The Little Cold War also known as Cold War II, and the Second Cold War (approx. 2014–2023) was a state of ongoing tensions, hostilities, and political rivalry between the United States and the European Union against the Russian Federation. The Second Cold War, unlike the First Cold War, this conflict was largely over regional security issues, rather than an overarching economic and ideological conflict.
The official start date of the Second Cold War is often debated, but most historians agree that it began in earnest in 2014 with the Annexation of Crimea. Much like the first Cold War, the second was ultimately about Russia's relationship with the rest of Europe, particularly with respect to its lack of natural borders in the East European Plain that had been exploited by every western invader since Napoleon. Unlike the previous Cold War, this conflict also took into account Russia's population crunch and European dependency on Russian oil and natural gas.
Resources proved to be Russia's greatest advantage during the conflict, and under the leadership of Vladimir Putin the country was able to build up capital from the exportation of natural resources. The Russian dominance over Europe's energy sectors finally proved to be effective at leveraging most of Western Europe and therefore NATO from engaging further with the conflict in the early 2020s, resulting in the start of the alliance's decline. Only the Eastern European members remained involved in the conflict, being heavily supported by the United States via technology transfer and military aid following the radical rift that had emerged in the alliance.
Poland gradually became the greatest ally of the United States during this period and grew to become one of the most powerful economies in Europe by its end. Second only to Poland were the Baltic states, which sought to align themselves closer to the United States to prevent Russian domination from returning to the region.
While Europe played the largest and most visible part of the Second Cold War, other regions saw proxy conflicts develop between factions most notably in Syria. After around a decade, the Syrian government, along with their Russian and Iranian allies fought off rebels, the Islamic State, and Kurdish-led militias. The complex international series of alliances would lead the conflict to become frozen until Russia dissolved in 2023.
The Second Cold War also forced the US to re-evaluate its relationship with the Middle East; an area that had seen decades of military intervention by the United States. The most radical shift in US Policy in this region was with Iran, whose alliance, created a new balance of power. Israel remained an ally of the United States but was officially neutral.
The conflict ended after the US had de-emphasized to hydrocarbons to the degree necessary to weaken Russia’s influence in Europe, and ultimately remove the country's economic linchpin. With an exceedingly useless hydrocarbon industry and burdened by expenditures, Russia suddenly and spontaneously faced economic collapse in 2023.
The Russian Federation formally collapsed on May 14, 2023, resulting in the formal end of the Little Cold War and Russia itself.
- 1 Beginnings of the Little Cold War (2008–2014)
- 2 Crisis and escalation (2014–2020)
- 3 Final years (2020–2023)
Beginnings of the Little Cold War (2008–2014)
Relations between the two ex-Soviet countries of Russia and Georgia had been strained for years by 2008 as Georgia's pro-Western government had come to power during the Rose Revolution and Georgia was pushing to receive status as a member of NATO in recent months. In addition, Russia was also seeing Kosovo declare unilateral independence from Serbia in the February of 2008. A diplomatic crisis had emerged in April, when Russia announced that it would no longer be participating in sanctions implemented by the Commonwealth of Nations against Abkhazia. Furthermore the Russians would establish direct relations with the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians. The crisis reached its boiling point when the Georgian Army was deployed to South Ossetian conflict zone on August 7 to restore order to the region and put an end to the shelling that had started just a week earlier. Within hours, the separatist stronghold of Tskhinvali was taken by Georgian forces. Russia, having already sent soldiers illicitly across the border to advance into the South Ossetian conflict zone would meet the "Georgian aggression" with military force. Declaring their actions as a peacekeeping operation, Russian and South Ossetian forces proceeded to engage Georgian forces until they had retreated from the region. A second front of the conflict was opened up in Abkhazia after Russian and Abkhazian forces successfully attacked the Kodori Gorge. Georgia was subsequently blockaded by the Russian Navy. The Russian Air Force would attack targets not just within the conflict zone, but in undisputed Georgian territory. In addition, the first implementation of cyber warfare coincided with military action commenced, and so did an information war begin between