By Katya Moore & Sydney Cox

The term Cold War, the confrontation between the two superpowers, the USSR and the United States from 1947-1989, has become a household name. Officially, this confrontation was over in 1989 with the Iron Curtain’s fall and the agreements between Reagan and Gorbachev. However, implicit and explicit concerns between Russia and the United States regarding the destruction of arms control agreements, ideological, political, and military confrontations in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Arctic, lead many people to wonder whether the Cold War ever really ended or evolved with the times. Moreover, due to geopolitical changes and the emergence of new players, there is much more at stake now than after the crash of the USSR.


Scholars and politicians of the “Cold War” use the term to describe relations between the USSR and the US from 1946-1989. The first time these words were used, multimillionaire and financier, Bernard Baruch, used “Cold War” in a speech in the South California House of Representatives in 1947. At that time, it was clear that a few years earlier, allies in WWII had indestructible ideological convictions, and there was no place for any compromises.  Over those 40 years, the Cold War only appeared close to going nuclear one time, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  However, the US and USSR, led by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev, respectively, decided to back down after convincing the world that they would put their nuclear weapons to use.

A thaw in the relationship between the USSR and the US started in 1985 in Switzerland when the first and last Soviet President (at that time General Secretary) Mikhail Gorbachev met with US President Ronald Reagan. On November 19, 1985, the two leaders for the first time held talks on international diplomatic relations and the arms race. These early sets of negotiations resulted in the gradual movement of the two nations towards each other.

The end of the Cold War was officially declared by The New York Times on April 2, 1989. According to the New York Times,”The Cold War of poisonous Soviet-American feelings, of domestic political hysteria, of events enlarged and distorted by East-West confrontation, of almost perpetual diplomatic deadlock is over.” In November of 1989, the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall that divided European nations on the East finally came down. The Soviet Union agreed to significantly decrease its military presence in Eastern Europe and the two states decided to reduce their nuclear arsenals.


Despite those agreements, the world has not become a safer place since then. Russia (as a successor of the USSR) and the US still battle for geopolitical influence in many ways. While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO was enhanced by new members from the old East/Soviet block, Russia established and participated in modern military and economic unions. For example, in 1992, they established,“The Collective Security Treaty Organization” (also referred to as the “Tashkent treaty”). The participants of this treaty with Russia are Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Russian cooperation with China grows significantly, as well. These two countries are established in many joint projects like the “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation” (SCO), political, economic, and security alliance. The other coalition where the two nations are playing a significant role is the economic union called “BRICS.”  Due to the emergence of new players and centrifugal forces, the previous leverage between the US-Russia deterrence in the new geopolitical reality does not work. In light of this, it is necessary for the international community to create new tools and agreements.


Interestingly, even during their global competition, the USSR and the US created a robust infrastructure of mutual deterrence. At that time, three essential treaties, capstones of peace and security in the EU, and other regions of the world were active.

The last years of the Cold War produced a number of arms control and disarmament agreements. The signed treaties signaled growing trust between the great powers, and they sought to institutionalize the documents to build foundations for continued peace. The signing of the INF Treaty was significant as it was the first time the two powers agreed on destroying an entire category of weapons and submitting to on-site inspections. The INF was followed by the START agreement which implemented limits on strategic weapons in several phases. 

These treaties came during a prosperous time between Washington and Moscow, along with political promises and commitments to not deploy nuclear weapons and instead work on reducing their numbers. The period of great cooperation saw both sides willing to reduce the number of weapons in their arsenals and promise not to use them as they did during the height of the Cold War.  

The first agreement, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty or ABMT), was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972. The US withdrew from this agreement in June of 2002. In 2019, the United States withdrew from the other, “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty” (INF Treaty), after accusing Russia of violating it. 

According to US officials, Russia’s continued violation of the INF obligations and nuclear threats against its European neighbors seeks to undermine the national security framework that saw the end of Cold War tensions. In December of 2018, NATO allies concluded that Russia had created an intermediate-range missile and violated the treaty’s terms. Many other instances of Russia’s disregard for these treaties make up a long list; failing to notify States of large military exercises, limiting observation flights under the Open Skies Treaty, covert development of an intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile SSC-8/9M729, failure to notify of nuclear testing, and many more. Moscow has denied such accusations.

That same month, Russia’s Foreign Ministry official, Vladimir Yermakov, announced Russia’s willingness to discuss mutual inspections with the US to save the treaty. Both Presidents met three times to discuss the treaty, but each time yielded no result. The US first announced that it would suspend its treaty obligations until Russia complied, which was answered by Russia’s suspension of treaty duties as well.

As US and Russian relations have worsened, Russia’s indifference to arms control treaties is reminiscent of the Cold War. Acknowledging the track record of Russian compliance and non-compliance of arms control treaties is critical in crafting future approaches to deter a new arms race.

