Russia-U.S. relations are chilly, but is this another Cold War?

While the U.S., Europe and Canada continue to punish and isolate Russia with sanctions over its role in Ukraine there is an ongoing debate about whether a new Cold War is underway.

U.S. President Barack Obama dismisses idea of new Cold War, but questions persist

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013. Relations between the two countries have been tense in recent months with the U.S. imposing sanctions on Russia over its role in Ukraine. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Relations between Russia and the U.S. would almost certainly be described as chilly at the moment, but are they cold — as in Cold War?

It's a question that's being asked more frequently in recent weeks as the U.S., Canada and Europe pile up sanctions on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis, and as Russia pushes back and defies their demands.

The answer, though, depends on who you ask.

"No, it's not a new Cold War," President Barack Obama responded when asked for his opinion Tuesday after just announcing more sanctions. "What it is, is a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path."

It's not the first time Obama has dismissed the notion of a new Cold War underway. During a speech in Brussels in March the president spoke at length about the situation in Ukraine and Russia-U.S. relations.

He accused Russia of violating international law by annexing Crimea in eastern Ukraine, and said that the U.S. isolated Russia as a result by excluding it from the G8 group of industrialized nations and downgrading Washington's bilateral ties with Moscow.

At that point, the U.S. had already applied some sanctions and Obama pledged more unless Russia changed course.

But, he said, "this is not another Cold War that we're entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology."

Obama, of course, can deny that Russia and the U.S. are headed for another Cold War-like standoff, but scholars and pundits have their own theories and are carefully making comparisons.

Among that group, there seems to be a consensus that the ground has shifted, and that relations have soured. But what to call it and whether to apply the Cold War label is a matter of debate.

In this scenario, the ideological battle that defined the Cold War era doesn't exist, David Kramer, a former top official at the U.S. State Department during the earlier part of the Obama years, said in an interview with CBC News.

"But we certainly are in the lowest period since the end of the Cold War, there's no doubt about it," said Kramer, now head of Freedom House, a non-government organization.

"It is now Russia against the West and my money is on the West in that kind of battle."

Renewed rivalry

What Russia did in Crimea is "the stuff of the Cold War," Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a call with reporters back in March.

"It's possible that what is going on now in the invasion of Crimea by Russia means that great power rivalry is back with us," he said. But "I don't think we're there yet."

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks past U.S. President Barack Obama during a group photo at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg in September of 2013. Russia and the U.S. are at odds over Ukraine and other issues and questions have been raised recently about whether a new Cold War is underway or on the horizon. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters )

Obama hesitates to use the Cold War label because it could then lay the groundwork for certain policy decisions, says Robert Legvold, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and a specialist in Russia and post-Soviet states.

He disagrees with other observers who say this isn't a new Cold War, and in a recent essay in the journal Foreign Affairs he laid out the case for why the collapse in relations between Russia and the West deserves the description.

In an interview with CBC News Legvold said the Ukraine crisis was "the tipping point" that pushed already tense relations over the edge.

One of the big irritants leading up to that was Russia providing asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency whistleblower wanted in the U.S. on charges of espionage and stealing government property.

"It's to underscore the significance of what's happened that I would use a phrase as strong as Cold War," Legvold explained.

Russia and U.S. view each other as enemies

For some observers, the absence of an arms race or ideological competition are reasons for believing this is not a new Cold War. Poor relations don't necessarily equal a Cold War-like antagonism in other words. 

For Legvold, the basis of his position is that the U.S. and Russia are now treating each other as enemies, whereas in recent years they were neither friend nor foe, he said.

"These are major players in international politics, and when they define their relationship as fundamentally adversarial that becomes the starting point for thinking of a Cold War," he argues.

In his Brussels speech, Obama said that the U.S. is not seeking a conflict with Russia and that it is in America's interest for Russia to be a strong state, not a weak one. But Legvold doesn't see many actions to match those words.

"We're not spending very much time thinking about what might possibly be common ground. We're thinking about all the ways in which we need to simply defeat the other side. That's very characteristic of the original Cold War," he said.

The New York Times reported in April, right after Russia's annexation of Crimea, that Obama has essentially written off Putin, and is looking to apply an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.

That would involve restricting Russia's political and economic ties to the international community and isolating it as much as possible, while maintaining a minimal relationship that would allow the two countries to still work together on, for example, negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, or disarming Syria.

For its part, the Obama administration insists its current sanctions and hard line against Moscow is only in reaction to a specific incident — Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

But that is not how at least some in Russia see it. Several media outlets reported Wednesday that senior parliamentarian Alexei Pushkov, chair of the foreign relations committee, wrote on Twitter: "Obama won't go into history as a peacemaker — everyone has already forgotten about his Nobel Peace Prize — but as the U.S. president who started a new Cold War."


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