A 'New Cold War'? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia

An increasingly prevalent ‘new Cold War’ narrative is impairing Western understanding of today’s Russia and its role in European security.

Research paper Published 22 May 2015 Updated 18 May 2023
Photo: Stock photo © Klubovy

Photo: Stock photo © Klubovy

  • The war in Ukraine suggests a new era of competition between the West and Russia. It has (again) revealed both fundamental differences in how European security is understood, and increasing friction in values. Together, these problems suggest an emergent ‘clash of Europes’ that pits the West’s relatively liberal vision for the region against a more conservative ‘Russian Europe’.
  • A ‘new Cold War’ narrative, increasingly popular, interprets this competition as a resumption of the Cold War. Many Western political figures and observers have asserted that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is trying to turn back the clock, even to rebuild the USSR, and therefore that the experience of the Cold War could offer useful lessons for politicians today.
  • This narrative, though seductive, is misleading. It too often frames the discussion in a repetitive and simplistic polemic that inhibits understanding of Russia and its relationship with the West. This makes it harder for the West to craft realistic policies with respect both to the Ukraine crisis and Russia generally.
  • The use of other sensationalist historical analogies – such as comparing modern Russia’s actions to those of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s – further detracts from the understanding of a complex international crisis. It is an abuse of history in which political myths and abstractions obscure informed arguments about Russia and blur the differences between the presumed and the known.
  • The ‘new Cold War’ debate traps Western thinking about Russia in the 20th century. It reflects, and encourages, a dangerous tendency on the part of politicians and military strategists to prepare for past wars. It also offers a misleading sense of familiarity and predictability about Russia that does not take into account either the different international situation today or Russian adaptability to changing geopolitics.