There has been talk in the past few days of the emergence of a new cold war as the US and Russia and Russia and the UK have been engaging in a war of words over missiles and spies. On the face of it, it does look like a page from the past but some deeper analysis demonstrates that it is more about post-Cold War power politics than a conflict rooted largely in ideology.
Both Russia and the US are governed by highly nationalistic administrations seeking to further what they consider to be the national interest. The US has decided that unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001 followed by plans to build a missile defence system in Eastern Europe as part of a larger global network (for the stated aim of countering threats by “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran and non-state actors) is in its national interest; Russia has decided that the presence of such a system in its geographic sphere is a threat to its security and interests and has retaliated by testing a ballistic missile and announcing that it will target missiles at Europe. NATO has condemned the Russian threat and the French and British have also voiced concern.
All this comes at the same time as the row over the murder of a former Soviet intelligence agent in London and British demands for the extradition of another former Soviet spy who they claim is responsible.
Add to the mix the following: some Eastern European politicians are worried about a remerging Russia and view the US plan favourably even though the US has explicitly stated that the missile defence system is aimed at countering threats by “rouge states” and non-state actors and not at Russia; many of the people in Eastern Europe and particularly those who live in the areas where the system will be built are not supportive of the plan, environmental and health risks being primary concerns; many in Western Europe are unhappy with the idea of the US unilaterally going ahead to build a missile defence system in Eastern Europe and not consulting the EU; Russia has increasingly felt that it is not being accorded the respect it deserves in the international arena by other large powers and under Putin has been seeking to reassert itself; the US is caught up in its own “war on terror” and all of its actions are inevitably tied into the new realities of international security and politics; Russia possesses vast energy supplies on which Europe is dependent and the EU relationship with Russia is invariably influenced by this.
In other words, the current situation is complex and vastly different from what prevailed during the Cold War. Talk of a new Cold War is premature but the danger of arms proliferation are however very real and the only way to deal with the current impasse is for both sides to engage in dialogue and arrive at some form of a practical agreement.