If what we are observing is not a cold war, it is at least starting to look like one. The recent “war games” carried out by Russia and North Atlantic Treaty Organization are signs of the level to which the current confrontation between Moscow and the West is escalating. We are certainly at a historical moment very distinct from that of the 20th century and, in theory, there are a great number of factors that ought to compel an eventual détente between the potential rivals. However, there are also numerous reasons for taking the recent events absolutely seriously.
A few weeks ago, Russia conducted a series of military exercises apparently designed to simulate a large scale confrontation with NATO. It is one of the most important military maneuvers in recent times on the part of the Kremlin. In them, Russia deployed submarines armed with nuclear bombs, ballistic missiles and elite aviation, in a parallel manner. Russia announced that for these maneuvers it employed around 45,000 soldiers, 3000 vehicles, 40 ships, 15 submarines and 10 airplanes as well as support equipment. This exercise also included Moscow repositioning its nuclear weapons along its borders with NATO member countries.
On the other side, since last May 4, 10 NATO countries along with Sweden — a non-NATO member — have begun military exercises in the North Sea that aim to demonstrate the military capabilities of the Atlantic Alliance in combat against submarines. These exercises, aside from the diplomatic meetings that accompany them, reflect an evident increase in the cooperation between the Nordic and Baltic states in matters of security.
As we know, the maneuvers are nothing other than a show of force, which lead to others such as the military parade seen May 9 in Moscow’s Red Square during Victory Day, in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender. Its objective is to project power and to threaten or dissuade potential enemies. That is, the deployment of “war games” does not mean that we find ourselves facing the risk of some imminent armed conflict. What is notable, however, is the increase in frequency and magnitude of these exhibitions of muscle as a result of the increase in tensions between Russia and the West. These tensions don’t begin with the conflict in Ukraine, but are the catalyst for this.
It is important, however, to make a note of some factors that in theory should limit said tensions:
1. The United States is not in an expansion phase, but rather a relative military withdrawal on a global level. In part due to financial restrictions as well as geopolitical repercussions and its intervention policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and partly due to the vision and personal style of Obama, Washington has decided to play a much more reduced military role in global affairs. This has forced it to prioritize matters and policies. Thus, after the occurrences in Ukraine, the White House has opted in favor of diplomatic and economic sanctions against Moscow over military containment strategies. This has nuances and could change, but for now this policy should, theoretically, limit the level of confrontation between the superpowers. This point, nevertheless, must be contrasted with the perception of those who justly believe that what can stir up the conflict is the fact that so many rivals, as well as allies, are perceiving the United States as weak and lacking leadership, or at least as a superpower not willing to use the power it has.
2. Russia is experiencing serious problems with its economy. The sum of the effects of a recession that preceded the Ukrainian crisis with the economic sanctions that the West has imposed and the dramatic decline of petroleum prices ought to theoretically cause the Kremlin to prefer to opt for cooperation with the West and not conflict. There are analysts who think it is highly probable that there will soon be a moderation in the tone of the disputes that were sparked off due to Ukraine and other matters. However, once more, this must be contrasted with a different view. Putin’s domestic popularity, above 80 percent for some time now, takes off when he exhibits positions of strength against the West, and this single fact could make the Russian president willing to pay the economic costs of the confrontation or seek solutions through other means such as, for example, boosting alternative markets to Europe, among other measures. It will be necessary to follow this matter closely.
3. Finally, international relations today are much more complex than those which prevailed during a large part of the Cold War in the last century. Keohane and Nye call this phenomenon the “complex interdependence.” There are non-state transnational actors with their own interests and potential influence in the making of decisions, such as, for example, the Western oil companies, which maintain important projects and business with Russian companies that could potentially defuse the conflict that has been created between the governments. Thus, economic interests that are in the interior of Europe have reduced the reach and speed with which the EU has imposed sanctions on Moscow. Furthermore, there are issues that could make the interests of Moscow converge with those of Washington and its allies, such as, for example, Islamic terrorism. However, these questions must also be weighed with caution. Up to now, neither common interests — political, economic or business — nor the influence of the non-state actors have been sufficient to stop the arms race that has revived itself since before the Ukraine crisis but with greater strength since then, or the shows of force to which we are witness.
In conclusion, it is about phenomena in full swing. In them, there are factors working at the same time that have the potential of increasing tensions between the powerful rivals, and factors that could ease the conflict. It is necessary to observe what may occur in the coming months with a great deal of caution. The risk is too high. Although military and strategic analysts call them “war games,” they are not in any way a game, and sometimes a single human error could cause things to get out of hand for those who are involved.