By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer
This week, USA President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin walked alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping during a gathering of world leaders in China. Despite the smiling group photos and a historic USA-China climate change agreement to reduce pollution levels, there’s a modern day Cold War heating up beneath the surface. Like a ghost rising from the past, the USA and Europe are once again competing with Russia and China for influence over the world.
From 1946-1991, the USA competed with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in a Cold War for global political influence. The USA offered military and financial help to countries that believed in capitalism and democracy, where economic and government power comes from individuals and businesses, while the USSR backed nations that supported communism, where wealth is controlled and owned ultimately by the government.
Rather than fighting directly, they pitted foreign nations against each other, developed nuclear weapons, and engaged in a high-tech Space Race. Although the USSR lost, dissolving into 15 separate countries that included Russia and Ukraine, old habits die hard.
The new Cold War shares some similarities with the past. After all, Russian president Vladimir Putin is fighting over Ukraine’s future with Western powers, because the country’s government isn’t pro-Russia. Not only has he been sending money and weapons to pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine, they’ve also swallowed up the Crimea region of Ukraine, legally absorbing it into Russia through strong political pressure. Russian troops both within Ukraine and outside of it have been lobbing missiles at Ukrainian aircraft, which unfortunately resulted in the tragic downing of the peaceful Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Rather than apologize for the incident, both Russia and China blamed the event on Western powers like the USA and Europe for encouraging Ukraine’s government to resist the pro-Russia rebels that continue trying to take over parts of the country.
Although China and Russia have elections, which may seem democratic on the outside, their governments have absolute power over citizens. This kind of government is called an authoritarian regime, where political influence is concentrated in a way that doesn’t really let the common people have a say. In fact, speaking out publicly against the government is highly restricted or punished with police intimidation, meaning citizens don’t have free speech like they do in the USA and Europe. So, while this new Cold War isn’t about capitalism versus communism, it’s still about freedom versus control. Despite China calling itself communist, its economic successes in recent years are a result of the country’s government following capitalist principles. As for Russia, they’re not doing so well money-wise, which is part of the reason they’re flexing military might.
Putin has also been traveling to South America and Cuba, solidifying relationships with communist leaders who were very supportive of the USSR during the original Cold War. For example, shortly before the Flight 17 incident, Putin forgave 90% of Cuba’s $32 billion debt to the Russians, erasing 2 decades of economic drama. He also completed a 6 day tour of Latin America and had dinner with 4 of the region’s presidents, prior to joining a summit of emerging national powers that include Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). Combine this with the fact that China and Russia are partnering with Central America’s Nicaragua to build a canal that will compete with the USA-built Panama Canal (a profitable shortcut between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean), and you can see how Putin is trying to spread his influence to America’s backyard. There’s no USSR, but there is definitely an international competition brewing with the BRICS group of nations and Western powers. In fact, BRICS recently announced the creation of the New Development Bank, to challenge the American-led global economic system.
As if all this territory fighting and political handshaking isn’t enough to resemble a new Cold War, Russia and China are hacking Western governments and companies. They’ve stolen billions of dollars of information from hard working corporations, whose legally protected ideas and unique inventions are being robbed via cyber warfare. Formulas, techniques, and devices that may have taken years of research and money for a company to develop, are basically stolen overnight.
Online security experts have discovered that Russian hackers are hitting oil and gas companies as part of an operation called Energetic Bear. These cyber criminals have even used secret information to take control of facilities, which could potentially cripple Western energy. America’s defense department is hitting back, beefing up online firepower and keeping the internet free from restriction. Obama is also pushing for net neutrality, to prevent businesses from charging extra money to access certain content with faster speeds. He wants all content available at equal speeds, so that companies don’t hike up prices for unfair reasons.
How this new online Cold War will all play out is anyone’s guess, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Russia and China are willing to be aggressive and break laws to keep pace with the USA and Europe. At the end of the day, however, the world’s economies are all interconnected, so open warfare is very unlikely between BRICS nations and the West. It certainly won’t look like the Middle East, where Iraq is under siege by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Still, alliances shift over the decades, and even the recent ISIS drama shows how the USA and Europe are willing to work with their longtime foe, Iran, to keep order in the Middle East with its forces battling ISIS. The West is also reducing economic penalties on Iran for its development of nuclear technology, in exchange for Iran demonstrating its willingness not to create nuclear weapons. Even Russia was once a critical ally to the USA and Europe during World War II against Germany, Japan, and Italy. Now, Japan is very close with the USA, despite the fact that America dropped nuclear bombs on two of their cities at the end of World War II. So, despite the constant international tug-of-war for power, enemies sometimes become allies, and allies sometimes become enemies. Democracies can become authoritarian regimes, and authoritarian regimes can become democracies.
Images of Putin with leaders of China and Cuba courtesy of The Kremlin. Image of hacker courtesy of Christophe Verdier.