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Ukraine: The Return of the Cold War
Painting of the first kill from a Stinger missile in Afghanistan, 1986

Ukraine: The Return of the Cold War

The Cold War was not always cold, and the war in Ukraine repeats some of the patterns of that era.

Michael Mandelbaum

For twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, the world, and especially the United States, enjoyed a period of unprecedented peace. Preparations for great-power war, the anticipation of it, and negotiations with such a war in the background were largely absent from the foreign policies of the strongest powers. The war in Ukraine makes it clear that that happy period has ended. Now it is a matter of urgency to assess how that conflict will proceed and what American and Western policy toward it should be. One way to make such assessments is to refer to America’s most recent experience with great-power competition, the Cold War, which has a good deal both to teach and to suggest.

The Twilight Struggle by Hal Brands distills from the Cold War some key lessons for the future. The author, Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, knows Cold War history well and puts his knowledge to good use.

The relevant lessons he draws from it include, among others, the importance, but also the difficulty, of managing alliances; the need to correct and learn from the inevitable mistakes; the benefits of having a clear strategy but being flexible both in choosing and changing tactics; and the imperative of acting with prudence as well as occasional boldness. Brands presents these lessons by using episodes in the Cold War, which gives the reader a feeling for how they should—and should not—be put into practice.

The current powerful and coordinated Western response to Russian aggression bears out the emphasis the author places on alliances. Because he completed his book well before the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, however, Brands did not have the opportunity to incorporate the ongoing war into his analysis. Moreover, the war in Ukraine differs from the Cold War experience in an important way: after 1945, no large-scale clash of arms occurred in the middle of Europe, although some of the most savage combat in World War I, and much of it in World War II, took place there. In that sense Putin’s war has taken the world back to the first half of the 1940s. In other ways, though, what is taking place in Ukraine repeats patterns familiar from the Cold War.

One such pattern is that the conflict in Ukraine is a proxy war, in which one nuclear-armed great power—Russia—is directly engaged in combat and the other—NATO—is providing material as well as political support to its adversary. This follows the pattern of the American wars in Korea and Vietnam as well as the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Now, as in those past conflicts, the nuclear-armed power is fighting on another country’s territory. Now, as then, the weaker party has a hope of holding out because it is receiving supplies through a country with which it has a common land border: in the current war Poland is cast in the role that China and the Soviet Union played in the Korean War, that China played in the Vietnamese conflict, and that Pakistan carried out for the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency. (The post-Cold War American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan also failed fully to achieve their goals due in part to sanctuaries available to the anti-American insurgents—in Iran and Pakistan, respectively.)

In recognition of the fact that wars are dangerous, especially those involving states with nuclear weapons, NATO has scrupulously avoided direct combat with Russian forces, as happened in the proxy wars of the Cold War era. This reflects a deeply ingrained if informal rule of the nuclear age, namely, that such a clash would run an unacceptably high risk of escalating to the use of nuclear weapons and must therefore not be allowed to take place. For that reason, NATO will be extremely reluctant to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would require shooting Russian aircraft out of the sky and attacking Russian air defense systems, inevitably killing some of the personnel operating them. Ukrainians can rely for the defense of their country on NATO equipment, but probably not on NATO soldiers or airmen.

Yet direct American and NATO combat participation, while unlikely, is not out of the question. At least two contingencies could trigger it: the Russian use of chemical or, in the worst case, nuclear weapons; and an assault on Ukrainian civilians so severe that the NATO countries feel compelled to intervene to protect them, perhaps through airlifts of food and medical supplies.

In another similarity, Ukraine is following the strategy that Vietnam and Afghanistan adopted during the Cold War era: the Ukrainians cannot hope to conquer the Russians and so must try to inflict enough punishment on them—by killing, wounding, or capturing Russian soldiers—that their government will decide to withdraw rather than continue to bleed. The American government made that decision in Vietnam (and, after the Cold War, in Iraq and Afghanistan as well) and the Soviet government made the same decision for Afghanistan. This is a classic strategy of weak powers, turning a conflict into an exercise in competitive suffering in which the weaker side, while incurring more suffering, can inflict enough damage on the presumably less-motivated stronger belligerent to cause it to decide to cut its losses.

It is at least conceivable that heavy losses of life and equipment by the Russians, in combination with plummeting morale among its troops, will cause the Russian army to fall apart. That combination, plus the damage from the unprecedentedly broad sanctions the world has imposed on Russia, might also induce the Russian government to negotiate sooner rather than later a settlement to the war acceptable to Ukraine. If the Cold War pattern repeats itself, however, Ukrainian success won’t come, alas, without fighting that goes on for some time and causes even more death and destruction than the Ukrainians have already endured.

In its initial weeks the Ukraine war has brought two surprises that, despite being unexpected, also have Cold War precedents. Russia encountered far stiffer resistance than its political and military leadership obviously anticipated. The source of that resistance is Ukrainian nationalism—the determination to live in a country free of foreign control. Similarly, the Vietnamese communists won their war against the United States because they managed to mobilize nationalist sentiment against the Americans. The Afghan resistance prevailed against the Soviet Union by harnessing the local version of nationalism, tribal and religious loyalty. Even in a cosmopolitan and globalized age, nationalism and its close relatives remain the most powerful of political forces.

In addition, the vigor and scope of the response from outside Ukraine to Russian aggression has come as a surprise, but that kind of surprise repeats a pattern in American history. Time after time a dramatic event has changed the way Americans have seen the world, their place in it, and the threats they face, triggering a far more robust response than would have been predicted beforehand. The American response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is one such example; the decision in 1990 to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait is another. On the present occasion, the response has come not only from Americans but also from Europeans and others as well, and not solely from governments but also from civil society—individuals and groups that have acted spontaneously to support Ukraine and punish Russia.

A final parallel—potential but not actual, at least not yet—with the history of the Cold War offers the hope of a more peaceful future in Eastern Europe. The Soviet failure in Afghanistan was part of the series of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, the independence of its fifteen constituent republics, and the establishment of a government in Moscow that, for a time, was far more peacefully inclined than its communist predecessor or the regime of Vladimir Putin. Russian setbacks in the past—in the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and the Cold War itself—have severely damaged or swept away the regimes that presided over them.

Regimes such as Putin’s do not disintegrate slowly and publicly; they crack suddenly. Such a development, if it should take place, has the potential to bring enormous benefits to Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the world. In the present era, regime change in Moscow, with Putin ousted from power and a far different successor government in place, is the key to lasting peace in Europe. Whether Putin will survive what is, thus far, a clear setback for his policy in Ukraine and, whenever he does leave power, what kind of government will follow cannot be known. There is at least a chance, however, that a Russian failure to subdue its neighbor will ultimately yield a more peaceful Russian government, which is not the least important reason to try to ensure that Putin’s aggression does fail.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of a forthcoming history of American foreign policy, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, which will be published in June.

Image by Stuart Brown - Central Intelligence Agency Official Web-site, CIA Museum Art Collection, Public Domain,

RussiaEuropeU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraine