In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Photo of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy over photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump

As Russia and US Give Up on INF, ‘New Cold War or Not’ Debate Flares Again

February 07, 2019
RM Staff

With Russia and the U.S. both suspending participation in the INF Treaty, fears of a new arms race abound, with some analysts declaring a “new Cold War.” Russia’s foreign minister dismissed such notions this week, reportedly saying, “I don’t think we’re talking about the development of a Cold War… A new era has begun.” NATO’s secretary-general made the same point last spring. But not everyone agrees with them.

In policy and academic circles the “New Cold War or Not” debate has been percolating for years, prompting thoughtful dueling Twitter threads among the professorial social-media set. Those who call today’s tensions a “Cold War” sometimes use the term simply to emphasize the intensity and dangers of the current standoff between Russia and the West. When details of the comparison surface, they tend to involve military threats—top among them nuclear war, including accidental war—and the two sides’ competition for global supremacy. Those who say “Cold War” doesn’t apply today also marshal plenty of convincing arguments. These include Russia’s relative weakness since the Soviet collapse, the absence of an ideological battle between Moscow and Washington, the end of the global bipolarity that had accompanied that battle, Russia’s much greater interconnectedness with the global economy and, of course, the rise of China. Both those who do subscribe to the term “Cold War” and those who don’t point out differences between today’s confrontation and the 20th-century version. Many foreign-policy experts, for example, have noted with alarm the lack of communication channels between Moscow and Washington and of safeguards to manage the risks of escalation.   

Below are some of the most striking similarities and differences between U.S.-Russian tensions now and before as pointed out by Western and Russian politicians and analysts on both sides of the debate. Most of these comments were made in 2018, but some go back as early as 2014; in the tables below, comments by Westerners are listed first, by Russians second.

American/Western leaders and experts who think it is a new Cold War (or something close)

American/Western leaders and experts who think it is not a new Cold War


Then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis: “Long-term, strategic, Cold War-style competition has reemerged, and the U.S. is being challenged in the air, on the sea and land, in space and in cyberspace.” (, 10.30.18)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg: “We are in a situation where we’ve not been before. We’re not in the old Cold War, but we’re neither in the strategic partnership we were trying to build after the Cold War. So this is something new.” (AP, 04.07.18)


President Donald Trump: “Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this. Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?” (Twitter, 04.11.18)


Robert Legvold, Columbia University: “Whatever muddled hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage may have had for better times with Trump in the White House and whatever obscure intentions President Trump may have had of improving relations, the two sides remain mired in the new Cold War into which they had plunged in the last years of the Obama administration.“ (09.06.17)

“We thought Central Europe was secure. We thought it was stable. We thought it was at peace. Now it is not. So that is why I call it a new Cold War. Your point about increased defense spending—we’re remilitarizing a relationship that we had been demilitarizing. That’s a new Cold War.” (03.05.15)

Reprinted by Russia Matters, 11.20.18

Odd Arne Westad, Harvard University: “Today’s international affairs have moved beyond the Cold War. Bipolarity is gone. … China is getting more powerful. … Russia is a dissatisfied scavenger on the fringes of the current order. … Ideology is no longer the main determinant. China, Europe, India, Russia, and the United States disagree on many things, but not on the value of capitalism and markets. China and Russia are both authoritarian states that pretend to have representative governments. But neither is out to peddle their system to faraway places, as they did during the Cold War. Even the United States, the master promoter of political values, seems less likely to do so under Trump’s “America first” agenda. … Whatever international system is being created at the moment, it is not a Cold War. … If we want to apply history to policymaking, we must learn to be as alert to differences as we are to analogies.” (Foreign Affairs, 03.27.18)



Eugene Rumer, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “We need to understand how we ended up in a new Cold War with Russia after declaring it our partner on many occasions over the last quarter-century. We should look at our record and ask ourselves whether we have done everything right, whether we have made any mistakes and how we might avoid repeating them in the future.” (Los Angeles Times, 01.22.18) 

Former NATO commander James Stavridis: “Phone conversations are occurring with some regularity, and most importantly, [Supreme Allied Commander Curtis] Scaparrotti and [head of the Russian Armed Forces Valery] Gerasimov have tentatively scheduled a face-to-face meeting in Europe. This is an important element if we are to avoid stumbling backward into a full-blown Cold War with Russia.” (Bloomberg, 03.27.18)


Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the U.N.: "The cold war is back — with a vengeance, but with a difference.  The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present." (United Nations, 04.13.18)


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Washington and Moscow are not "doomed to a Cold War rivalry," but "it has been a struggle" to reduce the risk of confrontation with Russia. (RFE/RL, 01.23.19)




Lawrence Freedman, King’s College London: “It is not so much a replica of what we might call Cold War 1.0 but a new version with its own characteristics. Cold War 2.0 deserves the designation because it might turn hot. That is the risk that demands attention.” (New Statesman America, 03.14.18)

NB: See the distinctions Prof. Freedman outlines in the right-hand column.

