Since Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, Vladimir Putin has spoken of the attack as part of a civilizational conflict with the West—like the Cold War—while he and his military leaders continue to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Today, the Russia of Putin looks far weaker than the empire of Stalin and Brezhnev ever did, with Moscow having failed to achieve almost all its goals in Ukraine—and many of the Soviet Union’s old satellite states now NATO members.

At the same time, Russia has become much closer to China than it was in the communist era, as Xi Jinping pursues his declared ambitions to counter the global power of the United States. The U.S. and the EU have meanwhile moved to break off economic relations with Russia and halt the development of Chinese tech industries. From the end of World War II through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world was fundamentally split into two hostile blocs. Is it happening again?

To Lucan Way, it is. Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of three books on authoritarianism. Much of the globe, he says, has been dividing into two camps, democratic and authoritarian—“the free and the unfree”—and the conflict between them is deepening.

But the nature and contours of this new division are different. Now the two sides aren’t fighting over an ideology, as the democratic and communist blocs of the Cold War were. And there are regionally powerful countries today that can challenge the goals of the democrats or the authoritarians—or cooperate with either. In the absence of an organizing ideological dimension, and with the presence of other powerful actors, Way sees the new era of global conflict becoming more chaotic—and ultimately more unpredictable—than the Cold War ever was.

Michael Bluhm: Putin has framed the Ukraine war as a proxy conflict with the West and NATO. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, he says, NATO has never stopped expanding its borders and threatening Moscow.

Yet the war seems to have made Russia much weaker—even weaker than the Soviet Union was toward the end of its history. What do you see Putin as having done to Russia’s position in the world here?

Lucan Way: First of all, Russia is much richer today than it was in that time of the Soviet Union. Until very recently, it had a dynamic market economy.

The main difference between the two eras is that, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a universal ideology that could theoretically be applied anywhere: communism. It was the Soviets’ counterpart to the also-universal liberal-democratic ideology of America and its allies.

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