The new Cold War: The birth of a resurgent conflict

By: Kyle R. Brady

The Berlin Wall may be gone and the Cold War over, but the old and familiar patterns are quickly returning.

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War and the associated collapse of the Soviet Union, an exceedingly probable conclusion may be drawn from the interactions of the United States and the Soviet successor state of Russia:  a New Cold War has begun.[1]

Roughly since the turn of the 21st Century, the United States and Russia – a superpower state and a state seeking both superpower and empire status, respectively – have increasingly opposed each other’s efforts and interests. Notably, the Obama-Putin period has been more fraught and hostile than ever before, despite the so-called reset.[2] As of October 2016, a number of seemingly interconnected events have occurred that indicate an increasingly hostile disconnect, with Russia consistently opposing the increasing alignment of diplomatic and military relationships between the United States and Europe.[3]

Since the turn of the millennium, Russia has invaded a number of neighboring states – including Georgia and Ukraine – occupying several unrecognized foreign territories as a result.[4] Their military power has been projected abroad in foreign conflicts and is currently most visible in Syria.[5] Additionally, the Russians have also directly and intentionally engaged in nuclear destabilization efforts.[6] One of the unfortunate results of these developments has been the damaging of relationships between Russia and several member states of the European Union with close energy-security and resource dependencies with the federation.[7]

Recently, China has become increasingly aligned with Russia, visible through the publicly acknowledged military, security, and cyber joint-initiatives.[8] Russian intelligence services have frequently engaged in cyber-espionage and cyberwarfare in attempts to covertly influence domestic politics and the internal functions of targeted states, including the United States.[9] Moreover, Russia regularly undertakes every opportunity to denigrate, degrade, and destabilize the reputation, interests, and abilities of both the United States and the rest of the Western world.[10] Shockingly, Russia may have even poisoned American diplomats, a clear precursor to the resurrection of the KGB, a Soviet-era intelligence agency.[11] When considered both in total and in context, these do not seem to be the behaviors of a non-aligned or internationally participatory state – much less a friendly one. Rather, these are the behaviors of a state with little respect for its own pacts and agreements, a disdain for international institutions, a contradictory approach to foreign affairs, and a great desire to force itself onto the international stage.[12]

Throughout the original Cold War, the Soviet Union employed military and sociopolitical efforts – also known as hard power and soft power – in an effort to spread communism, expand Soviet territory, create a buffer-zone along its borders, and counter-balance Western efforts. Modern Russia has since resurrected strategies and practices of its Soviet past through the use of propaganda, aggressive, escalatory rhetoric, and dangerous flirtations with its Western enemies – strategies easily traced from the post-war period of the 1940s through the USSR’s collapse in 1991.[13] If there was a way in which to extend influence or oppose the West, the Soviet Union was more than willing to make an attempt.

This aggressively anti-West, self-interested, and consolidated approach has seen a remarkable resurgence in Putin’s Russia.[14]  While frustrating to diplomats and those who seek the normalization or improvement of relations, the rise of Putin’s Soviet-esque state is not entirely unexpected. Putin was a former KGB agent who rose to political power only to praise the fallen Soviet Union and instill his former coworkers in positions of power. [15]  As such, his consistent efforts to retool, rebirth, or wholesale replicate Soviet attitudes, behaviors, methods, and institutions seem only appropriate. Moreover, this New Cold War has not suddenly appeared but has rather been part of a slow but predictable process that began years ago.[16]

It seems unlikely that Putin will voluntarily relinquish power in the future, regardless of his formal title or relevant Russian law. Therefore, it should be assumed that Russia will proceed down the authoritarian, confrontational, and domineering path that was established long ago. In order to address several realities – military, social, political and economic – of the New Cold War and avoid repeating mistakes of the past, Western states need to acknowledge and formalize their devolving relationship with Russia. The lack of an open or nuclear conflict in the twentieth century’s Cold War does not preclude the outbreak of one in the New Cold War: this an important difference to understand when comparing between the two periods. The New Cold War need not be a zero-sum conflict across all realms and theatres. Both history and modern experience can provide substantial insight on how to redress differences and grievances, without threatening the safety of the entire world.