Lawrence Freedman, King’s College London: “The emphasis on nuclear power is one of the major continuities between the two cold wars. Yet the differences between the cold wars 1.0 and 2.0 are profound. The most obvious and major change is that Russia is in a far weaker position than the Soviet Union was… Second, Cold War 1.0 was a global affair. Although it began in Europe, it soon spread to Asia and then on to the Middle East and Africa. In Cold War 2.0 Syria is the major exception to Russia’s European focus… Third, the shrinkage from the Soviet Union into the Russian Federation had major economic consequences… Fourth, during Cold War 1.0 the interaction between the Soviet bloc’s economies and those in the rest of the world was minimal, other than in the energy sector… Fifth, Moscow can no longer claim leadership of an international ideological movement… Sixth, Cold War 1.0 was a struggle of the pre-internet age. Cold War 2.0 has been shaped by the internet.” (New Statesman America, 03.14.18)


  Angela Stent, Georgetown University: “Rhetoric about the possibility of nuclear war emanates from Moscow. While this is not the Cold War that existed prior to the Soviet collapse, the harsh, adversarial rhetoric and military posturing certainly feel like the Cold War without the channels of communication that operated then.” (Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.31.16)  


Stephen Walt, Harvard University: “The current situation is bad. But to call it a “new Cold War” is misleading more than it is enlightening… For starters, the Cold War was a bipolar competition… Moreover, the two superpowers stood in rough parity with each other… On balance, the United States was ahead, but never by a big enough margin to relax. So, the two superpowers competed constantly for additional influence… At the same time, the Cold War also featured an intense competition between rival political ideologies: liberal capitalism and Marxism-Leninism. … Even worse, given each side’s universalist pretensions, the mere existence of one posed a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the other.” (Foreign Policy, 03.12.18)



Timothy Colton, Harvard University: “The Cold War analogy gives us only so much purchase on the current scene. Twenty-first century Russia is bereft of a universality and transformative ideology such as lay behind Soviet behavior. It does not pose an existential threat to the United States. ... Much smaller in population (absolutely) and economic assets (relatively) than the USSR in its time, and without satellite states or reliable political kinsmen, the newest Russia does not have the wherewithal or the missionary spirit to carry on a worldwide struggle or to align the international system around it. It is in no position to be anyone’s great Other.” (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)



Thomas Graham, Yale University / Kissinger Associates: “Every time a serious problem emerges in U.S.-Russian relations, someone reaches for the Cold War trope. It is time to put it to rest. The Cold-War rivalry resulted from a set of circumstances—ideological and geopolitical—that no longer exist today. What is taking place between Russia and the United States is a not-so-unusual rivalry between great powers.” (Russia Direct, 03.15.14)


Russian leaders and experts who think it is a new Cold War (or something close)

Russian leaders and experts who think it is not a new Cold War




President Vladimir Putin:

  • The Cold War ended long ago, the era of acute ideological confrontation belongs to the distant past, and the situation in the world has fundamentally changed.” (07.16.18)
  • Asked to comment on Western analysts’ interpretations of his boasts about new weapons as a declaration of a new Cold War: “In my opinion, the people you have mentioned are not analysts. What they do is propaganda.” (03.02.18)

President Vladimir Putin (asked whether the recently deceased former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had been right to think the Cold War was over): “No, he was not. All processes follow a pendulum trajectory, moving in one direction and then in the other. Now the pendulum has moved slightly towards cooling, but I am sure that everything will regain balance, and we will join efforts to fight today’s challenges. This is the only way to overcome them.” (, 06.17.17)

Sergei Karaganov, Higher School of Economics: “I would say it is [a new Cold War]. … To call things by their proper names, the West has started a new Cold War in an attempt to reverse its disadvantageous position in the new global balance of power.” (Russia in Global Affairs, 09.04.18)

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: “I don’t think we’re talking about the development of a Cold War… A new era has begun.” (Reuters, 02.04.19)


