As Russia masses forces and equipment on Ukraine’s border, international tensions over a possible invasion intensify almost daily. Ukraine has emerged as ground zero of what some pundits have dubbed between Russia and the West.
In my view , this comparison distorts the Cold War and misrepresents the stakes of the current crisis.
Yet reviewing the Cold War is important because its legacy shapes Russian President Vladimir .
While Ukraine was a Soviet republic during the Cold War, it has become the front line of a post-Cold War tug-of-war between Russia and the West. By insisting on NATO’s withdrawing its forces and weapons from former Soviet bloc countries, Putin would like to turn back the clock to the mid-1990s, before NATO expanded into Eastern Europe.
From my reading of public accounts, Putin views NATO as a relic that retains its Cold War purpose of containing Russia. In response to NATO expansion, Putin seeks to carve a buffer zone of his own, much as former Soviet leader did in response to American assistance in Europe after World War II, and consolidate a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
What Was the Cold War?
The Cold War was a global struggle of the United States and democratic capitalism against the Soviet Union and communism. It erupted in the mid-1940s after both nations emerged from World War II as superpowers and viewed each other as existential threats.
During World War II they had cooperated to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan. After the war, both agreed to occupy Germany jointly with and wanted to continue the alliance once the fighting stopped.
But irreconcilable disagreements about the postwar international order rose to the surface.
The Soviet Union asserted – the nations of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania – which the Soviet Army had liberated from the Nazis. Stalin supported local communists and intimidated their opponents, and the countries rarely held free elections. US President Harry Truman’s administration accused Stalin of betraying an agreement at the to respect European democracy.
Yet what terrified US officials most was the possibility that would resonate with the Western European and German people who were struggling to recover from the war. feared that the desolate masses might elect communist governments that would ally with the Soviet Union against the United States.
Winning Hearts and Minds
In one of the turning points of the early Cold War, announced an economic assistance initiative for Europe in June 1947. Congress authorized the program in April 1948. , as it became known, provided more than US$12 billion to aid European reconstruction during its three years of operation.
But the Marshall Plan’s logic worried the Western Europeans. Fresh off two traumatic wars against a belligerent Germany, Western Europeans feared any effort to and place it on the path to statehood.
Breaking a long-standing tradition of avoiding entangling alliances, the the in April 1949 to guarantee Western Europe’s security against West Germany, which the following month.
Alarm bells flashed in Moscow. The soldiers and civilians during the Second World War. And the United States wanted to rebuild postwar Germany.
In response, Stalin ordered the Eastern European communists to crack down on their domestic rivals. Moscow also to counter West Germany. It now had a buffer zone of loyal communist countries to protect itself from the West.
The Cold War began in Europe, but it soon spread to , and . Each superpower feared that a setback in a developing country could give the other the advantage in the Cold War.
Although their forces did not square off directly, the United States and Soviet Union confronted each other through proxies in bloody conflicts such as and .
The high stakes of the Cold War also brought the world close to nuclear annihilation. The , for example, erupted in October 1962 when discovered that the Soviets had deployed missiles in communist Cuba. The United States and Soviet Union averted nuclear war after striking a bargain: The Kennedy administration promised never to invade Cuba and to withdraw American missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviet removal of the weapons from Cuba.
Ukraine joined Russia, Belarus and Transcaucasia, a federation consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as the Soviet Union’s founding republics in December 1922.
Ukraine suffered greatly under Stalin’s rule in the 1930s. A famine in the early 1930s, , killed close to 4 million Ukrainians. Today, many Ukrainians refer to the event as .
Thus, when the in June 1941, many Ukrainians initially welcomed them. The collaborated with the Nazis with the aim of establishing an independent Ukrainian state.
In a move whose significance contemporaries could not foresee, the presidium of the Supreme Soviet transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. Crimea was important because the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet had headquarters there.
The Soviet Union stationed one-third of its nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil. When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Ukraine ranked as the third-largest nuclear state.
Ukraine transferred its nuclear weapons to Russia in the mid-1990s in exchange for Russian promises to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. The United States and Britain were also parties to this agreement, known as .
After the Fall of Communism
The more than three decades ago, when West Germany and East Germany unified and communism collapsed across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
NATO has since expanded to 14 countries that had been part of the Soviet bloc. This number includes three former Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which border Russia.
NATO declared at its that Ukraine and Georgia, also former Soviet republics, also would become members sometime in the future.
Where NATO has expanded, membership in has usually come as well.
In my view, Putin fears Ukraine’s joining NATO and becoming a springboard for the United States to destabilize his regime. It is also my view that Putin believes Washington already uses the current Ukrainian government as a proxy for American interests.
The Russians annexed Crimea in March 2014, reversing what they claimed was a historical injustice. They have supported Ukrainian separatists in the eastern part of the country, which is known as the Donbass. These moves help prevent Ukraine from joining NATO because countries are not permitted to join the alliance if they have unresolved territorial disputes.
Putin’s fears are not without basis. The momentum of a democratic, prosperous and secure Ukraine could spill over into Russia and empower domestic challenges to Putin’s hold on power.
over Ukraine, Putin wants to make sure that never happens.
(Michael De Groot is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Indiana University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)