Putin's Attempt to Rewrite Cold War History
Retro Report producers are experts in shedding light on lessons from history to uncover meaning for the world today. Over the last two decades, senior producer Kit R. Roane has covered wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq as a reporter for The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report. Here are his thoughts on the current conflict.
To today’s students, Russia's invasion of Ukraine may seem nonsensical. My own 14-year-old twins, for instance, kept asking why Russia would want to invade its peaceful neighbor, and why the United States wasn't doing more to stop the aggression. But to those who lived through the Cold War, Putin's move, while perhaps ultimately miscalculated, is clearly made with Cold War history in mind.
Putin came of age during this period of nuclear brinkmanship, a time when Russia enjoyed a sizable buffer between its borders and the Western powers that faced off against it. Ukraine was one of those important buffers, subsumed following a fight for independence into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at its founding in 1922. The buffer provided by such Soviet republics and satellite states wasn't just seen as useful militarily; it was economically important. Ukraine is a major exporter of natural resources, sending steel, iron ore, titanium and nitrate-based fertilizer around the world. It is also known as the breadbasket of Europe. During Soviet times, its grain was sometimes forcibly taken to feed Russia's starving cities; in 1933, such expropriation famously left four million Ukrainians dead, so there is is a great deal of bitter history there.
For Putin though this is all part of a glorious past. The practical desire to restore Ukraine as an economic, geopolitical and military bulwark dovetails with the aging autocrat's yearning for legacy. He craves the greater historical significance that would flow from reconstituting some version of the Soviet empire that existed during the Cold War.
The end of that standoff seemed to signal the ultimate decline of the Soviet Union and the assent of its historical enemies. The fall of the Berlin Wall reunified Germany, its greatest European nemesis. Western Europe began a long and integrated economic expansion, which helped pull the Soviet Union’s former republics and satellite states into the Western fold. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania all joined the Western military alliance of NATO, and it seemed as if Ukraine and Georgia might not be far behind. As President George H.W. Bush announced in his final State of the Union address in 1992, the United States had won the ideological struggle with the Soviet Union, leaving the U.S. as the “one sole and preeminent power” in the world.
This was a new world order in which Russia was increasingly diminished, searching for relevance and — with a smaller gross domestic product than even tiny Italy — increasingly relying on its military strength and nuclear arsenal to be heard. Using that military, Putin has spent the last few decades trying to re-prime the engine of the Cold War. He has aggressively increased military spending, updated Russia’s nuclear weaponry, sent thousands of Russian troops and mercenaries into Middle Eastern and African countries, occupied 20 percent of Georgia, and fomented separatist revolts in two provinces in Ukraine. In this context, the idea that Putin would invade its peaceful – but crucially non-aligned neighbor — seems much less far-fetched. Other former Soviet republics outside of the NATO alliance will certainly take notice, but the move signals dangerous times ahead for the whole Western world. Putin wants a Cold War do-over — in fact, he’s insisting on it. And he’s capable of wrecking the board if everyone doesn’t sit down and play.
KIT R. ROANE is a senior producer at Retro Report. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly education newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.