Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Revisiting the Cold War

While recent US-Russian relations suggest something of a return to Cold War mentalities, beneath the surface similarities
between now and then break down, writes Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby

Al-Ahram Weekly

With the end of World War II, the alliance against Nazism started to be replaced with what would be called the “Cold War”, which lasted for almost four decades. Throughout these decades, the Cold War permeated in all the world’s regions: Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. However, the beginning was in Europe, and particularly in East and Central Europe.

In both the Tehran and Yalta conferences, held in 1943-1945, the focus was on the future government in Poland. US president Roosevelt expected that Stalin would allow for free elections to be held in Poland, agreeing that the government would be friendly to the Soviet Union. But Stalin had other plans, and his policies ended with empowering Soviet ideology and government, not only in Poland, but also in all other Eastern European countries, the last being Czechoslovakia, where the communists led a coup against Edvard Benes’s government in 1948.

The situation led to what Churchill called the development of an “Iron curtain” around Eastern Europe and the actual division of Europe, followed by establishing conflicting military alliances: the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949 and the Warsaw Pact in 1955.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Eastern Europe bloc was dismantled, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was the symbol of Cold War divided Europe. This was closely followed by the collapse of Soviet domination over all Eastern European countries. Even Mikhail Gorbachev accepted this reality and did not resist it.

The new era, with the US, the West, and the new Russian Federation, started with guarantees given by then US President George H W Bush that America and the West would not extend the NATO alliance to Russia’s borders. In order to placate the new Russia, they established the “Russian NATO Council”. But regardless of these promises, NATO started to extend itself to Eastern European countries and to accept them as full members — a development that raised Russia’s concerns, regarding it as a threat to its national security. What assured Russia’s concerns was George W Bush’s initiative to establish a missile defence system in both Poland and the Czech Republic, which Vladimir Putin strongly opposed.

The critical development was when Russia intervened in Georgia 2008. While America and the West strongly opposed this intervention, they finally tolerated it. The drastic development came with the crisis in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea. While America and the West excluded any possibility of military action, they nevertheless enforced economic sanctions on Russia and excluded it from the G8.

In June 2014, Barack Obama started a European tour beginning in Poland. The centrepiece of his visit was a $1 billion programme of new military exercises on land, at sea, and in the air. The irony was the reaction of Polish leaders, who were expecting — instead of spending money to transport troops and equipment in and out of Eastern Europe — Obama to adopt a bolder strategy: American and NATO forces should have new permanent bases in Poland and elsewhere on the territories of NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe, where American forces will be welcomed. A number of American experts and scholars supported the Polish expectation, regarding it as an effective response to Russian action in Ukraine.

As a response to American and European sanctions, Putin moved on other fronts. While basically economic, the actions of Putin have significant political implications relevant to Russia’s recent relations with America and the West. The first move was Putin’s visit to Peking on 20 May 2014, where he signed a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whereby Russia will export gas to China at levels of $400 billion for 10 years. The other move was within Russia’s former Soviet Union sphere, where he signed with both Kazakhstan and Belarus the “Eurasian Federation”, which represents a large economic bloc. Analysts regard this federation as a serious step to break the hold of US economic domination, helping Russia to overcome American and European sanctions.

Not surprisingly, a number of analysts regard these developments in relations between Russia and the US as a return to the Cold War era. In my view, the atmospherics may invite us to recall the Cold War era, but the substance does not lead to this conclusion. One of the basic components of the Cold War was the ideological factor, which is absent today. Furthermore, Europe, in particular, due to economic and trade conditions, is not interested in tension-filled relations with Russia.

The writer is Executive Director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

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