By Ian Bremmer *
Given Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the imposition of US and European sanctions, and the potential for more escalation in Ukraine, we are witnessing the most important geopolitical events since 9/11. Developments in Ukraine mark a tipping point. Relations between Washington and Moscow were already strained. With Russia now suspended from the G8 and more sanctions likely, relations are now fully broken. Various forms of East-West conflict are inevitable, with implications for Europe’s security, Russia’s stability, the future of the EU and NATO, and global energy markets.
But though tensions are here to stay and will probably get worse, this is not a new Cold War, nor will it become one. There are several reasons why.
First, Russia has neither powerful friends nor the power to win new ones. When the UN General Assembly voted on the legitimacy of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, just 10 countries sided with Russia. Support came from neighbors that Russia can coerce (Armenia and Belarus) and rogue states without international influence (Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe). Throw in traditionally sympathetic Latin Americans (Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua) and it’s clear that Russia lacks the Soviet Union’s ideological appeal: its allies are more aligned in their distaste for the established global order than in any alternative organizing principle that Russia can offer.
In addition, Russia’s GDP grew by just 1.3% last year and its increasing dependence on exported natural resources ensures that growth won’t improve without an unlikely spike in global energy prices. In 2007, Russia needed a Brent oil price of $34 per barrel to balance its federal budget; five years later, that figure stood at $117. Last year, oil and gas comprised about half of Russia’s government revenue. Making matters worse, Russia’s economy is controlled by a small elite that depends on Putin’s favor. More than one-third of Russia’s total household wealth is in the hands of the country’s richest 110 people.
Despite its nuclear weapons, which are subject to the same rules of mutually assured destruction that bound US and Soviet weapons, Russia also lacks the Soviet Union’s military capability. Today, the United States spends about eight times the amount Russia can provide for its military. Russia has the muscle to make mischief for its neighbors, but it cannot project power on a Cold War scale.
But Russia’s greatest limitation is China’s unwillingness to become a reliable anti-Western ally. Beijing has little to gain from choosing sides in this conflict. Though it certainly hopes to buy more of Russia’s energy exports, China has no incentive to antagonize its largest trade partners (the EU and US) in favor of Moscow. In fact, China is the biggest (perhaps only) winner from the ongoing Ukraine crisis. As Europe spends money to relieve its dependence on Russian energy, the Chinese know they can then drive a harder bargain on price, while maintaining pragmatic relations with all sides. China also benefits from intensified US focus on Eastern Europe rather than East Asia. China will tread carefully when it comes to Russia’s bid to provoke secession crises inside Ukraine, since it opposes any precedent that might provoke similar demand for autonomy in restive Chinese provinces like Tibet and Xinjiang.
Short of Cold War, Russia can try to scuttle Western foreign policy plans. Russia can encourage Bashar Assad’s government in Syria to ignore Western demands to destroy or hand over its chemical weapons. It can provide Assad with more financial and military support. Yet, Assad has already gained enough ground to survive Syria’s civil war, and there is little Russia can do to put that broken country back together again. Russia can also try to play the spoiler role in negotiations over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program. But it won’t be easy for Moscow to persuade Tehran to back away from a deal that Iran wants as a means of rebuilding its domestic economy, and Russia doesn’t want a Middle East nuclear arms race that takes place much closer to Russia than to the United States. In short, Russia remains a regional power, though President Obama doesn’t help matters by publicly pointing that out.
Yet, though this is not a new Cold War, that’s not all good news. The Western-Soviet conflict imposed an international order that made global politics relatively more predictable. In a world that has suffered the worst US financial meltdown in 70 years, an existential crisis in the Eurozone, turmoil across North Africa and the Middle East, a rising tide of public unrest in emerging market countries, and now a dangerous East-West standoff over Ukraine—all in the past six years—a bit of predictability might be welcome.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and a global research professor at New York University. You may follow him on Twitter @ianbremmer.