The Cold War heats up

By invading and annexing Crimea, Russia has raised the spectre of outright war with NATO

REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

In 1989, the American author and political scientist Francis Fukuyama watched the once-great Soviet empire begin to fray and concluded that history itself was ending.

His essay, and subsequent book titled The End of History and the Last Man, argued that the end of the Cold War might also mark the final step in humanity’s ideological evolution. Western liberal democracy would become universalized, and nothing would replace it.

Some Western leaders believed that the conclusion of the political struggle between Communism and democracy meant that conflict between the Western and Soviet blocs must end as well. After a September 1990 meeting with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, American president George H. W. Bush said a “new world order” was possible because the era of “East-West confrontation” was over.


As things turned out, liberal democracy did not triumph globally with the end of the Cold War. But at least the potential for a violent clash between Russia and the West seemed consigned to history. European and Russian economies were integrated. Russia joined the Group of Eight club of developed nations. Whatever tensions remained, few worried about outright war between Russia and NATO—until now.

In February, after a popular protest movement toppled the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Russia invaded and then annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. The move, accomplished with stealth and startling efficiency by Russian troops wearing uniforms without insignia, and local pro-Russian militiamen, has revived dormant fears about Russian expansionism.

Prior to Russia’s invasion, many in the West believed that history, defined as a contest between East and West, really was over, says Marcin Bosacki, Poland’s ambassador to Canada.

“Now we see that history is a beast which can hit you at any time in the shape of little green [uniformed] people who don’t identify themselves, but are in tens of thousands and are heavy-armoured.”

By annexing Crimea, Bosacki notes, Russia broke a commitment it made when it signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Russia, Britain and the United States pledged to respect Ukraine’s existing borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal. “If you break by force an international agreement in which one country gives up a nuclear arsenal in order to have its borders and sovereignty secured, you can expect anything.”

Suddenly, security threats that seemed remote or academic only two months ago are frighteningly real. One of Russia’s justifications for invading Crimea—protecting the Russian minority there—could be just as easily applied to other regions of Ukraine, as well as to countries such as Estonia or Latvia. Moscow’s contention that Crimea belongs to it because Crimea has been part of Ukraine only since 1954 is a disturbing precedent to set in a part of the world where many borders are newer than that.

Europe, in short, has become a much more dangerous place. During the Cold War, the task of confronting Russian aggression on the continent fell to NATO. That remains its job. What’s no longer certain is whether the alliance is still up to it.

ARTICLE 5 of NATO’s founding charter is clear: An attack on one member state is an attack against all of them, and members must protect each other. It’s a clause that cuts two ways. Those within the alliance are sheltered by the military might of their allies. States that don’t belong to NATO are not.

Ukraine is not a NATO member. Its consequent vulnerability was starkly revealed by the ease with which Russia conquered Crimea, and the absence of a Western military response.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a “wake-up call” for the alliance, and “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the Cold War.” This doesn’t change the fact that NATO did nothing to stop it.

Ukraine is, in fact, the second country in NATO’s backyard that Russia has invaded in the last six years. In 2008, Russia swept into the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and, following a short war, effectively annexed them by officially recognizing the territories as independent republics.

In response, NATO foreign ministers vowed the end of “business as usual” unless Russia withdrew its troops—and then resumed business as usual when Russia ignored them.

Some have argued that Russia’s aggression against non-NATO members Ukraine and Georgia suggests membership should be extended to those countries as a protective deterrent against future Russian encroachment. (Canada supports the eventual integration of both states into NATO, should they wish to do so.)

Such a move would infuriate Russia, which already feels that the alliance has moved too close to its borders since the Cold War’s end. But Russian opposition isn’t a reason not to offer membership, says Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. The more relevant question is whether both prospective and current NATO member states are willing and able to fulfill the obligations of mutual defence that membership requires. In other words, are NATO states, including Canada, prepared to go to war over Ukraine?

NATO may be able to avoid answering that question for now. Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said last week that “solely for the sake of preserving Ukraine’s unity,” the country’s accession to NATO is “not on the agenda.”

But other countries, already NATO members, also feel threatened by Russia. “When I hear the NATO secretary-general say that what happened in Ukraine was a wake-up call, then I just think how deeply NATO has been asleep,” says Gita Kalmet, Estonia’s ambassador to Canada.

About 25 per cent of Estonia’s population is Russian, and Russia frequently accuses Estonia of mistreating them. It recently compared Estonia’s supposedly discriminatory language policy to Ukraine’s—sparking concerns that, as it did in Crimea, Russia might use the pretext of protecting Russian minorities to justify invading Estonia.

“Russian aggression is not only a danger for us, it’s a danger for the whole of Europe. What Estonian people are worried about is whether the West will take it all seriously,” says Kalmet.

Estonia is one of the few NATO countries that still spends at least two per cent of its GDP on defence. Spending is down across much of the alliance, including in Canada, even as Russia increased military expenditure by some 79 per cent between 2002 and 2012, according to a Brookings Institution study.

Russia fears countries that were once part of the Soviet orbit will slide away toward Europe and the West, joining organizations such as NATO and the European Union. States that Moscow can’t keep loyal, it tries to weaken and divide.

