Russian Prime Minister Medvedev warns of new Cold War

Russian Prime Minister Medvedev warns of new Cold War
Russia's Dmitry Medvedev warns West of a new Cold War at the Munich Security Conference.
By Ben Aris in Moscow February 15, 2016

The world is now at the brink of a new Cold War style confrontation, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned the West's political elite at the Munich Security Conference on February 13, updating the historic speech President Vladimir Putin gave at the same summit in 2007.

The speech carries particular weight after warnings of a possible military clash with Russia that Putin made last time came to pass, with Nato member Turkey shooting down a Russian bomber by the Syrian border in November.

"Nato's policy with regard to Russia has remained unfriendly and opaque. One could go as far as to say that we have slid back to a new Cold War," Medvedev said. "Almost on an everyday basis we are called one of the most terrible threats either to Nato as a whole or to Europe, or to the United States."

Medvedev repeated Putin's complaint that the Weestern military alliance's expansion eastwards was seen by Russia as threatening and said things had gotten "worse" since 2007. But his subtext was Russia was still willing to talk and wanted to find a way out of the impass.

"This is a road to nowhere. Everyone will suffer, mark my words. It is vitally important that we join forces to strengthen a new global system," Medvedev said, warning that terrorism will spread to every nation if states do not band together.

To drive the message home, Russia waved sticks and carrots around the weekend in a piece of grand political theatre. As the delegates sat down in the Bavarian capital, Russia's air force launched its largest raid since WWII on the Syrian rebel strong of Aleppo, which could pile more refugee pressure on Europe and wipe Western proxy "moderate" rebels from the field. But at the same time, Putin talked to US President Barack Obama – both leaders stayed away from Munich – about a possible "united front" against terrorism in Syria. Even the Russian Orthodox Church was in a conciliatory mood as the Pope and the Patriarch met for the first time in a millennium.

This pair of Munich speeches leave the West with a dilemma. Putin's original address carried a simple message: Russia is back, and while Russia wants to be friends with Europe as Russia's "natural partners", the West needs to respect Russia's national interests or the Kremlin will react harshly.

As the West was still riding high on the Cold War "victory" over the Soviet Union, Putin's warning was simply ignored. This time round, Medvedev's warnings are a lot more ominous, since although Russia is no longer a superpower, Putin has shown conclusively that you ignore the Kremlin's growls at your peril. The issue on the table for the West after this summit meeting is: to appease Russia and make concessions, or tough it out and risk seeing Russia collapse again with unpredictable consequences for the whole of emerging Europe and now the Middle East.

Paranoia and Medevdev's plan

The Russian premier ran through five points in his speech, highlighting Russia's main current complaints and concerns. However, much of it was simply reproaching the West for not paying Russia due respect, thereby betraying the Kremlin's creeping sense of paranoia.

"Political expediency is taking priority over simple and clear economic reason," Medvedev said, citing the decision of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to change its 'lending into arrears' policy to Ukraine's benefit in its row over an unpaid $3bn Russian Eurobond, as an example of the international community’s efforts to do Russia down.

"We regret that the practice of unilateral economic pressure in the form of sanctions is gaining momentum ... This is undermining the operating foundations of international economic organisations, including the World Trade Organisation … This is a road to nowhere. Everyone will suffer, mark my words," Medvedev said.

He also touched on Ukraine, repeating that the Ukrainians have not upheld their part of the Minsk II bargain, which is the cause of the lack of progress, and highlighting Kyiv's failure to put in place most of its main obligations under the deal: an amnesty law, local elections and changes to the constitution.

However, on Syria Medvedev spun Russia's involvement as based on its very real fear of terrorism. And this is a real concern for the country with its large Muslim population and long history of instability and separatism in the southern districts. More recently, Russia lost twice as many victims to a terrorist bomb on board of a tourist plane flying from Egypt than Paris did in the terrorist shootings in November, which Medvedev was also careful to mention.

"We sincerely believe that if we fail to normalise the situation in Syria and other conflict areas, terrorism will become a new form of war that will spread around the world. It will not be just a new form of war but a method of settling ethnic and religious conflict, and a form of quasi-state governance," Medvedev said, suggesting the Kremlin has a real issue with the way the West want to end this conflict.

