international analysis and commentary

From Cold War to Cyber War: The future of US-Russia relations


Twenty-five years have now passed since the 1991 Christmas when George H. W. Bush announced from the Oval Office that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and that the Cold War was over. However, relations between the two superpowers are as tense today as they were before then. As former National Security Advisor and winner of the 2016 Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, Brent Scowcroft, said back in 1989, “the Cold War is not over.”

The “Bush senior” years were the only ones that saw no real tension between the two countries. The apparent idyll ended during President Bill Clinton’s administration when civil war broke out in the Balkans, NATO (in an attempt to adjust to the new post-Cold War world) expanded to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – three former Soviet satellites – and Russia invaded Chechnya.

Ever since, relations between the United States and the Russian Federation have been frustrated either by Russian expansionism (the US perspective) or by NATO expansionism (the Russian perspective). The unlikely “Bromance” between Russian President Vladimir Putin, a firm believer in centralization as key to stabilization, and former US President George W. Bush, a staunch supporter of democracy promotion, was over in 2008 when the latter opened up to admitting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the former responded by invading Georgia.

When constitutional term limits forced Putin to step aside, the newly-elected Obama administration saw the election of Dmitry Medvedev as an opportunity for a “reset” in US-Russia relations. The White House believed the new leader was much more liberal, open to the West and therefore easier to negotiate with compared to his mentor and Prime Minister. At first, the reset seemed possible. The Kremlin even allowed NATO troops to pass through its territory into Afghanistan and agreed to a new nuclear stockpile reduction treaty.

These renewed cooperation efforts, overseen by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, were soon over. The 2011 military intervention in Libya under US-led UN resolution 1973, that Medvedev was initially inclined to veto, was framed as protecting civilians but ended with the overthrow and assassination of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi at the hands of rebel forces. As a consequence, the Kremlin came to believe – or at least pretend – that America’s ultimate goal was overthrowing hostile regimes and that Moscow was next. Putin decided it was time for him to run for president again. However, the 2011 elections turned out to be rigged and thousands of Russians took to the streets in protest. Clinton, speaking at a conference in Lithuania, backed the protesters declaring in a statement that “the Russian people (…) deserve fair, free, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.” Following the statement, Putin accused the State Department of inciting and even funding the demonstrators, and of attempting to manipulate the Russian presidential elections. It was not long before he returned the favor.

During Obama’s second term in office, Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and bombed rebels and civilians in the Syrian civil war. The country has also been accused of provoking maneuvers directed against a US warship in the Baltic seas and a US aircraft in international space. It deployed ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad (agitating Poland and Lithuania) and expelled US diplomats from the country. And last but not least, Russia stands accused of launching cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton in order to help Donald Trump win the presidency and of disseminating online propaganda aimed at discrediting the American election process. These accusations are extremely alarming.

As former National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden made clear in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. in October “a foreign intelligence service getting the internal political emails of a major political party of a major foreign adversary” is nothing new. It is simply “honorable state espionage.”

This goes for the disinformation campaign as well. During the Cold War influence operations were the norm. The digital era has only provided a new and more effective way to conduct them. As The New York Times reported in August, the Kremlin now “lacks the economic strength and overall might to openly confront NATO, the European Union or the United States” and has resorted once again to “dezinformatsiya”, which in Russian means disinformation. According to US investigations, not only did the Russian government direct cyberattacks against the DNC, Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta, and publicly release their emails with the help of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, it also spread misinformation via Sputnik and RT, two Russian government-controlled media outlets (and apparently through Facebook and Google as well). This misinformation then made its way to Republican presidential nominee and now President-elect Donald Trump who fed it to the American public.

Throughout the campaign, the real estate mogul and his campaign staff (who keep denying any contact with the Russians and dismissing allegations of Russian interference in the election) made repeated use of altered stolen documents released by Sputnik. Particularly telling is the case of the false Blumenthal story. According to Sputnik, Sidney Blumenthal, a person close to Hillary Clinton, had confessed in an email to John Podesta that the 2012 attack on the US State Department’s facility in Benghazi, Libya – that killed US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a State Department officer and two CIA agents – was “preventable”. It turned out that the email had been manipulated by the Russians and the article quickly disappeared from Sputnik. This did not prevent Donal Trump from reading it aloud during one of his rallies.

It is therefore no surprise that following Donald Trump’s victory, Putin said he was ready to “restore fully fledged relations with the US.” However, as many analysts predict, this is not likely to lead to normalization in US-Russia relations. Alexei Venediktov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia’s Echo of Moscow radio, said “Putin doesn’t like unpredictability and Trump is the definition of unpredictability.” The former KGB agent, like the rest of the world will probably go into “a period of studying,” as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it in a recent interview in The Atlantic. He will then try to take advantage of the situation and of his adversary. Trump’s apparent dismissal of NATO, for example, is not likely to reassure Russia or prevent it from future incursions into Latvia or Lithuania.

However, for now “the seat (of President of the United States) is still taken.”

President Obama has ordered the intelligence community to conduct a “full review” of the hacking and both he and his administration have repeatedly warned that Russia expects a counteroffensive. This alone is evidence that the ongoing cyber war has clearly become a new form of Cold War.