both sides. Within five days, a ceasefire had been implemented when it became clear that Georgia had been defeated thoroughly by the combined forces of Russia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. Russia temporarily maintained an occupation of the cities of Zugdidi, Senaki, Poti, and Gori until they withdrew on October 8. As a result of the war, Georgians had been expelled from the Kodori Gorge and throughout South Ossetia. The Russian military established a presence in the newly recognized states South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The new Obama administration would see try to see the reversal of tensions that had begun under the Bush administration. Both Obama and Medvedev spoke warmly towards each other during the 2009 G20 London summit and promised a fresh start in Russia–United States relations in a joint statement. A symbolic gag took place in March 2009, where Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, pressed a "reset" button despite the Russian translation being incorrect. In July of 2009, Obama stated that America had interests in seeing Russian prosperity, but Vice President Joe Biden would contradict this by stating that America may strengthen its hand in order to prevent a Russian sphere of influence being established. In April 2010, the New START was signed by representatives of both countries, restricting the amount of long-range nuclear weapons and replacing START I. During the 2011–2013 Russian protests, Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, alleged that the United States had interfered with the 2011 Russian legislative election and supported protests by the opposition. Following this, the reset in relations was exposed as insincere and relations began to break down. Relations had remained sour as issues of democracy in Russia and Eastern Europe's integration with the West could not be resolved during the period.
"Renewal" of Tensions
Two months following Putin’s victory in the 2012 Russian presidential election, tensions restarted after Russia threatened to preemptively strike missile defense sites in order to pressure NATO to scrap their plans to establish said sites. In July, two Tupolev Tu-95 Bears were intercepted by NORAD fighters in the air defense zone off of the coast of Alaska. In August, it had been discovered that Akula-class submarines conducted a patrol, undetected, in the Gulf of Mexico, raising concerns about American capabilities in anti-submarine warfare. In mid-December, the Magnitsky Act was passed and Russia retailpirated by forbidding American citizens from adopting Russians. Hours before the 2013 State of the Union Address, a pair of nuclear-armed Russian strategic bombers circled Guam until they were intercepted by F-15 Eagles dispatched from Andersen Air Force Base. During the global surveillance disclosures, Edward Snowden sought asylum in Russia, which further aggravated relations between both countries. Later in the year, the Obama administration drew a redline for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War after the Ghouta chemical attack. The Senate authorized the use of military force in the conflict, but Russia successfully negotiated a deal in which Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile would supposedly be eliminated.
Crisis and escalation (2014–2020)
The events which would lead to the period of renewed hostility between Russia and the Western world began with the Ukrainian crisis. When Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych suspended plans to implement an association agreement with the European Union to maintain Ukraine's close ties with Russia, a massive wave of demonstrations and severe civil unrest occured, which came to be known as the Euromaidan. This eventually culminated with a full-blown revolution which toppled Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government. A new interim government was set up by the revolutionaries and the association agreement was signed. The new government was unpopular among Eastern Ukrainians and Russophiles sparking a period of demonstrations known as the Russian Spring. During this time, the Kremlin looked on in horror at the events that had transpired. With Russia's strategic interests under threat and seeing that pro-Russian sentiment was great in the east of the country, Russia intervened in the crisis and it appeared conflict had begun between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. After an controversial referendum in which Crimea overwhelmingly voted to join the Russian Federation, Russia proceeded to annex Crimea, which was subject to international condemnation and is often seen as the beginning of the Little Cold War. Soon after, a war began as the regions of Donetsk and also Luhansk became host to separatist insurgents. With Russia throwing full support behind the separatists, Ukrainian counter-offensives failed to make a great impact on the battlefront. When the Minsk Protocol failed to stop ceasefire violations, Minsk II was signed. The conflict remained frozen until Russia's unexpected collapse in 2023.
