During April of 2018, the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, declared that the Cold War had returned to the world “with a vengeance”, nearly three decades following the demise of the Berlin Wall. To many, these remarks seemed alarmist, but to others it was simply a reality check. From the NATO bombing of Russian ally Serbia in the 1990’s to the deposition of former Soviet allies Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, tensions have indeed flared up between the two superpowers long before the occupation of Crimea in 2014. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which in 1991 included 16 nations, grew to 29 in 2018. Their expansion into Eastern Europe particularly aggrieved the Russians who still lamented the fall of their Soviet empire. This set the backdrop for the current frosty point in relations, described by some as even lower than the coldest years of the last century.
Beginning in November of 2013, Ukraine’s national government led by Viktor Yanukovych came under siege from thousands of protesters who took to the street to loudly decry his decision to decline an economic agreement with the European Union. This legislation would have led to Ukraine’s inclusion into the European market and visa-free travel between all 29 nations involved. Russia’s government, however, decided that it would not allow its former vassal state to leave its sphere of influence to run into the arms of Europe and threatened to cut off gas supplies and implement trade sanctions.
As the nation descended into crisis, pro-Russia President Yanukovych fled his country in the cover of night, crossing the border into Russia where he would find asylum. European Union and Ukrainian flags streaked over the town square in Kiev as protesters cheered their victory. Russian President Vladimir Putin must have watched the events unfold with a bittersweet taste in his mouth as he remembered how his beloved Soviet Union collapsed during his KGB career. This time, however, he would not watch from the sidelines.
In 2014, Russian soldiers stationed in the Crimean Peninsula poured out from their barracks and took the entire landmass captive, taking Ukrainian prisoners, all relatively bloodlessly. In the next weeks a Russian-sponsored election took place with a single question asking Crimean citizens if they wanted to remain with Ukraine or rejoin Russia as a territory. A majority of the ballots supported reunion with Russia – although there were multiple allegations of box stuffing and lack of international observers.
Now it was NATO’s turn to declare outrage. American guided missile destroyers steamed into the Black Sea, punishing economic sanctions were slapped on Russia by Western nations and Russia was banned from the G8 group of nations as Ukraine descended into war between the government and Russian-backed militia in the Donetsk region. The UN Assemblies had become a shouting match between American and Russian ambassadors, and plans were immediately drawn up for the return of U.S troops to Europe.
Tensions were not limited to Eastern Europe, however, as the Russian military embarked upon an unprecedented campaign in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. In November of 2015, Russian military operations commenced with airstrikes carried out by cold-war relic fighter jets. The U.S also had a presence in the country, including special forces, military trainers, bombers, jets, tanks, humvees, drones, as well as commanding several secret air bases throughout the Eastern regions of the country. Moscow set up shop in Latakia, where it had its only naval base in the Mediterranean, beefing up the number of warships deployed there and installing advanced S-300 and S-400 missile defense systems. American warplanes would not have any illusions of pulling a fast one on the Russians.
A civil war in its fourth year had yielded untold destruction and devastated the once beautiful country, and foreign powers were encroaching all around, picking corners to hold onto. The U.S built scattered installations throughout the countryside it had influence over, namely to support operations against ISIS in the region which had considerable territory under its grasp. Russian MiGs began a devastating aerial campaign against opposition fighters in hot spots such as Douma, Aleppo, Hama, and Damascus. With Russian airplanes conducting combat operations in the same skies as NATO members, the potential for a showdown became an inevitability. The war in Syria devolved into a giant game of chess between the strongest foreign powers, with proxies and client states leading the charge into battle on subsidies from powerful backers. It would be a mistake to view the “sides” in the conflict as binary and unchanging, when in reality there have been innumerable new alliances formed as older ones disintegrated. Turkey, a NATO member that shot down a Russian Su-24 some years ago now enjoys a close relationship with Russia, even turning its back on the U.S to attack the Kurdish fighters near its border. Turkey purchased an S-400 battery from Moscow to place on the Aegean coast, within range of its arch-nemesis, Greece, infuriating NATO and EU officials alike. The Kurds who once were the heroes in the fight against ISIS had now been adandoned by the U.S to a slaughter by the Turkish Government, emboldened after a famous failed coup attempt. No sides were linear or demarcated, they shifted everyday like the sands of Syria.
President Vladimir Putin as former KGB witnessed the fall of the USSR. Now he is in a position to rewrite history and claim national glory.
Reflecting upon the words of the Secretary General, indeed the Cold War has returned to life with full vengeance. This continuation of hostilities had evolved from simmering tensions held by Russia over NATO expansions to full-blown hostilities in Ukraine, Syria, and even reaching the Korean peninsula, where North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests threaten to bring the world to the brink of nuclear warfare. Russia has thrown its covert support to the Korean dictatorship, violating U.N sanctions and quietly hoping for their victory over the U.S/South Korea alliance, which itself represents a challenge to the aspirations of Russia’s resurgent Pacific Fleet. With the militarization of Asian waters by Russia, China, Japan, and the U.S, it seems as if the world is heading into a very cold freeze in diplomatic relations. This cycle of escalation represents the most dangerous threat to human civilization to date, the culmination of decades worth of unresolved tensions and a bitter East-West divide. In comparison to the Cold War of last century, this chapter involves heightened tensions exacerbated by more sophisticated technology, from hypersonic missiles to nuclear weapons capable of wiping out Texas in an instant. Russian leaders have vowed to not repeat the mistakes of their Soviet predecessors in giving up their Empire for Western domination. Vladimir Putin, in particular, has his eyes out for revenge, and he will come to be a man feared in the West for a long time to come.