, as the two sides forged the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), agreed on tougher sanctions against Iran, cooperated on supply routes for NATO’s war in Afghanistan, and worked together on President Barack Obama’s plan to secure nuclear materials around the world. Relations never really moved to the next phase, as further progress was waylaid by frictions over missile defense, NATO’s war in Libya, the civil war in Syria, and a host of repressive measures that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime directed at its own citizens. But even those obstacles never completely dashed the hope that Moscow and Washington might find common ground on a number of critical issues.
That hope is now gone. The crisis in Ukraine has pushed the two sides over a cliff and into a new relationship, one not softened by the ambiguity that defined the last decade of the post–Cold War period, when each party viewed the other as neither friend nor foe. Russia and the West are now adversaries.