The turn towards the Cold War

Europe has once again become divided politically, economically and militarily: Russia in the east, NATO and the EU in the west, and the countries in between – Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Caucasus States – have become an area of potential conflict. A war between the great powers in Europe – which seemed to have remained on the pages of history books – has once again become possible, albeit unlikely (due to nuclear issues).

The equivalent of military action has been economic sanctions and the information warfare which has developed in full swing. Although Russia and the United States were already on the brink of a confrontation over Georgia in 2008, the episode was too fleeting, quite peripheral and left without consequences due to the outbreak of the well-known global financial crisis and the change of Administration in Washington with the Presidency of Barack Hussein Obama (2009-17). Unlike Georgia, however, Ukraine has managed to change the system of international relations more than thirty years after the end of the ‘first’ Cold War.

The abrupt turn in the relations between Russia and the West have come after twenty-five years of slow efforts on both sides to build an inclusive relationship. In the last two years of Mikhail Gorbachev (CPSU Secretary from 1985 to 1991) rule over the USSR, Russia hoped to create a “common European home” and a joint world leadership with the United States. It soon became clear that both of those postulates – so to speak – were illusory. The first President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), attempted to fully integrate the country with the West through NATO membership and a direct alliance with the United States. That did not work either, especially when someone in Russia realised that their country was in danger of being literally first sold out and then colonised by the allogenic soft power – to put it mildly.  

After informally probing the West on Russia’s entry into NATO, President Vladimir Putin (2000-2008, and since 2012 to date) stated in a speech delivered in German to the Bundestag in 2001 that Russia had created an alliance with the United States of America, and publicly announced the country’s European choice. The third President, Dmitry Medvedev (2008-2012), called for a European security treaty, suggested that Russia and NATO create a common defence perimeter, and actively sought “modernisation alliances” with the economically advanced countries of the West.

Despite the efforts of the last CPSU Secretary General and of the first three Russian Presidents, the Western leaders have never actually showed any real interest in Russian integration. They had good reason to avoid it.

Russia is too big for such an undertaking, especially in terms of economic assistance needed to bring it closer to the level of Western Europe and, despite the loss of superpower status, it is too independent and has no sense of semi-colony, which is in the DNA of an EU that lacks – besides the necessary skills and means – an army and the will to build one. Moreover, Russia possesses a huge nuclear arsenal and an elite that thinks in terms of great power, and strives for equality with the United States of America. It has no politicians and representatives who aim at rich posts and seats in Brussels, Strasbourg, at national or international levels, or at rich bribes, as we are discovering these days.

Russia would be a too stubborn and uncomfortable ally for the United States. Finally, the West has no external threat that would require Russia to join the US-led alliance system, because – in the opinion of the eggheads above – the threat comes precisely from Russia, and even before the Ukrainian crisis.

Instead of integrating Russia into its system of international structures, the West sought to direct it to create the political, economic and social institutions that would bring it closer to the West in terms of competitive qualities. Western governments supported market-oriented programmes in Russia, hoping it would soon become part of a society subjugated to other-directed globalisation. Before the Russian financial crisis of 1998, the country was sustained for six years by the “life-support equipment” of the International Monetary Fund. At many levels of the Russian State apparatus, especially in its economic bloc, there were Western advisors. Western States supported Yeltsin at critical moments such as the armed conflict with the Russian Parliament in 1993 and the election campaign in 1996.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that Yeltsin had proved to be a puppet of the West, Russia anyway disappointed its counterpart. Having just recovered from the aforementioned default caused by high oil prices, its economy became dependent on energy exports. The political system shifted from initial chaos to oligarchic rule, and then to authoritarianism. Russian society endured the shock of radical change, experienced unemployment and poverty – at the time of socialism it was unthinkable to see people dying of cold in the underground, as they had not even their homes guaranteed by the CPSU – and even developed a taste for prosperity for a relatively few, but never developed the need to slavishly listen to Western morals and blindly copy and subordinate itself to Western political systems. Instead, people began to appreciate stability – i.e. a return to the security that the defunct USSR offered – and, having had enough of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, supported Putin. The liberals, the only category of Russian opposition that interested the West, remained a small – albeit outspoken – minority. Every time it coughed, it had the echo amplified in the West into million-watt loudspeakers. Finally, Russia insisted on maintaining its great power status, which to many Westerners seemed a thing of the past. This annoyed many people.  

It must be said, however, that there was no attempt to isolate Russia:

1) it was offered to become a minor and handicapped partner of the USA, the EU and NATO;

2) in 1991, Russia was authorized to retain by devolution the USSR seat on the UN Security Council;

3) in 1996 it was admitted to the Council of Europe;

4) in 1998 it was admitted to the G8;

5) the Russia-NATO Council for Military Cooperation was established in 2002;

6) Russia established a close partnership with the EU, strengthened in 2003 by the concept of the four common spaces (a. the economic space; b. the space for freedom, security and justice; c. the space for external security; d. the space for research, education and culture);

7. in 2012 Russia became a member of the World Trade Organisation and began the process of joining the OECD;

8) all Russian leaders held private, informal meetings with their US counterparts and, in turn, with their Western counterparts.

At the same time, however, recognition of Russia as an equal partner of the United States of America and its EU bandwagon was ruled out. In the West, the Russian Federation was seen – and indeed it is still seen – as a smaller international player, whose influence and importance were diminishing. It was not about granting Russia special privileges in the form of a sphere of influence, especially over the fourteen States that made up (together with the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, now the Russian Federation) the Republics of the former Soviet Union. Russia’s policy towards its neighbours – the aforementioned Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Caucasus Republics – has been carefully analysed in search of “neo-imperial” elements. Since the first half of the 1990s, the West has observed Russia’s actions against separatist-terrorists in Chechnya and throughout the North Caucasus, considering them an indicator of human rights violations, potential sliding into Soviet-era methods and excessive influence of the military and special services in the country.

According to the United States of America and the EU, Russia should have accepted the decision of its former Warsaw Pact allies to join NATO. For Russia, that was particularly difficult for two reasons. Firstly, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic (members of NATO since 1999), as well as Slovakia, the Baltic States, Romania and Bulgaria (members since 2004) were given what Russia itself was not allowed. Secondly, NATO expansion went against the promises that many Russians believed Western foxes had made to the naive and inexperienced Gorbachev in 1990: a reunified Germany would not be allowed to remain in NATO (the German Democratic Republic was integrated into the Atlantic Alliance in the unification process with the Federal Republic of Germany). Western governments regarded Russia’s protests – about “double Germany” in NATO as its aggressive expansion – as evidence of Russia’s imperial ambitions and even of its claims over Central and Eastern Europe. Russia, on the other hand, saw NATO expansion as a violation of obligations by the West.

If we have reached this point, there are reasons that do not lie in the emotional state of the last news presenter, but are lost in recent history that is often forgotten for the convenience of one side only.

Giancarlo Elia Valori
Giancarlo Elia Valori
Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is a world-renowned Italian economist and international relations expert, who serves as the President of International Studies and Geopolitics Foundation, International World Group, Global Strategic Business In 1995, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dedicated the Giancarlo Elia Valori chair of Peace and Regional Cooperation. Prof. Valori also holds chairs for Peace Studies at Yeshiva University in New York and at Peking University in China. Among his many honors from countries and institutions around the world, Prof. Valori is an Honorable of the Academy of Science at the Institute of France, Knight Grand Cross, Knight of Labor of the Italian Republic, Honorary Professor at the Peking University