Edward Lucas
AUTHOR:Edward Lucas
14 August 2017

The "New Cold War" ten years on

This time 10 years ago, I was sitting by the poolside at my brother-in-law’s house in Italy, writing “The New Cold War.” The book depicted the regime in the Kremlin as a threat to both Russians and the outside world. This was a controversial thesis. Most people believed, or wanted to believe, that Russia was a capitalist democracy on the bumpy path to modernization. Any difficulties were manageable, and probably the result of misunderstandings.

Ten years later, I sit by the same Italian poolside, packing my things after having finished another book (about how technology is changing espionage). “The New Cold War”published in early 2008—was translated into 20 languages, and has come out in half a dozen updated editions.

Knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently? I foretold the war in Georgia, which was good, but I skimped on Ukraine. I should have had more about Crimea, about the situation in the Donbass, and about the deadly combination of greed, populism and incompetence in Ukrainian public life. This paved the way for the Yanukovych regime, whose downfall gave Russia the pretext to start its war.

I was gloomy about energy security, which was right at the time. I could have given more credit to the European Union’s then-nascent efforts to disrupt Russia’s gas export business. I overestimated Russia’s ability to try to control the world gas industry.

The title still bothers me. The real Cold War was a titanic global struggle between totalitarian communism and the capitalist West. What we have now is not on the same scale. Russia has an economy the size of California. It is a serious regional nuisance, but it is not a superpower along Soviet lines.

I tried to explain this in the introduction, saying that the new Cold War was not about military confrontation; it is chiefly about the Kremlin exploiting the West’s greed and naïveté. But the term has taken on a life of its own, which hurtles around the opinion pages, dragging me behind it.

The latest example comes from
Vanity Fair, where Peter Savodnik—an able Russia-watcher and pensmith—politely lambasts me and my book, calling it “smart, thoughtful, thoroughly reported, and wrong.” My thesis, he says, has not aged well.

A couple of his attacks are wide of the mark. Some people who use the term “new cold war” may be hankering for the old one. I am not: I remember it as terrifying and costly. Nor do I use the term as a careless journalistic cliché: I wrote a whole book about it.

Savodnik’s main point dates from 2008, when he
reviewed the book in Time magazine, arguing that Russia’s lack of a political identity precluded a new cold war, at least for now. In his Vanity Fair piece he extends this, arguing: “There can be no grand and global conflict pitting today’s Russia against the West…because Russia is no longer a kleptocracy posing as a Communist utopia. It is simply a kleptocracy.”

That argument would be stronger if Russia’s leaders actually behaved like single-minded kleptocrats—on the lines of former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, for example. But they do not. They splurge money on expensive weapons and launch costly wars against other countries. I agree that they are greedy and crooked, but there is something else going on too.

In his main point, though, Savodnik is spot on. The real problem is not so much a full-scale conflict with Russia, but the way the Kremlin ably exploits the West’s divisions and other weaknesses. This just happens to be what I argued in my book.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Kremlin.ru