Did the Cold War ever really end?
The Cold War is often thought to have died after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. But with relations between Russia and some western nations becoming increasingly frosty, and talk from both sides increasingly turning to nuclear weapons, have reports of its demise been exaggerated? Seven historians offer their opinions
Evan Mawdsley: “The Cold War was a product of the 1917 revolution and the Second World War”
Relations between the US and Russian Federation have been cool over the past 10 years, and were chilled further by the 2014 annexation of the Crimea. But those developments are part of a new era. The Cold War meant more than tension between two major states. It evolved over time, but had three essential features. One, a consequence of the Second World War, was global bipolarity. Many major states had been defeated or weakened, leaving the two ‘super powers’. Washington and Moscow assembled alliance systems, especially Nato and the Warsaw Pact. The second feature was ideology, Marxism-Leninism versus liberal-capitalism (or anti-communism). These idea systems bound each bloc together and impeded good inter-bloc relations. Soviet leaders took socialism seriously: it was a buttress of their bloc, especially in eastern Europe, and it won the USSR significant support among leftist political groups, in Europe and then in the anti-colonial movement. The third feature was massive arms procurement, especially nuclear. Such weapons made military conflict on the scale of the Second World War unthinkable. The ‘war’ was therefore a cold one, carried out through ideology rather than fighting.
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The world changed profoundly in all three areas, as a result of the collapse of the USSR. First, the blocs were no more, especially the eastern European alliance system. The Russian Federation now lacks close allies or clients. Similarly, with no serious external threat, the US receives only limited support from its own friends. Meanwhile, Marxism-Leninism ceased to be a powerful ideology. The Russian Federation from time to time puts forward an anti-liberal ideology or talks about ‘Eurasianism’, but neither provides the basis for an international movement. Nuclear weapons still exist; the US and the Russian Federation have far more than other states. But those play little role in their relationship, and the Russian Federation, with a population now half that of the US, can deploy only weak conventional forces. Major states will disagree and compete. But the Cold War was a product of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Second World War. It is over, and it will not return.
Evan Mawdsley was professor of international history at the University of Glasgow. His books include World War II: A New History (CUP, 2009).
Kathleen Burk: “What was notable was that in the 20th century the superpowers forebore actually coming to blows”
Cold War is a term denoting the period between 1945, when the US and UK governments decided that the hostility of the USSR to ‘the west’ was the fundamental factor in international affairs, and 1991, when the end of the USSR signified the victory of the US and its allies.
During this period, the US government frequently saw the hand of the Soviets in any disturbance in any country on the planet, although others were sometimes less convinced, and presumably the USSR assumed the same of the US. The response by both sides was to build alliances all over the world in order to ‘contain’ the enemy, excepting the countries that preferred not to be a member of either, invoking the ‘plague on both your houses’ principle.
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What stabilised this period was the atomic standoff, and the eventual acceptance by the leaders of both sides that neither could win a nuclear war, because the only possible outcome for any ‘winner’ was to be less damaged than the other. Public opinion supported this conclusion, and there was no support to utilise these weapons.
Yet how did this Cold War differ from the classical Balance of Power as evidenced throughout humanity’s long history? There were the coalitions of the Peloponnesian War of the fifth century BC; those of virtually every European war, most famously the wars for and against the France of Louis XIV and of Napoleon; the alliance systems of the later 19th century; and those for and against Germany in the 20th century. What was notable in the second half of the 20th century was that the two superpowers forebore actually coming to blows. Those countries that endured proxy wars were apparently of less account.
The question is whether the conflict between the US-led coalition and the Soviet Union/Russia has, since 1991, merely been in abeyance. My own answer is that the Cold War never ended because it was a part of a continuum since the dawn of history. Relative power may differ, but not the diplomatic quadrille, as great and less great powers try to secure safety, and advantage, in the international jungle. Only the name expired.
Kathleen Burk is emeritus professor of modern and contemporary history at University College London, specialising in Anglo-American relations and 20th-century history.
Piers Ludlow: “It was a competition between two universalist models: each claimed to represent the future”
The Cold War was always much more than just a military stand-off or armed confrontation between the western and eastern blocs. Instead it was at root the competition between two fundamentally different visions of modernity – of how the world should and would be organised in the future. It was this latter competition that came to a decisive end in the period between 1989 and 1991 when the Soviet bloc collapsed.
