There is a lot of talk lately about a return to the Cold War. Within the past ten days or so, Administration officials insisted that the chillier climes of years past have not returned. However, with Russian troops now in the Ukraine, many believe that the polar vortex of this winter brought an international political freeze with it.
As used in today’s headlines, the term, Cold War, describes the relationship between the United States and the then Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991. Tensions began at the end of World War II and concluded with the fall of the Soviet Government. Many historians view the Cold War as the third major war of the last century.
Cold Wars differ from Hot Wars, which involve actual military combat, and Warm Wars, where negotiations are ongoing but so is military mobilization. The Cold variety can be more than a war of words and escalating tensions, however. In the case of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the countries did square off, albeit indirectly, in battles fought in “client states”. Some of these battles involved both countries providing aid to the combatants. In other cases, troops of one of the two countries were in the fight while the other limited its involvement to aid.
For example, while U.S. troops did fight the Viet Nam War, Soviet participation was restricted to providing aid to the North Vietnamese. The U.S. returned the favor in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The closest the two antagonists came to mutual combat was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
While the height of Cold War tensions existed between 1945 and 1991, in a real sense, it began in 1917 and has never ended. The strained relations in 1945 were merely a resumption of mutual feelings of ill will between the Soviets and the West, including the United States. These feelings were rooted in fundamental political differences that sprang to life when the Bolsheviks turned the lights out on the Romanovs. These differences grew into a poisonous distrust that, in turn, mushroomed into the history of hostility that marked the latter half of the 20th Century. Looking at the big picture, the Cold War can’t return because it never went away.
Taking this longer view, the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991 provided only a second respite in the Cold War. The Soviet territory was divided into a “commonwealth of independent states”, including, among others, Russia and the Ukraine. The Cold War went dormant while these divisions were put in place and the new countries were occupied with the business of becoming independent entities. The Cold War returned in force in the past couple of years. The hostile political rhetoric of the post World War II era is back. And Russia and the U.S. are again on opposite sides of several Global tinderbox locales such as Iran and Syria.
This weekend, the leaders of seven countries, including the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Japan, were lighting up the international phone lines. They were busy discussing their options in light of the Russian military presence in the Ukraine. The G-7 decided to cancel the upcoming economic summit in Sochi. That should really show Putin who’s boss. The UN Secretary General sounded an even weaker note, urging Russia and the Ukraine to negotiate a resolution. Meanwhile, Russian troops remain in the Ukraine.
Putin’s response to calls to end his military incursion is that Russia is acting not only in its interests, which would be enough anyway. It is also taking action to protect the Russia-speaking citizens of the Eastern and Southern parts of the Ukraine. In fact, the Ukraine is a country with divided loyalties. So, while the G-7 talk to each other and the UN Secretary General talks to himself, Putin is taking care of business in the Ukraine.
The failing in dealing effectively with Russia does not lie with Canada, France, Germany, the UK, Italy or Japan. None of them have been superpowers in a very long time. In fact, Germany, Italy and Japan fought the rest in World War II and lost. None of them has experienced a resurgence of military might. The real failing is with the United States. In the past five years it has receded so far into the background that it plays only a minor, harping role on the world stage.
The collapse of the U.S. as a superpower leaves no counterbalance to Russia. While fundamental political differences remain and hostilities have increased between the two countries, Russia is now in a Cold War with an embarrassingly ineffective opponent. In some quarters, this means the war is now a display of Russian shadow-boxing. Whether the Cold War is still a two country fight or a one-country show, there’s no return from something that never ended.