New Delhi: Russia says a new Cold War is in the offing. The context is provided by the tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats by the West and by Russia following the attempted murder of a former Soviet double agent and his daughter in the United Kingdom. The Cold War derives its distinct identity from the ideological hostility and rivalry between the East and the West and covers the decades between the end of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. What’s unfolding today is not the orthodox Cold War but an unconventional version whose understanding is necessary to contain tensions. It was hoped that the end of the Soviet Union would inaugurate an era of global peace and order with Russia playing an important and even central role. That has not happened. Why that has not has to be investigated, and global powers unfortunately are devoting little to no attention to this.

Most students of Russian history have reached the uncomforting conclusion that the October Revolution did not fundamentally alter traditional Russian authoritarianism that came to be led by the Tsars and later by the Bolshevists. Soviet Russia’s descent into chaos first under Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin was made possible by the absence of democratic institutions and the moderating and stabilizing forces of the market. The West did not gain the confidence of ordinary Russians by taking advantage of the disarrangement and rushing in to plunder. In reaction to the hopelessness generated by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Russians turned to the national security establishment as a last resort, and it readily provided Vladimir Putin. The Russian Orthodox Church has also played a role in Russian exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is usually used in the context of US foreign policy. But its chief characteristics apply to Russian geopolitics as well. The United States may claim to intervene abroad to preserve democracy, the market economy, the rule of law, human rights and so forth which make it in its eyes an exceptional global power. Russia could as well claim exceptionalism for a different set of political, economic and moral objectives. The one thing that sets it quite apart is its Orthodox Church. Church issues have affected Russia’s relations with the rest of the world for long. Orthodox Church grievances lay at the core of the Crimean War, for example, and it was no accident that a Catholic power, France, rallied Western Europe to ally with Turkey against Russia. The Catholic Church was also a thorn in Soviet Russia’s side from the first days of the Revolution. Roman Catholic Church appointments during the Cold War going up to the Pope were in definite measure influenced by East-West rivalry. The Polish uprising during the Cold War had Catholic roots. By the same token, Vladimir Putin commands the unqualified support of the Orthodox Church in his jousts with the West.

The simple point is this. Russia’s rivalry with the West goes beyond the present and even past the dark decades of the Cold War. It is scarcely an accident that two Western military adventurers, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, considered Russia as cardinal to their ambitions of world dominion. In counter, Russia pursed Napoleon to Paris and Hitler to Berlin. The West may make light of this history but they are dear to Russians. When Putin plays upon the average Russian’s fear of an expansionary West, he doesn’t have to try too hard. The eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union instigate the worst horrors of encirclement in the Kremlin, which then matches it with misadventures like the annexation of the Crimea and the de facto partition of Ukraine. All this may not amount to a Cold War because the conditions and the circumstances have dramatically changed. Effectively, China is the number two global power after the United States and not Russia. The Russian economy is a tenth of the United States’ and of Western Europe as a whole. If not a Cold War, the situation may add up to a Cold War-lite, and it is definitely tilted against Russia: On most parameters, that is, except one. Militarily, Russia has lost none of its pugnacity. It is challenging the West and especially the United States to a greater degree than during the Cold War. Its foreign interventions are rapid and purposeful. In the strategic military realm, Russia is somewhat able to compensate for its economic backwardness. It is not clear how Cold War-lite will end or even whether it will end at all without previously blowing up the world in a thermonuclear tragedy.

Wars prosecuted without political objectives are peculiarly dangerous because they could be waged for dreadfully long periods and still not produce clear winners. World War I is a good example. Anything could have set it off besides the Archduke’s assassination. Cold War-lite is taking on that character. Russia is not wrong to demand proof of its involvement in the murderous attack on one of its former agents. The West, however, has no patience for the niceties of forensics and has adjudged Russia guilty without trial. The diplomatic expulsions on all sides marginally exceed the numbers at the height of the Cold War. It is Russia versus the West all over again, and it has the look of turning ugly. History is repeating itself without the option of farce.