I get fed up reading the depressing posts on Facebook that a third World War is looming or a nuclear war with Russia. Having lived through the last Cold War I feel these prophecies of doom are exaggerated, but on the other hand there are worrying differences between the situation now and back in the days of the old Cold War. Then the most dangerous episode was after the failed Bay of Pigs attack on Castro’s Cuba, when the Soviet Union agreed to ship nuclear missiles to the island, just a few miles from the Florida coast, to deter any further invasion attempts by the United States. This became known as the Cuba Missile Crisis, and for a few days the world really was on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. We then had a hot-line between Washington DC and Moscow, and the crisis was defused when Kennedy and Krushchov came to an agreement the full details of which have only come to light in more recent years. Krushchov agreed not to ship nuclear missiles to Cuba if the USA removed recently installed nuclear missiles from just across the Soviet border in Turkey. The world breathed a sigh of relief.
However, apart from Cuba, the first Communist state in North America, the spheres of influence of the two super-powers had been clearly defined in the various conferences at the end of World War II. The USSR had freedom to do more or less whatever it wanted in its sphere of influence, i.e. the Socialist ‘buffer states’ of Eastern and Central Europe which the Soviet Union had liberated from fascism and which it insisted on keeping as friendly, if subordinate, Socialist states to prevent another disastrous invasion from the West. The USSR had lost millions when Hitler invaded. Other countries in Europe, including Finland which bordered the USSR, agreed to remain neutral. So when East Germany, Hungary and then Czechosovakia were invaded by the Soviet Union to quash unrest or what the USSR regarded as dangerous reforms which might lead to counter-revolution, the West was very vocal but actually did nothing. It was different when the Soviet Union operated outside its agreed sphere of influence, such as supporting a Soviet-style government in Afghanistan. The USA and Western powers gave aid and arms to the Mohajadeen and the Soviets were eventually driven out. Ironically, this has now come back to haunt us as from the Mohajadeen developed Al-Quaida and ISIS who have also been armed with many American weapons either captured or provided by states favored by the USA.
What is so worrying about the current Cold War between Russia and the West is that there are no longer agreed ‘spheres of influence’ and there are no summit meetings between the American President and the Russian leader, who is portrayed in the West as a threat to peace on a par with Adolf Hitler. In actual fact, of course, Vladimir Putin has shown enormous restraint in the face of constant Western provocation. When the Soviet Union started to disintegrate an agreement was made between the USA and the then Soviet leader, Gorbachev, that in the event of the Warsaw Pact being dismantled, NATO would not expand Eastwards. It is now on the very borders of the Russian Federation and many former Soviet republics are now NATO members, yet Russia has not reacted apart from a defensive build up in its border areas. This has resulted in a huge NATO build up in these areas, so Russia now feels threatened. It is very much like the old Cold War situation, depicted in the German production Deutschland 83, where each side feared a planned invasion by the other. Of course there are also regular military plane flights by both sides which come dangerously close to encroaching on the other sides’ air space, and these happened constantly throughout the old Cold War as well. Indeed in the days before spy satellites became so efficient, U2 spy planes were sent by the USA over Soviet territory, which caused a big crisis when Gary Powers was shot down in one.
In the current decade there was the Western-backed rightwing coup in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. Neo-fascists backed this coup, as did the West, but the large Russian-speaking population in the Eastern provinces of the Ukraine opposed the coup which they felt threatened the Russian language and culture. Again Putin has shown great statesmanship and enormous restraint. The eastern provinces of Ukraine would, by a large majority, love to join the Russian Federation in the wake of the Kiev coup, but only the Crimea, which has a huge Russian naval base and which was part of the Russian Federation until 1954, has been allowed to re-join Russia. This is presented by the West as an ‘invasion’, but it was the will of the majority of the local Crimean parliament and majority of the mainly Russian-speaking population, and the Russian military were already in the province because of the naval base there.
Russia has not threatened to invade the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. There has been some Russian involvement in the former Soviet republic of Georgia where South Ossetia, a Georgian province, requested Russian assistance. The problem with all these former Soviet republics, of course, is that they have large Russian-speaking populations who naturally want to preserve their language and culture. When these are threatened, they react. As for the Ukraine, the solution is surely for a federal set-up which allows more autonomy to the eastern provinces within Ukraine.
As to the likelihood of war between Russia and the West, this is extremely unlikely. Hitler and Napoleon learned it was impossible to invade the huge Russian lands, and a nuclear war would be a catastrophe for both sides and the world in general, making it uninhabitable. There is a proxy war, however, going on in Syria, where apart from Russia and NATO many other groups including ISIS are involved. This has caused the biggest refugee problem since the Second World War, and for this all sides are guilty. Both NATO and Russia, as well as ISIS and other groups have, intentionally or not, killed many innocent civilians with their bombing and other activities. The obvious solution would be for the West/NATO to join forces with Russia to defeat ISIS with a coordinated operation under UN authority, and then to seek an agreement on the future government of Syria. However it ill behoves the West to criticize the Russian-backed Syrian government when NATO backs equally repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, and when NATO has invaded and bombed places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and only succeeded in creating anarchy and the rise of groups like ISIS in the place of the former regimes.
The West needs to engage in regular talks with the Russian leadership. USA also needs to halt its aggressive policies of invasion and intervention around the world, and its extremely provocative build up of military forces in the seas around the People’s Republic of China and on the borders with Russia. An agreement needs to be drawn up between Russia and NATO guaranteeing that neither side will encroach on the territories of the other. As for interventions to protect human rights, these should always be under the authority of the UN General Assembly resolutions; it is not for individual states or groups of states such as the USA and NATO to unilaterally take action which, rightly or wrongly, are often seen as wars for oil and to boost the profitable arms industry.