What you need to know
One of the problems with assumptions about a 'new Cold War' may be that they're not scary enough.
Happily, Russia and the U.S. seem to have pulled back from some of the bitterness, outrage and disappointment that set the tone between them 10 days ago.
But the stakes in Syria remain incredibly high. There's a real danger that both sides, which had appeared to be on the verge of pragmatically composing their differences, could stumble into a war that neither wants with unforeseeable (and potentially cataclysmic) consequences.
One of the problems with assumptions about a "new Cold War" may be that they're not scary enough. After all, from a Western point of view, the Cold War not only passed without cataclysm, but also (according to the conventional wisdom) ushered in a triumph that apparently vindicated, perhaps for all time, the ultimate victory of the West's social, political and economic liberalism.
The suggestion is hardly original, but surely the years before World War I provide a better, if more sobering, analogy for the state of U.S.-Russia relations today.
From the Bosnian crisis of 1908 to the contested outcome of the First and Second Balkan Wars in 1912-13 and the 1913 German military mission to the Ottoman Empire, Russia saw itself as suffering a series of deliberate international humiliations at the hands of the Kaiser's Germany.
When St Petersburg pledged to support its ally Serbia in the latter's confrontation with Austria-Hungary during the July Crisis of 1914, it was the belief that Russia had formed regarding Germany's fundamental hostility not only to Russian interests but to Russia that led Nicholas II to declare that 'this time we will not back down'.
Similarly, today Moscow increasingly considers Washington opposed to its interests everywhere. To the Kremlin, the West's repeated dismissal of Russian interests only serves to indicate that the US ultimately seeks Russia's demise, or would be indifferent to its fate were its government to collapse or the state itself start to break up.
By the standards of 1914, the Kremlin considers itself to have displayed exemplary patience.
In 1999, Moscow's protests failed to stop NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia or its subsequent partition of that country when it granted independence to Kosovo. Neither act enjoyed UN sanction.
Meanwhile, debates about NATO expansion are as old as the post-Cold War period itself. Moscow acquiesced in a united Germany's admission to the alliance, and would probably have learnt to live with its 1999 absorption of the "Visegrad" counties of Central Europe: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
But the admission of the three former Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) in 2004 was humiliating, pushing the NATO security cordon right up to the edges of the historic Russian heartland on the shores of Lake Peipus. Washington's further determination that two more former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, should join the alliance was a red line, one Moscow unequivocally demonstrated the West had crossed in 2008 and again in 2014.
Coalescing with dismay over the West's hostility to Russian interests in Eastern Europe, from 2011 Libya and Syria became further additions to Moscow's list of Western-imposed humiliations. Notwithstanding Russia's longstanding relationship with Damascus and its (albeit modest) base on the country's Mediterranean coast, Washington sidelined Moscow even as it tacitly invited the meddling of U.S. allies such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Compounding Moscow's dismay (not least by betraying a cardinal value of Russia's fundamentally realist worldview, whereby order, any order, is considered better than anarchy), Washington unilaterally decided that the only Syrian government there was had to be overthrown. Without any debate with the UN Security Council (let alone consent), it was decided that Syria's future would not include its present government.
Thus by the end of 2014 the curious situation had arisen whereby the U.S. and its European and Australasian allies had sanctioned Russia for supporting a local rebellion against a regionally contested government in Ukraine, while the West and its Saudi and Qatari allies funnelled weapons, money and diplomatic support to rebels against the legally constituted government of Syria with impunity.
So self-referential had Western policy-making become that when, at the invitation of the country's only legal government, Moscow intervened directly in 2015 to save the Syrian state from imminent collapse, Washington nonsensically accused Russia of "escalation." Surely, from Moscow's point of view, the West and its allies had achieved that already?
Of course, there is much in this one-sided narrative to contest, but there is no denying it is an important element in the context from which calls to prosecute Russia for war crimes must be be assessed. In Moscow's eyes, these calls are the latest affront to its dignity from a Western world that denies the existence of any legitimate Russian interests, and as potential cover for regime change in Moscow.
Certainly, the increasingly popular argument in the West that it's time to "put the foot down" on Putin's "aggression" is a mirror-image of the Russian perception of Western foreign policy, from Kosovo to Iraq, Georgia, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
Yet Russia is too big and too crucial a component of Eurasia's new configurations of power to be relegated with impunity (as if it were but another Iran, only bigger) to the margins of international society by a combined Western strategy of political ostracism, economic sanctions and, as has been threatened, judicial action.
If Western governments press accusations of war crimes, they must do so with the knowledge that, unless similar charges are brought against those responsible for the violence that has consumed Iraq, Libya and Yemen, it will be seen in Russia as a deeply cynical act. As Russian ambassador to the UK Aleksandr Yakovenko tartly observed on Sunday, "the expression 'collateral damage' wasn't invented by us."
Rather than serving to defend the impartiality of the global "human rights regime," Western support for war crimes investigations against Russia will only confirm in most Russians' eyes how naked an instrument of Western foreign policy the whole doctrine of human rights has become.
Obama seems to have decided to step back from further confrontation. But the days of the present Washington administration are quite literally numbered. If and when Hilary Clinton becomes president of the US, she must be under no illusions about the dangers involved in her plan, taken straight from the playbook of the first Clinton presidency, to impose a "humanitarian" no-fly zone over northern Syria.
My feeling is that this time, as in 1914, the Russians won't back down.
This article was originally published in the Lowy Interpreter.
Editor: J. Michael Cole