This does not of course mean that all that has followed has been about peace and goodwill. There is still plenty of conflict, plenty of division in today’s world. Nor is it to deny that a state like Putin’s Russia poses a genuine security threat to Europe, especially to neighbouring nations like the Baltic States or the Ukraine. It does. Nor even is it to deny the ongoing competition between western liberal democracy and alternative world views, whether those of Islamic extremists or that of an autocratic and still nominally communist country like China. These do represent very different ways of organising politics, society and economics. History did not come to an end in 1989, as some suggested.
But the Cold War, as I understand it, was a very specific competition between two universalist models, each of which claimed to represent the future for all mankind. I’m not at all sure by contrast that such universalism lies at the heart of Putin’s thought or that of China. The Soviet Union and the US both believed the world should and would move decisively in the direction of its economic system, its society, and its political system. And each poured huge energies into the task of trying to ensure this outcome, using every tactic in the book from propaganda and bribery to outright use of military force.
It was this that drove the Cold War and turned it from a traditional great power rivalry into a defining feature of the period between around 1947 and 1991. And it was this competition that ended, decisively, with the victory of the western model. So the Cold War has ended, however divided, insecure and unpredictable our current world remains.
Piers Ludlow is associate professor at the London School of Economics and joint editor of Visions of the End of the Cold War in Europe, 1945–1990 (Berghahn, 2012).
Vladislav Zubok: “Ironically, populists in the west now tend to see Russia as a potential ally against other challenges”
There have always been those who believed that the Cold War did not really end in 1991. Those people could be met in three key areas: post-Soviet elites in Moscow, in smaller countries along the borders of the Russian Federation, and in Washington, DC. In Moscow, these people were initially on the margins: the military, ex-KGB officials and ideologues of Russian nationalism. They were inspired by anti-Americanism and a belief that the US would not tolerate a strong, independent Russia.
In the countries bordering the Russian Federation, nationalists who came to power after 1991 believed that Russia would never become a stable liberal democracy. The leaders of those countries opted for a preventive strategy: to join Nato and thereby prevent a possibility of Russia’s geopolitical comeback.
Finally, in Washington, Yeltsin’s regime of the 1990s was seen by diehard ‘Cold Warriors’ as a fleeting aberration from the ‘eternal Russia’: authoritarian, and bent on dominance in Eurasia. Once it regained strength, they argued, it would be again an adversary of the US. These people viewed liberals who argued for the enlargement of Nato as a “zone of peace and democracy” as useful fools who served the right cause.
It was not preordained that these viewpoints would coalesce and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, commentators claimed that the ‘Russian Bear’ was back. Reusing mothballed Cold War slogans, they presented it as a threat to the ‘free world’, with Ukraine the first falling domino paving the way for Russian domination in Eurasia.
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Yet it would be a travesty of history to regard Putin’s Russia – a regional, authoritarian and corrupt power – as waging the same battles as the Soviet Union. In the new situation, when global liberalism in the US and Europe is checked by internal contradictions, a major realignment may be afoot. Attempts by liberal-centrist media to portray Russia as the main enemy of the international community have failed to ignite a new Cold War because they stretch reality too far. Ironically, rightwing populists in the west now tend to see Russia as a potential ally against other challenges, from radical Islamism to powerful China. This is a totally new ballgame. The Cold War did end in 1989–91 after all. We live in a new, messy world.
Vladislav Zubok is professor of international history at LSE. He is writing a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘eternal Cold War’.
Hakim Adi: “The bipolar division of the world no longer exists but contention between the big powers continues”
The Cold War might be said to have commenced with Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech, which referred to postwar geopolitical developments in Europe. However, the Anglo-American assault on the Soviet Union and communism, as well as the bipolar division of the world that ensued, had a profound and lasting global impact.
The Cold War had a major impact on Africa and the African diaspora, from the persecution of African-American activist WEB Du Bois to the deportation from the US of communist Claudia Jones. In Africa it was used as justification for the existence of apartheid and the banning of the ANC and other liberal organisations, as well as for Nato’s support for the continuation of Portugal’s colonial rule. The Cold War created not just conditions for the continued intervention of big powers in Africa but also justifications for such intervention. From the 1940s, major colonial powers demanded that formal political independence could be granted only to ‘responsible’ leaders – those who would be responsible to the big powers, and opposed to the Soviet Union and communism or to the empowerment of Africa’s people. Leaders who didn’t meet such requirements were removed: such was the fate of Prime Minister Lumumba of what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, replaced by one deemed more suitable – Mobutu Sese Seko.
