On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the last leader of the Soviet Union, ending 44 years of ideological conflict, nuclear brinkmanship 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. Russia stands accused of meddling in elections in the U.S. and Europe. 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 said it’s possible. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said it’s happening. Donald Trump's presidency promised to ease tensions, though instead they show signs of getting worse.
After a failed attempt to "reset" U.S. relations with Russia in 2008 by President Barack Obama, Russian jets buzzed NATO airspace and naval vessels at a rate not seen since the days of the Soviet Union. The alliance strengthened its presence along Russia’s borders in response. Political oratory also developed a Cold War tone, with President Vladimir Putin accusing the U.S. and European Union of trying to humiliate Russia. In June, Russia threatened to target warplanes in Syria flown by the U.S. and its allies after the U.S. shot down a jet belonging to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia's ally. The U.S. and EU imposed sanctions on Russia, another feature of the Cold War, after Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014. All that promised to change under President Trump, who as a candidate 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 Crimea. But since taking office, investigations into Trump officials' possible collusion with Russia and its meddling in the 2016 U.S. election -- allegations Russia denies -- have complicated efforts to improve relations. Congress voted overwhelmingly to impose sanctions against Russia for the election interference and gave lawmakers the power to block the president from lifting them. That sparked retaliation by Russia, which ordered the U.S. to remove hundreds of embassy and other personnel in the country.
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
- 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.
- 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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Leah Harrison at email@example.com