In 1970, Ba'athist Syria fell under the rule of Hafez al-Assad. Syria was massively impacted by his presidency as he ruled the country with solid foundations for 30 years. Upon his death in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad, won an uncontested election. However, by 2011, the Arab Spring began challenging social and political structures in the Arab World, including in Syria. This would prompt foreign governments to lend support to their proxy when war occurred such as in the case of Iran. The nation soon felt the growth of civil uprisings across the country and the formation of the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups. Organized militias would spring up across the country over the next year.
By 2013, the conflict had escalated into a full-fledged civil war and the opposition's success turned into a stalemate. The Syrian government would launch a number of counter-offensives as the year wore on. At this point in the war, the opposition was composed of many Islamist factions and gave rise to inter-rebel conflict between these factions throughout the war. In 2014, further government offensives and inter-rebel conflict occurred. But the rapid establishment of the Islamic State, changed the nature of the conflict. The international community would begin actively intervening against the self-declared caliphate. The Americans led the first major intervention against the Islamic State in which coalition member states began a targeted air campaign and involved sending a limited number of special forces personnel into the country. The Southern Front saw a string of victories for the Free Syrian Army while Islamist groups began a takeover of northwestern Syria by 2015. The Islamic State continued gaining ground from government forces in the Tadmur District.
With the war turning against the government, Russia was begged to intervene on their behalf. Their brutal air campaign gave the SAA the ability to conduct more successful offensives and they gradually retook the country. However, this also increased tensions between Russia and the west. The war commonly was viewed at this point to have become a proxy conflict between America and Russia. From 2016–2017, the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces had decimated the Islamic State in Northern Syria, even wrestling Raqqa from the organization's control. As the Islamic State transitioned into an insurgency, Turkey, which was alarmed at the situation, intervened in the conflict against the SDF and began to occupy portions of the country starting when Operation Euphrates Shield commenced.
The Trump Administration would respond to the 2017 Khan Shaykhun chemical attack with a retaliatory missile strike. Tensions between the United States and the Syrian government had escalated to their greatest point in their history at that time. During the year, the CIA finally conceded that they would cut off aid to the opposition and Russia conducted a partial withdrawal of their regional forces with plans that troops would permanently be stationed at their naval facility in Tartus and in Khmeimim Air Base. In 2018, Turkey escalated it's conflict with the SDF by occupying Afrin. Several standoffs emerged between foreign powers following the Douma chemical attack, and several missile strikes conducted by Israel in both May and September. The United States began withdrawing it's forces from the country, and a demilitarization zone was established in Idlib by Russia, and Turkey.
The conflict unfroze the next year when the SAA assaulted Hayat Tahrir al-Sham positions in Idlib. The Turks launched Operation Peace Spring in October. Further conflict focused on engagements between Turkish-backed factions and the RSII coalition in Idlib. Furthermore, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing sanctions, and a liquidity crisis in neighboring Lebanon, Syria faced economic collapse in June 2020, which sparked fears that the Assad regime would collapse. Efforts were made in order to ensure the status quo remained, with increased clashes occurring in northeast Syria. Fighting continued as foreign powers increasingly came to dominate domestic actors in the country. Later on, Russia's collapse spelled a new phase of the conflict as Iran was left as the only significant backer of Assad.
Attempted Interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election
During the height of the 2016 US Presidential Election, a collection of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails were leaked and subsequently published by the website WikiLeaks in July 2016. The collection included 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments from the DNC, the governing body of the United States' Democratic Party. Although Wikileaks did not reveal its source, cybersecurity firms and American intelligence officials stated with "high confidence" that Russian intelligence services were responsible. Most likely believed by many as an attempt to get the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump elected to the presidency.
During the final weeks of the Election, U.S. intelligence officials warned privately that a campaign they believed was backed by the Russian government to undermine the credibility of the U.S. presidential election, could move beyond the hacking of Democratic Party email systems. Additional efforts by the Russian Government would include posting fictional evidence of voter fraud or other disinformation in the run-up to voting on November 8 2016. This scenario became apparent when news outlets such as Reuters began reporting that both the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies were examining faked documents aimed at discrediting Hillary Clinton's campaign; as part of a broader investigation into what they believed was an attempt by Russia to disrupt the election.
After Trump's victory in the 2016 election, the US and Russian attempted to forge peaceful ties and coordinate against ISIS in Syria, including withdrawing support to rebel groups who opposed the Russian-backed Assad regime. However, opposition from Congress and within the White House forced the Trump administration to walk back their commitments to Russia, including the US re-affirming the United States' continued commitment to NATO, supporting the Three Seas Initiative, and culminating in the US Congress passing new sanctions against Russia despite presidential opposition. The new sanctions were a potential foreign policy disaster for Russia, as they proved that the Americans could not be coerced into a new relationship and placed serious limitations on Russian oil and gas exports. Russia began cutting ties with the Trump administration after this point, and actively supported anti-American groups along their periphery, including North Korea. In 2018, President Trump refused to implement Congressional mandated sanctions.
New Space Race
On the space warfare front, the United States and Russia pursued the development of long-range weapons with which they could strike the territory of the other, and anti-satellite weapons do disable each other's satellite networks. In November 2015, the Russians successfully launched the world's first anti-satellite, and announced a planned Mars manned flyby by 2025. In 2017, the United States began a major buildup of its launch capabilities and satellite defense network and announced a plan to put a human on the surface of Mars in a decade. That same year the US tested a hyper-sonic glide weapon, signaling start of the hypersonic arms race.
2017–2018 North Korea Standoff
Tensions along the Korean peninsula flared between 2017–2018, when North Korea successfully tested several missiles with the capability to reach the United States. President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un escalated the situation with threats of war. Following the passage of several UN resolutions which called for tighter sanctions on North Korea, Kim Jong-in announced his willingness to restore the Seoul–Pyongyang hotline and agreed to talks with South Korea about North Korean participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Following several diplomatic meetings between North Korean, South Korean, and American officials, nuclear and ballistic missile tests in North Korea were halted. The meeting between Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in in April 2018 resulted in the Panmunjon Declaration. President Trump and Chairman Kim met in Singapore on June 12, 2018, resulting in a joint declaration of “full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Final years (2020–2023)
End of the Little Cold War
By the Early 2020s Recession Russia had already faced a severe economic downturn, less the result of American sanctions, and more to do with the decline in oil prices from 2014 to 2015, due in part to the US Shale Boom. The recession exacerbated the fall in oil prices as global consumption of hydrocarbons plummeted even further during an oil price war with Saudi Arabia; combined with the drop in export commodities prices, Russia's economy eventually collapsed in 2022.
Upon the election of Joe Biden to the presidency, the US further escalated the Little Cold War, accelerating a reversal from the Russian reset policy which began in 2008, after the election of Barack Obama. Biden continued the massive buildup of the United States Armed Forces begun under Trump, and implemented new policies towards Russia and the Eurasian Union. In response to Russian deployment of the hypersonic Zircon missile,Biden and his successor Cory Booker oversaw NATO and the Visegrad Group's deployment of the "Laser Triad" to Poland, Hungary, and Romania. He also added more US sanctions on Russia.
Russia's economy had significantly declined from 2014–2017 due to crippling sanctions from the US and EU and the decline in demand for commodities that made up the bulk of Russia's export driven economy during the Early 2020s Recession. The surge in US military presence on their western border extended the Russian military presence in the region while the Biden administration funded a covert war in the Caucasus through Turkey and Azerbaijan. The Russian public was staging regular demonstrations against the Kremlin and military defections grew enormously by late 2022. In 2023, following a series of riots and a military coup, the Russian government collapsed, ending the Little Cold War.