The situation with the INF caused many concerns in the world. The US Senator Bob Menendez in 2019 strongly reacted to Trump’s cabinet decision: “I am extremely concerned that President Trump has no appreciation or understating of the importance of arms control treaties and that this deficiency will lead him to abandon all limitations on US-Russian nuclear forces.” The Trump Administration also made Congress concerned about withdrawal from the Open Sky Treaty in 2020 that allowed US military planes to observe Russian territory and the US territory vice versa. Many congressional members insisted that this step by the US would only play in favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The United States seeks to open trilateral arms control agreements that place constraints on Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Yet, Russia’s continuous trend violating treaty terms creates an immense challenge for Washington to produce a creative trilateral framework that effectively reduces the threat of an arms race. Recent years of building tensions between the United States and Russia have deflated the hope that the post-Cold War era would be characterized by great power cooperation. Instead, the Kremlin has sought to restore the old power of Soviet Russia by the use of military aggression, proxy forces, disinformation campaigns, and manipulation of political and economic influences. 

The third agreement “START-3” remains the only arms limitation treaty in force between Russia and the United States. An area of success for nuclear arms treaties has been the compliance between the United States and Russia in its strategic nuclear arms agreements and New Start. Russia has consistently been reported in compliance with the New START Treaty (1991-Present). However, the future of New START is unknown as it is set to expire in February of 2021. The US Chief Arms Control envoy has left open the possibility of extending the treaty for five years, but has made it known that the administration opposes the deal due to dissatisfaction with verification terms. 

A great indication for the future of US and Russian arms control agreements will be the decision to extend the New START Treaty. Post-Cold War arms control treaties by no means failed, as there is no way to calculate the success of different methods, and there were no outbreaks of nuclear war, but the world is entering and adapting to a new realm of arms control. Policymakers of both powers must navigate this new phase of state-on-state competition as they are developing a new strategic framework that builds upon the foundation of arms control treaties and appropriately responds to the threat of global competitive powers. 


As we can see, the risk of a potential confrontation between the two nations is only growing since 1991 (and it is not only about nuclear treaties). Russia and the US had strong disagreements about the war in Georgia in 2008 where the conflict centered on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time, the US and the principal part of the international community supported Georgian sovereignty, while Russia took sides with two breakaway provinces. Furthermore, the annexation of Crimea and support of separatist governments in Ukrainian Donbas in 2014 caused Russia several sets of sanctions from the EU and the US. The Russian government responded with contra-sanctions.  

In 2016, the election interference situation led to the shrinkage of Russian diplomatic property, and the closure of consulates in the US and in turn Russia mirrored this action. The story of the mutual expelling of diplomats and dispositions of property continued in 2018 when Russia was blamed for using chemical weapons against former double agent Sergey Skrypal in England. Russia denied these accusations.  A new round of EU-US. vs. Russia tensions are highlighted with the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader, Navalny, which may cost Russia its giant gas project Nord Stream -2.  

The two superpowers disagreements extend far beyond Europe. Russia and the US are clashing in the Middle East, where both have a strong military presence. In Syria, Russia supports disgraced Syrian President Bashar Assad while the US supports the Syrian Democratic Forces. Furthermore, the US military recently claimed that Russia breached an arms embargo to support fighters in Libya and renegade military commander, Khalifa Haftar. The other political disagreement between Russia and the US is the future of Venezuela. Russia supports the regime of Nicolas Maduro, while the US supports the leader of Venezuelan opposition, Juan Guaido. Most importantly, the Russian Federation has a strong presence in an area of genuine US interests in South America, almost in the backyard of the US.  

Similarly, the US and Russia both conduct military exercises near each other’s borders that increase tensions. For example, there were Russian exercises near Alaska in September and the US Navy security operation with Norway – the first time since the 90’s when NATO warships conducted a maritime operation in the Barents Sea area.

In sum, rising tensions at contested borders, proxy wars, and withdrawals from multilateral arms agreements raise serious questions as to the extent of the possibility of a new Cold War.  Though the relations between the United States and Russia thawed for some time immediately following the Cold War, recent actions paint a different picture.  According to Daniel L. Davis, Senior Fellow and Military Expert for Defense Priorities: “Superpowers are in competition. Furthermore, it is more dangerous now than when everyone was conscientiously aware of the threat of going too far and turning to nuclear engagements. There was once a fresh memory about what happened in Japan. Those memories are gone now or reduced. So, now people on both sides, Russia and the United States, are openly contemplating a confrontation.” He added: “The United States and Russia have to take a step back, take a breath, examine the context with all of that, and to say: “Okay, look, this is not helping anybody. This is not working for anybody’s benefits. And we need to start talking to each other, start to be less provocative.”

Even during the height of global competition between the USSR and the US, a robust infrastructure of mutual deterrence had been created. The situation has changed because we are not in a bipolar world anymore, and there are not only two superpowers, but three. Though tensions between the US and Russia are clearly present, the dynamics in the 21st century are very different.  Due to a multilateral geopolitical structure, and more competing powers worldwide, the international community prevents a full blown Cold War 2.0. Rather, the competing powers include NATO, the UN and China among others involved in global affairs.

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