06 August 2023
The European Cold War never really ended!

The European Cold War never really ended!

We are now in the midst of the second Cold War in Europe, according to some analysts. But a close reading of events suggests that the first European Cold War may never have really ended.

The “end of the European Cold War” in 1991 was the culmination of a series of events during the preceding years. Political tensions eased through arms reduction agreements between the US and the USSR. The Berlin Wall came down, and East and West Germany were reunified. Central European countries were liberated from Soviet domination. In late 1991 the Soviet Union itself dissolved into its component republics, including an independent Ukraine and a new Russian Federation. The era of European communism came to an end.

These momentous changes were enabled by Mikhail Gorbachev’s pragmatic and cooperative leadership of an economically and financially desperate USSR. He established very good relations with US presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush. Following the dissolution of the USSR, Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic and incompetent leadership of a new, but poor and weak Russian Federation, enabled the West to achieve goals like NATO membership for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999.

In sum, the West firmly believed that it had “won” the European Cold War. And its hope was that Russia would become a democratic capitalistic economy and partner, similar to Poland or Hungary in a unipolar US-dominated world. But the Russian leadership never quite saw things that way, something that came into sharper focus under the leadership of Vladimir Putin from 2000.

Most significantly, the “end” of the European Cold War was quite different from the end of World War 2, which saw the unconditional surrender of the Nazi regime (and also the Imperial regime of Japan), and the establishment of a new regime. Indeed, the Russian Communist Party and the KGB, the West’s foremost enemies, were still very much alive and well despite the “end” of the European Cold War.

Russian/West tensions reappear during the 1990s

The 1990s were the decade of Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic leadership of Russia. In principle, Russia was on the road to democracy, a market economy and a cooperative partnership with the West. But the economy went into free fall, with GDP contracting by about 40% between 1991 and 1998. When Russia experienced a big financial crisis in 1998, many blamed it on the shock therapy advice from the West and its lack of support.

Russian politics also became chaotic. In 1991, hardliners of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party attempted a coup. In 1993, President Yeltsin performed a self-coup, dissolving parliament and instituting a presidential rule by decree system. Facing the threat of losing the 1996 presidential election, Yeltsin enlisted the support of business oligarchs through a shady “loans for shares” privatisation scheme, which enabled him to be re-elected. In 1999, Yeltsin chose Vladimir Putin as his presidential successor in large part because of his promise to leave Yeltsin and his family untouched, despite their corruption.

Russian elites were not happy with the “end of the Cold War”. The country lost lots of territory and geopolitical status, and was no longer being treated as a great power. Many were critical of Gorbachev believing he got rolled by the West. Notwithstanding its troubles, Russia believed that it was different from countries like Poland or Hungary, particularly given its enormous, resource-rich lands, and its proud history and culture. In sum, Russia was not prepared to meekly subordinate itself to US hegemony, and be treated like Poland and Hungary – former Soviet colonies.

So as early as 1991 Boris Yelstin created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to maintain Russian influence and geopolitical control over the former members of the Soviet Union, even if Russia could no longer afford the subsidies of Soviet times. In the Russian mind, independence of former Soviet republics was conditional on being allied with Russia, and not joining the West. But there were immediately growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the largest republic in terms of population and economy. The West also greatly underestimated Russia’s hostile reaction to NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99, especially its bombing of Belgrade.

There has been much debate about the incorporation of former communist countries into NATO. While there were suggestions that NATO would not open its doors to these countries, Gorbachev never obtained a formal guarantee. And former Soviet satellites and dominions which still lived in fear of a return on Soviet domination were very keen to join NATO. But while Yeltsin reluctantly swallowed NATO membership for a number of central European countries, Russia was never happy about the shift of these former communist countries to the Western camp. Indeed, the expanded NATO merely shifted the European political divide between NATO and non-NATO members to the east and very much closer to Russia.

Arrival of Putin to Russian leadership

With the arrival of Vladimir Putin to the leadership of Russia in 2000 and his strong hand, the country saw a return to economic and political stability, thanks in part to a rise in world gas and oil prices. As Putin settled into power, he gradually replaced Yeltsin’s people with his own loyalists, brought to heel the business oligarchs and the media, gradually eliminated political opposition, and adopted a much more aggressive foreign policy. While former Soviet satellites (including Ukraine) were democratising, Russia was moving in the opposite direction.

Putin’s new leadership of Russia is often portrayed as the start of the sharp deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. But in reality, relations were initially rather good. Putin was the first foreign leader to offer support to George W Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, it was not long before a series of events saw relations deteriorate. Russia was vehemently opposed to US’ invasion of Iraq (its ally), and provided intelligence to Saddam Hussein about the location of US forces and their plans during the war. Russia also saw the “colour revolutions” of 2004-05 in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan as being organised, or at least inspired, by the West as an attempt to undermine Russia.

The surest sign that Russia and the West were still adversaries came with Putin’s speech to the 2007 Munich Security Conference. He criticised the US for its “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations”. Putin believes that the end of the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

Going off the rails – Russia’s relations with the West

Relations between Russia would never really recover from this point, as reflected in an endless series of events and incidents, such as:

-- The 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine by Moscow-backed separatists.

-- Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting rebellion in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, following Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014 which saw pro-Moscow President, Viktor Yanukovych, driven from power.

-- Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, beginning in 2015.

-- Russian disinformation campaigns to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the UK’s Brexit “leave campaign”, and anti-vax movements in Europe.

-- Russian assassinations and attempted assassinations of Russian personalities on UK soil.

-- Widespread ransomware and cyber-attacks.

In sum, despite the “end of the Cold War”, Russia never stopped its hybrid warfare activities. And they culminated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Western misunderstanding of the “end of the European Cold War”

Western countries like the US and Germany fell under the spell of post-Cold War optimism. This is to some extent understandable as Germany reunified, central European countries democratised, and became members of Western clubs like NATO, the OECD and the European Union. There were obviously desperate hopes that Russia and the former members of the Soviet Union would follow suit.

However, from the very early days of the “post-Cold War” era, there were plenty of signs that Russia had other ideas. The West ignored warnings from the Baltics, Poland and Ukraine during the 1990s, when they were already experiencing organised crime, dirty money and information attacks from Russia.

According to British author Keir Giles, Russia’s relations with the West have gone through cycles of high hopes, disillusion and frustration on both sides, a crisis, and then a “reset” with high hopes again. But as he says, this cycle overlooks the reality that Russia and the West have completely incompatible strategic priorities.

In reality, it is worse than that. Until the West’s strong reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin believed that the West was spineless and incompetent, as evidenced in the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Obama’s reluctance to enforce “red-lines” in Syria, Europe’s high dependence on Russian energy, Europe’s unwillingness to invest in its military, and the openness of Western financial systems to Russian dirty money. And in his own backyard, Mr Putin only saw ineffectual Western responses to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the seizure of Crimea and actions in the Donbass region.

As John Lewis Gaddis wrote some 30 years ago “victories in wars – hot or cold – tend to unfocus the mind. They encourage pride, complacency, and the abandonment of calculation”. One of the many lessons of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that looking ahead the West must resist the temptation to succumb to wishful thinking and defend its values.


This article was first published by Unravel on 1 August 2023.
Tags: asia, cold war

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