Russia is once again at loggerheads with the West, so is talk of a new Cold War justified?
The Ukraine crisis has seen a deterioration in Russia’s relations with the European Union and the United States, and many commentators have begun talking about a new Cold War.
Timo Vilén, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tampere, says that because the roots of the conflict in Ukraine reach back to the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the use of this concept is understandable. Present-day Russia is still dealing with the trauma and humiliation associated with the breakdown of the Soviet Union. However, he thinks that the concept of a Cold War does not aptly describe the current situation.
According to Vilén, it is interesting to note who is currently using the concept and why.
For example, Aleksey Pushkov, the head of the foreign-affairs committee in the Russian State Duma, commented in Helsingin Sanomat (Finland’s leading daily newspaper) that while Russia is not waging a Cold War against Europe, Russia’s relationship with the United States is starting to resemble a Cold War scenario.
“If the present relationship between Russia and the United States is actually a Cold War, this would prove that the US is taking Russia seriously as a significant actor and its equal,” Vilén says.
University researcher Benedikt Schoenborn from TAPRI, the Tampere Peace Research Institute at the University of Tampere, says a new concept ought to be coined to describe the current situation in world politics.
“It is misleading to call the present situation a new Cold War,” Schoenborn says.
“The crisis, its participants and the whole world are different than during the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The Cold War is typically defined as the historical period when the United States and the Soviet Union drifted into an arms race after the World War II. The Cold War is thus reckoned to have lasted from 1947 to 1989 or 1991.
A new Cold War
The term “Cold War” was first used by the English writer George Orwell in 1945, but it was Walter Lippmann, a US journalist and political commentator, who made the concept known to the general public.
“Making this term known was surely a rhetorical triumph for the United States. ‘Cold’ did not just mean the coldness of war. It can be said to have described the Soviet system more generally,” Vilén says.
The official Western interpretation of the start of the Cold War was that the Soviet Union was the responsible party and the United States was forced to react to Soviet aggression. However, during the Vietnam War a more radical interpretation that questioned the role of the United States in world politics gained ground, creating a more nuanced picture.
According to one interpretation, the Cold War had already started with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. By that time, ideological competition was apparent, and the interwar years were a period of deep suspicion between the Soviet Union and the West.
The Cold War is considered to have ended either with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, as Cold War hierarchies and struggles still exist in Cuba, the Far East and certain parts of Africa, Vilén argues that we could say that the Cold War never ended completely.
The notion of a new Cold War was already talked about before the Ukrainian crisis. In 2008, the year of the Russo-Georgian War, Edward Lucas published the widely read A New Cold War. In this book, Lucas, the East European correspondent for The Economist, claimed that East-West hostilities had already begun.
“If the term becomes generally used again, will 1991–2014 be defined as the interim period between two Cold Wars?” Vilén asks.
Analogies construct meanings
Similarities and analogies are important in understanding different phenomena.
The central analogies in the Finnish foreign policy debate are the Cold War, neutrality and Finlandisation. All of these ideas have been publicly debated in 2014, and not always without problems.
“Finland has not been neutral for twenty years. Finlandisation has re-emerged in the debate, but there are as many understandings about this concept as there are about the Cold War,” Vilén says.
People need analogies when they look for suitable words. Another purpose of analogies is to show how people should react to the issues at hand. Analogies provide clues as to what kind of consequences an action or inaction can have in the present situation.
“From the point of view of historical research, it is vitally important what meanings we give to concepts because they dictate how we think. The concepts also give rise to new questions.”
Especially during the détente – a period of thawing relations between the East and West in the 1960s and 1970s – political speeches and manifestos declared the end of the Cold War.
“For Finland, too, it was advantageous to emphasise that the Cold War had ended because it gave us more breathing space. When the relationships between the superpowers grew more strained, things also got more difficult for Finland.”
Vilén examines the research conducted during the Cold War on the Soviet Union and East Europe in the small neutral countries of Europe, namely Finland, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland.
The actors have changed
Germany was at the heart of the conflict during the Cold War in Europe. Germany had been divided between the victorious powers after WWII, and according to Schoenborn, Germany was considered a prize that both superpowers wanted to hold on to because of the suffering and loss of lives caused by the war.
Because of its size, geographical position and economic potential, Germany was also considered the key country for the future of Europe. At various stages of the Cold War, both superpowers made it clear that they would defend their position in Germany – even with nuclear arms, if necessary. By contrast, statements issued by the United States and EU do not suggest that Ukraine is a core strategic interest for them.
Today’s European Union is larger and more comprehensive than the economic union of Western Europe that operated during the Cold War. Despite receiving criticism, the EU has developed a common foreign and defence policy, and the European Union is much less dependent on the United States for its security policy. The greatest change has nonetheless occurred in Russia, which has lost its superpower position in terms of economics, influence and authority. Communism is definitely a thing of the past, and Russia has become intertwined with the West on various levels.
The present use of propaganda is one element which brings the Cold War to mind. For instance, Vladimir Putin has accused the West of consistently attempting to “drive Russia into a corner” since the eighteenth century. Domestically, Putin criticised the former president Boris Yeltsin for wishing to intensify Russia’s relations with Europe, instead praising Joseph Stalin for protecting the country from foreign threats.
In the West, conclusions were drawn much too quickly about Russia’s willingness to use military means to reassert its influence over the countries of the former Eastern Bloc.
“In no way do I trivialise the severity of the crisis in Ukraine, nor the lives that have been lost there. However, in my opinion, the conflict in Ukraine is a regional rather than a global one,” Schoenborn says.
A mutual understanding of some kind has to be reached on the matter.
“A bad solution would be to push Ukraine towards joining NATO because this would lead to an escalation of the crisis. However, at the moment it does not look like this will happen any time soon,” Schoenborn continues.
The current situation may bring the Cold War to mind because:
• Once again, there is a military conflict in which Moscow supports one side while Western countries support the other. The opposing sides are using sanctions and are halting their cooperation.
• Relationships are becoming frostier because of a conflict in Central or Eastern Europe.
• Rhetoric and propaganda – both parties unconditionally blame the other party.
• The arms race has escalated – especially in Russia – although on a much smaller scale than during the Cold War.
The present situation is different from the Cold War because:
• The current situation is not a competition between two ideologically and economically different social systems. The contemporary ideological differences are smaller.
• Two equally strong blocs are not opposing each other this time around. Russia is a shadow of the Soviet Union in its heyday.
• Russia and Europe are interdependent – they both belong to the same global economy.
• Even though nuclear weapons still exist, in contrast to the Cold War, we no longer live with the constant fear that a regional crisis could escalate into all-out nuclear war.
• The Iron Curtain is no more. Politicians and political leaders meet each other regularly and information and people travel from one country to another.
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons and Jonne Renvall
Translation: Laura Tohka