Are the Current Tensions Between Russia, the EU and NATO a New 'Cold War'? An Essay

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The Cold War was a period of extreme tension between the US and the USSR. The presence of a bipolar system, competing ideologies, and the threat of nuclear war, coupled with the global impact it had, were definitive features of the Cold War. However, today tensions between Russia, the EU and NATO are very different; Russia is no longer a superpower, there is no serious ideological competition, and they have not come close to the threat of nuclear war seen during the 1960s. Therefore, in this essay, I will argue that it is inaccurate to describe the current tensions between Russia, the EU and NATO as a new ‘Cold War’. To illustrate this, I will first analyze the ideological differences between Russia and both institutions, proving that although they clash at times, this clash cannot be equated to that of the Cold War. Secondly, I will address the attempts at cooperation from both sides, highlighting how this makes a new ‘Cold War’ very unlikely and proves one is not occurring. Finally, I will compare the structural organization of global politics now to that of the Cold War, pointing out the fundamental differences and using this to further support my argument. Although tensions between both sides have grown in the last decade, with the Ukraine crisis and the expansion of NATO in Europe, the current conditions do not constitute a new ‘Cold War’. This is not only because the fundamental and structural basis for a Cold War is not present, but also because this claim underestimates the attempts from both sides to cooperate. Moreover, the Cold War narrative being applied to Russia and the West is not only inaccurate but also dangerous as it encourages states to prepare for a military attack and is counterintuitive as it amplifies tensions.

As one of the most definitive aspects of the Cold War, the presence of competing ideologies is a crucial component when assessing whether a new Cold War is present and thus, will be used to underpin my argument. The level of ideological tension experienced during the Cold War is not present between Russia, NATO and the EU today; communism is not viewed as a significant threat to capitalism as the latter has become dominant. Moreover, as Weber asserts, “the ideological and developmental model offered by contemporary Russia... may appeal to illiberal elites and leaders, but not to oppressed and dispossessed individuals” (2016, p. 2). This illustrates the lack of appeal Russia’s ideology has across the world today, signaling the lack of competition between Western and Russian ideals. From this, is it clear that there is not a new ‘Cold War’ between Russia, the EU and NATO as the fundamental basis of the Cold War - major ideological tension- is not present. Fukuyama discussed the triumph of capitalism at the end of the Cold War, stating that it represented “the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (1989, p.4). Fukuyama (2013, p.31) reiterated this in 2013 when he highlighted that no real alternative to the capitalist system has since emerged, again pointing out the lack of ideological competition and further supporting the idea that there is not a new ‘Cold War’. Nevertheless, it is clear that the values of Russia and the institutions do clash; where NATO and the EU possess more liberal worldviews, Russia has a more conservative agenda and some argue this clash ‘makes conflict virtually unavoidable’ (Nitoiu, 2016, pp. 375-383). Nitoiu explores the impact this clash has had in Europe, arguing it has led to a “deep polarization of the societies in the region” (2016, p. 383). Although this analysis is accurate, it overestimates the appeal of Russian values in the region while underestimating the ideological tension seen during the Cold War. By arguing this, Nitoiu adopts a realist view as he does not consider how cooperation could overcome the ideological tensions between both sides. To equate the ideological differences between Russia, the EU and NATO to that of the USSR and US, and claim this represents a new ‘Cold War’ would provide an inaccurate image of global politics today as the current clash is not as influential as that of the Cold War. Ideological differences drove tensions during the Cold War and either side aimed to impose their ideology on the international community, but today neither Russia nor the EU nor NATO have that same desire and clashing values is not the main point of tension between them. Thus, it is inaccurate to describe current tensions between Russia and both institutions as a new ‘Cold War’.

