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Cold War 2.0 

January 2023: ‘No plan survives contact’ is a popular aphorism among military commanders. It could well apply to political leaders, and President Putin is no exception, says Robert Hall. 

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Image: Adobe Stock | Alvaroc

Putin expected to overrun Ukraine quickly, starting with the capital Kyiv, and impose Russian hegemony across the whole country without much of a fight. Joseph Stalin tried the same ploy by waging the Winter War against Finland in 1939.

Plan A, however, has not worked as well as Putin had hoped; Stalin's plan has also failed. Today’s Russian leader has been forced to revert to the classic land tactics of attrition with artillery barrages and trench warfare over restricted areas. This form of conflict was considered outdated by many military practitioners, who saw technology and the use of hybrid asymmetrical techniques as the modern ways of fighting and winning wars. Rather, those same practitioners are having to rethink the old style of land warfare with logistics as a higher priority.

Putin’s Plan B, which has long been in his toolbox, has much wider repercussions. His long-term ambition is the resurrection of the Russian-speaking lands of the former Soviet Union and the expansion of its communist ideology; he can now see a path to achieving this by non-military means. At the same time, he can go on ravaging Ukraine for as long as he chooses, albeit with limited gains and growing internal dangers.

The severe impact of the Ukrainian war on the world’s economies, particularly in the energy and food sectors, coupled with inflationary pressures and workers’ unrest, has presented Putin with an opportunity to weaken Western democracies and advance Russian autocracy sooner than he previously thought possible. Patience by Putin and his entourage (if allowed) is now needed in his classic game of chess, with the expectation that the West will lose more and more pieces. A long, cold winter will be in his favour. He simply has no incentive to end the war in Ukraine.

Samuel P. Huntington wrote a seminal work in 1997 titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In this work, the author predicted that clashes between civilisations were the greatest threat to world peace; he correctly identified one civilisational fault line dividing eastern and western Ukraine. Since the book was published a quarter of a century ago, we are witnessing a clash between Russia’s views of the world (as interpreted by Putin) and the Western international order created at the end of Cold War 1.0.

It is now a clash between Russian orthodoxy and liberal democracy. Other parties favourable to Putin’s cause – China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, etc – help make the clash even more significant through rejection or resentment of liberal values. With countries like India and others in the global south sitting on the fence, in spite of the fundamental principle of territorial integrity at stake, it means that the majority of people in the world live in countries that do not support Western sanctions on Russia. The ideological clash provides the basis for Cold War 2.0 with Russia and others, or at least an end to any hope of any global liberal order.

It would not take much – and some threads are becoming apparent – for the liberal democracies squeezed by economic pressures to fragment and allow darker forces to enter. Political leadership to counter the ominous threat may grow weaker, and support for Ukraine could well soften as the costs of the war escalate over time. Under Article 5, NATO will continue to be confined to defending its own members’ borders from direct attack, even though those members are suffering from deleterious indirect assaults on their living standards. Quite simply, Putin does not need to attack but rather undermine his opponents from within by tightening the all-important energy screws. This will continue until alternative energy flows come on stream in the West. So there is an opportunity for Putin to realise his long-term objective and achieve favourable terms for Russia, especially with the removal of far-reaching Western sanctions. Cold War 2.0 means we in the West grow cold as Putin warms his hands.

Even if the land battles in Ukraine are won, the war could be lost unless the resilience in the Western nations is further stiffened in the face of hardships. National resilience and resistance, demonstrated admirably by the Ukrainians, need to be matched by equally robust societal and organisational resilience in the West – a hard ask when the shells are not yet falling on Paris or London. Societal resilience has been partially enhanced with the economic help from national exchequers to overcome winter and inflationary pressures. Yet, more help will surely be needed in the year ahead.

The squeeze will become intense for many. It would be helpful if Western leaders (and NATO) treated the situation as a clash of civilisations that went beyond traditional boundaries. Perhaps it is time for NATO to consider a wider security interpretation. Out-of-area commitments have occurred in both Afghanistan and Kosovo (where NATO came face-to-face with Russians), but the stakes are higher this time and the necessity more geopolitical. The Russo-Ukrainian war is, in effect, a war of potentially global proportions. George Soros, at the World Economic Forum 2022, said the Ukrainian invasion may be "the beginning of the Third World War, and our civilisation may not survive it."

The perilous situation demands a degree of leadership that can motivate and mobilise populations in a wider collective effort to resist disruption and strengthen resilience for the greater good. National resilience is an understated but vital centripetal component of keeping people together while resisting destructive centrifugal forces. Internationally, new forms of multilateral co-operation and shared responsibility are urgently required to avoid further retrenchment. If we and other liberal democracies do not up our game, then the warnings of Huntington and Soros may turn out to be prophetic as Putin and his fellow autocrats become more pernicious.

Robert Hall is an independent consultant on resilience. He was the Executive Director of Resilience First (2018–2022). He is the author of a forthcoming book titled Building Resilience Futures.

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