(First published 30/03/2014) – CONGRATULATIONS TO EVERYONE now realising that the Cold War never ended.
To see any ‘cold war’ in the new chapter of Russo-West relations currently unfolding in Ukraine might seem overly simple and alarmist. Certainly there are some lazy journalists and commentators for whom this is just standard operating procedure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true – the Cold War is alive and well.
The real lazy journalism is what has filled the self-indulgent, self-congratulatory interim period of the 1990s and 2000s, where we revelled in the ‘defeat’ of communism.
Russia had to withdraw when communism fell. It needed to regroup and reform. Even as late as 1998 the former Soviet Union defaulted on its debt, and saw the ruble collapse. There was a lot of mess to sort out. A lazy journalist might make some loose, throwaway comparison to Weimar Germany here.
Yes, Russia has changed – but haven’t we all. Change, reform, metamorphosis – none of it precludes the persistence of much older, broader geopolitical realities. Well-worn battle lines and worldviews are not so easily redrawn as the front-of-house political scenery.
The ideologies might not appear so extreme, but the spoils of victory are little different just because the battleground has shifted
The current upheaval in Ukraine has obscured the economic developments that immediately preceded it. Russia already had a very cosy agreement with Ukraine in terms of natural resources, not least of all in the gas industry.
Moscow wanted Ukraine to go further and join its ‘Customs Union’ along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, but the EU was offering an effective free-trade deal as well. The two options were mutually exclusive because, with neither Belarus or Kazakhstan members of the World Trade Organisation, the EU deal would not permit Ukraine’s participation in the Customs Union.
Spheres of influence
Now look at how the two sides are bidding to be Ukraine’s administrators as it looks to recover from both pre- and post-Maidan economic distress.
Russia offered a $15 billion bailout last November, with even cheaper natural gas into the bargain. The West has since bid higher, sniffing a chance to redeem the market they gave up as lost last year, when former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich chose to favour ties with Russia. The International Monetary Fund bailout currently under discussion is worth between $14 billion and $18 billion, with promises of up to $10 billion more from individual countries.
So do we see those two sizeable spheres of influence emerging from that narrative? This current economic back-and-forth falls squarely within the tradition of the Monroe Doctrine and the conflicting US and USSR post-Second World War recovery programmes – the Marshall Plan and the Molotov Plan respectively.
Two power blocs are tugging and cajoling the periphery states that lie between them, trying to establish a stable protective buffer zone. The ideologies involved might not appear so extreme or polarised as in past decades, but the spoils of victory are little different just because the battleground has shifted.
$15 billion is $15 billion
It would also be foolish at this juncture to indulge in our go-to dichotomy of a big, bad imperialist Russia acting against the benevolent, charitable West.
Sadly it doesn’t work like that. As the IMF gears up for its tried-and-tested austerity routine – making its cheap loans to Ukraine conditional to all manner of painful measures – you won’t hear too many endorsements ringing out from the European countries who have recently entered similar bargains. Ultimately, $15 billion is $15 billion – whoever is loaning it to you.
There are those that fear talking in terms of cold war. This is not an irrational fear. Nobody wants a return to the days of maniacal, sleep-deprived war-hawks reaching for the big red button whenever anyone so much as sneezes near a missile site. We cannot take decades of progress for granted, and guarding against regressive thinking is only prudent.
But selective sight is also a retrograde step. It’s all very well telling ourselves that we have moved on but that’s irrelevant if the few people with their hands on the levers are not playing the same game.
Analysing the current formation of Russian political thought is an important venture for those in the West – the first step towards compromise and greater understanding. Yet this can only work if begun from a position of honesty, with nobody kidding themselves as to the outlooks and intentions of either side.
As yet the old spheres of influence have not been broken down and neither side has ever made a true effort to embrace or even understand the other. In such circumstances, we have a long way to go before we can call time on the cold war.
*This article has been republished in the wake of Russia’s bemoaning of the loss of old fixed spheres of influence. It was originally published on 30 March 2014.
Words: Sean Gibson
Photo credits: top (Jeroen Elfferich); inset 1 (julochka); inset 2 (Jose Luis Orehuela); inset 3 (tonynetone).
Does the new east-west tension really have anything to do with the Cold War? Do economic alliances really constitute power blocs?How much closer to mutual understanding are Russia and the West in the 21st century? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.