Fyodor Lukyanov,  Council on Defense and Foreign Policy: “We have entered a period of real Cold War with all the attendant consequences. … The current conflict will largely be economic rather than military in nature. … This tactic makes sense since, unlike the USSR, our country today is part of the global economy.” (, 03.28.18)

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov: “I don’t think that we are in a state of a new Cold War because there are no grounds for a Cold War in the old meaning of the word, meaning a confrontation between systems and ideologies, ideological rivalry." (AP, 08.23.17)

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov: “We [Russia and the United States] may have entered a period comparable in many aspects to the Cold War… The level of negativity toward Russia and the consciously cultivated anti-Russian sentiments, especially in the media, are alarming.” (TASS, 12.05.17)

Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center (writing shortly after the start of the Ukraine crisis): “The post-Cold War [period] may now be seen, in retrospect, as the inter-Cold War period. … There will be no return to the eyeball-to-eyeball Cold War confrontation, though; on the contrary, the relationship is likely to grow even more distant. Elements of U.S.-Russia cooperation might survive where the two countries’ interests clearly meet, but doing anything together in Syria or Iran would become much more difficult. Trade and investment will be restricted as a result of U.S. government sanctions, and the Russian equity market, owned largely by foreigners, will collapse. … Thankfully, some of the worst things of the first Cold War will never likely be resurrected. Officially sanctioned Russian patriotism, even with an anti-American bent, will not be tantamount to a new ideology. Although the static military confrontation is unlikely to be resurrected, nuclear deterrence will be reaffirmed, and competition in the military sphere will spread to other areas, from cyberspace to conventional prompt global strike…. This will be the dawn of a new period, reminiscent in some ways of the Cold War from the 1940s to 1980s….This new conflict is unlikely to be as intense as the first Cold War; it may not last nearly as long; and — crucially — it will not be the defining conflict of our times. Yet, it will be for real.” (Foreign Policy, 03.04.14)


Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center: "The crisis over Ukraine … resulted in Russia’s confrontation with the United States and its estrangement from Europe. This confrontation has often been labeled a second Cold War.The analogy, however, is flawed: The world has changed too much since the 1980s to suggest that today’s antagonism is merely a revival of an old conflict. The new confrontation is better described as a Hybrid War—a term which, like its predecessor, is capitalized here to highlight its distinct place in the history of international relations. This time, the U.S.-Russia conflict is not central to the world system, but, nevertheless, its outcome will help shape the future of that system. The current Hybrid War is a conflict essentially between Russia and the United States over the issue of the world order… This Hybrid War’s most distinguishing feature is that it is being fought in a truly global, virtually borderless environment… Unlike its Cold War predecessor, this conflict is asymmetrical. At least since the 1970s, the Soviet Union was the United States’ equal in terms of both nuclear and conventional military power… The Russian Federation, by contrast, has few formal allies, no satellite states, and a handful of protectorates… It has no ideology to compare with the comprehensive dogma of Marxism-Leninism, and although it is still a nuclear superpower, it lags far behind the United States in non-nuclear military capabilities. Economically, Russia—with its estimated 1.5 percent of the global gross domestic product—is a dwarf.” (Carnegie, 01.25.18)


Putin’s advisor Sergei Glazyev, former senior Defense Ministry official Leonid Ivashov and other Russian hawks teamed up to write a report called “Cold War 2.0: Strategy for Russian Victory” in 2015. The chapter called “Cold War 2.0” argues that references to a new Cold War serve both as a reflection of current tensions between Russia and the West, as well as their potential for conflict, and as an instrument of Western “psycholinguistic” manipulation of Russian policy influencers because it suggests that “you lost the last ‘Cold War,’ so you’re bound to lose this one too.” (Full text of report, in Russian)

Historian Sergei Oznobischev of the Primakov Institute wrote an article entitled “‘New Cold War’: Recollections of the Future” in which he argues that Russia’s current standoff with the West does not have the characteristics of the “classical” Cold War and arguments to the contrary are not convincing. However, the current lack of trust and other problems in the bilateral relationship pose the risk of a new “hybrid” confrontation on new terms. He recommends working together on areas of joint concern, such as international terrorism, as a possible way forward. (Abstract in Russian, Polis, No. 1, 2016)


  Andrei Sushentsov and Maxim Sushkov, MGIMO: “The current developments in Russian-U.S. relations are not a new Cold War. Yet the exchange of political and military signals is becoming increasingly harsh: provocations, sabotage and compromising information campaigns have become more acrid.” (Russia in Global Affairs, 01.17.19)  

Photos by United States Department of State shared in the public domain and by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.