Why This Is Not a “New Cold War”

by Marcus Andreopoulos

Vladimir Putin meeting with Joe Biden via videoconference

24 February 2022 marked the commencement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The decision made plain that Putin has no regard for international law, Ukraine’s sovereignty, or the will of the Ukrainian people. But it has also taught us that the autocrat does not fear the US as much as previous Russian and Soviet leaders did. 

This newfound confidence stems from a recently expressed American unwillingness to fight for democratic values in foreign lands. A shift in the way that Washington conducts its foreign policy and interacts with other nations has presented an opportunity for those not inclined to abide by the rules of the international community to enact their imperialist desires on neighbouring states. This perception has been compounded since the US concluded its withdrawal from Afghanistan on 30 August 2021, an event that signals a fundamental contradiction to the values that drove them during the Cold War. 

The “New Cold War” label that has been lazily attributed to US-Russia relations in light of the unfolding war in Ukraine offers a flawed comparison. The parallels between the current political climate and that of the Cold War pale in comparison to the substantial differences that exist between them. After all, inherent in the notion of a “New Cold War” is the replication, or at least resemblance, of the foreign policies exercised by the two major powers. By appearing to give up on democracy in Afghanistan and standing idly by whilst China threatens Taiwan’s very existence, the US is emboldening Putin and Xi rather than threatening them into submission. 

Borodianka, Kyiv Oblast, April 6, 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak

At the height of the Cold War, US foreign policy was dictated by the strategy of containment and a determination to prevent countries from succumbing to Soviet influence and falling, like “dominos,” to communism. Now, in an era of “strategic competition,” different agendas and global circumstances have meant that the US is more reluctant to overstretch itself on global affairs, enabling old rivals and emerging powers to take centre stage. There is growing hope among Washington’s key adversaries that American hesitancy will allow them to tear nation after nation from democracy and plunge them into a new dark age of brutal despotism, medieval theocracies, and puppet dictatorships.

Contrasting Cold War containment 

Theorised by American diplomat George F. Kennan, the US policy of containment represented President Truman’s—and his successors’—best hopes at combating the Soviet threat to their east. It was the product of a time in which neither the US nor the USSR wished to engage in direct conflict. Unable to deal militarily with the Soviets, the US opted instead to “contain”’ Soviet influence, and thus communism, within Soviet borders. The strategy sought to prevent communist thought from permeating into neighbouring countries and posing a danger to life in the West. The reality was not as simple as this, however, and a major flaw in this thinking was that it denied agency to the populations that openly welcomed communist regimes, such as that of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Yet, the US remained prepared for intervention in foreign nations to restrict Soviet expansion and “uphold the political order that represented the ideals of the Western hemisphere.”

This mindset stands in stark contrast to the policies pursued by both the Trump and Biden administrations since 2016. Whilst Trump did authorise drone strikes in Syria and oversee the targeted assassination of Iranian Commander Qassim Suleimani in Iraq, he was also the first president since the late 1970s to not enter the US into any “new conflicts.” This trend has been maintained in the first two years of the Biden administration, who, rather than initiate any new conflicts, has rather infamously brought an end to “the longest war in American history.” A lack of new wars is certainly a welcome change in the nation’s history, but it also demonstrates a shift in approach to how the US seeks to respond to new global challenges. Instead of adopting a firm stance against nations that perpetuate autocracy, Biden is showing a willingness to cooperate with opposing powers “in areas where they have overlapping interests.” US foreign policy is no longer driven by the intent to defeat ideologies that are antagonistic to those in the West. 

The desire to eradicate the Soviet Union and what it represented, on the other hand, was rampant during the 1950s. Cold War hysteria dominated daily life in the United States. Seeping down from the top of the American political establishment, fears of communism penetrating the country were rife and contributed to a hardening of anti-communist thought at all levels of society. This was felt amongst the key decision makers of the Truman administration, and with Korea teetering on the edge of civil war, coupled with the potential of further Soviet expansion on the cards, a unanimous decision to intervene was made “in the political and military councils of government.” As troops prepared to mobilise, a clear, ideological message was also being deployed—one that declared should any nation fall victim to the USSR’s hostile expansionism, then the US is prepared to fight on its behalf in the name of democratic values. American troops were thus deployed to Korea, just five years after the conclusion of the Second World War, in an attempt to “freeze the Soviet Union out” of the country. 

A US Army artillery crew fires a 105-millimeter howitzer against North Korean Communist positions during the Korean War

This collective appetite within the country for US intervention abroad does not reflect the general feeling among Americans today. The distaste for long, drawn-out wars has contributed to a gradual reduction in the US global footprint, with the majority of Americans supporting the Afghanistan withdrawal—although not supporting the manner in which it unfolded. It is therefore understandable that large portions of the US population would prefer a shift in focus away from the international landscape in favour of internal affairs, as the country is so divided domestically. Reflecting public opinion, US interventionism appears to be slowing down, presenting Moscow and Beijing with a window of opportunity to increase their global footprint. 

