The Cold War Only Ended in Name | Chad Mace 


“To declare the Cold War over, and declare democracy has won out over totalitarianism, is a measure of arrogance and wrong-headedness.”-Alexander Haig 

The Cold War. To most people a phrase of a bygone era, something of their parents or grandparents decades’. According to Wikipedia, a cold war is “a state of conflict between nations that does not involve direct military action but is pursued primarily through economic and political actions, propaganda, acts of espionage or proxy wars waged by surrogates.” and yet the Cold War experienced in the last century was so much more than that. From the end of the Second World War to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Cold War has been waged, often behind closed doors. It defined the second half of the 20th century and revolutionized countries’ economic, political, and social standings from Europe to South America to East Asia. To most people, the Cold War ended with Chernobyl in 1986 as it did for Gorbachev or when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but in this article, I explore to what extent the Cold War really did end.


First of all, how much did Russia really change from the USSR to the Russian Federation? Perhaps the most obvious change between the USSR and the Russian Federation was the introduction of a “Market-economy” and the privatization of many key industries. Although this step towards a capitalist economy was welcomed in many western countries, many Russians felt that they’d emerged into “Bandit capitalism” as the majority of the population had seen their living standards drop and their social security disappear, all the while Oligarchs made their fortunes and enjoyed luxuries 99% of the population couldn’t. Not so different from the days of the USSR, in the sense of poor living standards and a well-off elite who had little actual regard for the people perhaps fuelling sentiment for the days of the USSR where people had a welfare system to support them. 

The USSR still has a lingering political effect, in the 2016 parliamentary election, The Communist Party for the Russian Federation led by Gennady Zyuganov was the second largest party winning 42 seats (13.34% of the vote), down 50 seats since the last election. In the 2018 Presidential elections, the CPRF won 11.8% of the vote. The CPRF also has 3 governors and maintains seats in each of the 85 regional parliaments except Tuva – often as the second largest party although it has no majority in any of these. It’s important to remember that Russia is a “Managed Democracy” and elections are often “meddled” in – These “meddlings” occurred ever since Putin’s entrance to power in 1999 when he slowly replaced independent news stations with friendly Oligarch or state owned stations, effectively taking over the media and allowing a heavy political spin to be placed on what news people receive, often for his own benefit. 

So, while these election numbers may seem low, it’s important to remember even with a managed democracy style election system, the CPRF is still the second largest parliamentary party and polls 10% or more in most elections. Communism still has its claws in Russia. In April last year, a Moscow based poll company polled that 70% of Russians said the rule of Josef Stalin (the Communist dictator responsible for at least 750,000 deaths in the “Great Purge”) had been good for the country”. 

Now apart from a lot of facts and figures, what does this actually tell us? Well, it’s no secret that the USSR had its fair share of critics on the inside or “dissidents” as they were known, and even almost 30 years after the dissolution of the USSR a majority of Russians would like to return to it. While enjoying a level of freedom that wouldn’t be possible under the USSR administration such as the freedom to travel and the freedom to establish a business and the emergence of some horrific crimes committed by the state in the name of ideology. The general populace of Russia would still vote their freedoms away. Relating to the topic of the article, the political character of the Russian people doesn’t seem to have really changed, communism remains the second option for the country and for many people it is still the first and only option, an option that isn’t mandatory anymore yet is voluntarily chosen. This indicates that Russia still positively views the Cold War system of Communism and totalitarianism, both in the 50s and 60s, and now in the 21st century.

Foreign policy was the hot stuff in the Cold War. Most major powers had both overt and covert aims with their foreign policy and unsurprisingly most involved expanding or maintaining influence across the world. Both superpowers, the USA, and the USSR aimed to exert their power to gain influence and allies for example in Europe – The Americans started the “Marshall Plan” which re-ignited the devastated economies of post-war Europe and also brought significant influence in domestic politics in the majority of these nations. The USSR established its “Soviet Republics” which were essentially vassal states for Moscow, encouraging and providing communism to all those who lived behind the Iron curtain. Both superpowers had an expansionist orientated foreign policy and they still do to a similar extent today. 

