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Can we consider the policies of Vladimir Putin as a new Cold War? The term was used to define the confrontation between the two super-powers that won World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR), following the untying of the "great alliance" against Nazism. This was a struggle between two ideologies, capitalism and communism, a race for armaments to strengthen the opposing blocks (East vs West), while conflicts were fought on the outskirts of each block because both super-powers could not engage in a direct war because of their nuclear weapons stocks.

The menace to Russian national interests

The menace involves the following sectors:

  • the sovereignty of the State over the entire Russian territory;

  • the management of energy resources (oil and gas);

  • the oligarchs;

  • media and the intellighenzia as propaganda tools against the country's rulers;

  • lastly, on the strategic level, the interference of foreign powers on former soviet territories and Putin's dream of rebuilding the Tzarist empire.

To this effect, here are some considerations:

  1. The recovery of the State's sovereignty over the territory of the Russian Federation.

    We are talking about 17 million square kilometers with a population of a mere 145 million people; Russians are a multi-ethnic people with widespread independentist aspirations based on social, ethnic and religious grounds. The Caucasus is an example of an area where independence claims have been taken over by Islamic extremism. The Emir of the Caucasus, Doku Umarov, leads the struggle in what had been labeled as the "War of the Winter Olympics", waged to punish the Kremlin for imposing the Olympic games in a high risk environment. The conflict in the Caucasus is a true war, killing over 700 people per year, and one which President Vladimir Putin is trying to conceal, reducing the spreading of news from the area.

  2. The management of energy resources.

Overall, by the end of Putin's third mandate whose term will expire in 2016, the Russian oligarchs will have been deprived of their control over Russia's resources; the "dissidents" have either all fled in exile or been jailed. The recent liberation of Mikhail Khodorkovskij, the billionaire who decided to compete with Putin in the struggle for power, could come as a surprise. He was detained in 2003 for tax fraud and freed in December 2013, eight months before the end of his prison term. He is currently getting back in shape in Berlin after a decade in Russian detention.

The entire energy sector and the supply to European countries is exposed to the competition and interference from several external actors:

  • the United States point their finger against Europe's excessive dependence on Russian supplies and propose to shift the demand to "shale gas", regardless of its setbacks (pollution of water basins and so forth).

  • Ukraine, the country owning and hosting the pipelines to Europe, has bargained its influence with cheaper oil and gas supplies. The Ukrainians also host the Russian fleet on the Black Sea at the Sevastopol naval base. For these reasons, Moscow has decided to promote two alternative gas pipelines to circumvent Ukraine: the North-Stream and South-Stream pipelines to which the West ha responded by building yet another gas duct, the Nabucco.

  1. The strategic clashes between the United States and Russia

The issue of George W. Bush's missile space shield on former Soviet-satellites such as Poland and the Czech Republic lead to a high degree of tensions with Moscow. Officially to defend Europe from Iran's intercontinental missiles, the project pushed Russia to menace the deployment of "Iskendar" ballistic warheads in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in Poland. Moscow did not go ahead with its plans, also because the new US President Barack Obama gave up on the space shield project in favor of the deployment in the Mediterranean of warships equipped with the Aegis missile interception system.

Another moment of tension between Americans and Russians has been the August 2008 conflict in Georgia, when the Georgians tried to take over the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, at the time controlled by Russian peacekeeping forces. The attack took place during the opening hours of the Beijing Olympics and prompted a reaction of the Russian Armed Forces deployed in the Caucasus. It should come as no surprise that Vladimir Putin, who was then hosted by the Chinese, immediately left the games to lead the military operations from his army's HQ.

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The answer to the questions: are we facing a new Cold War?

The definition of Cold War implies:

  • two super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, who have clashed on the ideological level (capitalism vs communism), lead an arms race, including nuclear weapons;

  • the creation of a bipolar world based on two opposing blocks, East vs West, who never entered a direct conflict, but rather fought proxy wars on their outskirts.

These two conditions do not apply in today's globalization. Economy, for one, has been de-nationalized and is not under the strict control of individual nation states anymore. Political parties based on the ideological contraposition of capitalism and communism have lost their function; they have been replaced by movements with common goals, from human rights, to freedom of expression and so forth.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the bipolar world has come to an end. It was not replaced by a unipolar globe, but by a globalized one. If the free market rules almost everywhere, the winners of the Cold War, the U.S., now have to face Vladimir Putin's imperial dreams. The Russian Federation is seeking to extend its control over its own territory and, where possible, to influence the former Soviet countries.

On a global level, the Russians are also playing along with the so called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and with other emerging countries (Mexico, Nigeria, Vietnam): they will take their chances to expand their market, defend their home-ground and chase out external interference in what could resemble Cold War tactics. We have seen that in the recent past with the immediate and forceful reactions against the space shield and in Georgia; we are witnessing it again in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has tried to improve his tarnished image by pardoning the oligarch Khodorkovskij, the Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists that attacked a Gazprom platform in the Arctic. The one year political asylum granted to the US whistleblower Edward Snowden is another example of an aggressive PR campaign.

In the end, we might not be facing a new Cold War, but definitely some of the policies and actions undertaken by the Russian presidency remind us of old times.