By the time the war in Korea had concluded in July 1953, American interventionism was just getting started. US Cold War foreign policy was enhanced with the addition of the so-called “domino theory.” Introduced into US political discourse by President Eisenhower on 7 April 1954, it described how the US feared communism would spread throughout the Indochina region—if one country fell, then the others would subsequently follow suit. The theory complimented that of containment and amplified the rampant anxiety and desperation felt by most Americans, despite having been able to confine Soviet influence and communism to the North of Korea. Of course, the Korean war was by no means a success on the part of the US, but a far greater failure was on the horizon—one that would be driven by the increasingly frenetic nature of Cold War foreign policy. 

Spurred on by the fear of witnessing countries fall like dominos, the US stood ready to pounce in Asia. In fact, the Americans were not only engaging militarily, but even had propaganda agents sent “to produce films that were more than just entertaining and could draw audiences away from Communist influence” in some parts of the continent. Yet by 1955, more than a simple film and TV crew would be required to take on communism in Vietnam. The Vietnam war spanned nearly twenty years, was overseen by five US presidents, and resulted in almost 60,000 American casualties—and yet it was a resounding defeat for the US, who retreated, having failed to repel the communist forces out of the country. What kept three Republican and two Democratic administrations invested in such a widely unpopular conflict was, once more, “American resolve to build a global democratic bulwark against communism.” Washington had to ensure that their adversaries in the East knew that they would go to extreme lengths to protect all members of the international community from what they perceived to be such a poisonous ideology.

Soldiers of the fourth US Marine Regiment patrol the demilitarized zone in Vietnam as a Marine Corps “Huey” helicopter passes overhead, July 10, 1967

The manner in which the US was able to move from conflict to conflict in the hope of repelling Soviet influence during the Cold War is not possible today with Russia. Throughout the Cold War, trade with the Soviet Union was insignificant and allowed the US and other Western nations to aggressively oppose Soviet backed regimes all over the world, without the fear of economic repercussions. This has changed substantially in recent history with Russia becoming the European Union’s fifth largest trade partner in 2021. With this increase in trade came a dependence on Russian gas, especially among some EU states like Germany and Italy. The current conflict is also revealing the extent to which the global market is dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat production, with Egypt experiencing shortages as a result of the war. With economies increasingly intertwined, the US is finding it far more difficult to respond harshly to Russian aggression for fear of exacerbating the crisis for its allies and other members of the international community. At the end of the 1970s, however, with distinctly isolated economies, the US and the USSR were preparing for their final proxy war before the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

On 24 December 1979, the Soviet Union entered neighbouring Afghanistan in an attempt “to shore up the newly-established pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.” Unlike in Vietnam, however, things did not play out as smoothly for the USSR. Surprised by the levels and intensity of the US and Pakistani backed resistance to their occupation, and reeling from significant military losses, the Soviets gave up attempts to sustain their operation in Afghanistan and were ultimately defeated by April 1988, withdrawing entirely by February 1989. The conclusion of the Afghan excursion came just two years prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, a fact that many notable mujahideen fighters used as a powerful and symbolic rallying cry for the next two decades.  

Mujahideen fighters in Kunar, Afghanistan, 1987

The loss in Afghanistan and the disintegration of the Soviet Union left deep scars for Russia which remain to this day. The deficiencies of US foreign policy during the Cold War were exhibited most distinctly by the fall of Saigon; however, America’s commitment to restricting the spread of communism during this period limited the Soviet Union’s ability to expand its sphere of influence. It demonstrated, albeit rather clumsily, that the US would vehemently oppose all efforts to spread an ideology that was deemed contradictory to their own values. Whilst US determination to fight communism at every opportunity had not prevented Leonid Brezhnev from initiating a military operation in Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviet Union’s failure to survive in the aftermath of defeat suggested that they were ultimately unable to overcome US resolve. This American persistence to impose its own virtues over those of the USSR underpinned the perception of the US among other countries during the Cold War. It was not until the 2021 abandonment of Afghanistan that an explicit example of America’s shift in approach was presented to Russia, shattering the image that the US had been cultivating throughout the twentieth century. 

Abandoning Afghanistan

Ukraine has long been an obsession of Vladimir Putin’s. Since the Russia-friendly government was supplanted by the Ukrainian masses during the 2014 Maidan Revolution, Putin has been determined to undermine Ukraine’s democratically elected leaders, whether through the annexation of Crimea or the sponsorship of separatist movements in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Between 2014 and the start of 2022, Russia had been pushing ever closer to conflict with Ukraine, a nation that has long had its very existence denied by Putin. Therefore, it is possible that Putin would have eventually escalated tensions into military conflict regardless of whether or not the US remained in Afghanistan. But the relevance of the Western retreat is undeniable and likely factored into the calculus of those in the Kremlin, whose main takeaway would have been that the US appeared weak, disheartened, and unprepared to deal with another foreign conflict so soon. American disengagement with historic foes on foreign battlefields therefore made Putin’s decision to initiate his “special military operation” considerably easier, safe in the assurance that Russia would almost certainly not face military repercussions.

