Trudy Rubin: Report from Moscow: Not the Cold War, not WWIII: What to look for from Russia

MOSCOW — Is the United States embroiled in a new Cold War with Russia? Are we on the verge of World War III?

As Washington imposes new economic sanctions on Moscow and the two countries barely missed a confrontation in Syria, these questions are being debated as hotly here as in America.

After a week in Moscow and conversations with several Russian foreign-policy analysts, I think the answer to both questions is negative. Yet this new era in which Russia is still trying to determine its role holds risks that make one yearn for the old Cold War.

“The real Cold War was dangerous, no doubt,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, “but at the end of the day, especially after the Cuban missile crisis, both sides knew exactly what red lines couldn’t be crossed.”

During that period, Moscow and Washington were the two preeminent global actors, with enormous coercive power. “Now, there are so many new actors,” notes Lukyanov. Meantime, longtime global institutions and alliances are crumbling, often expedited by Donald Trump.

“Who could have imagined that North Korea would become a major global player?” Lukyanov asks. “Or that Trump would act as if there were no NATO or that Europe would no longer have strategic significance?”

Or, I’d add, that China would become a major international player.

“Multipolarity is here,” Lukyanov notes, “which means a high degree of chaos and uncertainty based on decisions by individual leaders.”

In this new multipolar world, the term Cold War is passe. “We are in a hybrid war, a successor to the Cold War,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “But don’t call it Cold War 2.0; otherwise you will confuse things.”

America and Russia are jousting on new battlefields — information space, cyberspace, economic battles.

“Classic military means are largely unusable,” says Lukyanov, “so other means become more central.”

What then is one to make of Vladimir Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, or his venture in Syria? Or of the Russian leader’s state of the nation speech March 1, in which he touted a slew of supposedly new nuclear weapons, complete with a promotional video showing an allegedly undetectable cruise missile landing in Florida?

Ukraine and Russia were special cases, says Lukyanov, where Putin was determined to prevent what he viewed as U.S. efforts at regime change (never mind that both featured genuine democratic uprisings). Neither model, he says, is likely to be repeated, especially since Russia’s proxy war in eastern Ukraine failed to deliver the expected benefits.

As for the video, Lukyanov claims it was aimed more at the United States than at electrifying the home audience. Putin wanted to send Washington a message that it is time to return to strategic arms talks, before current treaties soon expire.

Yet it appears Putin’s military ventures were also inspired by a willingness to seize targets of opportunity and move forward where there would apparently be no opposition from NATO or Western nations. Putin is a risk-taker and has the power to move quickly.

With a stagnant economy, low oil prices, and new U.S. sanctions, the Russian leader is unlikely to invest in more military actions that would overstretch Russian capacity. Russia’s clear disinclination to respond to last week’s U.S. military strike in Syria shows Putin wants to avoid a direct military clash.

Note: A new Russian poll on April 15 shows that trust levels in Putin have dropped from 58.9 percent in January to 48.5 percent; other studies show that, while Russians endorse the idea of a strong motherland, they don’t want “real” war — i.e., a clash of nations with nuclear weapons.

So, if World War III is not in the offing and the old Cold War is dead, what is Putin’s foreign-policy strategy?

Some analysts here insist he seeks recognition as America’s equal, a desire born of the psychology of his generation that still sees the world in terms of a U.S.-Russian divide.

But others argue Putin is trying multiple approaches — hybrid war — to burnish Russian’s international image in a world where he thinks the United States is on the decline. “He expects the United States to gradually lose its hegemonous position in the world, and as it does, there are plenty of opportunities,” says Lukyanov.

Over and over I was told that the Kremlin never expected the Russian election trolling to have the impact it did in the United States. It was just one arrow in the quiver. Ditto for trolling European elections, which didn’t bring great results.

In other words, in the post-Cold War era, the Kremlin will poke and prod where there is no resistance, and pull back where there is.

Right now, Moscow is pushing hard for a summit with Trump, insisting he promised one in a recent phone call. No doubt Putin sees Trump as yet another a target of opportunity. Buyer beware.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.