With the United States and Russia increasingly at odds over Syria, you might assume we are entering a new and perilous phase in East-West relations. But the potential for conflict has been simmering for a while.
It was the crisis over Ukraine in 2014 that sharpened fears of a new Cold War. Western leaders declared they would ramp up the pressure if Russia persisted in “throwing out the rule book”. Russians berated Nato as the aggressor and warned that it would get worse.
“We are rapidly rolling into a period of a new Cold War,” said the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev last year, comparing heightened tensions to the brinkmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “I am sometimes confused,” he added. “Is this 2016 or 1962?”
Even the lexicon of the Cold War is back. After the Second World War, Moscow frequently talked of a resurgence of fascism threatening communism, with neo-Nazis collaborating with Western capitalists. Fast forward to frenzied Russian statements in March 2014 and claims of an “illegal fascist government in Kiev in league with neo-Nazi tendencies” after Moscow’s choice of president fled Kiev and was replaced by a pro-Western government. The Soviet playbook of the Cold War had been dusted off.
Not only words hark back to an earlier Cold War era. Today’s “hybrid warfare” is also out of a well-worn toolbox, updated and put to new use. Propaganda, rumours and breached email accounts – often obscured by front organisations, shell companies and anonymous hackers – are a new version of the “active measures” or political warfare techniques familiar from old KGB and GRU [military intelligence] handbooks, revamped for the 21st century, with the handy addition of trolls, bots and internet malware to magnify their effect.
What is “fake news” but old-fashioned disinformation? What are embarrassing email leaks but an old-style Cold War attempt to disrupt and subvert?
And let us not forget that this is a two-way street. For decades the CIA would also manipulate and shape outcomes where it could. A communist victory in the pivotal Italian elections of 1948 was averted in part through CIA funding and a mass letter-writing campaign by Italian Americans, instructed to warn relatives in Italy of the perils of voting for the left.
In Chile after President Salvatore Allende brought in Latin America’s first democratically elected socialist government in 1973, the CIA helped fuel the unrest and strikes that contributed to his downfall.
Nowadays the Kremlin argues that American support for so-called “coloured revolutions”, from Georgia and Ukraine to Egypt, Libya and Syria, as well as Western funding of pro-democracy groups in Russia, are part of a scheme for “regime change”, to bring down leaders out of favour with the West. Combatting coloured revolutions is now high on the Russian Defence Ministry’s agenda for keeping the country safe.
But can today really be compared to the Cold War? After all, this is no longer an ideological stand-off between communism and capitalism. It’s fuelled more by national self-interest than big ideas. And it’s no longer the nightmare scenario of a nuclear holocaust that is foremost in people’s minds, but of yet another unexpected terror strike by Islamist extremists in a crowded pop concert or shopping mall.
Tap into the memories of those who are old enough to remember the 1950s and 60s and today’s mood – more tinged with confusion than foreboding – seems nothing like the sense of impending doom that many felt then.
“We grew up getting under our desks at school all the time,” recalls the actor John Guerrasio of his New York childhood. “The air raid siren would sound, and we would either practise getting under our desks or we’d all form orderly lines and go down to the basement.”
And has any recent crisis matched the breathless fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when many believed Washington and Moscow were on the point of nuclear war? “Life was intense during that period – we lived two days in one. We could have been wiped out, or God knows how many people could have died,” remembers the writer Ciro Bianchi, who was a teenager in the Cuban capital, Havana.
John Guerrasio remembers sitting down with the family in Brooklyn, New York, and thinking the world was going to end. “There was some point in the crisis when it looked like it was very, very bad,” he remembers, “and my mother called all of her six children into the kitchen and said, ‘We may not see each other again, the world may end this afternoon’.”
In 2017, by contrast, there is less a sense that the world could end and more a puzzlement about which direction it will take next. On the one hand, if suspicions of widescale Russian cyber-hacking to alter the outcome of the last American election are proved correct, it would indeed be a serious challenge to the very essence of American democracy.
And we have yet to find out why Donald Trump’s pro-Russian statements have at times sounded eerily like the talking points of a Kremlin spokesman. But on the other hand, since he took office, President Trump’s proposed U-turn to improve relations with Russia looks more like a zigzagging series of hairpin bends.
Instead of a love-in, the US has imposed more sanctions. Instead of a better understanding, there is now a war of words, with Russia calling Trump’s plan to reinstate restrictions on Cuba “a return to Cold War rhetoric” and the recent shooting down of a Syrian army jet by US warplanes “an act of aggression”.
Trump mania in Moscow has long gone. But perhaps it’s the murky, fluid nature of today’s tensions that is most worrying. Not a new Cold War, but something more unpredictable and unsettling.
And alongside the danger of some misunderstanding or accident triggering confrontation, not only is there the China factor (always a complication) but new players like Isis and North Korea, small but malevolent and newly empowered by technology to intimidate, destabilise and destroy wherever they can.
Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze is on BBC Radio 4 from Monday-Friday at 1.45pm