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Meghna Kashyap asked: What is Cold War 2.0? What could be its implications for the global politics as well as for India?

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  • S. Kalyanaraman replies: Cold War 2.0 is a misleading term that has come to be employed by excitable commentators for characterising the United States-Russia relations in recent years. Drawing upon the analogy of the Cold War rivalry between the United States (US) and the Soviet Union to describe US-Russia relations in the current era is, however, misleading because of three main reasons.

    First, whereas the Soviet Union enjoyed rough economic and military parity with the US between 1945 and 1991, Russia’s current economic and military capabilities vis-à-vis America’s are acutely lower and it is highly unlikely that that it would be able to close the gap anytime soon. To take two rough measures: the Soviet Union’s Gross National Product (GNP) stood at between 50 and 60 per cent of that of the US during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In contrast, in 2016, Russia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$ 1.283 trillion was 14.5 times smaller than America’s GDP of $18.624 trillion. And, while the Soviet defence expenditure during the 1980s was estimated at between 50 and 60 per cent of that of the US, in 2016, the Russian defence expenditure of $69.2 billion was a mere 11.3 per cent of the $611 billion spent by the US.

    The second critical difference between then and now, which renders the term Cold War 2.0 misleading in the current context, is the absence of ideological rivalry between Russia and the US about how to economically order both individual societies as well as global economic interactions. Whereas the Soviet Union and its communist allies stood apart from, and interacted only at the margins with, the free market system led by the US, Russia today has integrated itself into the US-led international economic order.

    Further, the US-Soviet ideological rivalry was a global phenomenon that not only manifested itself in every continent but also shaped politics at the regional and global levels. In contrast, and notwithstanding the fact that Russia under Vladimir Putin is steadily backsliding on democracy, there is no region-wide let alone global competition between the US and Russian models of government. Instead, what we have are highly localised conflicts in Russia’s immediate periphery (Georgia, Ukraine) where it is trying to stave off the geopolitical encroachment of the US-led West and a limited Russian military intervention in Syria to shore up the Bashar al-Assad regime and thus maintain continued access to the warm water port of Tartus.

    Finally, during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union were each other’s principal ideological and military rivals. They were the founts of rival ideologies and the two most powerful countries of the world. Today, Russia is neither an ideological challenger nor even America’s principal military rival.

    Given all this, Cold War 2.0 is a false analogy that not only fails to illuminate the present but, if accepted as a reasonably accurate representation of the current reality, could actually cause states to pursue unwise and ineffectual policies.

    Posted on March 20, 2018

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