On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the last leader of the Soviet Union, ending 44 years of ideological conflict, nuclear brinksmanship and military combat-by-proxy with the U.S. Forever. Or so it seemed. Now, Russia and the U.S. have squared off on either side of conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, shot down a Russian fighter jet. A Russian leader is proposing an economic and political alternative to Western-style democracy. Is the Cold War back? The veteran U.S. statesman Henry Kissinger has said it’s possible. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said it’s happening. Now Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential race could change the temperature again.
During the campaign, Trump questioned the key Western security alliances that Russia has long opposed and tilted toward the Kremlin's position on issues like the Syrian civil war and Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Russian troops have been fighting with and arming pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The U.S. Congress voted to supply more lethal weapons to the Ukrainian army, but President Barack Obama resisted and, for now, a cease-fire is in place. In Syria, the U.S. has come under growing pressure from allies to arm Sunni rebels with anti-aircraft weapons, so they can defend themselves against Russian airstrikes. That would put U.S. weapons in position to kill Russian soldiers — just as American arms did in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and as Soviet arms killed U.S. troops in Vietnam. The U.S. and European nations have imposed sanctions against Russia to discourage further aggression in Ukraine. Sanctions were also a feature of the Cold War. Russian jets have been buzzing NATO airspace and naval vessels at a rate not seen since the days of the Soviet Union. The alliance is strengthening its presence along Russia’s borders in response. Political oratory has also developed a Cold War tone, with President Vladimir Putin accusing the U.S. and EU of trying to humiliate Russia. U.S. officials blamed Russia for a hack into Democratic Party servers during the November election, a charge it denied.
The Cold War began in 1947, when U.S. President Harry Truman asked Congress for $400 million (about $4.2 billion in today’s dollars) to help defeat the communists in Greece’s civil war and stop the Soviet Union from projecting power in the Mediterranean and Middle East. In his speech, he set out what came to be called the Truman doctrine, under which the U.S. would contain Soviet expansion by supporting “free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Soviet diplomats saw this policy as imperial aggression from an American elite claiming the right to lead the world. The ensuing struggle included Soviet efforts in 1948 and 1961 to drive the Allies out of Berlin; a nuclear arms race; the Korean and Vietnam wars; the creation of opposing military blocs in Europe; and the Cuban missile crisis. It wasn’t until 1969 that the two sides sought a kind of truce, with arms control treaties, hotlines and other measures to reduce the chance of war.
The current standoff between Russia and the U.S. shares features of the Cold War, including deep mistrust. There are big differences, too. Some analysts of Russia and Eastern Europe have argued that the Cold War cannot repeat itself because Russia has no ideology as alluring as communism, and because its military is weaker, its allies fewer and its economy more integrated with the rest of the world’s. The counter-argument, from the likes of Columbia University’s Robert Legvold, is that while today’s might be a different Cold War, it should be treated similarly. That’s because Russia retains a vast nuclear arsenal, as well as the will and military means to be a regional superpower. A doctrine that claims the right to intervene militarily wherever ethnic Russians live makes the risk of escalation high. And while Putin’s Russia may not have communism to offer the world, he has found takers for a concept of “managed democracy” and conservative values that compete with democratic and liberal ones. So containment and agreements to reduce the risk of unintended wars may be needed again. Whether a Cold War or just a cool one, it could be long and costly to both sides.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky explained Putin's ultimatum to the next U.S. president.
- Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech popularized the defining metaphor of the Cold War.
- George Kennan’s Long Telegram and Foreign Affairs article framed the U.S. policy of containment.
- The diplomat Nikolai Novikov articulated the Soviet perspective on U.S. intentions in a 1946 telegram to Kennan.
- U.S. State Department Office of the Historian gives the official U.S. version of the Berlin crisis, as well as other Cold War episodes.
- Yale University’s Avalon Project provides a range of Cold War documents.
- Bloomberg View’s editorial recommends steps to keep the new “Cool War” from heating up.
- CNN says its 24-part video series on the Cold War shows how that conflict shaped today’s world.
First published Dec. 18, 2014
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