The United States has made a few forays in the Middle East in recent years in order to combat terrorism while simultaneously securing oil reserves and support among oil rich countries ensuring a presence in the Middle East from 7,000 miles away. Also providing billions worth of armaments to countries with less than clean human rights records. 

This heavily mirrors the Cold War in a variety of ways. The Marshall plan used the United States economic power to win influence throughout Europe; in the Middle East, the United States has used both its economic and military power to win influence and power over many of the oil barons in the Middle East as it increasingly turns into the focus point for international policy on both sides of the world. 

You can mirror individual nations to that of the Cold War, the up and coming regional power of Iran can easily be compared to the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany as it was more commonly known. Both totalitarian societies, orientated towards the Russian superpower on the border of western power and influence, a bastion against the west so to speak.

A cornerstone of Russian foreign policy is currently the Eurasian Union. Here I have to thank Svante Cornell, The co-founder of the Institute for security and development policy and Director for the Central Asia-Caucasus program for providing me with some very helpful material. Putin wishes to restore Russia to its great power status, to redress the consequences of the collapse of the USSR, achievable through the establishment of a new union in the former USSR bloc headed, of course, by Russia. As with most international politics, what we see on the surface doesn’t appear too bad, but if you look a bit closer you’ll be unpleasantly surprised. 

Often these nations’ sovereignty is ignored in Putin’s Great Power dream. Instead, he uses one of the world’s most varied tactical toolkits to apply the right pressure to get the nation in question to succumb to the Union. For example, In Ukraine, the toolkit used by Putin was the military, first with a band of “Rebels” and then with regular armed forces, similar to Georgia and the “Russo-Georgia War” in 2008. This strikes a resemblance to the Brezhnev era and the “Brezhnev doctrine” in which Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1961 after Communism was seen to be collapsing. Both countries diverted from the Kremlin’s path and both were brought back under its influence via heavy military intervention, an aspect of foreign policy which hasn’t changed in 60 years, irrespective of government.

Tajikistan in 2009 was a different story, instead of direct military pressure, the Russain gas company Gazprom closed off the flow of gas in a Turkmen gas pipeline to Russia which caused it to explode. When mysterious explosions rocked the electricity and natural gas transportation system that supplied Georgia from Russia, Russian leadership blamed North Caucasian terrorists who were never apprehended nor particularly searched for, and even then Russia was more than slow to repair the damaged infrastructure. Both of these instances and many more were directly connected to the Kremlin once again gaining influence and control over an old soviet republic, destined for the Eurasian Union whether they liked it or not.

Through tying the former Soviet Republics of Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Moldova all into the Eurasian Union, Russia would rebuild itself to be a great power – which to many is a return to an imperial form. For the last century and a half Russia has taken one form of an empire or another as Russian political scientist Egor Kholmogorov stated “Whenever we start to ponder a full-scale, long-term construction of the Russian state, we begin to think of empire and in terms of empire. Russians are inherently imperialists.” This Eurasian Union is Putin’s way of achieving the Russain state and thus an empire that has been in the works since the collapse of the USSR and Boris Yeltsin’s establishment of the CIS. This is inadvertently re-igniting the Cold War.[1]

Proxy wars were also at the top of the foreign policy agenda in the Cold War. While proxy wars may not be as large-scale or well-known as their Cold War counterparts they certainly go on today. Throughout the Syrian civil war (a quick explanation can be found here), the U.S. has trained and equipped Kurdish militia fighters and Rojava fighters who make up the Syrian Defense Force to combat the threat of Daesh (ISIS) in the region. However, the training and equipment supplied to the SDF have also been used against the government and pro-government forces supported by Russia. If that wasn’t enough US-led airstrikes, in which both the UK and French forces also participated, struck Syrian chemical weapons facilities to “destroy the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons research, development and production capabilities” in the words of James Mattis, Pentagon Chief. 

