Cold War II??? Notes for a Presentation

I was invited to speak at the Eighth European-Russian Forum tomorrow in Brussels. Because of a bureaucratic glitch, I am unable to attend. But I append below the notes from which I intended to speak.

My description of the false myths about the end of the Cold War will doubtless seem like listening to a broken record (back when we played records). These myths are so widespread and so fundamental in encouraging destructive foreign policies that I feel I must continue to refute them.

The ideas for the way the Ukrainian crisis might be resolved will doubtless seem unrealistic to many. But how can either the Ukrainian or the Russian leaders believe that the interests of either country are served by prolonging the civil war in Eastern Ukraine?

Ukrainians and Russians in the area are the main victims of the violence that continues. How long will it take their leaders to come to their senses and put a stop to it?

For anyone interested, here are my notes:


The confrontation between the European Union and the United States with Russia over developments in Ukraine has begun to resemble a renewal of the Cold War with exchanges of harsh accusations, the application of economic sanctions, and—most dangerous—military muscle-flexing. Much of the motivation on all sides stems from misunderstandings of the way the Cold War was brought to an end. These misunderstandings have led to mistaken policies on the part of the “West,” which in turn have produced exaggerated and dangerous reactions on Russia’s part.

Let’s look at what actually happened when and immediately after the Cold War ended.

Three Geopolitically Seismic Events (1987-1991)
Three profound events, largely unexpected by the public and by “experts,” occurred between 1987 and 1991:

1. The Cold War Ended: [Ideologically in December, 1988, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s speech to the United Nations, which was “confirmed” by the elimination of the Iron Curtain by the end of 1989.]

2. The Communist Party Lost Total Control of the USSR [This happened progressively, as the result of democratic reforms, from 1987 through 1991.] and

3. The USSR Fractured into 15 Independent States. [This occurred following an attempt by a clique led by the chairman of the KGB to take power from Gorbachev and impose martial law on the USSR (August, 1991), which so weakened the authority of the central government that it was replaced by the USSR’s “sovereign” republics (December, 1991).]

These were three separate events, with separate, though connected, causation.(The second could not have happened without the first and the third without the first and second.) It is a major mistake to conflate them and consider the end of the Soviet Union the end of the Cold War.

Who Won the Cold War?

We all did! There were NO LOSERS. Every agreement negotiated with the USSR was in the interest of both sides. The arms race was costly for everyone and dangerous, but the citizens of the USSR suffered more from it than did the citizens of the West, where armaments took up a smaller portion of their productive resources.

How Were There No Losers if the Soviet Union Collapsed?

The USSR broke up after the Cold War ended. It broke up because of internal frictions and not external pressure. The United States and its principal allies hoped that Gorbachev would negotiate a voluntary federation of twelve republics—all except Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Was Russia a “Loser” When the Soviet Union Broke Up?

Russia could have benefited from a reformed, democratized union with other Soviet republics, provided it did not try to dominate them. This is what Gorbachev tried to create, and the U.S. and the larger West European countries supported him in this. Perhaps this was an impossible dream, given the fact that much of the USSR was assembled by force and ruled without regard to the best interests of the people.

However, it was not the United States or the E.U. or NATO that broke up the Soviet Union. The elected leader of the RSFSR, Boris Yeltsin, conspired with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to destroy the USSR. Therefore, if the break-up of the USSR was bad for Russia, Russians should blame their own elected leaders at the time, not outsiders who supported Gorbachev’s reform course.

Was Russia Defeated in the Cold War?

Of course not. The Russian Federation was not a party to the Cold War. It was part of the Soviet Union and its leaders helped us negotiate an end to the Cold War to everyone’s benefit.

How Is This Relevant Today?

Following the end of the Cold War, the U.S., European countries and Russia failed to build an effective security structure for Europe which included Russia. (The OSCE has been useful in some respects, but does not have enough support from Russia to be fully successful.) This has happened because many Western policies (such as the expansion of NATO to the east) have been interpreted by Russians as hostile, even though there were other motivations on the Western part. I would characterize many U.S. and European policies as “inconsiderate,” and the Russian overreaction counterproductive: it has often produced an effect opposite to that intended. (In my book, Superpower Illusions, I described the mistakes by the “West” in great detail. Click here to see.

There are many factors contributing to the disconnect in “Western” and Russian policies of late. Some are cultural and psychological. The idea that Russia has been treated as a “defeated” nation has lodged in many Russian minds and has been encouraged by unjustified “triumphalism” in the United States—an attitude adopted by American politicians more for domestic political purposes than from an intent to demean Russia. In the 1990s we considered Russia a partner in ending the Cold War!

