The logic of the contemporary international conflict does indeed correlate to the logic of the Cold War. But what is going on today is not a spy thriller but a strategic confrontation in which Russia is trying to create a new system of the collective security working to its advantage. This system is to look more like the Viennese one than the Helsinki one.
The term “Cold War” has recently become the defining frame to assess the events happening today. But the frame itself has turned out to be an amateur copy of the clichés used for writing the spy novels and the spy thriller screenplays.
In the 1950-1960s, the serious audience understood the conventionality of these clichés (hence the birth of the James Bond franchise). Nowadays, the events are perceived in this light as well. Perhaps due to the fact that most active Western politicians know about the Cold War from the novels only. Therefore, it becomes all the more important to recreate its initial Cold War logic and use it to assess the current conflict.
The Rational Insanity
First of all, note that any war is a strategic confrontation which means that its logic is primarily determined by the relationships dynamics and not by the personal traits of the participants. For this exact reason, the game theory that was created for the analysis and execution of the Cold War presupposes that all the conflict participants are rational players in pursuit of rational goals. The roles in this game are determined by the players’ position and abilities. It is not determined by their ill will. It does not matter who is playing this chess game, the participants play not only by the rules but by the already created scenarios – the strategic combinations that have been well-studied and described in literature.
At the first stage of the global confrontation that is most frequently called “Cold War” (from the second half of the 1940s to the second half of the 1960s), the US’ goal was to preserve its strategic advantages. At that time, the US was the player with great possibilities, resources, and standing. They achieved their goal by containing the possibilities of the weaker player whose role was performed by the USSR.
During this period, the Soviet Union did not have the possibilities to challenge the US globally. There was a number of reasons for that the main one being the impossibility of the guaranteed destruction of the US. Contrary to the widespread (or rather purposefully promoted) stereotype, the USSR was not able to shower the US with rockets and bombs since the latter was a big country on the other side of the world with a highly decentralized power system. Moreover, the USSR could not compensate for this deficiency with the methods of the regular war, and an attempt to occupy these territories would have been pure madness.
Therefore, the USSR was left without the possibility of a strategic initiative. For example, any military advance on the main Cold War front – Western Europe – would have given the US the possibility to shower the Russian cities with nuclear bombs without any consequences. The attempt to play on the territory close to the US by placing rockets in Cuba as we know ended in failure. The departure of the rockets from Cuba was the “dry residue” of the Caribbean crisis.
Therefore, it was very important for the USSR to create the possibilities of the guaranteed massive-scale nuclear attack on the US and (what is most significant) of preserving these possibilities after the counter-attack on the part of the US. In this way, the USSR could untie its hands in regard to the Western Europe. The possibility of the guaranteed massive nuclear strike by the USSR made the idea of the US nuclear attack in response to the FRG occupation non-feasible. Everyone understood that the US authorities would not engage in the total war but would try to accept the new situation. And the European countries saw the new reality better than anyone else.
It was the strategic parity that forced the US and its European allies to start a dialogue with the USSR. The recognition of the post-war world order from the point of view of the borders and the political systems was the logical finale of this dialogue. Legally, this new order was sealed at the Helsinki conference that resulted in creating of the OSCE.
Therefore, the Cold War was carried out primarily in the laboratories and the arms industry facilities – not in the African jungles or the South-East Asia where the new states were trying to find a protector that would help them fight for their independence. Not realizing this cost the US the Vietnam failure and instigated the growth of the internal tensions in the country. The risks of these tensions were intensified by the appearance of the massive numbers of young people capable of using weapons (the US still had the compulsory military service back then). So, it was not the local conflict that was a factor of the Cold War but its consequences that brought the tensions to the US domestic policy. And this factor was clearly advantageous for the Soviet Union in terms of strengthening its positions.
There are reasons to believe that the current situation is developing according to all the historic canons. Not because “history is the habit of repeating itself” but due to the fact that the analogous strategic combination is being played out today. Russia is trying to restore the balance of the military power vis a vis US and is prepared for the imminent reaction. The main task for the US is to suppress these attempts by any means possible.
What goal does the modern Russia pursue? From my (strictly theoretical) point of view, the goal is to create a foundation for the large-scale adjustment of disputes in Europe and hold a new all-European conference.
The idea does not look fantastical. Throughout the entire history of the Old World, the order of things in it was determined by this kind of events (Treaty of Westphalia, Viennese Congress, Helsinki Conference). The Viennese Congress that determined the framework of the peaceful co-existence of the European countries for a century is considered the best of them.
One hundred years later, one of the Helsinki architects Henry Kissinger wrote a book with the telling title “World Order”. In it, he explicitly talked about the necessity to create a new system of security based more on the Viennese system than on the ones that followed since they were much less effective in terms of the collective security. The book was published in September 2014 when the death of the Helsinki system became evident even to the most adamant sceptics. Nonetheless, the number of the politicians ready to intensify the conflict, so far, does not go down despite the fact that any attempts to go against the trend look more and more futile.
The Past vs. the Present
It is unlikely that the US strategists learned about the new types of weapons developed in Russia from Putin’s pre-election speech. As the declassified CIA documents demonstrate conclusively, the containment of the USSR military power was the main goal of fighting the Soviet gas supplies to the West, the import of technologies, and the change of the trading conditions at the resource markets.
Today, however, we can say that the strategy has failed. The Standard & Poor’s analysts write about it quite convincingly while trying to explain their decision to “give back” to Russia its investment and credit rating that the agency lowered to the speculative level in January 2015. Ata that time, the analysts categorically refused to believe that the country would be able to escape from the double trap – the pressure of the sanctions and the oil price decrease.
In reality, practically no one then believed it could happen. First of all, because everyone observed the similarity between the current situation and that of the mid-1980s when the USSR was forced to acknowledge the defeat in the Cold War. The Helsinki’s promises on the sanctity of the borders turned out to be just that – promises and nothing else. This, of course, was the initial point for choosing the firm strategy and tactics in the current attempts to restore the strategic parity. However, neither the strategists not the politicians saw how different the Russia of 2014 was from the USSR 0f 1985.
The USSR was a type of the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” that tried to manage the unified space from Estonia to Turkmenia via the Soviet ideology and the Party vertical. Both “crutches” were but a virtual construct which, judging from the declassified CIA materials) the US new very well. The country’s economy was limited to pumping out the resource rent – in the best case scenario, via exchanging the resources for consumer goods at the external markets, in the worst case scenario, via investing the export earnings in setting up ineffective production lines.
In 2014, it all looked very different, and the import phaseout strategy did work thanks to the entrepreneur initiative and a more effective system of the state management based on a more integrated economic system. Moreover, today Russia does not have to support weak allies. Quite the opposite, it can, for instance, rely on the support of China and Iran. Note that, for a larger part of the post-war period, the USSR’s relationships with these countries were chilly and sometimes even hostile.
Therefore, the modern Russia is much more prepared for the intensification of the conflict with the West than the USSR was. It means that, according to the proposed theory, Russia will go towards any escalation since it raises the stakes and creates more possibilities for Russia’s negotiating position at the future conference on the collective security in Europe.
If, of course, the world does not go down the drain of the actual war.
…This article is written on the basis of the research of the Cold War history materials including the declassified CIA analytical documents and the interviews with the experts of the so called “five” – the prototype of the National Security Council created in the USSR at the beginning of the 1970s after Brezhnev and Ford’s meeting in Vladivostok. It was then when the topic of the collective security became a part of the agenda as a systemic problem whose solving must be ensured regardless of the ideological positions of the opposing sides. All the conclusions regarding the contemporary situation are the author’s own independent and personal deductions.