It has become popular recently to say that Russia-West relations and the world as a whole are sliding into a new Cold War, or “Cold War 2.0,” to sound current. The implication is that for all intents and purposes a familiar dynamic has been forced on the world, minus the communist ideology.
But the differences between the latter half of the 20th century and the current crisis are many and based on different paradigms leaving little room for old Cold War stereotypes, something that could lead to a misunderstanding of the situation and, as a consequence, to misguided political decision-making.
It seems clear that present-day Russia-West confrontation lacks what is known as “Cold War culture” or “Cold War ethics.” This includes a certain minimal diplomatic etiquette (a receding asset today), a style and rules of information support on both sides, different tactics (a “hybrid war” in many ways), and substantially different geopolitical alignments (less room for Russia to maneuver in Europe and more so in Asia by comparison with the traditional Cold War).
There are no longer military constants, at least those inherent in a post-Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War, that is, the constant of mutual assured destruction that made the prospects for nuclear war a nightmare to avoid at any cost after 1962 and which led to the emergence of the strategic stability concept. As a result, nuclear arms were pushed to the background in terms of real battlefield weapons and become a virtual deterrent. Today, however, single or limited uses of nuclear weapons are openly discussed and the US has accepted this as an official strategy. More than that, a strategy for survival and victory in a “big” global nuclear war is being debated and studied.
This brings us to the second post-Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War constant, peaceful coexistence, which also is in decline. Among other things, this implied the notorious red lines and political practices precluding any approach to them. Up to a point, this also meant recognizing ideological differences and opposite pictures of the world (in a way, this was like recognizing the right to exist). Today, all of this is slipping away. The peaceful coexistence constant also implied (up to a point) that economic, cultural and sports ties were safeguarded by a business-as-usual convention and that “business as usual” could even be given a wider interpretation. Today, however, “business as usual” is rejected out of hand.
To some extent, there are parallels between the 20th century Cold War and the current conflict to be found in the late Stalinist period (1946-1953), more so than in the “mature” post-Cuban Missile Crises Cold War, which many politicians today still remember (and which might be seen as the “classic” Cold War). The period until Stalin’s death in 1953 included the total rejection of the enemy (McCarthyism in the USA), his demonization, real nuclear war scenarios, and a direct clash between the two forces in the Korean War.
It might be tempting to describe the current conflict as the “early” (or “hard”) Cold War, if we go back to the Stalin-Truman era. If we continue to pursue these policies, the world will inevitably (?) head to a new Cuban Missile Crisis. It is still an open question as to what sort of crisis we would face and whether a peaceful outcome or compromise is possible.
But there are many distinctions, too, such as different geopolitical alignments, a different ideological and information environment, and different “hybrid” tactics. Add to this the “split of the West” (the Trump factor), which was absent before, and the incomparably greater openness and diversity in today’s Russian society. Also, the demise of business as usual is no reason why Russian citizens should give up “travel as usual” and stop visiting the West, which keeps the country open.
How then should we define the present conflict if it is not a Cold War? As we see it, the increasingly popular epithet “toxic” merits attention. A “toxic regime,” “toxic ideology,” “toxic propaganda,” “toxic relations” and even “toxic country” are terms the West applies to Russia. The notion of a “toxic West” has not yet been coined in Russia but it will certainly appear before long. To me, to describe the current war as toxic, rather than cold, is the right term.
So a toxic war, and the Skripal case, give the term a direct connotation. The logic is clear: ideological toxicity leads to a situation where physical poisonings are perceived as a natural part of conflict. But the phenomenon of a “toxic war” is much wider.
What does it include and what are its main characteristics? In the first place, it is about totally demonizing and dehumanizing the adversary. The Hitler comparison is switched on and set to work immediately. This is nothing new in modern world politics: Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Lukashenko and many others were compared to Hitler in the West. In a way, this is very convenient and easy: your adversary is Hitler and no one needs any further explanations. No holds are barred in the fight against Hitler. It is this strategy that we see in today’s actions.
This dehumanization leads to the next “toxic war” feature, the denial that the adversary has the right to exist. In this context, any dialogue under this precept is impossible, the notion of “peaceful coexistence” isn’t possible, business as irrelevant, and all areas of contact (culture, etc.) are politicized. This is what we are seeing today.
The next feature is trolling instead of diplomacy. The scale of trolling on both sides is mind-boggling, and this is a new variable in the Russia-West conflict. There was nothing even remotely similar to this during the Cold War or the Stalinist period. Any requirement for at least some diplomatic etiquette is dropped in dealings with a “toxic” adversary and both sides’ press releases are increasingly reminiscent of an endless troll battle or a soap opera rather than political polemics. Let us note parenthetically that the spectators are watching the show with avid interest. On the other hand, when you have nothing to say under these “toxic” circumstances, the only option open to you is to troll. Moreover, this reciprocal trolling, once known in the form of isolated striking episodes, has become a system and almost the first foreign policy tool. And, of course, it is the primary propaganda and counterpropaganda weapon. It is actively exploited on televised talk shows on both sides and their growing popularity and ratings are a sign that the theme is in high demand and well-received by the public. There is even a term “post-trolling” hinting at its systematic nature and the lack of boundaries. As a result, sarcasm, disdain and contempt is what defines the toxic war on both sides.
An important trait of a toxic war is its hybrid tactics. Interfering in an adversary’s domestic politics (real or postulated) is on a scale far greater than during the Cold War. More than that, this interference is emerging as a key tool in a period when a “cold” toxic war has not yet become “hot,” meaning an open military conflict. And it is clearly a very convenient method to explain domestic political failure. The wrong person won an election – blame Russia! Easy and effective!
Finally, a toxic war, from the military point of view, is simply bound to lead to an adversary’s destruction. Therefore, a big war becomes not only possible but also desirable. What used to restrain the use of nuclear weapons is disappearing fast, as we have seen during the last couple of years and now even months. New types of weapons are being considered. Strategies envisaging the limited and later global use of nuclear weapons have been developed equally quickly. Old arms reduction treaties are only obstacles on this path. Fundamental strategic instability becomes a rule in a toxic war.
The above are the main elements of the current toxic war between Russia and the West, characteristics constituting serious and qualitative differences that set it apart from the Cold War. The future will show how far this toxic war will go and whether there is a way out of its own “Cuban Missile Crisis.”