The bipolar division of the world no longer exists but the contention between the big powers continues in new forms. In Africa a new scramble for geopolitical and economic advantage means intervention is as rife as ever, provided with new justifications. Libyan independence was ended under Nato bombardment, justified on the dubious basis of the ‘right to protect’. The status quo is maintained by the diktat of the IMF/World Bank and the African Union’s NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) but challenged by BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as well as by Africa’s long-suffering people. Perhaps the most damaging impact has been ideological, the attempt to deny that there is any alternative. Fortunately history and experience show otherwise – that change is inevitable, and that the people are their own liberators.
Hakim Adi is a professor of history at the University of Chichester and author of Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919–1939 (Africa World Press, 2013).
Robert Service: “The US and Russia are some way short of being locked in a struggle for world supremacy”
The Cold War that lasted from the late 1940s until the late 1980s is dead and gone. At several moments, such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a single misjudged step taken by one side or the other could have resulted in nuclear armageddon. For four decades, while the Third World War was avoided, America and the Soviet Union competed in offering a model of the way in which a ‘good society’ should be organised. Capitalism and individual civil rights were contrasted with communism and collective welfare. Each superpower strove to bind ‘third world’ countries into an alliance with it.
When the USSR fell apart in 1991, Russian president Boris Yeltsin strove for his country to become accepted as embracing the values of democracy, economic liberalism and social pluralism. No longer did it offer itself as a modelfor emulation. Through most of the 1990s Yeltsin battled with the problems of a severe economic depression and a plummeting standard of living for most Russian citizens.
The situation changed when Vladimir Putin succeeded to the presidency in 2000. He announced the launch of a campaign for a strong state and an orderly society. At first he chose friendship with US president George W Bush and helped to enable the America-led invasion of Afghanistan, but when he failed to secure endorsement of his military severity in Chechnya he became sharply hostile to the west. The boost in world market oil and gas prices gave Putin the revenues he needed. He opposed US policy in the Middle East, annexed Crimea and militarily intervened elsewhere in Ukraine. He modernised Russian armaments and thumbed his nose at American presidents.
At this point, there are concerns about the possible renewal of a Cold War. Although Russia is wedded to the capitalist system, it claims to have a better idea than America about how to organise a democracy. Yet Russia and America are some way short of being locked in a comprehensive struggle for world supremacy, and the recent dip in prices for oil and gas makes Russia a less than impressive contender. Not yet a Cold War, then, but a situation of acute danger. Fingers crossed...
Robert Service is the author of several major books on Russian history, including The Last of the Tsars (Macmillan, 2017).
Catherine Merridale: “From military over-flights to the snatching of Crimea, Russia once again shows no respect at all for global rules”
The Cold War ended finally in December 1991. As the Soviet flag was lowered forever, Mikhail Gorbachev closed the door on his Kremlin office, ceding power to Boris Yeltsin. What Ronald Reagan had once called the “evil empire” was dead.
Shorn of its loyal satellites, Russia was to face a decade of political and economic strife, at times relying on the goodwill of the IMF. Life was almost impossibly difficult for most citizens, but the leaders and the rich did well. A new class of global Russians emerged, acquiring a taste for luxury and turning up in Cyprus, Paris, Kensington and Brooklyn. They stuck together, but their talk was all about interior design and private schools; spies were for fiction and the cinema. Even the Berlin Wall was soon to disappear. That master of the Cold War spy plot, John le Carré, began to set his novels in Kenya and Panama.
More than two decades on, the atmosphere has clearly changed again. From cyber-attacks to polonium poisoning, from military over-flights to the snatching of Crimea, Russia once again shows no respect at all for global rules. Echoes of the past grow louder all the time.
Vladimir Putin was a product of the Cold War KGB, the main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 until its break-up in 1991. He remains an advocate of its successor, whose specialities include a range of secret foreign operations (blatant ones are also fine). Meanwhile, like the old Soviet military, Putin’s generals are moving troops around in massive numbers, building bases in the Middle East and arming the old Prussian fortress at Kaliningrad.
It is hard to avoid the terminology of the Cold War, for here is yet another confrontation that includes a direct challenge to democracy. But history is full of examples of doomed generals who could only ever fight the campaigns of their previous wars. We have to see that this is not a rerun of some conflict from the recent past. Politics is not that simple or predictable. Instead, we need to recognise exactly what is going on in our own time. It is the only hope we have of working out what to do next.
Catherine Merridale is a historian specialising in Russia and has held a series of posts at British universities. Her books include Lenin on the Train (Allen Lane, 2016)
This article was taken from issue 2 of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in February 2017