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Another Cold War coming? Professor says not so fast

Ross Kennedy Office Hours graphic

With the annexation of Crimea by Russia, tensions between Russia and the U.S. are rising to levels not seen since the Cold War.

More and more, people are asking if another Cold War is taking shape. Illinois State University Associate Professor of History Ross Kennedy shares his thoughts on that prospect, and talks about why Russia feels justified in its move to annex Crimea.

Kennedy’s Q&A is the latest in STATEside’s ongoing Office Hours series.

Tensions are high, but is this really another Cold War?

The Cold War was pretty unique. It was very much a one-on-one, ideological, global struggle between two very powerful countries.

STATEside Office Hours republishBoth the U.S and the Soviet Union had a sweeping ideology, which claimed to be a model for the rest of the world to follow. They both saw themselves as the cutting edge of history, the wave of the future.

On the top of that both countries organized all of their foreign and defense policies around this confrontation with this single opponent. They used proxies to fight this battle. There were proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, small ones in Africa with the use of Cuban forces. Great powers have done that before, but during the Cold War it encompassed all aspects of each country’s security policies.

So there was a very important global and ideological component to the Cold War that this current situation does not have.

What makes today different?

The Russia of today is a lot less powerful than the Soviet Union, after losing a lot of territory and population when the Soviet Union broke up. Since 1991, their economy and life expectancy have declined. By almost any measurement of economic or social well-being, they are worse off than they were before.

They have revived somewhat with Vladimir Putin in power, and they have super-rich oil money. But overall, their gross national product (GNP) is smaller than it was with the Soviet Union. They still have a lot of nuclear weapons, but their military capability is not as good as it was. They are not really on par with the United States militarily. Of course, even the Soviet Union only had an economy one-third of the United States, so they had to work hard to be competitive. Russia’s is even smaller. So it is not the same kind of opponent.

Putin is also not pounding a coherent ideology that can appeal to different kinds of people around the world. It’s more of a romantic nationalism. The only international aspect to it is the anti-Western message, seeing the West as decadent and a bully led by the United States. But it is a bit of a stretch to call it a coherent ideology with an international reach.

Putin at a podium

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a recent trip to South Korea. (Creative Commons photo/Republic of Korea)

Some regard Russia’s actions in Crimea as hostile. Are they right?

It’s important to note that Russia is acting like any rational, great power would act when they feel that their vital interests are threatened. Any Russian government would be concerned about border countries like Georgia and Ukraine orienting themselves to the West.

Countries defend their vital interests. Take something similar for the U.S., like the Panama Canal. There is just no way the United States would ever allow Panama to have a foreign policy that was hostile to the United States. We would never allow Panama to have bases of a foreign power. We just wouldn’t. And we would use whatever means or force necessary to protect what we saw as a U.S. vital interest. It’s exactly the same thing with Crimea.

What is it about Georgia and Ukraine that spurred Russia to take action?

You have to remember that Crimea was originally part of Russia. The only reason it became part of Ukraine is because the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a symbolic move in the mid-1950s. Khrushchev was from Ukraine and wanted to recognize their efforts in the war. He never imagined the Soviet Union would fall apart and Ukraine would be an independent country. So the act of giving them Crimea was meaningless at the time. Otherwise it would still be part of Russia.

Russia has had a naval base there since the 19th century. It is an important part of the world for them. When Ukraine began to have political division, a chunk of its population wanted to join the European Union and NATO. Of course the Russians are going to see that as a threat to their interests.

Russia has hinted that the desire of the Ukraine to look to the West is part of a plan by the U.S. Why do think that?

You have to look back to when the Berlin Wall fell and East Germany and West Germany wanted to reunify. There were a lot of discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union about how to handle German unification. At first the Russians held out because they did not want the reunified Germany to be part of NATO. The West rejected that because West Germany was already part of NATO. That was a non-starter.

So then the Russian position shifted. They asked the West not to post troops in the eastern part of Germany, in what had been East Germany. The Americans agreed to that.

The implication of those talks was that NATO would not expand beyond what it was. Now that was not written down, and there was no formal agreement. But I think those who look back and say there was no understanding are putting a hindsight gloss on the issue. The spirit of the talks about not putting troops in East Germany was not to expand NATO eastward.

But the Americans did expand. Poland is a NATO member now, so is Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, and other countries that had been part of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact alliance.

So the Russians blame the U.S. for backing them into a corner?

It’s really provocative to the Russians to expand a military alliance right up to the borders of Russia. And the problem is that Ukraine and Georgia both wanted to be part of NATO as well. There was serious consideration of making the Ukraine part of NATO, but ultimately the West wouldn’t do it. If a country in NATO is attacked, everyone is supposed to rally to the country’s defense – that is the collective security part of the alliance. But when push came to shove, our European partners decided they did not want to fight for Ukraine, and so they did not bring it into NATO.

So the whole context is that in some ways it is the West that has been pushing since 1991, right up to Russia’s door. I think it’s not surprising that you are going to get a reaction from any power that feels threatened. That’s not a Cold War thing. That is what any country is going to do – defend their interest to the best of their ability.

Rachel Hatch can be reached at rkhatch@IllinoisState.edu.

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