"[P]ost-Cold War US relations with Russia and China have never been simple or smooth. They appeared tolerable but have been deteriorating for years. Moscow and Beijing never abandoned the 'inherent bad faith' model of the Cold War. They always suspected US motives and still do. Moscow and Beijing harshly criticized their recent United States ambassadors, Michael McFaul and Gary Locke respectively, something rare in diplomacy that indicates deep hostility and cannot be resolved by reset buttons." - Michael Roskin, The New Cold War Parameters 44:1 (2014)
New Cold War talk has been in the air the last couple of years, with the Obama Administration's latest sanctions against Russia in response to Russian hacking attacks - and probably in response to other undisclosed events - racheting up the talk during the transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump Family Business Administration.
Andrew Cockburn talks about this latest round in an article published before the new US sanctions were announced (The New Red Scare Harper's Dec 2016):
Despite some esoteric aspects, the so-called Russian hacks, as promoted by interested parties in politics and industry, are firmly in the tradition of Cold War threat inflation. Admittedly, practitioners had an easier task in [the 1960s]. The Cold War was at its height, America was deep in a bloody struggle against the communist foe in Vietnam, and Europe was divided by an Iron Curtain, behind which millions chafed under Soviet occupation.And, yes, the US military-industrial complex is real, as is it's much less formidable Russian counterpart. And still making money. And wanting to make even more:
Half a century later, the Soviet Union is long gone, along with the international communist movement it championed. Given that Russia’s defense budget is roughly one tenth of America’s, and that its military often cannot afford the latest weapons Russian manufacturers offer for export, resurrecting this old enemy might seem to pose a challenge to even the brightest minds in the Pentagon. Yet the Russian menace, we are informed, once again looms large. According to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Russia “has clear ambition to erode the principled international order” and poses “an existential threat to the United States” — a proclamation endorsed by a host of military eminences, including General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his vicechairman General Paul Selva, and NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove.
True, relations with Moscow have been disintegrating since the Bush Administration. Yet Russia achieved formal restoration to threat status only after Putin’s takeover of Crimea in February 2014 (which followed the forcible ejection, with U.S. encouragement, of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government just a few days earlier). Russia’s intervention in Syria, in the fall of 2015, turned the chill into a deep freeze. Still, the recent accusation that Putin has been working to destabilize our democratic system has taken matters to a whole new level, evoking the Red Scare of the 1950s. [my emphasis]
There would seem to be one major difference between the fine art of threat inflation as practiced during the Cold War and the current approach. In the old days, taxpayers at least got quite a lot for their money, albeit at inflated prices: the 900 ships, the 15,000 planes, and so forth. Things are different today. The so-called global war on terror, though costing more than any American conflict apart from World War II, has been a comparatively lackadaisical affair. Iraq at its height absorbed one fifth the number of troops sent to Vietnam, while Air Force sorties ran at one eighth the earlier level. Though the weapons cost more and more, we produce fewer and fewer of them. For example, the Air Force originally told us they were buying 749 F-22 fighters at a cost of $35 million each. They ended up with 187 planes at $412 million apiece. The trend persists across the services — and sometimes, as in the case of the Army’s Future Combat Systems, no weapons are produced at all.Kari Roberts recalls that we earlier had another round of fretting about a New Cold War (Why Russia will play by the rules in the Arctic Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 21:2 (2015):
This may be of comfort to those who worry at the prospect of war. Yet the threat inflation that keeps the wheels turning can carry us toward catastrophe. Among the token vessels deployed to reassure Eastern European NATO countries have been one or two Aegis Destroyers, sent to patrol the Baltic and Black Seas. The missiles they carry are for air defense. Yet the launchers can just as easily carry nuclear or conventional cruise missiles, without any observer being able to tell the difference. [my emphasis]
Talk in 2007–2008 of a “new Cold War” ..., while it abated under Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, has been revived in Putin’s third term. Recently, and in addition to Russia’s agitation of the political instability in Ukraine, Russia’s harboring of Edward Snowden, and its stance of perpetual opposition to Western initiatives in dealing with the Assad regime in Syria, have revived the demonization of Russia and reawakened concerns that the West has much to fear from Russia. Such concerns were amplified by former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who likened Putin’s seizure of Crimea to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s....
