A new Cold War in the Middle East?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim


By : Dr. Azeem Ibrahim


When Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, commentators gingerly raised the prospect of a new Cold War between Russia and the West. In 2014, when Russia’s client in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was toppled from power by the popular uprising at the Euromaidan, a move warmly received by the West especially as the new regime sought integration in the EU and NATO, Russia responded by annexing Crimea and waging a covert war in the east of the country that is going on to this day – and that too intensified talk of a new Cold War. But somehow, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War has not invited the same analysis.

Analysts are perhaps understandably weary of using the phrase “Cold War”, for fear that perhaps that will increase the likelihood that this is what will actually happen. What perhaps they fail to appreciate is the fact that we are in fact in the full swing of a Cold War. Russia believes it is locked in a new Cold War with the U.S. and its NATO allies so it behaves accordingly. And so long as that remains true, we are in a Cold War – however reluctant Western media and politicians might be to acknowledge the fact.

Historic rivals

Here is a short summary of the facts. Russia sees its survival as a state as dependent on being able to control the territories which allow for easy access into the Russian heartland in the eastern Great European Plain. The geography of Russia is such that if a large enough military force has the ability to assemble on any part of this plain, that force can quickly and swiftly go all the way to Moscow. Between the plains of Poland, Ukraine or Georgia, to Moscow, there is nothing to stop a would-be attacker. Hence why Moscow has been attacked and even captured many times throughout Russian history.

This may not be the Cuban Missile Crisis just yet, but it is very much the Cold War all over again

Azeem Ibrahim

In order to control access to the Plain, Russia needs to control all the countries who used to belong to the U.S.SR and most of the countries who used to belong to the Warsaw pact. And as far as Russia is concerned, the U.S. remains its main rival, and NATO remains the prime strategic threat. The fact that Poland and the Baltic states have been absorbed into NATO in the 90s when Russia was imploding is bad enough. But the idea that NATO will be allowed to expand into Georgia and Ukraine when Russia is strong enough to do anything about it is, to Moscow, anathema. When Georgia signaled its intention to join the alliance, Russia invaded under a semi-arbitrary pretext, and has since frozen the conflict. The exact same scenario is playing out in Ukraine right now. These countries are thus caught in limbo and unable to exercise an independent foreign policy – as was the original strategic aim of the Russians.

For its part, the U.S. and the EU have had to respond to the Ukraine crisis with an economic embargo, not much unlike the economic Iron Curtain in place during the Cold War. And trade routes are already reconfiguring accordingly, with the EU working double-speed to wean itself off its dependence on Russian energy imports.

If this isn’t enough to call this a Cold War, well perhaps a proxy war in some far-away “strategic” country will be enough to convince you. Enter the Syrian civil war. The Russians and the West ostensibly have the same objectives and goals in Syria: fighting and destroying ISIS. Except for the reality on the ground. The real conflict they are both interested in is that between the Assad government and what are euphemistically called “the moderate opposition.” Russia on the other hand, and Iran for that matter, are hugely invested in their client in the region, the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Bombs are occasionally dropped on ISIS targets, but the fight against ISIS has been largely left to the Kurds and the Iran-Iraq Shiite militias. The phony war that everyone is currently interested in is between the non-ISIS combatants in the Syrian civil war, and this is a situation not really that removed from Vietnam. It certainly has every potential to head that way.

So there we have it: geopolitical alignments, trade politics and proxy wars over client states. Oh, and of course, reinforced NATO deployment in Poland and the Baltics. And Putin building 40 more nuclear missiles this year. This may not be the Cuban Missile Crisis just yet, but it is very much the Cold War all over again.


Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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