Tony Wood surveys three recent books on Russia and its approach to foreign policy in Eat Your Spinach London Review of Books39:5 03/02/2017. He looks at the question of how post-Soviet Russian relations with the West developed, and at whether the current situation should be seen as a new Cold War.
He borrows a bit from postmodern views of narrative when he writes, "The notion of a ‘cold war’ is a kind of geopolitical speech act: if enough people in power decide they are in one, it will materialise."
This is true. Or in a slightly more realist view, we could put it that mutual perceptions and misperceptions on both sides shape how each side in a adversarial or potentially adversarial posture view the actions of the other in foreign policy. And of their own actions.
The debate over whether we are or are not in a new Cold War reflects different views of what has happened over the last quarter-century. The story that is most often told in the West sees Gorbachev and Yeltsin making great strides towards democracy and free markets at home, matched by an unprecedented degree of co-operation with the West on the global stage. In this narrative, the rise of Putin meant a reversal of all these trends, resulting in a steady reassertion of Russian power after 2000 that fuelled a series of ugly confrontations. In Who Lost Russia? Peter Conradi attempts a more balanced view, providing a brisk run-through of the post-Cold War era in which both Russia and the West are faulted for a string of misguided moves. ... From Russia’s perspective, these were the steady enlargement of Nato; the interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya; US support for protest-driven regime change in former Soviet states from the mid-2000s onwards; and US and EU attempts to pull Georgia and Ukraine into the West’s orbit. From the Western point of view, the charge sheet includes Russia’s suppression of internal dissent and rigging of the electoral system; attacks on the principle of private property (most notably with the dismembering of Yukos); the invasion of Georgia; the annexation of Crimea and military incursions into eastern Ukraine; as well as the more recent signs of interloping in the US elections.And Wood stresses the importance of recognizing "the huge imbalance in power and resources between the two parties," i.e., the overwhelming advantage of the United States military and economically compared to today's Russia:
Those who point to this fact are often depicted as supporters of the Kremlin, as if to note the disparity were somehow to take the weaker side. ... But there is a huge distance, politically and ethically, between measuring how much power Russia really has and defending what Putin does with it. One of the effects of the ‘new Cold War’ rhetoric is to conflate the two, and thus to prevent any discussion of the actual international balance of power. But it’s impossible to understand the story of relations between Russia and the West without taking it into account: all other geopolitical calculations have flowed from it – including both the West’s impulse to drive home its advantage through expansion of Nato, and Russia’s growing resentment of that process, as well as its inability to halt or reverse it. [my emphasis]Wood gives us this perspective on Russia's economic strength compared to the West:
In 1999, Putin said that it would take 15 years of rapid growth for Russia to draw level with Portugal’s current level of per capita GDP. It reached that milestone in 2011; but by then Portugal was further ahead, and even amid the deep recession sparked by the Eurozone crisis, its GDP per capita was still more than one and a half times that of Russia.