According to the mainstream media, the ‘New Cold War’ between America and Russia began in 2014, when Russia accepted the Crimean plebiscite to join Russia. While the plebiscite did cause further cooling of relations between Russia and America, the truth is relations never warmed enough to put an end to the Cold War. Instead of calling this another Cold War, we should refer to it as the “third part” of an ongoing Cold War.
Today, many equate a Cold War with the tension, proxy wars, and fear of nuclear fallout that the conflict between America and the Soviet Union caused from 1947–1987. However, a Cold War is simply a freeze in relations between two countries. It can potentially lead to proxy wars the likes of which we saw between the Soviet Union and America. However, it doesn’t always. The Soviet Union and China had a brief cold war following Soviet Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalinism, which led to the end of diplomatic relations between the two countries that lasted for roughly twenty years. In that spirit, the Soviet Union/Russia has had a longstanding Cold War with America for at least a century.
The “first part” of the American–Russian Cold War began after the Reds defeated the Whites in the Russian Revolution of 1917. After a failed attempt by the Wilson Administration to help the Whites, the American government refused to recognize the new Soviet government. Successive American administrations—through sanctions and other measures—were hostile to the newly formed Soviet Union. That attitude lasted for roughly a decade and a half until American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt formally recognized the Soviet Union on November 16, 1933 in the hopes that Soviet-American relations would “forever remain normal and friendly.” The peace between the two countries would remain intact until after World War II. It should be noted here that the Soviets lost more soldiers than any of the Allied Powers—over 27 million to be exact (and probably millions more that have not been accounted for)—and were key to defeating the Axis Powers in Eastern Europe. If it was not for the partnership between the Americans and the Soviets, the world might have looked a bit different today.
Unfortunately, Franklin Roosevelt did not live long enough to ensure that Soviet-American relations “forever remain normal and friendly.” Knowing the paranoid character of Soviet Secretary General Josef Stalin, Roosevelt’s strategy was to engage with the leader rather than be confrontational. Given Russia’s geographic location, his intention was to peacefully lure the Soviet Union into the West. This was one of the main reasons why Roosevelt picked Harry Truman to be his Vice President. He wanted a Vice President that would help pursue his “cooperation” foreign policy. It was Roosevelt that once wrote in a 1928 Foreign Affairs article:
“(America) can point the way once more to the reducing of armaments; (America) can cooperate officially and whole-heartedly with every agency that studies and works to relieve the common ills of mankind; and (America) can for all time renounce the practice of arbitrary intervention in the home affairs of (its) neighbours.”
When Roosevelt passed away in April of 1945, Truman became the “accidental” president, and drastically changed the way America interacted with Russia, destroying the chance to implement Roosevelt’s long sought after permanent “Grand Alliance” as a guarantor of world peace, which would include “The Nations,” the Soviet Union, and China.
Before meeting Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin for the first time at the Potsdam Conference, President Truman wanted some advice on how to treat the Soviet leader. Thus, he brought in two “greybeards” to give him their views—former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies and then-current ambassador to the Soviet Union W. Averell Harriman. Davies suggested that Stalin was paranoid, his country was crude, and badly bruised – having lost tens of millions of soldiers. In that nature, Davies suggested that Truman should deal with Stalin carefully without being confrontational to avoid piquing Stalin’s mistrust and suspicion. According to Davies, this would allow the president to work with the Soviet Union, luring it into “The Nations” (America and Europe) after the horrific war. Meanwhile, Averell Harriman suggested the opposite, saying that Truman should give nothing to Stalin because he is crude, paranoid, blunt, and not to be trusted. Truman sided with Harriman and thus, two years later, began the second part of the Cold War between America and Russia.
The second part of the American-Russian Cold War had many episodes – from the proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and Cuba (culminating with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962) to the several attempts at détente by American and Soviet leaders. But, sadly, this episode of the Cold War was its longest chapter to date. After both Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon performed their détente attempts in the 1950s and 1970s respectively, to the shock of many at the time, President Ronald Reagan began his détente attempt—the most famous one of them all—with his Soviet counterpart, Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1986, they met alone with their translators and agreed to eliminate their respective arsenals of nuclear weapons. After much pushback in their respective countries, both retracted their statements. Yet, one year later in the same environment, they agreed to abolish an entire category of nuclear weapons. Many, including Reagan and Gorbachev, believed that this ended the Cold War. However, as the decades passed, Washington would not substantially warm to Moscow.
