After feeling betrayed at the end of the Cold War, the Kremlin is using the military as its premier tool to achieve policy goals and weaken the West.
With relations at the lowest point in decades, the United States and Russia have embarked on what appears to be a new Cold War. But this new confrontation is fundamentally different from the original standoff with the Soviet Union that engulfed the world for the better part of five decades after the end of the Second World War. Unlike during the original Cold War, there is no all-encompassing global ideological struggle between Washington and Moscow to dominate a largely bipolar international system. Outside the realm of nuclear weapons, post-Soviet Russia can hardly be considered a peer to the United States by any measure. Russian weakness relative to the United States and its allies might make this new conflict even more dangerous and unstable compared to the original Cold War.
The 2014 crisis in Ukraine, Moscow’s intervention in Syria starting in September 2015 and the alleged nerve gas attack on GRU defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the United Kingdom on March 4, 2018 signal the beginning of a renewed long-term standoff with Russia. The new standoff is not a return to the original Cold War, it is a new conflict—but one that is rooted in the ashes of the old struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In many ways, this new conflict with Moscow can be explained by Russia’s geography and lack of natural defensive terrain features. Over the course of two centuries, Russian emperors starting with Peter the Great created an enormous ring around their spiritual capital of Moscow, as Tim Marshall described in his essay Russia and the Curse of Geography, published in The Atlantic in 2015. That ring started in the Arctic and stretched down through the Baltics, Ukraine, the Carpathian Mountains and eventually to the Black Sea. Taken further, the ring arches down through the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea and eventually comes back past the Urals mountains and returns to the Arctic, as Marshall described. The idea was to create strategic distance to keep the enemy as far away from the Russian heartland as possible. As Empress Catherine the Great put it: “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.”