Russia and the West have entered a new Cold War that could lead to growing confrontations across the globe, as Vladimir Putin challenges American international hegemony.
That is the consensus among military and foreign policy experts in Moscow, who have warned that Russia and the West are headed for a standoff as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis.
“If we talk about the last Cold War, we are currently somewhere between the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile crisis,” said Lt Gen Evgeny Buzhinsky, a former head of the Russian ministry of defence’s international treaties department and now head of the PIR centre, a Moscow think tank.
“In other words, teetering on the brink of war, but without the mechanisms to manage the confrontation.”
The Russian foreign ministry on Saturday accused the Obama administration of attempting the “final destruction of relations with Russia”.
Sergei Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister, said Moscow would retaliate in kind if the United States goes ahead with new sanctions against Russia in response to the bombing of Aleppo.
The Telegraph understands the Kremlin has already made a decision to cut off diplomacy at least until after the Nov 8 US elections, in the hope of striking up a more “sincere” relationship with Barack Obama’s successor.
The move came after John Kerry, the US secretary of state, cancelled all coordination over Syria, saying Russia had ripped up months of diplomatic work.
Officials in Moscow say the Americans themselves have frequently reneged on agreed commitments.
Mr Putin made the extent of this new confrontation clear last week when he rebuked a Russian reporter who asked him why relations with Washington had collapsed because of Syria.
“It is not because of Syria. This is about one nation’s attempt to enforce its decisions on the whole world,” he said.
Mr Putin came as near as possible to a formal declaration of “Cold War” on Oct 3, when he cancelled a plutonium reprocessing deal over the United State’s “unfriendly” policies.
“Ripping it up showed how angry we are because it is related to nuclear security, and the conditions attached were a way of saying ‘go to hell’,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia’s council on foreign and defence policy.
Mr Putin’s meeting with Germany’s Angela Merkel and François Hollande, the French president, in Berlin last week may suggest the Kremlin still wants to keep some diplomatic channels with Western governments open.
Russia’s goal, according to a number of military, diplomatic, and political sources in Moscow, is a grand bargain that would overturn what it sees as an unjust post-Cold War settlement.
However, there is little consensus on what such a settlement should look like. Some of Moscow’s publicly stated demands, such as the roll back of Nato, are entirely unacceptable to the West.
Russian experts fear the near-collapse of diplomacy has increased the dangers of a “hot” proxy war or even the nightmare scenario: direct Russian-Western warfare.
Potential flashpoints include the Baltic, where Nato and Russia have accused one another of troop builds, and eastern Ukraine, where Russia continues to supply and direct the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The most dangerous flashpoint is Syria. Bashar al-Assad, the Moscow-allied Syrian president, said last week that the conflict was already turning into a direct US-Russian confrontation.
US ambassador condemns Russia for bombing civilians Play!01:21
Meanwhile, Moscow is moving to extend its influence in the Middle East. Russia has already moved to improve relations with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government in Egypt, sending 500 troops to the country for joint military exercises this week.
There has also been speculation about reopening military bases in Cuba and Vietnam.
Those with knowledge of Russian foreign policy cautioned that Moscow was wary of getting drawn into the kind of expensive friendships it had in the Soviet era.
“In proxy situations, you invest a lot in your clients. They understand you’ve invested a lot, and they understand your motivations more than you understand theirs,” said one academic with knowledge of Russia’s Middle East policy. “That lets them manipulate you.”
Profile | Vladimir Putin
Full name: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
Born: 7 October 1952, Leningrad (Saint Petersburg)
Role: President of Russia
Education: Law degree from Leningrad State University
- KGB operative 1975 to 1991, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel
- Adviser to Saint Petersburg administration 1991-96
- Deputy chief of Presidential Staff to Boris Yeltsin, 1997
- Russian prime minister, 1999
- Acting President of Russia on Boris Yeltsin’s resignation, 1999-2000
- President of Russia, 2000-2008
- Prime minister of Russia, 2008-2012
- President of Russia, after constitutional changes allowed him to run again, 2012-present
“At last, Russia has returned to the world arena as a strong state – a country that others heed and that can stand up for itself.”
– Vladimir Putin, 2008