NEW YORK (AP) — A rivalry with Russia. A proxy battleground. Nuclear trickery. For many generations of Americans, it’s like the good old days.
The invasion of Ukraine soon sent echoes of a Cold War mentality back to the United States, with a familiar enemy in Russia. The bars poured their Russian vodka. McDonald’s, symbol of the end of the Soviet Union when it opened in Moscow, has closed its Russian sites. Once again, an American president is witnessing a pitched ideological battle. “We will save democracy,” President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address.
For an America where Russia never quite went out of fashion as an evergreen villain of film and TV, the rekindled tensions with the Kremlin drew on a well-worn geopolitical script. A familiar, cold East-West wind is blowing again.
“It’s really an echo of the Cold War,” says James Hershberg, professor of history and international affairs at Georgetown University and former director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project.
Hershberg sees many different things in today’s heated tensions with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s attacks, he says, do not appear to be ideologically motivated as communism was to the Soviet Union. A transformed media landscape has also helped make Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a global protagonist.
But in a crisis between two nuclear superpowers, history repeats itself differently. A Russian strategic overrun, Hershberg says, again triggers a potentially perilous moment in the international order.
“We are in a second Cuban Missile Crisis in many ways in terms of the danger of escalation,” says Hershberg, whose books include “Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam.” “Putin is acting so irrationally that he makes Nikita Khrushchev appear like a rational actor by comparison.”
The biggest ground conflict in Europe since World War II, Russia’s more than two weeks of war in Ukraine has rallied Western alliances like few events before. Repudiating Putin’s invasion, the United States and its European allies imposed crippling economic sanctions on Russia — which Biden extended on Tuesday to Russian crude oil — while drawing the line on military engagement with Russia.
“If we’re talking about a capitalized Cold War, I don’t think I could call it a second Cold War,” says Fredrik Logevall, professor of history and international affairs at Harvard and recent Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ” JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.”
“But,” says Logevall, “if we’re talking more generally about a Cold War, if we mean a titanic struggle that involves all aspects of national power fought between two incompatible systems but without outright military conflict – then yes, I guess it’s a cold war.
The Cold War is intrinsically linked to the crisis in Ukraine, in part because it informs so much of Putin’s worldview. A former KGB agent, he once called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. The invasion of Ukraine is aimed at deterring Western influence and NATO’s violation of Russia’s sphere of influence, and potentially restoring a part of the former Soviet Union the size of Texas.
Just two weeks later, the Cold War was often invoked. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said ‘the threat to global security is now more complex and probably higher’ than during the Cold War, in part because there are not the same channels Communication. A Russian Foreign Ministry official, Alexander Darchiyev, according to an Interfax report, recently suggested that “perhaps it would be useful to recall the well-forgotten principle that worked during the Cold War – peaceful coexistence” .
Even before the start of the war in Ukraine, Americans had a historically dark view of Russia. According to a Gallup poll conducted in February, 85% of Americans viewed Russia unfavorably, by far the country’s worst rating in more than three decades – a fall accelerated by Russia’s interference in US elections, its annexation of Crimea and the nerve agent attack on Putin’s main opposition. leader, Alexei Navalny, who is currently imprisoned.
And while former President Donald Trump has maintained his esteem for Putin, anti-Russian opinion enjoys uncommon bipartisan support. Gallup found that 88% of Republicans and Democrats have an unfavorable opinion of Russia. Nothing unites like a common enemy.
Moscow-born Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, argues that the Cold War never really went away – that the Western view of Russia remained stuck in the broad depictions of villains Boris and Natasha in the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. For her, Putin’s invasion was devastating as it confirmed the worst of her homeland. Now she starts her classes by apologizing.
“Putin is the global villain he deserves to be, and Russia is finished for decades to come,” says Khrushcheva, whose great-grandfather was prime minister of the Soviet Union during the crisis. Cuban missiles in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was President of the United States. “My country just committed suicide,” she said, and the United States “recovered its enemy.”
“They have their enemy who always has been, always deserves to be and always is at the forefront of the American mind,” Khrushcheva says. “Russia has no excuses. But for America it’s a field day. America is back and it’s on a white horse saving a white country in the middle of Europe against the horrible Russian bear.
Logevall, co-author of the book “America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity,” doesn’t expect a Cold War rerun. The world is no longer as bipolar as it was a few decades ago. China, which signed a pact with Russia shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, weighs much more heavily. And the interconnectedness of the global economy — where waves of companies have severed ties with Russia — makes isolated coexistence harder to tolerate.
The conflict in Ukraine appears to be at least a Cold War coda, if not a new beginning.
“Putin feels great resentment about the end of the Cold War. The West declares victory. Russia is losing its power and influence. I think he doesn’t like a certain Western triumphalism,” Logevall says. “In a way, I think the story is what drives him.”
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