“Russia is defining its security through the insecurity of its neighbours,” says James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington. “It’s been actively seeking to create instability in Georgia, in Moldova, in Ukraine, as a way of addressing its security needs.”

The future political orientation of those countries, and others now hovering between East and West, is still in play. Western states have non-military tools to use. Poland and Canada, for example, will soon announce joint projects to develop free media and civil society in Ukraine. And Ukraine’s Western allies continue to exert diplomatic pressure on Russia. On Monday, leaders of the Group of Seven nations announced they would meet this year without Russia, boycotting a G8 meeting planned for Sochi.

But Kalmet and Bosacki also believe NATO’s “eastern flank” must be militarily strengthened. To some extent, this has already happened. Earlier this month, America sent 18 fighter jets and more than 300 military personnel to Poland and Lithuania in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and concerns that further aggression could follow.

“We need more exercises. We need more strategic military co-operation,” Bosacki says.

“We don’t need a change of perception. It has already happened on both sides of the Atlantic. The perception that Europe is safe, peaceful, and that nothing will happen again, is over.”

Filed under:

The Cold War heats up

  1. It must be a nightmare, trying to coordinate a multinational strategy against someone like Putin. One area the west could show some real leadership in is to make changes to its economic[read energy] relationship[read dependence] with Russia. If Russian gas should become less of a lever in Berlin and dirty Russian money a corrupting vice in London, we might regain some badly needed leverage over Putin; perhaps enough for the nascent Russian democrats to pull him down finally; or some say Putin will simply switch tacks and turn his face to the east and Asia. Which is why the response ought to be global in nature, not just NATOS problem to fix.
    To some extent the Russians have to chose…grow up and except your diminished place in a multi polar world, as the Brits and France to some extent have been forced to so, or retreat into a very dangerous and delusional proto nationalistic fantasy land; one that leaves the future of humanity hanging by yet another thread.

  2. Echoes of the late 1930s here; an Olympic Games where certain segments are discriminated against, and the Games themselves a propaganda tool for the man in power; the annexation of neighbouring lands… As we learned the hard way then, appeasement didn’t work with Hitler – and won’t work with Putin. Throughout history, we have had men like them, and there is never a peaceful outcome as long as they remain in power.

    Let’s hope the west has the sense to stand up to Putin. And let’s hope some sane, selfless Russian puts a bullet in his brain, before we become embroiled an another World War.

    • Agree appeasement shouldn’t be an option, but this guy has NWs…it’s a much higher stakes game than it was with Adolph. Doubly scary is how much support this guy has among Russians who tend to be very Conservative in a nationalistic and ethnocentric sense that has pretty much gone out of style in the west – thank goodness.
      These are truly dangerous days though. We have a generation of western leaders with almost no experience of dealing with the Russians in this mood; and most of our cold war warriors are either on the shelf or dead.[ kissinger excepted. Not sure he is ever going to die. Not sure if he was ever really alive] Our greatest generation, the ones with the last experience of the awful consequences of war are also gone; same is true for the Russians too of course. Frankly i’m worried. Harper [ although so far he’s shown leadership on this issue] is not my idea of a balanced hawk; and OB seems capable at times of arguing away almost any kind of forceful or concrete response, no matter what the provocation. Hate to admit it but the most experienced and coolest head here might be the German lady.
      We should come through this, and one thing i hope we stick to is financing any legit democratic org that has an interest in governing Russia someday – no matter how much Putin squeals about it.

  3. I am surprised the author has concentrated his attention on Russia in this situation. The story has not started in Kremlin, never mind what Obama et al tell us. Cold war was stopped after NATO’s official promise to not expand eastwards. This was before Baltics and Central Europe and destruction of Yugoslavia. And before $5 bln invested through NGOs into process of “eurointegration” of Ukraine. Russia expressed concerns with every move, but could not afford and did not care much to act. After installation of puppet government in Ukraine, Russia had to make its position heard. And it did. And if NATO does not stop their continues expansion plans, Russia will have to act more.
    To resolve the situation NATO must come to senses.

  4. The author only mentions “liberal democracy”, as if it’s the only gift from heaven, forgetting the obvious “engines” that control it, called free-enterprise,(which is almost a joke, these days), Capitalism, and monopolizations.
    Those are the “real” realities”, hence why via “outsourcing,…”, the 08/09 Recession,.. still ongoing, +10 milloin homelss N. Americans,…, and getting worse every year. Jobs, what jobs ? -LoL. Communist China is definitely doing good though, theses days, arent’ they ?
    In other words, the author is also wrong in the fact that it NEVER was an “East-Weat” thing, -it ALWAYS has been a Capitalist, versus Communist/Socialist thing.
    A corrupt Capitalist is no better than a corrupt Socialist. -and that’s the end end of that, ok. If we think we have a “voting” system that’s fair, then have you checked “elections canada” lately? uhhhm.
    The war mongers commenting here, keep forgetting that 40% of the Ukraine is pro-Russian, and not because they were paid off, but simply because they ARE. We are experienced with this -aka Anglo-Canadian, versus Franco-Canadian,…, need more prroof ???

    Obviously, we all hope beyond hope, this does NOT erupt into a civil war with a lot of needless bloodshed.