Does the US-Russian crisis over Ukraine prove that the Cold War never ended?

In his last State of the Union address, in 1992, President George HW Bush sounded almost ecstatic. “The greatest thing that has happened to the world in my life, in our lives, is this: By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” The ideological struggle between the US-led West and the Soviet-dominated East – which has been fought in proxy wars around the world for four decades – had not simply ended, said President. The United States had triumphed. “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes a single and preeminent power, the United States of America, he told a joint session of Congress. “And they look at it without fear. Because the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. Bush truly believed in what he called “a new world order” marking the end of an era. “The quest for freedom is stronger than steel, more permanent than concrete,” he said in November 1989, as the Berlin Wall and communist regimes in Eastern Europe crumbled. .

Bush’s two assertions seem dubious, even naïve, three decades later. In a stunning announcement on Friday, President Biden said that, based on “significant intelligence”, the United States believes President Vladimir Putin intends to invade Ukraine. The Russian leader “is focused on trying to convince the world that he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe in ways that he can’t,” Biden told reporters. Saturday, during a stopover in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic today NATO ally, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russian forces “are unfolding and are now ready to strike.”

Amid growing tensions, a new debate has emerged among historians and Russia pundits over whether the Cold War really ended – at least as far as Moscow is concerned – and whether American arrogance blinded US presidents successive. Russia, with the largest army in Europe, is now reborn. He is trying to re-establish his traditional sphere of influence. In Europe, over the past fourteen years, Russia has invaded and annexed part of Ukraine, invaded Georgia and recognized two of its breakaway provinces as independent countries. For the first time, Russia has established a military presence in the Mediterranean at naval and air bases in Syria, in the Middle East. In Africa, thousands of Russian contract mercenaries have been deployed on the Mediterranean coast of oil-rich Libya as well as in Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Madagascar. Now Russia seems determined to absorb geostrategic Ukraine – a country slightly smaller than Texas that borders four members of NATO— either by military force or by political coercion. Moscow counters that Washington’s criticism is hypocritical, given US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, much further from its own shores, over the past two decades.

From a historical perspective, some experts now see the current tensions as just another phase of a cold war that never ended. “We can trace current tensions back to the Cold War,” Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute, told me at the Wilson Center. “There are important continuities.” He said today’s crisis was neither predestined nor inevitable. Had American, Russian and Chinese leaders made “a whole bunch” of different choices along the way, history might have taken a different, less troubled course. “But it now looks like the period between the Cold War and today was an interregnum,” he said. “We thought the issues were resolved, but it’s now clear they weren’t.” The new lens on the past will be difficult for Americans to accept, he said, because today’s crisis reflects a “collective failure” over decades.

The brief period of hope – when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev worked out compromises on nuclear weapons when glasnost opened in the late 1980s, and when Bush hosted Boris Yeltsin at Camp David in 1992 – contrasts sharply with Putin’s decision, in 2022, to accumulate the largest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. The combative language of today echoes the political fury of the past. On Thursday, the Kremlin sent an eleven-page response to Biden’s proposals to bolster European and Russian security. Putin hesitated – stubbornly. Instead, Russia pledged never to give up on its two basic demands – first, that Ukraine could never join NATOand second, that NATOthe world’s most powerful military alliance, is calling off its deployment of troops and equipment to its 1997 borders. The response included a new threat, expected NATO refuse. “In the absence of the will of the American side to agree on firm and legally binding guarantees to ensure our security vis-à-vis the United States and its allies,” he promised, “ Russia will be forced to react, in particular by implementing military measures”. – technical character.

From today’s perspective, the root causes of tensions between Washington and Moscow haven’t changed much since the Cold War, Sergey Radchenko, an international relations expert at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told me. . Washington’s assumption that the Cold War ended in 1989 was “unduly American-centric” and ignored Moscow’s historical desire to be seen and respected by the United States and Europe as a major power, whatever their ideology. “There was never any talk of this conflict between capitalism and communism,” he said. “It was much more about challenging the hierarchy of world politics and climbing the ladder at the expense of the United States.” Gaining acceptance as an equal power, with its own sphere of influence, has been Moscow’s goal, whether under Communist or post-Communist rule, since the 1945 Yalta summit of the three leaders World War II allies, Radchenko mentioned.

Others further separate historical epochs. They argue that there are more differences than similarities between the Cold War of the 20th century and the tensions of the early 21st. “I don’t think it would be accurate to say it was just an interregnum, a short little thing, and then we go back to how the story always is,” Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia now at Stanford University. , said. “The old Cold War has come to an end.” It was followed, McFaul said, by a “moment of opportunity” when Russia could have consolidated democratic governance at home and integrated into the liberal international order. “Some of us worked on this project – and this project failed in 2011,” he said, referring to the period just before Putin took over the presidency and consolidated power. The Cold War, McFaul said, has been replaced by a time of “burning peace. And now it can get a lot hotter.”

The only constant is Moscow’s ambition, Francis Fukuyama, author of “The End of History and the Last Man,” told me. Putin openly lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “huge tragedy.” His foreign policy has really been to try to bring together as much of this entity as possible. But otherwise, Fukuyama said, the stakes between 1947 and 1989 were higher and the conflict “much more enveloping” on a global scale. The Cold War has often been seen as a conflict between rival universalist ideologies. In 2022, Putin instead seeks to “undermine Western democracies’ belief in their own systems, but he’s not actually trying to pretend that Russia has a superior system that would apply in other countries,” Fukuyama said. . The ideological battles of the Cold War have been replaced by more traditional geopolitical competition. “Russia is just trying to gain influence by using the kind of limited military leverage it has in different parts of the world. But this is not the Cold War,” Fukuyama said. Today’s Russia, he added, is much weaker than the Soviet empire was, especially since much of Eastern Europe is “pretty solidly aligned with the West”.

The Cold War lasted nearly half a century. Should Russia actually invade Ukraine, the crisis has the potential to drag on and spill over to other countries on Russia’s borders, as the Cold War did. “Moscow has made it clear that it is ready to challenge the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades, and to do so using force,” he added. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. “I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe.”

Amid tensions over Ukraine, little attention has been paid to Putin’s intentions in neighboring Belarus, which is already Moscow’s closest ally among the former republics of the Soviet empire. Putin received Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow on Friday. Lukashenka, who crushed pro-democracy street protests last year with help from Putin, has offered to allow Russia to deploy nuclear weapons in his country, which borders three NATO members—Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. On Saturday, from a command center in Moscow, Putin and Lukashenka together watched joint military exercises in Belarus that included nuclear-capable cruise and ballistic missiles and involved thirty thousand Russian troops. “Once this big exercise is over, I think it’s entirely possible that Russia will leave a lot of its own forces there and actually reintegrate Belarus,” Fukuyama, who has worked on projects in Ukraine for seven years. Putin, he added, “probably planned to do it anyway. This gives him an excuse.

President Bush was right about one thing in his last address to Congress three decades ago. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, “the world is still a dangerous place,” he said. “Only the dead have seen the end of the conflict. And if the challenges of yesterday are behind us, those of tomorrow are in the process of being born.

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