Russia also stuck its fingers into the Syrian civil war. As part of its project of increasing influence in the Middle East, Syrian-Russian relations have gone from strength to strength. Between 2000-2010 Damascus bought roughly $1.5 billion worth of arms from Russia, making it Moscow’s seventh largest client. In 2005 Russia wrote off 73% ($9.6 billion) of its Soviet-era debt as well as becoming its largest arms supplier making Russia one of Syria’s most important economic partners. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Russia has been a close ally of the Assad government, carrying out their own airstrikes in rebel-held territories. However, the Kremlin’s strikes have had different targets to that of the US coalition. Since Russian forces officially entered the war in 2015, 266 airstrikes have been carried out on medical workers. While all of these haven’t been Russian, an investigation by The New York Times confirmed that on the 5th and 6th May 2019 Russian fighters have attacked 4 Syrian hospitals in a direct violation of international and moral law. 

The culmination of the Syrian proxy war hasn’t been the bombing campaigns or supplying weapons for killing but a small skirmish in the Deir Al-Zor province. A Kremlin owned private military company sent a force of mercenaries with Iranian and Syrian soldiers in support roles into this province which had previously been designated as a neutral zone by Russian forces and the US-led coalition. The mercenary force was meant to be testing American response times, however, they clashed with SDF forces who happened to have US Special Forces embedded with them which resulted in around 100 deaths of pro-Assad forces. On the surface, this doesn’t seem important, but this is possibly the deadliest engagement between the US and Russia since the “end” of the Cold War, and with the situation in Syria not looking to be calming down anytime soon Syria has the potential to become the first battlefield of the 21st-century Cold War. 

Proxy wars are the most obvious reflection of the Cold War, from Korea to the Dhofar rebellion to the Greek civil war, proxy wars defined the Cold War era and continue to define the evolving cold war now. The Syria of the modern day feels eerily similar to the Vietnam of the 60s under Kennedy, military advisors training and equipping soldiers to defy a Kremlin supported government. As proxy wars continue to this day, it’s fair to summarise that a key part of the Cold War still carries on to this day, proxy wars that started in the Cold War that carried on past the “end” of the Cold War are continuing to define the worlds political stage with no sight in end – a sure sign that, if the Cold War ended, it only ended for some. 

To look at international politics today, it’s easy to see a new class of U.S. opposition emerging. One of the best examples of this is the Yemeni Crisis in which two distinct sides are operating. As the Middle East increasingly dominates world affairs, foreign involvement increases with it: for instance, the Saudi-led coalition who support the Hadi government has notable support coming from NATO countries. However, on the Houthi rebel side, the new opposition consists of the regulars such as Russia and China but with newcomers such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and even North Korea. This new band of anti-Western, totalitarian nations are becoming increasingly close, both diplomatically and economically, and could pose a threat to NATO larger than any Warsaw Pact ever could. These nations are gearing up for a new Cold War quicker than anyone can realize, and while the UK defense officials are beginning to understand Russia’s game, the USA is being remarkably slow to react to these new threats, perhaps more out of denial than sluggishness.

The west and in particular the USA are very quick to deny any Cold War revival or continuation and instead prefer to cling to Putin’s empty promises and Russia’s role as an important trade partner over national defense and interests overseas. Nations such as the UK have been quicker to come to terms with it, but after a decline in our global and military influence, often warnings fall upon deaf ears and we don’t have the strength to repel the threat posed on their own. Meanwhile, Russia and her allies slowly increase their influences both openly and covertly, nurturing anti-American sentiments and fostering anti-American governments. In the coming years, we may see a new conflict, a 21st century Cold War.


[1] I used a very interesting book called “Putin’s Grand Strategy: The Eurasian Union and It’s Discontent” for the last 3 paragraphs and is worth a read if you’re interested in this subject. 


Photo Credit.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *