Is the Cold War Back?

Despite a revival of the term, the political and physical landscape of the "Cold War" has changed significantly since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
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A Ukrainian soldier stands on a military tank near the eastern Ukrainian town of Rozspyne on August 25, 2014.

The term "Cold War" has been resurrected in recent months as the conflict in Ukraine has ebbed and flowed. A cease-fire agreement has stilled full-scale fighting for now, but the peace is fragile and the conflict far from settled.

Western nations and Russia have been hitting each other with sanctions, and Moscow has upped the ante by saying it may block the airspace over its vast territory, all nine time zones of it.

And in another modern echo of the era that ushered in the Berlin Wall, Ukraine is planning a 1,000-mile-long wall along its land border with Russia. The start of construction was announced, in a sign of the times, by Ukraine's security forces on their Facebook page.

Much, clearly, has changed since the height of the Cold War, a phrase used to describe the 40-odd years after World War II, when the Soviet Union and its Eastern allies and the U.S. and its Western allies were locked in competition over ideological and military influence across the globe.

The phrase itself was popularized in 1947 when journalist Walter Lippmann published a series of articles called "The Cold War," although the term had already been used by others, including author George Orwell. He wrote that a country with nuclear weapons would be one "which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of 'cold war' with its neighbors."

Both Russia and the U.S. maintain a significant nuclear capability, which remains a rising source of tension as relations fray. Meanwhile, modern forms of intimidation like cyber-warfare are also taking hold.

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Pro-Russian rebels speak with a local woman at Izvaryne, a border crossing point in eastern Ukraine, in August 2014.

Different Stakes, Smaller Forces

"You have to put cold water on the faddish idea of a 'second Cold War,'" says Mark Kramer, director of Cold War studies and a senior fellow at Harvard University's Davis Center. "This in fact is not a global military and ideological struggle. It is just a regional dispute, and the stakes are entirely different."

Russia, without the vast military might of the Soviet Union, has significantly smaller military forces than the U.S. does, in terms of both manpower and budget. It lost key bases in several East European countries, all of which are now members of NATO.

Russia also lacks a key element of the Cold War battle: the Marxist ideology that helped bring countries across the globe under its influence, even as late as the 1980s in the cases of Nicaragua and Ethiopia. Russia is now integrated into the European economy, and with its vast natural resources is Europe's largest supplier of natural gas, oil, and coal.

"Russia is still by far the world's largest country, but it's not anywhere near as large as what the Soviet Union was," says Kramer, who is also co-author of Imposing, Maintaining, and Tearing Open the Iron Curtain: The Cold War and East-Central Europe, 1945-1990. NATO has expanded farther eastward since its rival alliance of Soviet republics and satellite states—the Warsaw Pact—disbanded along with the Soviet Union when its 15 republics split into independent states in 1991.

Says Kramer: "A lot of repercussions of the breakup of the Soviet Union have figured very directly in the current crisis."

The conflict in Ukraine is one of those repercussions. "Russia also lost some important military and transportation facilities in 1991 that have figured directly in the current conflict, such as basing the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet [in Ukraine]," explains Kramer.

That base, at Sevastopol in Crimea, was part of independent Ukraine after 1991, and until this year had to be leased by Russia. "The thousands of Russian soldiers who were stationed in Sevastopol under the leasing arrangement spearheaded Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 when Putin acted in the immediate wake of Ukraine's Maidan revolution," he says.

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Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armored personnel carrier in eastern Ukraine in August 2014.

Cold War 2.0

The rhetoric and tensions, however, are reminiscent enough of decades past that Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama have had to address the return of the phrase, even if both argue against its use.

"The nature of today's conflict is different," says Vasily Kashin, an analyst with the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a defense industry think tank.

"It's more like the conflict between the 19th-century great powers," a time of imperial struggle over British versus Russian supremacy in Central Asia. "It's more about the attempts of rising powers like China and Russia to resist the dominant influence of the United States. I think we are at the beginning of a difficult period in our relations," Kashin says.

Yet Russian leaders have described sanctions as possibly being beneficial, saying for example, that sanctions against China after the government's crackdown at Tiananmen Square actually strengthened China in the long term. Just as Europe slapped new sanctions on Russia this week, President Putin was in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to meet with other leaders of what some say could become an eastern answer to NATO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian political and military organization including Russia, China, and the Central Asian states. Kashin says that Russia's relations with Asia, in fact, could be of greater consequence than its relations with Europe in the current conflict over Ukraine: "Some are seeing U.S. actions to isolate Russia as pushing Russia toward a possible future alliance with China."

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A Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid crossed into eastern Ukraine on August 22, 2014.

The Cold War tit-for-tat style, however, is still going strong. A new round of sanctions on Russia takes aim at its vital energy sector, and Europe is drafting an emergency energy plan in case Russia halts gas shipments this winter. Russia is considering blocking Western airlines from its airspace, which Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev claims "could drive many struggling airlines into bankruptcy," given that Russia's more than 6.5 million square miles holds more than one-eighth of the world's inhabited land area.

The quid pro quo can be found on multiple levels, from the closing of four McDonald's restaurants in Moscow to reports that Russia will be developing an array of new nuclear and conventional weapons in response to recent moves by the U.S. and NATO, including a NATO "rapid reaction force" to be positioned in Eastern Europe.

Much of the tension has been cumulative over the years. For example, NATO expansion eastward has long been of serious concern to Russia, says Archie Brown, emeritus professor of politics at the U.K.'s University of Oxford and author of The Myth of the Strong Leader and The Rise and Fall of Communism. "Think what would happen, for example, if Canada or Mexico was considering joining the Warsaw Pact, if it were still in existence. Could you imagine the reaction in Washington?"

Still, Brown adds, "Calling this a second Cold War is an exaggeration, even if elements of it are reminiscent of the real Cold War."

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