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Another reason describing current tensions between Russia, the EU and NATO as a new ‘Cold War’ is inaccurate is because this would overlook the cooperation that has occurred between both sides. Today the importance of a cooperative relationship between Russia and the West is obvious, especially given the veto powers Russia holds in the UNSC. For either side, an increase in tensions would not be favorable and this alone makes it unlikely that a new ‘Cold War’ would emerge, let alone be occurring currently. EU-Russia relations were compromised in 2014 by the annexation of Crimea as this heightened geopolitical tension between them and, as Nitoui argues, put them “on path towards conflict” (2016, p.375). However, during the Ukraine crisis, the EU recognized why Russia’s actions may be considered justified as, from a realist perspective, Moscow was protecting their security interests. Consequently, the institution postponed implementing the economic aspect of its Association Agreement with Ukraine, showing an attempt to work towards cooperation with Russia (Nitoui, 2016, p. 381). This supports the idea that a new ‘Cold War’ is not occurring as this attempt would have been unlikely during the original Cold War. Despite the tension created by the Ukraine crisis, Russia remains an important partner for the EU and NATO; Russia is one of the main suppliers of energy products to the EU and the EU is the largest trade partner for Russia (EEAS, 2020). Furthermore, they have cooperated on several issues, including energy efficiency and infrastructure initiatives (EEAS, 2020). This interdependence and cooperation, as liberals would argue, adds to the unlikeliness of conflict and thus, demonstrates that current tensions cannot be described as a new ‘Cold War’. NATO-Russia relations also experienced a decline with NATO’s expansion in Europe as some Russian officials viewed this as a threat and, as a result, began to feel ‘contained’ (Sakwa, 2008, p. 257). While this is reminiscent of the Cold War, it must be noted that NATO leaders have tried to ensure Russia is not excluded and have stated that NATO “do not want to see a Cold War” (Sanchez et al., 2016). Moreover, despite tensions created by US withdrawal from the INF Treaty in 2019, NATO claims they are still committed to non-proliferation and other international arms control agreements and that they are open to cooperating with Russia (NATO, 2020). When contrasted with the Cold War, the current situation, albeit tense, is far more benign as neither side is actively threatening the other and both are either working together or open to doing so. The importance of cooperation, emphasized by liberals, applies to the current situation between Russia and the institutions as from their actions it is clear that cooperation is possible. Furthermore, it is clear that a liberal outlook reduces the risk of conflict that a realist view would enhance as it works to ease tensions. This willingness to cooperate did not exist during the Cold War and therefore, it is inaccurate to describe current tensions as a new ‘Cold War'’.

Today the structural organization of global politics is very different from that during the Cold War as there is no longer a bipolar system; Russia has considerably less power than that of the USSR and has not become a ‘balancing’ state as classical realists would have predicted, instead it has become a ‘joiner’ (Goldgeier and McFaul, 2004 cited in Sakwa 2008, p. 243). The bipolar system was significant in the development of the Cold War as it pitted both states against each other, but today the structure is different as there is a multipolar system. As well as this, neither the EU, NATO or Russia have the equivalent influence and strength of a superpower nation which demonstrates that, structurally, a new ‘Cold War’ is not present. Additionally, despite claims that Putin is attempting to rebuild the buffer zone that the USSR once had, it is obvious that Russia does not have the same ambitions as the Soviet Union. Firstly, Russia shows no desire to become the global hegemon, they have repeatedly stated they are willing to work within the Western system and that they do not intend to set themselves up against the West (Sakwa, 2008, p. 246). Secondly, Russia’s current rate of military modernization is not comparable to that of the Soviet Union. Therefore, although it can be argued that Russia has, at times, tried to strengthen their position against the EU and NATO, especially with the annexation of Crimea and their military build-up, this does not constitute a new ‘Cold War’. Another key difference in the global organization today is the limited effect the tensions between Russia, the EU and NATO have had. East-West tensions during the Cold War shaped much of the agenda of world politics (Walt, 2018) and had far-reaching effects, however, today tensions between Russia and the institutions are far more controlled as they are more confined to European borders. At most, the tensions reach a small section of the Middle East, with the security challenges between the US and Russia in Syria, but this does not compare with the global effects of the Cold War. The structural organization of global politics today suggests that the Cold War narrative is better suited to describe tensions between the US and China as both have increasingly more power. Walt (2018) highlights the dangers of applying this narrative to Russia and the West as he claims that this distracts from more pressing issues, such as Sino-US relations. Moreover, this dialogue drives Russia, the EU and NATO further apart and makes a Cold War relationship more likely as it encourages either side to be more suspicious of the other, creating a security dilemma and thus, increasing the potential for conflict.

Overall, despite an increase in tensions between Russia, the EU and NATO regarding the annexation of Crimea, the expansion of NATO, Russia’s military build-up and the unravelling of arms agreements between the US and Russia, it is not accurate to describe these tensions as a new ‘Cold War’. There are distinct structural differences between the current situation and that of the Cold War; there is no major disagreement on global issues between both sides, there is a lack of ideological tension, and there is no longer a bipolar system. Additionally, the effects of these tensions are not felt on a global scale, as they were during the Cold War. The very fact that these differences exist proves that the conditions for a new ‘Cold War’ are not present and that the current situation between Russia, the EU and NATO is something very different from the Cold War. Moreover, the more liberal attitude adopted by both sides in regards to cooperation and increased interdependence, suggests that neither side wants to see a rise in tensions, let alone a new ‘Cold War’. Therefore, due to the key structural differences, the increased cooperation and the fact that the scale of tensions is not global, it is inaccurate to describe current tensions between Russia, the EU and NATO as a new ‘Cold War’. Furthermore, from my analysis, it is clear that those who use this Cold War rhetoric may be attempting to push their own agenda or be viewing current relations through a realist lens and doing so creates a dangerous situation. It not only encourages military build-up, increasing tensions between both sides and making cooperation on key issues more difficult, but it also provides a misleading image of global politics. This distracts from the real issues in today’s society, for example the increasing threat of a cold war between China and the US.

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Are the Current Tensions Between Russia, the EU and NATO a New ‘Cold War’? An Essay. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
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