Redrawing any map is a messy affair. When the world’s largest country wants to steal a march over the world’s most powerful country by sketching new lines in quest of lost glory, it is prudent to ask if a war is in the offing.
If the two countries happen to be Russia and the US, the question is: is there going to be a new cold war?
On Tuesday, it was a confident Vladimir Putin who told his country’s Parliament that Russia had recognized the Republic of Crimea as a part of Russia, even as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) declared the Crimean referendum to secede from Ukraine invalid.
It is tempting to term this the start of a new Cold War. But is it really so?
The Cold War began in earnest after the US in 1950 adopted the National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) outlining a strategy to “contain” the Soviet Union. The basis of the Cold War was ideological—the fight between Communism and Capitalism—even if its effects were felt across the world.
The Cold War pitted east against west, pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war.Now, as we approach the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which brought the era to a close,the lightning-quick takeover by Moscow has abruptly redrawn the geopolitical atlas and may have decisively ended a 25-year period of often tumultuous yet also constructive relations between the United States and Russia.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989(The Wall was built in 1961 to prevent East Germans from fleeing Communism and to stop an economically disastrous drain of workers), Washington and Moscow had struggled to replace their Cold War rivalry with a new form of partnership, one that was tested by crisis after crisis but that endured in its own peculiar way. After each rupture, whether over Kosovo or Iraq or Georgia, came another reset that put the two powers back onto an uneasy equilibrium.
Russia no longer believes in Communism and is among the biggest gainers from the rising price of commodities in a world that never seems to have enough of them. It is nickel, coal, oil and gas that have enabled Russian greatness and not an imagined ideological rivalry.
The first steps towards Crimea’s annexation were, ironically, taken by the US during Bill Clinton’s presidency when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began its eastward expansion, breaching the old Cold War barriers. Russia wearily gave into Poland and the three Baltic republics—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—becoming NATO members. Then came the attack against Serbia in 1999 and the support for Kosovo’s independence in 2008 in a not very different manner from what Russia has done in Crimea.
Had the US and Europe stopped there, Russia probably would have lived with these changed realities. It was the Western dream of bringing Ukraine and Georgia in its fold that breached the Russian red line. Georgia was warned in a small war in 2008. The US should have heeded that signal. It did not. Russia did not let the Ukrainian challenge of closer ties with the West go unmet.
Russia is a great power, one which won’t take slights lightly. The US has to learn to differentiate between Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and an adversary like Russia.
The decision by President Vladimir V. Putin to snatch Crimea away from Ukraine, celebrated in a defiant treaty-signing ceremony in the Kremlin on Tuesday, threatens to usher in a new, more dangerous era. If it is not the renewed Cold War that some fear, it seems likely to involve a sustained period of confrontation and alienation that will be hard to overcome.
EU, US & Australia have already imposed sanctions against Russian officials, stating that Russian government activities and policies in respect to the Ukraine threatened its peace, security, stability, souvereignity and territorial integrity and has contributed to misappropriation of its assets.
It will take more than asset freezes and travel bans to get Putin to back off. To his credit, Putin has been biding his time and has effectively achieved what he set out to do–get back Crimea.
The breaking of a nation-state is not a pleasant sight. Every forced break-up raises fears of a more anarchic world order. China’s decision to abstain in the vote against Russia at UNSC reflected these fears. Every country has its troubled regions. If a great power begins fishing in troubled waters to take away what it claims as its own, then global disorder is not far off.
That said, one needs to understand why Russia has annexed Crimea. It is responding to a situation that has evolved over the past 23 years. Russia has illustrated in definitive terms that if the US and NATO push eastwards, then it has the ability and the will to push back.
But long before Russian troops occupied Crimea, the relationship had already spiraled downward, particularly since Mr. Putin formally resumed the presidency in 2012. He and Mr. Obama had little respect for each other, and Mr. Putin blamed the United States for street protests in Moscow. He brushed off Mr. Obama’s attempts to restart nuclear arms reduction talks and gave shelter to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor and leaker.
In response, Mr. Obama declared a “pause” in the relationship and canceled a trip to Moscow, the first time a president had scrubbed a Russian-American summit meeting in more than a half-century. By the time pro-Western street protests in Ukraine led to the ouster of its pro-Moscow president and Russia responded by sending troops to Crimea, a corner had been turned.
In jeopardy are all sorts of areas where the United States and Russia cooperate. The two collaborate closely on space exploration, and American access to the International Space Station depends entirely on Russian rocket launches. American troops heading to and from Afghanistan fly through Russian airspace. Intelligence agencies share information about terrorist organizations, albeit not always everything. American experts help Russians dismantle old nuclear weapons.
How did the Cold war play out in the past
The two superpowers never engaged directly in full-scale armed combat but they each armed heavily in preparation of an all-out nuclear World War III. Each side had a nuclear deterrent that deterred an attack by the other side, on the basis that such an attack would lead to total destruction of the attacker: the doctrine of mutually assured destruction or MAD. Aside from the development of the two sides’ nuclear arsenals, and deployment of conventional military forces, the struggle for dominance was expressed via proxy wars around the globe, psychological warfare, propaganda and espionage, and technological competitions such as the Space Race.
The first phase of the Cold War began in the aftermath of the end of the Second World War. The USSR consolidated its control over the states of the Eastern Bloc while the United States began a strategy of global containment to challenge Soviet power, extending military and financial aid to the countries of Western Europe (for example, supporting the anti-Communist side in the Greek Civil War) and creating the NATO alliance. The Berlin Blockade (1948–49) was the first major crisis of the Cold War.
With victory of the Communist side in the Chinese Civil War and the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–53), the conflict expanded as the USSR and USA competed for influence in Latin America and decolonizing states of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was brutally crushed by the Soviets. The expansion and escalation sparked more crises, such as the Suez Crisis (1956), the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Following this last crisis a new phase began that saw the Sino-Soviet split complicate relations within the Communist sphere while US allies, particularly France, demonstrated greater independence of action. The USSR crushed the 1968 Prague Spring liberalization program in Czechoslovakia and the Vietnam War (1955–1975) ended with a defeat of the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam, prompting further adjustments.
By the 1970s both sides had become interested in accommodations to create a more stable and predictable international system, inaugurating a period of détente that saw Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the US opening relations with the People’s Republic of China as a strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union. Détente collapsed at the end of the decade with the Soviet war in Afghanistan beginning in 1979.
The early 1980s were another period of elevated tension, with the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (1983), and the “Able Archer” NATO military exercises (1983). The United States increased diplomatic, military, and economic pressures on the Soviet Union, at a time when the communist state was already suffering from economic stagnation. In the mid-1980s, the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the liberalizing reforms of perestroika (“reorganization”, 1987) and glasnost (“openness”, ca. 1985) and ended Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Pressures for national independence grew stronger in Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Gorbachev meanwhile refused to use Soviet troops to bolster the faltering Warsaw Pact regimes as had occurred in the past. The result in 1989 was a wave of revolutions that peacefully (with the exception of the Romanian Revolution) overthrew all of the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself lost control and was banned following an an abortive coup attempt in August 1991. This in turn led to the formal dissolution of the USSR in December 1991 and the collapse of Communist regimes in other countries such as Mongolia, Cambodia and South Yemen. The United States remained as the world’s only superpower.