Several years after Reagan and Gorbachev’s famous détente, in December of 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist—following an agreement signed by Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus, and several others in Belovezh. What was later called the Belovezha Accords was an agreement, as a Yeltsin advisor later admitted, done in a way that was “neither legitimate nor democratic.”
Though there were several ethnic nationalities that wanted no part of the Soviet Union and sought to break away, which became a factor in 1991, a great many citizens in the Soviet Union—certainly the majority of Russians as well as a great many of Ukrainians, Belorussians, and the citizens of the central Asian countries—had a great affection for the Soviet Union. In fact, a referendum nine months prior to the Accord showed that Soviet citizens were not interested in breaking up the Soviet Union. For those keeping score, the actual number was 76%. Yes, 76% of Soviet citizens did not want to breakup the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had a long lifespan—roughly 70-plus years. That would be less than the average life of an American male today. A person cannot remove themselves from their diary any more than they can remove themselves from their hide. It’s your life. Many in Russia today were born in the Soviet Union. Russian adults had their first sexual experience, they were educated, they had a career, they got married, and they raised their kids in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was their life. Of course they’re going to have a longing for it or at least certainly parts of it. Thus, it’s not surprising that over 25 years later, those adults that lived during the Soviet Union still have nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Hence, one could see why Yeltsin’s strategy to abruptly dissolve the Soviet Union was a mistake. No one is arguing that the Soviet Union was sustainable. It was not. Yet, maybe a slow transition would’ve been a better approach given the Union’s complexities. But, Yeltsin did not take (or want to take) into account those complexities of the Union such as its social, cultural, economical, and political lineage.
Indeed, the fashion in which Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union, with no preparatory stages and against the will of the people, destroyed a highly integrated economy. This was a major factor in the collapse of production across the former Soviet territories. In turn, it contributed to mass poverty and its associated social pathologies. Furthermore, the Soviet elites took much of the state’s wealth with them. They worked to make sure the distribution of wealth was allocated from the Kremlin without the participation of the legislatures. After 1991, this is indeed what happened as wealth was allocated through Kremlin decrees by Boris Yeltsin.
Back in America, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Cold War mindset in Washington remained the same. Officially there was no Cold War, but the old mentality was still rampant on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. The relations between America and, now, Russia continued to deteriorate to the place where we find ourselves today—with both countries slowly sleepwalking into a hot or, even god forbid, nuclear war. While some would circle 2006 as the beginning of the third installment of the Cold War because of former American Vice President Dick Cheney’s emphatic declaration in Lithuania that Russia is no longer “a strategic partner and a trusted friend,” the drum rolls began even earlier in 1990s in Washington—long before Cheney’s speech.
At this point, it should be noted that the Russia of today is not the Soviet Union—both in mind-set and structure. It is no longer communist but rather capitalist and more conservative in nature (but not fascist as some in the American mainstream media falsely claim). Russia is also significantly smaller in size, with all the former republics now independent. Neither is the current President of Russia looking to recreate the Soviet Union, as many in the West believe. Indeed, he is of the opinion that, “anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart; anyone who wants it restored has no brains.” While he was not the first to say this, it is clear that President Putin has no appetite for expanding Russia’s borders. Like America, Russia has its own set of problems and the country has significantly changed from the Cold War years during the 20th century. However, the temperament in Washington remains the same as America now felt it ‘won’ the Cold War, even though the Americans and Russians agreed that it would maintain that no side was victorious. This feeling of victory leaves America to act as the only superpower, even at the expense of Russia’s national security.
This third stage of Cold War began in January of 1993, when former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was elected as America’s 42nd President. The American administration, under Fmr. President Bill Clinton, gave the Boris Yeltsin government in Russia carte blanche to “reform” Russia. The Americans allowed the Yeltsin government to implement economic “shock therapy” in Russia because America believed Russia was doing it to “save democracy” from the “communist threat,” when in reality there were many liberals who were available to give Russians the democracy it really wanted. The Americans supported those in power because they had a vision of how Russia ought to be and did not wish to let Russia slowly develop into its own democracy.
