As the Russia/Ukraine conflict has grown, a number of western commentators have reacted in horror, fearful of a new cold war and the great step backward that it might bring. This standpoint needs examining in some detail, as its assumptions are not at all obvious.
In the first place there is a rather awkward elephant in the room: the last cold war didn’t do Russia very much good. In fact it could be argued to have brought about regime change, one from which Putin ultimately benefited, but which would not see the same winners and losers this time round. Incumbents do not emerge well from these things. Another cold war would not be greeted favourably by a populace that has grown in prosperity and which hovers on the edge of becoming a consumer society. Sanctions have already created a mini run on banks, with cash as the preferred financial holding. Although Russia has built up a strong level of reserves, these can easily be depleted if the public mood remains one of pessimism. None of this is likely to improve Putin’s deteriorating public approval rating.
Western strategy at this time involves some delicate calculations. Perhaps the trickiest is the process of gauging the point at which Putin’s kleptocratic inner circle might be prepared to abandon support for him. This is not an easy topic for public discussion: turning those kleptocrats involves an ethical problem that is is likely to inflame Western opinion – to put it plainly, many of those kleptocrats will need to be able to keep a proportion of their illegal gains if they are to play ball and help kick out a president who has facilitated their unreasonable wealth.
The West has surprised Putin with its unity on sanctions, and also their strength. Another miscalculation has been the extent and strength of Ukrainian military resistance, with guerrilla tactics filling the gap where conventional military resistance fails. All of this suggests that a new cold war is highly unlikely to play to Putin’s advantage. Indeed, a detailed examination of the West’s response to Putin’s (oddly old-school) aggression might be interpreted as a subtle attempt to lure Putin’s Russia into into a new cold war it can neither win nor turn to its own advantage.