In his final State of the Union address, in 1992, President George H. W. Bush sounded almost ecstatic. “The biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this: by the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” The ideological struggle between the U.S.-led West and the Soviet-dominated East—which played out in proxy wars around the world over four decades—had not simply ended, the President declared. The U.S. had triumphed. “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and preëminent power, the United States of America,” he told a joint session of Congress. “And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right.” Bush really did believe in what he labelled “a new world order” marking the end of an era. “The quest for freedom is stronger than steel, more permanent than concrete,” he said, in November, 1989, as the Berlin Wall and Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were crumbling.
Both of Bush’s assertions seem dubious—even naïve—three decades later. In a stunning announcement on Friday, President Biden said that, based on “significant intelligence,” the U.S. believes President Vladimir Putin intends to invade Ukraine. The Russian leader “is focussed on trying to convince the world that he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe in a way that he cannot,” Biden told reporters. On Saturday, during a stop in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic that is now a NATO ally, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Russian forces “are uncoiling and are now poised to strike.”
Amid escalating tensions, a new debate has emerged among historians and experts on Russia about whether the Cold War ever really ended—at least as far as Moscow is concerned—and whether American arrogance blinded successive U.S. Presidents. Russia, with the largest army in Europe, is now resurgent. It is trying to reëstablish its traditional sphere of influence. In Europe over the past fourteen years, Russia has invaded and annexed part of Ukraine, and invaded Georgia and recognized two of its breakaway provinces as independent countries. For the first time, Russia has entrenched a military presence on the Mediterranean at naval and air-force bases in Syria, in the Middle East. In Africa, thousands of Russian contract mercenaries have been deployed on the Mediterranean coast of oil-rich Libya as well as in Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Madagascar. Now Russia appears intent on absorbing geostrategic Ukraine—a country slightly smaller than Texas that borders four members of NATO—either by military force or political coercion. Moscow counters that Washington’s criticism is hypocritical, given U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, much farther from its own shores, during the past two decades.
From the vantage point of history, some experts now view the current tensions as merely a new phase in a Cold War that never ended. “We can trace current strains back to the Cold War,” Robert Daly, the director of the Kissinger Institute, at the Wilson Center, told me. “There are important continuities.” He said the crisis today was not preordained or inevitable. If American, Russian, and Chinese leaders had made “a whole slew” of different choices along the way, history could have taken a different and less troubled course. “But it now looks like the period between the Cold War and today was an interregnum,” he said. “We thought issues were resolved, but it’s now clear that they weren’t.” The new prism on the past will be hard for Americans to accept, he said, because the crisis today reflects a “collective failure” over decades.
The brief period of hope—when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev crafted compromises on nuclear arms during the openings of glasnost, in the late nineteen-eighties, and when Bush hosted Boris Yeltsin at Camp David, in 1992—contrasts starkly with Putin decision, in 2022, to amass the largest military buildup in Europe since the Cold War. The combative language today echoes the political furies of the past. On Thursday, the Kremlin fired off an eleven-page response to Biden’s proposals to enhance security for both Europe and Russia. Putin balked—obstinately. Russia instead pledged never to abandon its two core demands—first, that Ukraine is barred from ever joining NATO, and second, that NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance, roll back its deployment of troops and matériel to its 1997 borders. The response included a new threat, should NATO refuse. “In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees to ensure our security from the United States and its allies,” it vowed, “Russia will be forced to respond, including by implementing measures of a military-technical nature.”
From today’s vantage point, the root causes of the tensions between Washington and Moscow have not changed much since the Cold War, Sergey Radchenko, an international-relations expert at the School of Advanced International Studies, at Johns Hopkins University, told me. The assumption in Washington that the Cold War was over in 1989 was “unduly American-centric” and ignored Moscow’s historic desire to be seen and respected by the U.S. and Europe as a major power, regardless of ideology. “It was never about this conflict between capitalism and communism,” he said. “It was much more about challenging the hierarchy of global politics and climbing up the hierarchy at the expense of the United States.” Gaining acceptance as an equal power, with its own sphere of influence, has been Moscow’s goal—whether under Communist or post-Communist rule—dating to the summit in Yalta, in 1945, of the three Allied leaders in the Second World War, Radchenko said.
Others still separate the historic eras. They contend that there are more differences than similarities between the Cold War of the twentieth century and the tensions of the early twenty-first. “I don’t think it would be accurate to say it was just an interregnum, a short little thing, and then we’re back to the way history always is,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia now at Stanford University, told me. “The old Cold War did end.” It was followed, McFaul said, by a “moment of opportunity” when Russia could have consolidated democratic governance at home and integrated into the liberal international order. “Some of us worked on that project—and that project failed, in 2011,” he said, referring to the time just before Putin reclaimed the Presidency and consolidated power.. The Cold War, McFaul said, was replaced by a period of “hot peace.” And it may now be getting much hotter.
The one constant is Moscow’s ambition, Francis Fukuyama, the author of “The End of History and the Last Man,” told me. Putin has openly lamented the Soviet Union’s collapse as a “huge tragedy. His foreign policy has been really to try to reassemble as much of that entity as possible.” But otherwise, Fukuyama said, the stakes between 1947 and 1989 were higher, and the conflict “much more enveloping” globally. The Cold War was often considered a conflict between rival universalist ideologies. In 2022, Putin is instead seeking “to undermine the belief of Western democracies in their own systems, but he’s actually not trying to pretend that Russia has a superior system that would apply in other countries,” Fukuyama said. The ideological battles of the Cold War have been replaced by more traditional geopolitical competition. “Russia is simply trying to gain influence using the sort of limited military leverage that it has in different parts of the world. But that’s not the Cold War,” Fukuyama said. Russia today, he added, is far weaker than the Soviet empire was, especially as much of Eastern Europe is “pretty solidly aligned with the West.”
The Cold War lasted nearly a half century. Whether Russia actually invades Ukraine, the crisis has the potential to drag out and ripple across the other countries on Russia’s borders, as the Cold War did. “Moscow has made it clear that it is prepared to contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades, and to do so by using force,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, on Wednesday. “I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe.”
Amid the tensions over Ukraine, little attention has been focussed on Putin’s intentions in neighboring Belarus, which is already Moscow’s closest ally among the Soviet empire’s former republics. Putin hosted the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenka, in Moscow on Friday. Lukashenka, who crushed pro-democracy street protests last year, with Putin’s aid, offered to allow Russia to deploy nuclear weapons in his country, which borders three NATO members—Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. From a command center in Moscow, on Saturday, Putin and Lukashenka together watched the joint military exercises in Belarus that included nuclear-capable cruise and ballistic missiles and involved thirty thousand Russian troops. “Once this big exercise is over, I think it’s entirely possible that Russia will leave a lot of its own forces there and effectively reincorporate Belarus,” Fukuyama, who has worked on projects in Ukraine for seven years, told me. Putin, he added, “was probably planning to do that anyhow. This gives him an excuse.”
President Bush got one thing right in his final address to Congress, three decades ago. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, “the world is still a dangerous place,” he said. “Only the dead have seen the end of conflict. And though yesterday’s challenges are behind us, tomorrow’s are being born.”