Not a new Cold War: Great Game II

This is just a short introductory excerpt from a longer piece published on the EthZ International Relations and Security Network (ISN) here.

GreatGameSuddenly the talk is of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, as Crimea is quietly written off as “lost” for the foreseeable future and the diplomatic focus moves to preventing a further—and potentially devastating—move into eastern Ukraine. While an understandable metaphor, though, this is a dangerous one. The Cold War, for all its brinkmanship and proxy conflicts, was a relatively stable and even rules-bound process. Instead, in this new “hot peace,” perhaps a better, if less comfortable analogy would be the Great Game, that (since mythologized) nineteenth-century era of imperial rivalry over Central Asia between Britain and Russia,, the freewheeling nineteenth-century struggle for authority in Central Asia.

One of the particular characteristics of the original Great Game was that there was little real distinction between the instruments of conventional conflict and competition such as wars, diplomatic missions and treaties and those of the informal realm, from subsidized bandit chieftains to third-party intelligence freelancers. Although even during the Cold War there was a place for the mercenary, gangster and assassin this was, it has to be said, very much at the periphery. Even proxy wars fought by irregulars, such as the mujahideen resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Viet Cong in Vietnam, were more-or-less formally acknowledged by their patrons. Now, though, Great Game II is one in which open state actions, deniable missions by state agents and the activities of mercenary agents (from computer hackers to local warlords) blend much more seamlessly. Furthermore, the nature of those operations ranges from military missions and shows of force, through espionage and sabotage, to subversion and misdirection by paid mouthpieces and front companies.

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  1. Thank you Mark for a reminder of both the dangers of the situation, and also perhaps, orf viewing contemporary events through the wrong lenses. The question, of course, is whether those in positions of power are listening, and wearing the correct glasses!

  2. Interesting remarks. I look forward to seeing the whole essay on ISN.

  3. A good analysis – I think the approach used by Russia in terms of undeclared forces / unidentified personnel (call it what you will) suggests a new approach to warfare for states. How do we respond to such challenges if our opponents can use force at will without formally declaring their involvement? I can’t see US or NATO sending ‘green men’ (to use the media term) in. This gives the Russians some important tactical and operational advantages.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  April 13, 2014

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yes, this is the quandary for countries which — for all their willingness to use certain, shall we say, extralegal tactics — do have much more constrained rules of engagement and ability/willingness to take risks. Putin has long benefited from being the one willing to break the rules. If the West cannot play the same game, and I agree that we are not going to see the SAS cropping up in Ukraine, let alone the North Caucasus, any day now, then it has to play to its strengths, not its weaknesses. Sanctions, for all the problems in targeting and applying them, do represent one such instrument. But the key challenge is also one of objective. If the West ‘simply’ wants to prevent any further erosion of Ukraine’s sovereignty, that’s one thing, but if it wants to force Russia to surrender Crimea, then that is essentially committing itself to regime change in the Kremlin, as that’s what it would either take or mean. Messy, and in the meantime yes, Russia has the distinct advantage: I talk more about this @

      • Mark, I think everyone accepts Crimea is gone – but the key question is how to prevent Russia from nibbling away at Ukraine. A failure of the US and NATO / EU to respond strongly in the aftermath of a Russian intervention (I personally think that is what we are beginning to see happen over the last 24 hours) will only encourage Russia to think more ambitiously. Whilst I doubt Russia would be so stupid as to directly threaten the Baltics, how does NATO react if ‘green men’ start appearing in pro-Russian demos in Narva? I think in terms of Ukraine, that NATO military intervention is out of the question for obvious reasons, but NATO has to deter further Russian moves somehow, especially against NATO members. Sanctions may be an immediate option, but do they really cause pain to Moscow that would make it think twice? I don’t think travel bans on certain Russians appear to be having any affect, and more broader economic sanctions will be challenging to make happen. Thats really challenging when half of NATO’s European members are allergic to the idea of sanctions against Moscow. Simply put, the EU is too dependent on Russian energy and trade. That has to change. We don’t have very many good options right now, and that’s because we ignored Russia as an issue for the past 25 years, and certainly since 9-11 where we focused too much on COIN/CT at the expense of major power relations.

  4. I hope your optimism is well placed and Putin is simply consolidating his hold on Crimea. I am worried that he is pushing the Eurasian thing as far as he can and will try over time to regain all the lost territory of the Russian Empire. Never credit leaders with too much brains or a lack of nerve. The west will not intervene in any meaningful way as Russia has nucs. So he will simply keep pushing onwards and ignore the rhetoric. Sanctions hurt the mega corporations so it is a matter of balance and EU has no guts for that either. I am a non-Slavic retired Canadian living in central Ukraine seven years now and married to a formerly “pro-Russian” Ukrainian who to my amazement is turning into a Banderivtsa, she is so angry at Putin.

    • I mean to make clear that my wife is a Russian with Ukrainian citizenship, one of those whom Putin claims he needs to protect. The language issue here is a red herring. Both languages are spoken and media is more Russian than Ukrainian except Ukrainian TV stations

  1. Not a new Cold War
  2. No, Russia isn’t about to invade Finland and Sweden
  3. No, Russia isn’t about to invade Finland and Sweden |
  4. Are Russian Troops Operating in Eastern Ukraine? (Some, probably, but I don’t think that’s really the point)

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