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the current situation is the personal coolness and suspicion that has developed between the Russian and Western political leaders. The problem is exacerbated by public debates when one is seen as trying to embarrass or “triumph” over the other. None of our countries can benefit from an attempt to pull Ukraine into one “camp” or the other. In today’s globalizing world, exclusive blocs make no sense. Ukraine needs to have robust economic relations with all its neighbors, and will require help from all to put its shattered economy together. Neither Russia nor the EU can benefit by trying to exclude the other. Ukraine will never be able to fulfill its potential to its own people or to its neighbors unless it has good, productive relations with all.

While Russia must show more flexibility regarding Ukrainian economic ties with the European Union, the Ukrainian leaders would be well advised to stop talking about possible adherence to NATO. Until Ukraine solves its internal problems, it would not qualify for NATO membership. In any event. Ukraine needs normal relations with Russia if it is to survive and flourish, and that requires prudence in external military ties. Basically, there is no military solution to Ukraine’s problems and none should be sought.

Economic Sanctions.

The economic sanctions on Russia are unfortunate; they have not had the effect intended and can do real damage to the Russian people, and some to their trading partners. However, speaking realistically, it is politically impossible for Western governments to roll the sanctions back so long as there is Russian military support for the separatists in East Ukraine and the fighting continues there. Since it cannot be in the Russian interest to encourage war near the Russian border, most victims of which are ethnic Russians, Russia can serve its own interest by helping bring that war to a close.

Is There a Solution to the Ukrainian Civil War?

Yes, but no solution is possible unless most fighting in Eastern Ukraine stops. There also has to be an end to the “tug of war” between Russia, on the one hand, and the EU and the US on the other. This is benefitting nobody, the Ukrainians least of all. Emphasis now must be on ending the violence. All outside parties should encourage the Ukrainian political leaders to offer a constitutional structure acceptable to reasonable elements in the East, and Russia should exert its influence with the separatists to end claims for independence in exchange for amnesty. All external parties should refrain from any support for a continuation of fighting.

Regarding Crimea, we need some face-saving solution. Russia should understand that the rest of the world is not going to recognize Crimea as legitimately part of Russia on the basis of a referendum held while Russia exercised military control of the peninsula. At the same time, Ukrainians should understand that Crimea is no asset if, in fact, the majority of people there prefer to live as part of the Russian Federation.

Eventually, if the Ukrainian government is able to restore unity to the rest of the country, it might be persuaded to acquiesce to Russian administration for a period of time (say, 2-3 years), following which there would be a new referendum conducted under OSCE (or other neutral) auspices. Such an arrangement is likely to be possible only if Ukraine continues its neutral posture regarding military alliances and guarantees Russian control of the Sevastopol Naval Base should Crimeans decide that they prefer to return to Ukrainian jurisdiction.

Are We Facing Cold War II?

Not necessarily. As important as Ukraine is, this is not a world-wide confrontation based on incompatible philosophies made extremely dangerous by a nuclear arms race. Nevertheless, the crisis over Ukraine demonstrates that Cold War attitudes are still widespread on all sides. In many instances these attitudes are not based on an accurate understanding of the situation but on false assumptions about the way the Cold War ended and what has happened since.

It is high time to put aside the remnants of Cold War thinking and find a solution which will be to the benefit of all the parties. The goal must be a peaceful, united Ukraine living in harmony with all its neighbors. There can be no winners if the parties continue to mimic the Cold War in their policies and actions.

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6 Responses to Cold War II??? Notes for a Presentation

  1. nburlakoff says:

    The clarity of historical analysis and optimistic intent of the article is to be lauded. On the other hand, it is difficult not to share Sergei Lavrov’s view that Ukraine is merely a pretext for actions that have larger geopolitical goals.

    The active militarization of the Baltic states, Sweden’s and Finland’s recent talk of joining NATO, the rhetoric indicating the viability of the idea that Ukraine will be actively considered for NATO status, the development of a NATO training facility in Georgia, and the recent dispatch of 100 members of the 4th Infantry Brigade to East-Central Europe support that view.

    There is little question that important forces in Europe would like to see a a negotiated resolution of the crisis. The question of whether such intent exists in Washington, is not a settled matter. The Crisis, as a US project, has been in the making since the Clinton administration. President Obama saw no need to curtail it on his watch, and its recent evolution speak to goals beyond Ukraine.

    Perhaps, Ambassador Matlock, as a veteran diplomat, subscribes to the notion that one eats an elephant, “one bite at a time,” and this article is a call to begin that process. In any case, it is heartening to see that there still are “adults,” who understand the limits and dangers of Washington’s recent words and actions. Let’s hope the words of this article fall on fertile soil.

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