"With the full support of a feckless policy elite and an uncritical media establishment, Washington is slipping, if not plunging, into a new Cold War with Moscow." Strong words from Professor Stephen Cohen in a January article published in The Nation, who is a lonely voice in the US academic establishment with an unpopular point of view. He has been warning for several years now that rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and Russia will lead to a new period of sustained political and military tension between the two powers.
And with Russia now ratcheting up spending on re-equipping its military to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, plus the noticeably chillier tone in the security rhetoric in the last months, it could well be that historians will one day point to the current period as the start of Cold War II – though the proxy wars that characterised the first one are not much in evidence yet.
President Vladimir Putin was at a military plane factory in Novosibirsk on March 6, where he said that Russia has a "historic chance" to rearm and he intends to seize it. "We will have no other historic chance to solve these ambitious tasks the country is now facing to ensure its defence capability in due time and with due quality when [the required] funds are available, thank God," Putin said. "Tomorrow we will have none of these funds, and time will be lost."
Putin has clearly made a decision to try to return Russia to its Soviet-era military strength. Increasingly, it also appears that Russia has given up any hope of becoming a cooperative partner with the West.
Last year, Putin said that military spending will increase by $770bn between 2014 and 2020 – more than the country intends to spend on modernising its power sector. The sum is so big that the then-finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, who was noted for his fiscal prudence, protested so loudly he ended up losing his job. To put this sum into context: the Russian military budget already doubled between 2006 and 2009 from $25bn to $50bn, but under the new plan it will rise further to $128bn a year on average for the next six years, or about 3.2-3.7% of GDP. Although this still lags the US' annual defence budget of $600bn, more than all its Nato allies combined, in absolute terms it will bring Russian spending up to par with the US as a share of GDP – and at a time when some Nato members are slashing their own defence spending to as low as 1% of GDP.
Spending has already been pouring into Russia's nuclear arsenal. US President Barack Obama signed a strategic arms reduction deal with his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, but as Medvedev's star waned so did the good relations: Cohen argues in his book, "Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War", that Obama invested too much into Medvedev who was only a stand-in, and not enough into Putin to make the so-called "reset" in Russo-US relations stick. Now relations are decaying rapidly.
According to Putin's chief of staff and close confidante Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin is "no longer interested in reducing its stockpiles" of missiles. "The upgrade of our strategic nuclear forces has already finished in all key areas – from the point of view of development, trials and transfer to the Armed Forces. All modern new-generation nuclear forces have effectively been developed and tested in our country," Ivanov, a former Russian defence minister, said in an interview with the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. "When I hear our American partners say: 'Let's reduce something else,' I would like to say to them: 'Excuse me, but what we have is relatively new'."
If Ivanov's comments didn't make the Kremlin's new policy clear to Washington, then a massive Russian military exercise in February – the biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union – that included moving tactical nuclear missiles around for the first time, should have. Russia's supposed to inform Nato of its exercises but apparently this one caught the alliance by surprise.
The exercises followed a recent surge in Russian strategic bomber flights that included a recent circling of the US Pacific island of Guam by two Tu-95 Bear bombers and simulated bombing runs by Tu-95s against Alaska and California in June and July. According to US reports, the Pentagon was alarmed at both the scale of the exercises and the types of weapons being deployed.
How did we get here?
Putin was welcomed by the Beltway establishment after he took office in 2000, and his first major trip abroad was to meet then president George W. Bush in Croatia in 2001, followed by a G8 summit in Italy. A measure of the changes in priorities can be seen from Medvedev's first trips when he became president in 2008, which were to Kazakhstan and on to China. And Putin started his second term in 2012 with trips to Minsk, followed by France, Germany, Uzbekistan and China. His meeting with Obama in June last year was sixth on the list.
From the Russian perspective, the Kremlin has been hugely disappointed with the development of its relations with the West. It feels it has reached out at least twice – after the 9/11 attacks, as another example – but, it believes, has been rebuffed each time. Cohen argues it was the US policy of "triumphantism" under the Clinton administration that is to blame: the US considered it had "won" the Cold War and has been trying ever since to build on its military supremacy, while at the same time ignoring Russia's legitimate strategic interests in its traditional spheres of influence, such as Russia's so-called "near abroad."
Things came to a head with Putin's famous 2007 speech in Munich, when he complained about Nato's broken promises not to expand "one inch" and its "provocative" placing of Nato forces on Russia's borders. "I think it is obvious that Nato expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them," Putin said in the speech.
But even in Munich Putin said Russia was still willing to become a strategic partner with the West. However, since his keynote speech at the St Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2012, even that talk has stopped.
