Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union and the man who inadvertently administered a mercy killing to Communism in Europe said, “The world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some say that it has already begun.” He’s 83 years old, he played a leading role in ending the last Cold War, and he’s practically a secular saint. Surely he knows what he’s talking about.
No he doesn’t. Not only has this new Cold War not begun already but it’s hard to see how you could get it going even if you tried. The raw material for such an enterprise is simply unavailable. You can summon the ghosts of history all you want, but they are dead and they can’t hear you.
Gorbachev was speaking in Berlin, now once again the capital of a united Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even he would agree that it turned out to be, on balance, a Good Thing, but he is a great deal more ambivalent about the collapse of European Communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
His original goal, and his hope right down to the end in 1991, was to save Communism by reforming it, not to bury it. He also believed, or at least hoped, that if he could make Communist rule “democratic” and user-friendly, he could save the Soviet Union as well. But the Soviet Union was just the Old Russian Empire in new clothes.
Gorbachev was and is a romantic, and he undoubtedly agrees with his rather less cuddly successor as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.” So of course he ends up defending Putin’s actions and blaming the United States and NATO for this alleged drift into a new Cold War.
It’s all nonsense. Nothing could have saved the old Soviet Union. It was the last of the European empires to fall, mainly because it was land-based rather than sea-based, but only half its population was Russian. When it finally dissolved, 15 different nations emerged from the wreckage, and its collapse was no greater a loss to civilization than the fall of the British or French empires. And the main reason you can’t have a new Cold War is precisely because the “evil empire” (as Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union) longer exists. There is only Russia, a largely de-industrialized country that is run by a kleptocratic elite and makes its living by exporting oil and gas.
Russia has only 140 million people (less than half the United States, less than a third of the European Union), and its armies are no longer based around Berlin and all through Eastern Europe. They are 750 km further east, guarding Russia’s own frontiers. They occasionally grab a bit of territory that isn’t covered by a NATO guarantee (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea, Luhansk, Donestk), but they dare not go any further.
So you could get a really unpleasant NATO-Russian confrontation out of this for a while (although it hasn’t happened yet), but not a real Cold War in the old globe-spanning style. Russia just couldn’t hold up its end of it. As for World War Three, don’t worry. Putin cares a lot about saving face, but not that much.
Which leaves the question: Who is to blame for this regrettable hostility between Russia and the western powers? The West, in Gorbachev’s view. In fact, he had a whole list of complaints about western threats, crimes and betrayals. NATO broke its promise and let all the Eastern European countries that had been Soviet satellites during the Cold War join NATO. It let Kosovo declare its independence from Russia’s traditional friend, Serbia. It launched wars of “regime change” in the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) that Moscow disapproved of. It even planned a missile defense system that allegedly threatened Russia’s nuclear deterrent (if you could believe that it would work).
Diddums. Yes, Russia has been invaded a lot in its history, but the license to be paranoid expires after 50 years. Of course the Eastern European countries all clamored to join NATO; they’re still terrified of Russia. The western great powers do lots of stupid stuff and some seriously bad stuff, and Russia has also done a fair amount of both in the past decade and a half under Putin. The job of diplomats, and of leaders in particular, is to avoid the really stupid and dangerous stuff, and keep the rest to a minimum. Barack Obama has been quite good at that, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin used to be good at it, but is not so good now, perhaps because he has been in power too long. His military interventions in Ukraine have been alarmingly rash. But nobody is going to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. The Ukrainians were told years ago that they couldn’t shelter under NATO’s security blanket, and they have chosen to defy Moscow anyway. They may pay a high price for that, and the Western alliance’s relations with Russia may go into the deep freeze for the remainder of Putin’s reign. But it will be just a little local difficulty, not a huge event that defines an entire era.