Who started it?

Jonathan Steele

  • The Cold War: A World History by Odd Arne Westad
    Allen Lane, 710 pp, £30.00, August 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 01131 7

More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since the Cold War ended and the surprise is that few historians have yet attempted to analyse it from start to finish, even though for two generations it threatened the world with nuclear armageddon. The balance of terror between the superpowers may have seemed to offer reassurance – as if it could last for ever – but that was always an illusion. Even the millions born since the Soviet Union’s collapse haven’t escaped the Cold War’s mindset, since many aspects of the old confrontation survive. Current tensions over countries that used to be unassailable parts of Soviet territory and are now Nato members, like the three Baltic states, or Ukraine and Georgia, which are seeking to become members, have led us towards a new Cold War.

It is different from the original one. Ideological conflict no longer pits Moscow against today’s enlarged ‘West’, since Russia’s elite unashamedly embraced capitalism after 1991. The Kremlin has ceased to stand at the head of a rival economic and social system that challenges the US promise of individual freedom and global prosperity. Today’s struggle between Moscow and Washington involves traditional nation-state competition for political and economic influence. The scope is no longer global: it is limited to areas bordering Russia – in Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia – and since 2015 to parts of the Middle East. The struggle is asymmetrical: Nato and the EU have extended their political and military alliances to areas that used to be aligned with Moscow; Russia’s response has been to sustain proxy armed groups in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – ensuring that all three are stuck in frozen conflicts which reduce their chances of Nato membership.

Another difference from the latter half of the Cold War is that Russia is allied with China again, but their relationship is now pragmatic, not ideological. They see themselves as forming an axis of resistance to US efforts at promoting regime change in foreign countries. While the US has marginalised or ignored the UN in recent years, Russia and China have increasingly used the Security Council to defend state sovereignty and non-interference as indispensable principles of international law. This doesn’t mean they haven’t violated or wouldn’t violate other countries’ sovereignty on occasion themselves – but neither state approved the US-led invasions of Serbia, Iraq and Libya, the last two of which produced catastrophes that are still unfolding.

Russia and the US are still the world’s most heavily armed nuclear states, but Russia’s power is hugely diminished. It has no ambitions for restoring anything like the Soviet Union, let alone becoming a global superpower again. It seeks international influence and respect, not empire. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia spent $69 billion on defence in 2016, little more than a tenth of the US spend of $611 billion and substantially less than the combined total of Britain and France. To imagine that Russia wants to provoke a hot war in Europe is fantasy. Its development of anti-Western cyber warfare and its efforts at political meddling abroad through social media (on which the facts are still highly unclear) reflect weakness rather than strength.

Yet another difference from the latter days of the Cold War: with rare exceptions, the Western mass media are now more partisan. Instead of trying to test the accusations made against Russia alongside Russians’ own explanations, most European and American commentators, as well as political leaders, with the notable exceptions of Donald Trump and a number of right-wing populists in Europe, jump to worst-case views of Moscow’s foreign policy. There is no equivalent to the debate between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ that took place in Western parliaments and the mainstream media in the 1970s and early 1980s over whether to pursue detente or confrontation, engagement or containment. Nowadays, in Europe, only the far right makes the case for seeking agreements with Russia, which prevents discussion of that case’s potential merits. Or the case is put by Trump and promptly doused with contempt, as the US media declare that his line is dictated by murky commercial self-interest, political payback for help during his election campaign or even blackmail. Whatever Trump’s motives – and he clearly didn’t think carefully before adopting most of his policies – the argument for trying to have better relationships with Moscow shouldn’t automatically be discredited because he, for a time, seemed to favour it. But, regrettably, for experts even to suggest that any aspect of Russian policy may reflect legitimate interests is to invite the charge of being an appeaser, a dupe of Moscow or a Putin apologist. The distinction between understanding and justifying Kremlin policy gets blurred.

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