Russia has now drawn a line in the sand; Putin has made it clear that any further expansion of Nato will be extremely dangerous, as the Kremlin will not tolerate more western forces on its borders. And Georgia and Ukraine are next up as possible candidates. The issue of the US proposed missile defence system based in Europe – nominally to protect against "rogue states", but incidentally also effective against Russian strikes – is more of the same.
Russia's permanent representative to Nato, Alexander Grushko, said in an unusually candid interview with Voice of Russia at the start of March that the Nato expansion project has exhausted itself. "It doesn't solve any real security problems, it just creates additional dividing lines in Europe, unnecessary tension and generates Cold War approaches not only in states' political behaviour, but in military construction as well," he said. "We see that Nato military infrastructure is getting closer to Russia. And we have to consider this factor in our defence planning," he added ominously.
The military aspects of this new renewed tension are mirrored by the Kremlin's clampdown in the civil arena. A new law on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was passed at the end of last year that effectively kicked the development agency USAID out of Russia. The commentators focused on its nominal role to develop civil society, but the Kremlin saw USAID (and other similar organisations) as unwelcome interference in domestic politics.
The so-called "Magnitsky case" has been even more divisive. The Kremlin was outraged by the US Congress' passage of the "Magnitsky Act" last year – which withholds visas and freezes financial assets of Russian officials thought to have been involved with human rights violations such as the death in custody of the anti-corruption lawyer – and responded with a ban on US citizens adopting Russian orphans. Cohen points out that despite the blatantly partisan nature of the Magnitsky Act, the "democratic" US press universally supported it without question, whereas there was a lively discussion and widespread condemnation in the "authoritarian" Russian press of the adoption law.
All these moves (and many others) have only underscored the Kremlin's belief that the US exhibits double standards and is not to be trusted. "Can anyone imagine what the reaction from Freedom House would be if Putin were preparing to crucify someone, or to have decapitation (or any form of capital punishment at all) re-inserted into the Russian legal code?" Mark Adomanis asked in a recent piece in Forbes, following the announcement that this US ally would crucify or behead a group of minors convicted of armed robbery. His point was that there are plenty of other human rights abusers in the world, but only Russia has been singled out for legislative condemnation with the Magnitsky Act.
Cohen argues strongly that the US is playing an extremely dangerous game. Opposition commentators like celebrity journalist Masha Gessen have openly called for a colour revolution in Russia and an ousting of Putin. But this naïvely assumes any new government would quickly take control, restore order and be better than its predecessor. Cohen's point is that we are talking about one of the most heavily armed countries in the world with a bristling nuclear arsenal and none of these assumptions are guaranteed – or even likely, if events in North Africa are anything to go by.
The US policy of "triumphantism" is bound to fail. One of the main reasons the last war was "cold" was due to the respect each side had for mutual destruction, but the new balance of power is predicated on the US assumption of its military superiority as the "only superpower" left. Yet while the US does have the most powerful military in the world, it is not all-conquering as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show. And while Russia's military power was severely weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union, it remains a formidable opponent. The US' intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) outnumber Russia's, but the latter has more short-range tactical nuclear missiles that threaten Europe (hence the idea of the missile shield). Moreover, Russia still boasts several world-class armaments. Its T90 main battle tank is as good as anything the US has; it is working on a fifth-generation stealth jet fighter, the T-50; and the S-400 anti-missile defence system is the best in the world and soon to be updated with the S-500.
On top of the existing materiel, Russia has also started to work on rectifying its weaknesses: it is testing the Topol-M, the first ICBM to be developed since the fall of the Soviet Union. If a new arms race begins, then the Topol-M will challenge the US Trident missiles, which have not been upgraded in a decade, within the next 10 years. "It is high time to begin tackling the development of an advanced long-distance aviation system because it will take decades to appear. Even five years are not enough for such things," Ivanov said in March.
In the meantime, the clash in policies will continue to destabilise global geopolitics. Russia is using its popular (and cheap) weapons as a foreign policy tool to cement relations with countries outside the US sphere of influence, in much the same way that Washington does with allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel, or use to do with ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In just the first two months of 2013, Russia sold $2.5bn worth of arms – as much as it sold in all of 2000 when Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin – and has another $49bn worth of orders, said the head of the Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, Alexander Fomin, in March.
And this clash is already manifesting itself in increasingly violent ways. Contentiously, Cohen argues that Russia and the US have actually already fought their first post-Soviet proxy war in Georgia in 2008. And the current argument over Russian and western arms deliveries to Syria during the civil war is in the same vein, and only highlights the need to get Russia on board if international stability is to be ensured.
Indeed, the nuclear test at the beginning of March by the former Russian client state North Korea and its decision to end the non-aggression pact with South Korea on March 7 is already making the need for this cooperation pressing.