Note: Any opinions expressed are directly and expressly the author’s own; they do not represent — unless stated — his employers (past, present, or future) or associated/affiliated institutions.



Kyle R. Brady is a postgraduate student at King’s College London in the Department of War Studies, holds a Masters in Homeland Security from Pennsylvania State University, and has primary interests in terrorism, law enforcement, and contextualizing security concerns. Previously, he graduated with Departmental Honors from San Jose State University’s undergraduate Political Science program, where he focused on both international relations and political theory. All of Kyle’s work can be found online through; he can be reached by email at or, on Twitter as @KyleBradyOnline, or on Facebook as /KyleBradyOnline; and he occasionally blogs at




[1] Jones, Sam. “Dmitry Medvedev Warns of ‘New Cold War.’” Financial Times, February 13, 2016.

[2] Kelly, Mary Louise. “Amid Deteriorating U.S.-Russia Relations, Questions Grow About Cyberwar.” NPR, October 4, 2016.;

Mankoff, Jeffrey. “The Tricky U.S.-Russia ‘Reset’ Button.” Council on Foreign Relations: Grand Strategy, February 18, 2009.

[3] Kramer, Andrew E. “Russia Calls New U.S. Missile Defense System a ‘Direct Threat.’” New York Times, May 12, 2016.

[4] Kofman, Michael. “The Crimean Crisis and Russia’s Military Posture in the Black Sea.” War on the Rocks, August 19, 2016.

[5] Roth, Andrew. “Syria Shows That Russia Built an Effective Military. Now How Will Putin Use It?” Washington Post, March 18, 2016.

[6] “Russia Deploys Nuclear-Capable Missiles in Kaliningrad.” BBC News, October 8, 2016.;

“Russia Suspends Weapons-Grade Plutonium Deal with US.” BBC News, October 3, 2016.

[7] Henderson, Niall. “A Literal Cold War: The EU-Russian Struggle Over Energy Security.” Council on Foreign Relations: Politics, Power, and Preventive Action, October 6, 2016.

[8] Ide, William. “China-Russia Drills Highlight Converging Interests; Undercurrents Remain.” Voice of America, September 19, 2016.

[9] Limnéll, Jarno. “The Use of Cyber Power in the War Between Russia and Ukraine.” Council on Foreign Relations: Net Politics, January 11, 2016.

Gonzales, Richard. “U.S. Accuses Russia Of Election Year Cyber-Meddling.” NPR, October 7, 2016.

[10] Burns, Robert. “Ash Carter Blasts Russian Aggression.” U.S. News, September 7, 2016.

[11] Eckel, Mike. “Two U.S. Diplomats Drugged In St. Petersburg Last Year, Deepening Washington’s Concern.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 3, 2016. Soldatov, Andrei. “Putin Has Finally Reincarnated the KGB.” Foreign Policy, September 21, 2016.

[12] Lucas, Edward. The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009.

[13] Courtney, William, and Christopher Paul. “Firehose of Falsehoods:” U.S. News, September 9, 2016.

Roth, Andrew, and Dana Priest. “Putin Wants Revenge and Respect, and Hacking the U.S. Is His Way of Getting It.” Washington Post, September 16, 2016.

Gibbons-Neff, Thomas. “Russian Fighter Makes ‘Unsafe Close Range Intercept’ with U.S. Anti-Submarine Aircraft.” Washington Post, September 7, 2016.

[14] Sanger, David. “What Is Russia Up To, and Is It Time to Draw the Line?” New York Times, September 29, 2016.

[15] Applebaum, Anne. “How He and His Cronies Stole Russia.” New York Times Review of Books, December 18, 2014.

[16] Tisdall, Simon. “The New Cold War: Are We Going back to the Bad Old Days?” The Guardian, November 19, 2014.;

Trenin, Dmitri. “Welcome to Cold War II.” Foreign Policy, March 4, 2014.;

Legvold, Robert. “Managing the New Cold War.” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 4 (July–August 2014).

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