After the end of World War II in 1945,
the United States and the Soviet Union, two of the world’s superpowers, were at
odds. This tension was the start of the Cold War. It marked the state of
ideological, political, and economic hostility between the two countries
through threats, espionage, and propaganda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in
1991 marked the end of this war. Although most historians believe that the Cold
War has officially ended, closer examination reveals that its underlying
ideology and conflicts are still prevalent in today’s geopolitical landscape.      

Winston Churchill remarked in 1946 that
an “iron curtain has descended across the continent.” This was in
reference to the Berlin Wall which became the real iron curtain separating Eastern
Europe from Western Europe, the symbol of the bipolar system in the Cold War
era. The bipolarity between the superpowers, USA and USSR stemmed from the
differences in their ideologies. Communism was the ideology followed by the
Soviet Union which believed in public ownership and communal control by state.

They were totalitarian, meaning all the power was with the rulers. The United
States was capitalistic, an ideology based on private ownership of land and
businesses and competitive markets. They were also a democracy, which meant the
citizens elected their representatives to the government. This fundamental disparities in the
role of government power and social organization caused the division between
these nations resulting in a battle for world supremacy. A climate of
fear and suspicion reigned as result of conflicts of ideologies and interest.

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The Soviets felt threatened by the west and had concerns about United States
spearheading ‘imperialist expansion’ while Americans were concerned about
Communist expansion.

There were several contracts, treaties
and councils established to support containment of communism versus spread of
capitalism. USA signed the Marshall Plan in 1948, granting 5 billion in aid to
16 European nations to support their economic recovery from World War II. Soviet
Union saw the conditions imposed in the plan as an anti-communist move by the
USA and refused to accept aid from the Marshall Plan, or allow any of their
satellite states to take it. The Soviet Union instead created the Molotov Plan
and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in response to the Marshall Plan
to give financial aid for the economic development of all the eastern European
communist states that felt the threat of capitalism. The North Atlantic Treaty
Organization was formed in 1949, by United States and 11 other Western nations
to protect against the possible invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet Union
and the prospect of Communist expansion. The NATO Preamble shows that they are
committed to the principles of democracy and individual liberty to protect the
freedom and stability of the people of the North Atlantic. In 1955, the Soviet
Union reacted by creating the Warsaw Pact with its affiliated Communist nations
in Eastern Europe.

The “space race” was a Cold War
competition for dominance in spaceflight capability between the superpowers.

Soviets launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in October
1957. In response to the perceived Soviet dominance in Space technology, the
United States enacted the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 to fund
aeronautical and space research activities and successfully launched their
first satellite four months later called the Explorer I. The competition to
create the best technology fueled their “arms race” and enabled the
buildup of nuclear arms and the introduction of intercontinental ballistic
missiles. Both the Soviets and the US sought to prove the superiority of their
technology and their military firepower as an extension to their superior
political-economic system. This conflict spanned from subtle espionage with
nuclear submarines to violent combat in the form of building the Berlin Wall,
proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan to quote a few examples. Korean
and Vietnam wars were proxy wars that served to illustrate a conventional
confrontation between the USA & USSR. In the Korean War (1950 to 1953),
United States backed the South Korean government (with a pro-American doctrine)
against North Korea (Soviet backed People’s Republic) and demonstrated its
continued commitment to containment, the idea that the US would ultimately
defeat communism by containing its spread. Similarly, the U.S. government got
involved in the Vietnamese war (1955-1975) to prevent a communist takeover of
South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong who were
fighting to reunify Vietnam with the support of the People’s Republic of China
and the Soviet Union. This
was part of their strategy in Asia for a wider containment of the spread of
communism. In the Soviet Afghanistan War (1979-1989), the United States
supported the Mujahedeen, the Afghan guerrillas to overthrow the Soviet Union
backed, communist government of Afghanistan. USA perceived the Soviet invasion
and occupation of Afghanistan as the greatest threat to peace since World War
II and an attempt to expand Communist influence. Therefore, the US policy of
supporting anti-Communist insurgents on grounds of justice and democratic

The Cold War appears to have ended as a
result of Gorbachev’s reforms, the break up satellite States from the Soviet
Union, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. However, since the ideologies
of USA and Russia remain unaltered, the fears and struggles from this conflict
continues to propel the cold war in the current era to prove their superior
political-economic system.

Bilateral proxy contests for power and
influence have continued, although in different forms. Russia’s sudden
annexation of Crimea in early 2014 is deeply rooted in the fight between Russia
and the West. Crimean operation by Russia is perceived as a response to the
threat of NATO’s further expansion along Russia’s western border manifested by
the extension of NATO membership in central and Eastern Europe since 1991. It
was feared by Russia that Ukraine’s new government might join NATO. Therefore,
it is believed that Russia pressured the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych,
to suspend a landmark political and trade deal with the European Union to avoid
closer ties with the EU. Western support for the overthrow of Ukraine’s
pro-Russia leader, Viktor Yanukovych prompted Russia to annex the Crimean
peninsula and provide support for pro-Russia rebels in battles in Eastern
Ukraine. As a punishment, US, Canada and EU extended sanctions against Russia.

