References to the Cold War have flourished in official statements and newspaper headlines throughout the weekend. However, these comparisons are misleading.
It has been a busy weekend for editors and journalists. As new developments continue to pour into the world´s newsrooms, hopes for a united Ukraine are floundering as the threat of war increases. Given the broad repercussions such a conflict would have on the relationship between the US, the EU and Russia, memories of the Cold War have started to dominate public perception of the Crimean conflict.
However, one should refrain from using such rhetoric due to two main reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, the Crimean conflict is not about ideologies but rather about military strategy and economic influence. Secondly – and more broadly – the emergence of a new Cold War is nearly impossible in a globalized world.
“People of this world, look upon this city and see that you should not and cannot abandon this city and this people.” It would be easy to use this quotation in the current Crimean context simply by substituting the word “city” by “peninsula”. In reality, this quotation is taken from a speech that dates back to September 1948. At that time, Ernst Reuter, then-mayor of West Berlin urged the world to save his city from the first woes of the emerging Cold War.
Today – more than 6 decades later – Ukrainian leaders in Kiev urge the world to rescue the Crimean peninsula from Russian troops. It is easy to draw comparisons – most likely too easy.
The Cold War was about the rivalry of two ideologies trying to conquer one another. John Mueller, a professor of political science, famously argued that the Cold War ended as soon as the Soviet Union acknowledged the end of its efforts to spread its ideology. The current conflict, however, is about military and economic power. One of Russia´s most important military bases is located on the Crimean peninsula and the new government in Kiev is likely to annul an existing agreement allowing Russia to base part of its Fleet there. Moscow does not have a real alternative to which it could relocate the affected part of its Black Sea Fleet. None of these considerations point at an ideological conflict that will extend towards other countries or create proxy wars which defined the Cold War.
Secondly, neither Russia, the US nor the EU are capable of, or interested in, initiating a new Cold War. Despite their power rivalries, they are aware that cooperation is necessary to solve some of the most pressing problems. The conflict in Syria, terrorism, climate change, and recent economic and financial crises are just a few examples. The world is not solely dominated by the US and Russia anymore. Actors such as China or India will not show any interest in a war that would threaten their economic output and development, and one that would not constitute any advantage for their developing economies.
Russia might in fact face strong opposition from current partners such as China. As a recent article in Foreign Policy stated, Beijing has a major interest in Ukrainian agricultural territories. Furthermore, Beijing could use the Crimean precedent as an argument to try to move the eastern Siberian Chinese-Russian border which is already today more important to China than to Russia. In other words, even if Russia, the US and the EU decide to enter a new Cold War, it is not at all certain that they will still remain powerful enough to jam world politics and to force other nations to play by its rules.
The danger arising from the Crimean conflict must certainly not be underestimated, but references to the Cold War are either politically motivated or out of context.
This article was republished by The Huffington Post (U.S. edition).