Julia Ioffe suggests Russian leaders weren't necessarily being delusional when they began worrying about Western regime change attempts in the late End of History period (The End of the End of the Cold War Foreign Policy 12/21/216):
To some conservative Russian thinkers, many of whom came to influence Vladimir Putin in his third turn at the presidency, the very idea of Russia as a democracy was itself a kind of defeat. It was an imposition of a foreign system of government ill-suited to Russia’s traditions and historical insistence on greatness, unity, and the subservience of the individual to a strong, centralized state. They, and Putin, resented Westernization, especially in its geopolitical manifestations, like NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia in spite of Moscow’s protestations.Ioffe believes that Russian influence in the 2016 Presidential election was effective. But not precisely because of the Democratic National Committee hacks:
Then, in the 2000s, George W. Bush’s program of regime change and democracy promotion supported democratic uprisings in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. This terrified Putin, who feared Washington would support something similar in Moscow. He responded by actively marginalizing his opposition, creating a militant pro-government youth movement, and castrating what was left of the independent press at home. Then came the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and, quite nearly, Bashar al-Assad — all in the name of Western democracy. And it came against the backdrop of protests under the Kremlin walls of Westernized, urban, white-collar Muscovites demanding a more transparent, accountable form of government. They stood in the winter cold of December 2011 and explicitly asked for a European-style government.
But the real victory here is landing these armies on American shores. In 2016, Putin did just that, thoroughly Russifying the U.S. presidential election. The hacks aside (which, Putin could argue, are no different than what America has done for decades during and after the Cold War in supporting “color revolutions” and regime change), what made it a victory was the imposition of a Russian model of politics onto the West, an effective and very tangible reversal of the status quo that had been in place since 1991. An American presidential election became rife with Russianesque conspiracy theories, fake news, absurdity, and the steady, strategic flow of kompromat (compromising information). It was, in other words, a downright Russian election.Dr. Alex Pravda of the University of Oxford wrote in 2014, obviously before the US election controversy of 2016, that Western countries "micro-toughness with macro-flexibility we should concentrate on working to improve Russian compliance with jointly agreed norms" while avoiding "the kind of broadsides against Russia and its values that forms part of the New Cold War approach." (Don’t call it a new Cold War: partnership with Russia is not damaged beyond repair European Leadership Network 12/24/2014) Since Trump obviously shares more than a little of Putin's autocratic values, theoretically a Trump Family Business Administration could avoid those kind of broadsides easily. But we'll see what pops up on Twitter.
And he outlined the different priority zones that he sees shaping Russian perception of their national interest under Putin:
It is worth highlighting the variation in the intensity of conflict of interests across the arenas of our interaction with Russia. The first zone is Russia’s ‘near abroad’, the former Soviet space where it claims ‘privileged’ interests. There, it is willing to take combative action to prevent the extension of NATO and a degree of EU association that would enable neighbouring states to sustain external policies Moscow deems hostile. Russia’s sense of entitlement to a sphere of influence clashes with Western support for the sovereignty of all states in the neighbourhood. Here the conflict of interest is most direct and the West most likely to be seen by Moscow as an opponent. We need to reconfigure through consultative engagement some components of the badly shattered partnership and construct it on a new basis. In the case of Ukraine, this might include ‘devolution-max’ arrangements that would enable Kiev to sustain stable development and allow for sufficient economic ties with Russia to reassure Moscow.
In other areas of strategic importance further afield, such as the Middle East and South Asia, Russian stakes are lower and less rooted in a sense of historical identity and entitlement to dominance. National interests are defined in largely geopolitical terms. The aim is to be an indispensable player. Here, the West is a rival rather than an inveterate adversary, and Moscow is willing to negotiate deals to maximise its economic and strategic advantage. There is scope for repairing this part of the partnership as room exists for more consultation and cooperation to tackle common problems: chaotic instability and the threat posed by militant Islamic movements.
At the global level, Moscow sees itself aligning with other BRIC states to help counter-balance what it perceives as a U.S. effort to prolong dominance over a world system in which Russia is one of several emerging poles. The current pivot to China and Asia is likely to become more prominent, yet Moscow remains aware of its potential conflicts of interest with Beijing. And we should remember that Moscow’s ruling elite consider Russia historically and culturally to be an integral part of Greater Europe, not Asia. We should make a better use of this identity and European aspirations when dealing with Russia, particularly on Ukraine and its neighbours.