Russian Foreign Ministry in turn published a reciprocal sanctions list of US
citizens thus triggering the resurgence of chronic cold war like conflict.

Syria too has been a critical point of contention between Russia and the West.

Syria under President Assad is seen by Russia as a key pillar of its strategic
influence in the Middle East. The US has accused President Assad of atrocities with
chemical weapons and lends support to Syria’s main opposition alliance, the
National Coalition. Russia on the other side has been the most important international
supporter for Assad’s regime in Syria and the sole reason for the survival of
the regime. It has blocked resolutions critical of President Assad at the UN
Security Council and has continued to supply weapons to the Syrian military
despite international criticism. In supporting Assad, Russia acts in deliberate
and resolute opposition to the US. In Iran, similarly, the ideological
framework of the Islamic Republic and the key pillar of Russian foreign policy
of opposition to the United States contribute as the main incentive for the two
to pursue collaboration. Russia and Iran are forging close political and
economic relations focused on improving transport links, trade, and energy
cooperation. Russia has backed the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, and has warned
US not to pull out of Iran’s nuclear deal for security and stability around the
world. Russia has also aided Iran’s nuclear energy program, by providing
contributions to the construction of its first nuclear power plant in the city
of Bushehr, where Moscow has announced a new deal to build next-generation
nuclear reactors. Turkey and Russia have been deeply frustrated with
Washington’s approach to the Syrian conflict and in September, Turkey rejected
NATO warnings and finalized a deal to purchase advanced S-400 air defense
missile systems from Russia.

It has been observed that there has also
been a spike in close military encounters between Russia and the west ‘at cold
war levels’. The report, Dangerous Brinkmanship by the European Leadership
Network, provides details of almost 40 specific incidents that have occurred in
2014 from violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly
avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea and simulated cruise
missile attacks on North America in the Labrador Sea near Canada as a
provocative action while NATO summit was in session at that time. While the US,
Britain and other NATO allies accuse Russia of ramping up military action and
returning to cold war ways by stepping up incursions, Moscow places the blame
on the US and its European allies, accusing them of provoking the crisis in the
Ukraine and through the imposition of sanctions on Russia. President Putin was
quoted as saying that NATO’s expansion was a “geopolitical game changer” to
which Russia was forced to respond with long-range strategic bomber flights, to
counter similar US activities around Russia’s periphery.

It is interesting to see that there are a
number of parallels that exist between the first Cold War and the one we are in
now. The first Cold War was all about proxy wars like the Korean war and
Vietnam war and we are still continuing to fight them in Ukraine and Syria.

Russia’s invasion of old Soviet countries like Georgia, Ukraine and annexation
of Crimean peninsula to consolidate its power in Europe in the current day is
similar to the cold war Eastern Bloc divide against the NATO’s Western Europe. Russia
is forging new alliances with countries like China, Syria, North Korea, and
Iran. On the other hand, countries like Australia, Japan, Germany, South Korea,
Canada and the UK have aligned with the United States. Espionage and Military
provocation seems to be back in swing. A Swedish Hunt for ‘Russian’ Sub in
October 2014 recalls the Cold War during which time the Soviet submarines
reportedly made numerous incursions into the country’s territory. In 2010, the
Unites States and Russia negotiated a spy swap involving a transfer of 10
Russian “sleepers” arrested in America in return for four alleged
double agents. In 2014, there were several tit-for-tat expulsion of Polish and
German diplomats from Russia and Russian diplomats from Poland for alleged
spying, which is another apparent throwback to the cold war era of furtive espionage.

There’s a new space race. The Americans are signing contracts with American
companies like Boeing and SpaceX to reduce dependency on Russian rockets to get
to the International Space Station. American President has signed the ‘White
House Space Policy Directive 1’ recently, pressing NASA to put humans back on
the moon. Russia similarly wants cosmonauts there by the 2020s. Russia may not
have changed that much since the Soviet days, in terms of disseminating
sanitized propaganda and sophisticated disinformation techniques. It has also
raised its game significantly in employing the new weapons of the information
age, including identity theft, cyber-warfare and computer hacking.


The cold war definitely feels like it is back. In
fact, it never really ended. Relations between Russia and the United States
were based on a complex web of ideological, political, and economic factors.

The distinct differences in the political systems of the two countries prevented
a mutual understanding and cooperation on key policy issues, resulting in
bitter superpower rivalry and conflict. It is crucial to glean the history as
well as the current position of the cold war to better understand the state of
US foreign policy, the underlying contributors to conflicts and tensions in
Europe, Middle East and Far East and the potential risks they pose to our
international security and defense as a global citizen of the world.


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