One could easily be forgiven for confusing the recent events in the Ukraine with the plot of a John le Carré novel published long ago. It’s fair to say that, in this day and age, we are inclined to look back on the Cold War era as a very different time. Our parents’ generation may sometimes look back upon the ‘60s and ‘70s with rose tinted spectacles, thinking wistfully upon a time of vinyl records and phone boxes, when everything was simple and the only thing that people had to worry about was total nuclear annihilation. Nevertheless, for good or ill, it feels like a chapter that has very much closed.
It was slightly surprising when the membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee questioned the heads of the UK’s intelligence agencies last November regarding their failure to predict the end of the Cold War. It felt slightly anachronistic to bring up a matter that was meant to have been done and dusted before most of us university students were even born. Surely the select committee should be concentrating on more current issues, such Edward’s Snowden’s NSA leaks, the men and women travelling from Britain to Syria as ‘terrorism tourists’, and whether or not the staff at GCHQ do in fact spend their days trolling through the personal emails of ordinary members of the public.
But is the Cold War really over? Recent events would suggest otherwise. The Cold War was a conflict constructed across definitively East-West lines and was marked by a struggle for influence in various so called satellite — a situation that seems achingly familiar in the light of the current crisis. The imbroglio in Ukraine has even brought its own colourful cast of spy novel like characters. Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer with a black belt in judo who has been slowly eroding the democratic foundations of the Russian Federation. The media are increasingly portraying Putin as a kind of caricature, an avaricious political chess master who will stop at nothing in the pursuit of his ambition to restore the influence and pride of Russia. The most worrying thing about the situation is that this caricature may well be entirely accurate.
It is certainly Mr. Putin who is doing the acting on the international stage. Meanwhile, Western leaders are the ones having to react. It looks like it is very much the case that the West hasn’t yet been able to field a political leader who seems to share Putin’s determination. President Obama lacks the fire and brimstone displayed by his Russian counterpart and our own Prime Ministerseems concerned first and foremost with protecting the interests of the City of London. However, various wizened diplomats, such as Sir Rodric Braithwaite, have made their way out of the woodwork and onto to the airwaves, clocking up various media appearances in order to share their Foreign Office expertise with the public.
It was Braithwaite, writing in The Independent, who was one of the first to criticise the British media’s coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, arguing it is marked by an ignorance of the history, politics and culture of the country and an over-willingness to blame the crisis on Putin. Yet he also drew attention to Putin’s ambitions to increase Russia’s influence with her neighbours. Braithwaite argues that Putin looks incapable of calm calculation. This may be true. However, he has certainly made some deft geopolitical calculations in the past, gaining territory as a result of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 but stopping short of creating further outrage by entering the capital, Tbilisi.
Vladimir Putin seems to be the man driving this crisis, and given his deeply held conviction that the collapse of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy’ of the 20th century, it is patently the case that the Cold War is still very relevant indeed. Many commentators have pointed out the rich and complex history between Russia and the Ukraine, and the right to self-determination held by the majority Russian-speaking population of Crimea. Others have argued that events in Kiev indicate that the democratic will of the Ukrainian people is to live in a Western-looking state, and to sign the EU Association Agreement that triggered the crisis in the first place. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious resolution to the crisis, and relations between Russia and the West seem as frosty as ever. Only one thing seems clear – that East-West antagonism looks like it is very much here to stay.