Putin giving during a celebration marking the anniversary of Crimea’s so-called “reunification with Russia” at the Luzhniki Sports Centre in Moscow, March 18, 2022

Whether or not one views the invasion of Afghanistan as warranted, there is a consensus that the objectives established in October 2001 did not mirror those that maintained the US presence in the country for two decades. The US had initially set out to “destroy al-Qaeda, topple the Taliban,” and eliminate Osama bin Laden, but they remained in Afghanistan long after each of these goals had seemingly been met, constantly establishing new aims in the process. In fact, for the next 20 years, American and NATO forces remained in the country with a changed purpose of building up Afghan civil society in the face of the Taliban’s insurgency. But this project was abruptly cut short. 

The February 2020 Doha agreement opened a Pandora’s box for the Americans and their approach to future foreign intervention, the effects of which have manifested themselves in the current Ukraine crisis. Among other things, it pledged that the Taliban would “prevent terrorism, renounce al-Qaeda and prevent that group or others from using Afghan soil to plot attacks on the US or its allies.” Crucially, it also revealed that the US would no longer engage militarily with those that possessed an ideology so inherently incompatible with that of their own. Biden certainly inherited the dangerous ramifications of the Doha deal, but he was not handcuffed by them, and they were “not irreversible” had the new president deemed them inappropriate. Instead, Biden pushed ahead with a complete Western withdrawal, and the chaotic nature of the evacuation coupled with 13 US and over 100 Afghan fatalities⁠—following an IS-KP attack at Kabul Airport⁠—tainted the image of the US as defenders of the free world. Even allies of the US were left “shocked and angered” by Biden’s decision to abandon the country.  

A US Marine escorts a Department of State employee to be processed for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as part of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, August 15, 2021. Photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell

Biden’s unilateral decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was made without an adequate plan in place to keep the Taliban from returning to power. This created the perception that the US would no longer use sustained military intervention as a means of reaffirming its own values within other countries. According to Leon Panetta, who served as the US Secretary of State during the war in Afghanistan, Putin “assumed weakness on the part of the United States” as a result of this decision, and “took advantage of it by invading Ukraine.”

The retreat, coupled with US foreign policy changes under the current president and his predecessor, also suggested that America would be reluctant to engage in similarly protracted conflicts in the future. This represents a marked shift from the past, where such tactics had been adopted to portray an image of the US as defenders of global democracy. Of course, US involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup, which saw the democratically elected communist, prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh replaced by monarchical rule, as well as the 1973 ousting of Chile’s communist president Salvador Allende in favour of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, suggested that for the US, democracy was secondary to the more important objective of installing anti-communist regimes globally. Nonetheless, America’s disgraced exit from Afghanistan still demonstrated a move away from such interventionism and arguably gave Putin a “green light” to accelerate his machinations for Ukraine. 

Opportunity calls for Putin and Xi

The nature of the US-led withdrawal of Afghanistan has damaged American credibility in the eyes of its fiercest adversaries, and may have played on the mind of Putin as he calculated his move in Ukraine. Russia was also likely emboldened following its 2008 invasion of Georgia, when it was met with little opposition from the Western world, and again when weak Western sanctions were introduced after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, Washington’s preoccupation with the then-unfolding War on Terror must be recognised. In 2008, the hunt for Osama bin Laden was yet to reach its conclusion, and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan still raged on. As for 2014, the rise of ISIS and the Syrian war dominated the foreign policy of the Obama administration, leaving less room for firm reprisal against Russia. The US had not provided any evidence that they had given up on exporting their projected values by this point, especially considering that they still maintained a democratically elected government in Afghanistan.

Such evidence does now exist, and Putin’s gamble in Ukraine will test to what extent the US is willing to present themselves as the defenders of global democracy. We have already seen the US supplying considerable amounts of defensive weaponry and munitions to support Ukraine, and the country’s defence has managed to disrupt Russia’s hopes of a swift invasion. But one must question whether the damage to the established international order has already been done. Putin may have invaded Ukraine irrespective of any changes in American foreign policy, but the fact is that the invasion followed a substantial shift in other countries’ perceptions of the US created in part by Washington abandoning its commitment to Afghanistan.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy visiting Bucha, where Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians, April 4, 2022

With a reduced public and administrative desire for foreign conflict and a changed economic landscape, the current crisis in Ukraine does not resemble one of the many proxy conflicts fought during the Cold War. Despite the adversaries remaining similar, this comparison lacks a thorough understanding of the change in approach that has been adopted by US presidents since 2016. The US-led withdrawal of Afghanistan serves as the most pertinent demonstration of the shift in US foreign policy from the Cold War period. After all, Biden’s decision-making inadvertently allowed designated terrorists to return to power in Kabul. The US is now in a precarious position where it must tread carefully to avoid appearing weak and inspiring a mirroring of events in East Asia with Xi Jinping and Taiwan.

Marcus Andreopoulos is a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation and a member of the production and research team for DEEP Dive, a podcast series from NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP).