Russia's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, reportedly said at the weekend that the world was "sliding into a new cold war". Can that possibly be true? And, if so, who's winning?
It's certainly not true that the power struggle between Russia and the West is the same as the Cold War. In that titanic 40-year contest, Russia led an empire bent on conquering the world to achieve universal communism. There was no trade between the two blocs. They did not go to war directly but fought proxy wars around the world. Nuclear war was a very real prospect.
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Today, there is no Russian empire; the Soviet Union is gone. And Moscow is no longer waging an ideological struggle; Russia does not believe in communism any more.
Instead of communism, it now prosecutes "coercive nationalism" to exert its will, in the words of Paul Dibb, emeritus professor of security at ANU, a former senior official in Australia's defence and intelligence community and Russia expert.
But other familiar elements of the Cold War have emerged quite forcefully. Medvedev and his president, Vladimir Putin, see an irreconcilable clash of interests between Russia and the West.
Moscow is financing extremist political parties in France, Bulgaria, Austria, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Belgium in a bid to undermine the European Union.
Land war has returned to Europe in the proxy war now under way in Ukraine.
The West is punishing Russia for its covert invasion of Ukraine by imposing trade sanctions. These sanctions have largely cut off trade between the two blocs, once again.
Another proxy war is pitting Russia against the US in Syria. US Senator John McCain said at the weekend that Russia's jets were deliberately striking civilians in Syria to drive them out of their towns and turn them into refugees.
Why? To heighten the flood of refugees into Europe. Moscow's aim, said McCain, was "to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project".
The US is rejuvenating its nuclear arsenal. Russia is doubling its defence spending to 4per cent of GDP and Putin last year announced that Russia was adding 40 extra nuclear weapons to its armoury.
"A new danger has been rising in the past three years and that is the possibility there might be a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia, brought about by a substantial miscalculation, a false alarm," a former US Defence Secretary, the sober William Perry, said last month. "
Paul Dibb observes: "As Putin keeps reminding the US, and it's true, Russia is the only power capable of annihilating the US. China's nuclear arsenal can't."
Dibb says that he doesn't think Putin is truly going to launch a nuclear strike on the US. But he says that Russia is deadly serious in its military doctrine that says it can make early use of tactical nuclear weapons against conventional forces in areas it considers its own territory, which potentially could include the Baltic states.
"This is about intimidation and coercion" Dibb says.
The US and its European alliance, NATO, are bulking up their conventional arms in the frontier states between Europe and Russia as Russia intimidates the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. NATO is doubling the size of its rapid response force to 40,000 troops specifically as a warning to Moscow.
A new series of war games by the US think tank RAND Corporation suggests that even this would be inadequate. In the war games, Russia sends an invasion force of 150,000 troops into the Baltics and NATO mobilises in response. RAND summarised the results this month: "The outcome was, bluntly, a disaster for NATO. Across multiple plays of the game, Russian forces eliminated or bypassed all resistance and were at the gates of or actually entering Riga, Tallinn, or both, between 36 and 60 hours after the start of hostilities."
Meaning? "As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members."
Russia is seeking to expand its influence wherever it can, including in the South Pacific, supposedly Australia's sphere of influence. Twenty container loads of Russian military hardware arrived in Fiji last month. The acting commander of Fiji's military, Rear-Admiral Viliame Naupoto, welcomed the weapons: "I must thank the government of Russia for the timely donation."
Russia blames the West for the increased rivalries, and warns that Western sanctions will not succeed. Medvedev said in an interview with Germany's Handelsblaat newspaper at the weekend: "It was you who told us that we are bad; that our decisions contradict international law; that you won't invite us anywhere; that you wouldn't trade with us; and that you would introduce sanctions against us. Now that I've said all of this, tell me, has this changed Russia's stance at least one tiny bit?"
If anything, the sanctions have hardened Russia's stance. "You can tell me that Russia's economy is shithouse, which is true, but that doesn't make Russia cautious, it makes Putin likely to ratchet up the nationalist sentiment at home and the aggression abroad," Dibb says.
According to Dibb, the West has been wrong to write off Russia as a spent force. And if there is a new cold war, Russia is winning: "Look at the way Putin leapt to take advantage of the situation in Syria. Russia now has to be consulted in any settlement. Did anyone in the West predict that six months ago? No they did not. Yes, Russia is winning."
Peter Hartcher is international editor.