It is well known the 50 years following World War II was the Cold War. This was largely brought about by political differences between the United States, her allies, and the Soviet Union. These differences stem even further back to a time near the beginning of the century, but were pushed aside due to the world wars and the need to eliminate a greater evil.
During the Cold War, the sides of capitalism in the west and Communism in the east fought each other through espionage, an arms race, and numerous undeclared proxy wars. The end result was western victory at a very high dollar cost and the economic collapse of the Soviet Union that was ultimately symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.
While tension still existed, the threat of a nuclear war was largely gone from the public mind as was the threat of huge battles reminiscent of World War II across Europe. The Soviet Union crumbled and many satellite nations drifted away to begin an independent journey while the renamed Russia attempted a new democracy.
While still a power on the world stage, Russia turned to internal conflicts and the ideas of capitalism. At the same time, the US continued expanding it’s economic and military influences around the globe. This led to numerous small conflicts and military actions from Africa to Asia to even South America.
In recent years, Russia has begun to rattle the proverbial saber. President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, reclaimed the Ukraine over the objections of the rest of the world. Russia is also developing 5th generation aircraft that could theoretically challenge US aircraft for control of the air over a battle space. In addition, Russia has also begun to attack groups fighting against the Syrian government. Many of these groups were initially funded by the United States in order to oust the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Now, the US and Russia are in agreement that ISIS is a problem and that must be dealt with immediately. However, US leadership does not support the present Syrian government, leaving the two larger nations at odds over how best to proceed.
To further complicate matters, Russian bombers have flown close to the British Isles with weapon payloads destined for Syria. While the flights have been over international waters, they are close to the coast of America’s closest ally. Clearly this is saber-rattling to get the attention of the world, or at the very least the US and its allies. At the same time, Russian fighters have been known to “buzz” US warships in the Pacific as well as “flash” their weapons at US fighters over Syria. Just one instance alone is something that happens around the globe between nations, however Russia is showing its teeth to the United States. This escalation of force, or showmanship, could end up with more downed fighters, either intentional or accidental. (See linked article about the downing of a Russian fighter by Turkey).* On a side note, the implications of a Russia vs Turkey conflict could also have profound effect on relations between the US and Russia as Turkey is an ally of the US in the region.
So the question begs, is this the beginning of a new Cold War? The Obama administration is in the midst of down sizing the military after years of war. This is similar, although nowhere near as drastic as the demobilization after WWII.* While the military downsizes, Russia is trying to expand its influence, especially in Eastern Europe and into southwest Asia.
I believe what happens in southwest Asia will be the key. The Russians have supported the Assad led Syrian government against rebel groups, including ISIS. On the other hand, the US has supported the rebel groups against the Syrian government, and either directly or indirectly, ISIS. ISIS is obviously a threat to the United States, but has recently threatened Russia.
If a joint strategy to deal with ISIS first and then the Syrian government second, a new Cold War has the potential to be avoided. A possible solution to the fighting in Syria could involve sectors of responsibility, joint air strikes, or even communication and coordination regarding ground troops. The key obviously is communicating on an end goal in Syria and working together to meet that objective. Stabilizing Syria against the common enemy of ISIS can prevent a Cold War. Fighting with a non-cohesive strategy could lead to a blast from the past, another arms race, and ultimately a financially costly Cold War.
*While there is a personnel downsizing, the budget is certainly increasing.