The "united front against terrorism" also echoes Putin's speech last September to the UN general assembly, his first appearance for years, where he also called for a grand coalition against terrorism similar to the cooperation signed at Yalta against Hitler. (The 71st anniversary of the Yalta summit was this month.) Putin also highlighted in that speech that Russia is afraid of terrorism.

"We must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind. And of course, Muslim nations should play a key role in such a coalition," Putin told the UN.

That is the way out of the current impasse Russia is offering: an anti-terror coalition that is governed by the UN. The disagreement is over how this works in practice. In concrete terms it boils down to: will Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in office during a transition period as the Russians prefer, or does he have to be removed at the start of the process as the US prefers. There is still no agreement on this point.

New sabres rattling

In the meantime, both sides are rearming. Russia is planning to spend RUB10 trillion ($128bn) on modernising its army by 2020 and is now actively using its militaty might when the Kremlin feels its interests are being ignored. On the flip side, the West is also guilt of reactive policy making following the annexation of Crimea (with a lot more justification than Russia).  US Secretary of State John Kerry announced at Munich that in addition to a new Nato rapid reaction force based in the Baltics, Washington will quadruple military spending in Europe this year.

Medvedev reiterated Putin's complaint that Nato's eastward expansion is antagonising Russia, and will draw a counter-response if the issue is left unaddressed. Medvedev summed up the fears laid out in Putin’s 2007 speech by asking: "Did we overstate this? Were our assessments of the situation too pessimistic? Unfortunately, I have to say that the situation is now even worse than we feared."

Ignoring these concerns eight years ago have lead directly to Russia's rearming, as bne IntelliNews pointed out in its cover story in March 2013 "Rekindling the Cold War as Russia rearms", when it first became obvious. And for all the criticism of Putin being "all tactics and no strategy", the Munich speeches are the exception to the rule: the Kremlin has made a habit of laying out its policies in plain English at these events.

Medvedev talked of a new Cold War, but we are not there yet. One of the hallmarks of the Cold War was the proxy wars fought between the US and the Soviet Union, such as Washington's disastrous decision to back the Afghan mujahedeen which defeated the Soviet Army, but set the tinder of radical Islam alight so that war is still being fought decades later.

Russia and the US are close to a proxy war in the Ukraine, which was pointedly downplayed in the Munich speeches this weekend. But while the US has been supplying Kyiv with "defensive" weapons it has so far managed to strike a delicate balance between giving Kyiv enough equipment to freeze the line of contact, without giving it enough to turn the clash into a proxy war with Russia - despite President Petro Poroshenko's explicit calls for exactly this level of help.

Munich was a crucial meeting and everyone is looking for a way out of the imbroglio, but little progress seems to have been made.

"This is a hinge point," Kerry told the Munich Security Conference on February 13. "We hope this week can be a week of change. It is critical for all of us to take advantage of this moment to make this cessation of hostilities work," Kerry said to the Munich delegates as a new Syrian deal was announced.

Medvedev was also offering a way out as Russia is also increasingly desperate to end this conflict and the associated sanctions. But the Kremlin has also nailed its flag to the mast and will not backdown. It is prepared to compromise, but only so far.

Bismarck's formula

On the eve of the the First World War, the preeminent Europe diplomat Otto von Bismarck was asked what was the secret to doing politics to which he replied: "Make a good treaty with Russia."

The issue today is if it is still necessary to make a deal with Russia. Putin's obvious frustration in 2007 clearly showed that the West didn't think it was necessary then. With Russia now playing a central role in two wars the question is if the West sees the need or is willing to make a good treaty now? The whole point of Putin's various campaigns is to show the West that Russia can't be ignored. Medvedev held out an olive branch and invited the world to negotiate.

"Can we unite in order to stand up against the challenges I mentioned above? Yes, I am confident that we can," the prime minister said. "Yesterday we witnessed a perfect example in the area of religion. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Pope of the Catholic Church Francis met in Cuba following hundreds of years when the two churches did not communicate. Of course, restoring trust is a challenging task. It's difficult to say how long it would take. But it is necessary to launch this process," Medvedev said.

Does the West really have a choice? Putin is playing a very tough game. He has already shown himself willing to sacrifice Russia's hard-won economic gains and put himself in political danger at home in order to make his geo-political point, which surprised many commentators who are now predicting Russia's doom as a result.

But maybe Western leaders should take note of another less famous quote from Bismarck: "Never fight against Russians. Your every cunning will be responded to by their unpredictable stupidity."