As the heat continues to ratchet up in the Ukraine crisis, in the West the war drum is beating to the sound of the Cold War mentality. People have been saying things in the media like “How can we say there isn’t a new Cold War with Russia? Just look at what’s going on!”. This attitude, however, shows a grave and fundamental flaw in general thinking on Eurasian geopolitics, and more specifically, a tendency to view Russia in a very myopic way.
I have often bemoaned what I perceive as a continued “Cold War mindset” in the US toward Russia. Some have attributed this to the fact that so many of our policymakers were people who made their bones during the Reagan years or before. This, I believe, was more common, and perhaps more justifiable, during the George W. Bush administration, when indeed several key members of the government had been in service since the 1970’s. While there may be some truth to this, I think the bigger issue is a grave public misunderstanding of Winston Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (In this case, Russia). It’s important to make this distinction between a “Cold War” in which ideology is the driving factor and a revived, expansionist quasi-imperialist Russia because while political ideology can be bought or corrupted by money, a revived nationalism is much more potent and will drive the Russians to do bigger and bolder things.
The “Cold War,” in the strictest sense of the term, was an ideological battle between the democratic, capitalist West and the authoritarian, centralized and command-economy East. In many ways, however, the Cold War was a continuation of the historic battle between Russia and the West that has continued in one form or another for centuries. The biggest differences between the Great Game and the Cold War, however, were the emphasis on ideology over imperial glory in the latter, and the fact that Russia was already in control of the so-called “Eurasian heartland.” It is the control of this Eurasian space that constitutes the biggest factor in the current Ukrainian crisis.
“Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” Among Eurasia analysts, this is one of the most oft-quoted maxims in the field, which comes from Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Halford Mackinder stated in his “Heartland Theory” that whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland controlled the world. During the Cold War, Eurasia--including Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia--were all under the command of the Russia-dominated Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, a large portion of Eurasia re-opened. Now that Russia is more vulnerable and has lost a considerable amount of its strategic depth, it is seeking to re-expand its empire, and Ukraine is the keystone in the “European” facet of Russia’s Eurasian empire.
Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS’s Face the Nation a few weeks ago "You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext." That comment reveals a lot about Russia’s current actions. As Russia re-emerged from the ashes of the collapse of the USSR, it needed to find a new identity, and naturally it went back to what it could connect with before the Soviet Union; it revived many of the symbols and ideas of the Tsarist era. Indeed today many believe that Russia’s greatness on the world stage can only be had through imperialist expansion, which is arguably what is happening in Crimea, even if Crimeans themselves vote to join Russia. After all, how many imperial possessions have countries obtained from groups seeking protectorate status from a larger power (a case-in-point is Russia’s takeover of Georgia in the early 1800’s, which began as a Georgian request for Russian protection against the Ottoman Muslims).
Some parallels can actually be drawn, I feel, with the current military standoff in Crimea and the Crimean War of 1853-1856. In theory the Crimean War was about who had the rights to protect Christian shrines in the Ottoman Empire’s Palestine. In reality, however, it was an attempt by Russia to stave off the great Western powers, particularly France and the United Kingdom, from taking strategic control of the Black Sea region in light of the declining Ottoman Empire, known by then as the “sick man of Europe.” Now, with the potential that Russia has “lost” Ukraine to Europe, it has taken the opportunity in Ukraine’s uncertain domestic situation to assert control militarily. While it is taking a gamble by sending troops into part of a country that directly borders several NATO allies, Russia has calculated that the West will not respond militarily- no doubt informed, in part, by the West’s relative lack of action in Georgia.
It would be unfair to place blame squarely on the shoulders of Americans for seeing things in this light, however. Russian ideologue Aleskandr Prokhanov has openly stated that he has worked “day and night” for a new Cold War between Russia and the West. The idea is that this will allow Russia to make a substantial re-orientation toward China. Nevertheless, the point is that by continually referring to our relations with Russia in the context of the Cold War risks creating a broad view in the American public of Russia as it’s portrayed in The Hunt for Red October. On the level of the policy makers in Washington and, to a lesser extent, Brussels, if they too continue to see the crisis through this prism, it can only serve to worsen things and cause the West to err and blunder. If we are going to deal with this new crisis in Russia-West relations, we need to give it the proper historic depth and perspective it deserves.
The current conflict in Ukraine is not part of a new, repackaged or revived “Cold War,” and to say that it is shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Cold war was all about. The conflict is rather part of the broader contention for Eurasia, of which Ukraine is a relatively small but pivotally important part. We need to stop referring to the current standoff between Russia and the West as a “new Cold War” in order to break out of that outmoded mentality. I argue that instead of looking to our immediate past, one which we can much better understand given that it is still very much within living memory, we need to look even further into the past to understand what is truly going on. If we are going to deal this this crisis, we may as well try to start off with a proper view of it.