Russia and the West: A New Cold War

I wrote this piece for the April issue of Anglomania.  Unfortunately, they credited it to someone else who is called Olivia, which was rather annoying but there should be a correction and apology in the May issue.

Russia and the West: A New Cold War

This year, Germany and most of the world will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Built in 1961, the wall became a physical symbol of the very real socio-politico-economic and ideological divide between East and West during the Cold War; the West was capitalist, while in the East, political regimes, labeled as communist, held control. However, it is important to remember that the term was merely a label. In reality, what actually existed were dictatorships of a new, emerging elite rather than of the proletariat. Moreover, the struggle between East and West had little to do with ideology, particularly as time progressed. Instead, between 1945 and 1991 the Cold War proved to be no more than a period of competition between the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States of America, for world domination and superiority, masked in the guise of ideological rhetoric. However, due to the closed borders and limited flow of knowledge in both directions, citizens in the USSR and the West truly believed that ideology was the basis for the struggle.

Recently, there has been much debate as to whether or not the recent heightened tensions between Russia and the West, in this case, the USA and Britain, could be considered as a New Cold War. Championing this theory is Edward Lucas, the East Europe Correspondent at The Economist and author of the book, The New Cold War. While Lucas would not be foolish enough to suggest that this supposedly New Cold War is based upon former ideological beliefs, or at the least, those capitalist and communist labels, the suggestion that tensions have resurfaced to the level of those which existed even during thaw periods between 1945 and 1991, seems absurd, if not downright scaremongering. Those who grew up during the particularly hot periods of the Cold War, no matter how young they were at the time, will recall the national campaigns regarding what to do in the instance of a nuclear attack and their utter fear at the prospect of nuclear war. Presently, such awareness among today’s youth simply does not exist, and ultimately, would be unnecessary. Neither, the puppet and master combination of Medvedev and Putin, nor Obama, have their fingers on a button ready to launch missiles.

The only button the Russian and American administrations appear to have their finger on is a reset button which Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, recently presented to Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Obama was quick to reach out to Moscow in the hope to forge better relations and help to stem Russia’s influence over Germany, Russia’s greatest European ally with regard to European Union and NATO decisions. Notwithstanding, there have been renewed anxieties: for example, in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia; there is the ongoing issue of Russian missiles deployed in Kaliningrad; and the US army has been removed from a military base in Kyrgyzstan. Nevertheless, these are relatively minor events compared to those during the Cold War such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s, or the struggle to create and maintain a sphere of influence in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Present day political rhetoric and military actions on both sides appear to be no more than the two superpowers attempting to regain some credibility. Neither, the USA nor the USSR has the political, economic or military clout they once had and both are acutely aware of the rise of China and India as economic and/or military powerhouses, not to mention the problem of an Iran with a nuclear capability.

If a New Cold War were indeed underway, would Europe, particularly Britain, have welcomed Russian oligarchs such as Abramovich or Lebedev as owners of Chelsea football club and the Evening Standard, respectively? If a new Cold War were in full swing, as Lucas has argued in the House of Lords, would Lebedev and his fellow multi-million and -billionaires have befriended members of Britain’s high society such as former editor of Tatler, Geordie Grieg, and employed him as editor of The Evening Standard? At the other end of the scale, while Russia has made getting a visa to visit the country slightly more difficult, it is still entirely possible, and many British youths visit Eastern European countries, particularly those still outside the Euro zone, for cheap holidays. If a Cold War really did exist gaining entry into Russia would still be difficult, even, highly dangerous. During the original Cold War, Russia and the USSR were completely sealed off from the rest of the world, and few Westerners were able to infiltrate the region at all.

The events of the past twenty years have all been made possible by the dismantling of the metaphorical iron curtain which Churchill referred to as running from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Balkans. In reality, Tito in Yugoslavia became less and less influenced by Stalin and opened up his country’s borders to Westerners thereby unveiling a friendly and acceptable face of Communism. By the 1960s, the iron curtain had shifted and was largely confined to the very real Berlin Wall. The combination of the fall of the Wall in 1989 and Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, which encouraged greater economic and social freedoms which although in hindsight proved to be too little too late, accelerated the decline of the USSR. By 1991 Russia had lost its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. While some countries, those most oppressed by the Russians such as Hungary and Poland, were thrilled by freedom from a foreign dictatorship, some countries and regions, namely Belarus, Eastern Ukraine and Serbia, still yearn for Russia to exert authority over the region,. Many citizens in these countries will happily state that the worst event to happen throughout history was the fall of the Berlin Wall. While it is understandable that Belorussians and some Ukrainians will feel an affinity to Russia, as their states were originally part of the Russian Empire before the revolution in 1917, Serbia is simply an ally. Serbia looks to Russia in the hope that one day both could recover their sphere of influences over their neighbours, in Russia’s case, the former USSR countries which have not yet been lost to the EU, and in Serbia’s case, those in the Balkans. However, what Serbian citizens perhaps forget, is that Yugoslavia was in fact held together by Tito and its decline was facilitated by his inadequate measures to find a replacement figurehead, or sufficient replacement political system, to maintain the unity of the Yugoslav nations.

Debates about a renewed Cold War will no doubt continue for many years; the countries involved may change, as will political leaders, and this particular discussion regarding Russia and the West will continue until the West accepts Russia as an equal. Unfortunately, acceptance is unlikely to occur until Russia analyses its past in the way Germany did regarding its role in the Holocaust. Until Russia accepts responsibility for the deaths of between ten and twenty million in the concentration camps known as Gulags, it will continue to appear an unsavoury regime to the somewhat hypocritical West given the existence of, and practices employed at, Guantanamo Bay. With Russian political figures allegedly responsible for the recent deaths of former KGB spy, Alexander Litvinenko, and journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, the unpleasantness of the Russian regime does not look set to fade away. Moreover, the Russians’ admiration for Stalin, a ruthless despot but under whom great economic advancement occurred, extends throughout all generations and is of great concern to the West. Fortunately, neither the USA, nor Russia, is in an economic or political situation where a New Cold War is feasible. The world economy is dire and spheres of influence on both sides have been lost or damaged. Consequently, lofty rhetoric or minor military incursions should be regarded as no more than attempts by the two superpowers to maintain or regain some credibility on the world stage.

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About Charlotte J

Graduate, journalist, blogger and follower of all things media.