The zealots that controlled the American foreign policy apparatus felt that Russia should implement a completely privatized “free-market” system, which completely disregarded Russia’s history and what the Russian people really wanted. Before and after the Bolshevik revolution, with the exception of the Stalinist approach to the Soviet Union, the country had always been under what Russians would term as a “mixed economy,” whereby the state and the private sector controlled the market, and the government would have considerable (not complete) influence. By blindly supporting the Yeltsin government in their reforms, the Americans completely neglected what Russians were looking for. Indeed, they were looking for that “mixed economy,” which in contemporary terms would mean a combination of the freedom of private market enterprise with similarities to Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision (perestroika and glasnost) of the Soviet Union. This meant an assurance by the state for job security, some regulated or subsidized consumer prices, extensive welfare necessities, and state ownership of most basic industries. In other words, the Russians were looking for a Russian version of European social democracy.
Having ignored these signs, the Americans allowed the Yeltsin government to illegitimately and undemocratically abolish the Soviet Union. Additionally, after its breakup, it allowed former Soviet elites to divide the property of the Soviet Union through decrees issued by the Yeltsin government. Also under the Yeltsin government, the country, with nuclear weapons, was destabilized to the point of unimaginable levels (some would argue that it was worse than the years of the Great Depression). As a result, the Russian economy was in complete ruins. Russians called their American version of democracy under the Yeltsin government, “shitocracy.” Russian (and former Soviet Republic) citizens lost their country overnight—politically, ethnically, culturally, and economically. Because of the Yeltsin policies, Russians endured much hardship or, as Russians call this, smuta (times of trouble). Thus today, Russians are justifiably skeptical of America’s intentions and simply don’t trust them to look out for their best interests.
Likewise, the majority of the political elite in Russia feel they cannot trust their American counterparts. This is because, contrary to what the Americans and the Soviets agreed upon, the zealots that control the American foreign policy class betrayed Russia on different occasions following the breakup of the Soviet Union. In essence, the Kremlin felt that it was deceived. In fact, this is something both Putin and Medvedev have consistently said during their presidencies. While it may be seen as a betrayal, upon closer inspection it reveals itself as the Cold War mentality prevailing in Washington. This continuing mentality can be seen in: NATO expansion under consecutive American administrations; unilateral withdrawals from treaties (such as the ABM Treaty); NATO military interventions in Russia’s neighborhood (namely Serbia); and countless military excursions or “regime change” coups in the Middle East and Eastern Europe (such as Iraq, Libya, Georgia, Ukraine, and many others).
As a result of this overarching hegemonic foreign policy by the United States, there are now many hotspots in what is now seen as a New Cold War, in which the distrust of both countries has intensified. Although, as we have seen, the roots of this conflict have been present for many years. As a result, the Americans lost a major potential partner in addressing its most important national security matters—international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, cyber-security issues, and addressing other core national and international security concerns.
The zealots in Washington want this Cold War to persist for a variety of reasons—namely, to perpetuate the military-industrial complex and to prolong its military expenditure to demonstrate the fallacy that the United States is still the hegemon of the world. However, if this type of confrontational approach continues, the international community will be headed into uncharted territory. As the current embattled US President Donald Trump tries to improve US-Russian relations, zealots in his administration, nearly all of Congress, and the intelligence agencies (in the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI) are handcuffing him and forcing him to be confrontational with Russia via sanctions and other stumbling blocks that make it difficult to get out of this dangerous Cold War. President Trump’s policies are dangerous for America and the world, but his policy proposal to improve US-Russian relations is not. Thus, the zealots have now put this long-standing Cold War with Russia on the brink of a nuclear one. So, with all the policies that were implemented in the 1990s and that have continued into the 21st century, do the zealots in Washington really want this long-standing Cold War to end—even if it is at the expense of America’s and the international community’s national security? Based on their actions, the answer seems to be a resounding no. Unless, of course, the American people hold their elected officials to account for their reckless actions that threatens their national security.
Following the latest round of American sanctions on Russia for alleged interference in the American 2016 Presidential Elections, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said that the sanctions are nothing new for Russia because it has been sanctioned for the past one hundred years. He might be unpopular in Russia but he is right. Russia, in some manner or fashion, has been sanctioned for a full century by American administrations. With the “Russia frenzy” plaguing the West, it seems that the elites have once again chosen to side with Averell Harriman. At what point will they turn from endless cold war and side with Joseph Davies? For the sake of humanity, let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.
Zach Battat is a Junior Editor for Global Brief and a PhD Candidate in Middle Eastern & African History at the Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies at Tel Aviv University. You can follow his work on his website at zachbattat.com.