There Were Three Cold Wars — And Two Are Back

Many people in Russia and the West who express concern that the world is heading back to a period of the Cold War forget that there was not one cold war between Moscow and the West but three: a contest between two competing economic and political systems around the world, a battle against Soviet Russian imperialism in Europe, and a struggle to bring greater freedom to those who lived under tyranny inside the USSR and inside the Soviet bloc.

At the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s, it appeared to many that the West had won all three and won them in a way that was to use one of the favorite terms of the time in an «irreversible» fashion. Communism as an ideology was discredited almost everywhere. The Warsaw Pact and then the USSR disintegrated. And the peoples of the former bloc and the former Soviet Union again almost everywhere gained far more freedom than they had had.

That led to self-congratulations in the West symbolized by the title if not the contents of Francis Fukayama’s book, «The End of History» as well as to the assumption in the West that the hard work had been done, that it had triumphed on all three fronts of the Cold War, and that it could enjoy «a peace dividend» and focus on domestic concerns. As a result, many in the West took the decade of the 1990s off from foreign affairs.

That was ended by the September 11 attacks on the United States. But those attacks had the effect, especially because Moscow cleverly used them to suggest that Russia was on the same side as Washington, of causing many in the United States to focus on the Middle East — and to continue to ignore what was happening in the Russian Federation and in the countries surrounding it.

Had that not been the case, it is at least possible that the West might have been able to prevent or at least limit the return of two of the three aspects of the earlier cold war. (There is no particular need, at least not yet, to think communism is going to be making a comeback — even among those who want to see aspects of the Soviet system returned.) That is because the West would have seen rather than ignored what has been going on that raise the danger of Russian imperialism in and against Europe and the crushing of freedom in Russia and in some of the countries around its periphery and could have taken action when the costs would have been less and the prospects of winning easily would have been greater.

Now, as a result of Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas, no one can reasonably continue to ignore that one of these aspects is back; and now with the murder on the streets of Moscow of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, no one can reasonably continue to ignore that the other is as well.

Tragically, these two things are inter-connected: War makes it easier to engage in crackdowns at home as Vladimir Putin clearly understands. And both the hysteria promoted by Kremlin-controlled media against dissent and Moscow’s decision to end its monopoly on the means of violence by allowing the rise of militant groups like those in the Donbas and now in the Anti-Maidan movement at home make violence and repression more likely.

Despite the claims of Putin and his minions like Sergey Lavrov, no one in the West wanted or wants a new cold war. And it is certainly true that the new one will not be identical to its namesake. But Vladimir Putin’s actions have restored two of the three conflicts that were part of the older contest, and the West cannot, however much its leaders and peoples might like, fail to respond.

When they do — and democracies are invariably slow to anger and then merciless once they become enraged — they and their allies among the heroic Ukrainian and Russian peoples will ensure that this cold war like the earlier one will not end to the benefit of the Kremlin. Neither the Ukrainian casualties in the Donbas fighting nor Boris Nemtsov will have died in vain. But tragically, they are not going to be the last victims in this struggle against an evil system and its creator, Vladimir Putin.

Paul Goble

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