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An updated, upgraded version of the Cold War

Apr 27,2022 - Last updated at Apr 27,2022

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is not the only person to describe the conflict in Ukraine as a proxy war mounted by the US-NATO on Russia. He has been scooped by several commentators. The US and NATO carry on although their old antagonist, the Soviet Union, is long gone. 

Analysts also argue that US President Joe Biden is arming Ukraine rather than intervening directly against Russia in order to "fight to the last Ukrainian". Having "brought home our boys" from Afghanistan, Biden is not prepared to commit US troops to another war.

While Biden campaigned for the presidency as the senator with the most experience in foreign policy, he has handled the Russia-Ukraine situation as though he was battling the Soviet Union.  As tension build up on the Russia-Ukraine border, Biden warned in his 2022 State of the Union address, "Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders — no more." He spoke of the confrontation as a battle "between democracies and autocracies [in which] freedom will always triumph over tyranny". Britain and Europe have followed Biden's lead while China, India, countries in this region, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America have attempted to remain neutral and non-aligned.

Writing in March on the website of the Brookings Institution think tank, Elaine Kamarck and William A. Galston stated, "We know that the invasion of Ukraine marked the end of the post-Cold War era. We know that the attitudes and policies of European countries and of the EU have been transformed with a speed that astounded veteran observers. What we do not know is the form that the new stand-off between Russia and the West will take. It may not look exactly like the Cold War. As the saying goes, history does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes." Perhaps.

However, the world has moved on since former US president Harry Truman proclaimed his doctrine to counter the Russian-dominated Soviet Union in the Cold War. However, the confrontation between Communists and Capitalists has eased over time. US President Richard Nixon made a key politico, psychological breakthrough for both sides when he visited the People's Republic of China in 1972 where he met Chairman Mao Zedong. This journey ended the US policy of recognising as "China", Taiwan, the island off the shore of mainland China, while shunning the mainland governed by Beijing.

The opening with China was followed in 1980-85 by the Soviet Union's policy of "glasnost", openness, and "perestroika", Communist Party reform, introduced by the administration of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev whose policies dissolved the Soviet union between 1989-91 and the defection of the Eastern European countries which had belonged to this bloc. 

In the post-Cold War period, Russia liberalised domestically, normalised relations with the US, Western Europe and the countries which had been part of the Soviet bloc, and joined the global economy, maximising revenues from oil, gas, coal, precious metals and other exports.

US-led NATO, however, retained the Cold War mentally and aggressively recruited countries formerly belonging to the Soviet space, creating anxiety in the Kremlin which felt increasingly surrounded.

Andrew Roth in a prescient December 2020 article in The Guardian, pointed out that during and after the Carter administration (1977-81) Senator Biden. who was on the foreign affairs committee, cultivated a pugnacious style in his meetings with Soviet leaders that became his hallmark... Biden’s formative years [in Moscow] were the decades he spent showing he could go toe-to-toe with Kremlin officials on arms control."

Roth wrote that, to his credit, Biden also promoted detente although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan froze relations between the Kremlen and White House. Biden took his measure of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2011  when the then US vice president told the Russian that his eyes revealed he did not "have a soul". While Putin, apparently, shrugged off the remark, he did not take kindly to Biden's opinion that he should not run for a third term.

Ahead of his meeting with Biden in June 2021, Putin said that the relationship between the US and Russia had "deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years". He expressed the hope that "there will not be any impulse-based movements on behalf of the sitting US president".

Putin dismissed the Biden accusation made in March that he is a "killer". Putin said, “This is not something I worry about in the least,” dubbing it “macho behaviour” common in Hollywood. He said that such a charge "is part of US political culture where it is considered normal... [but] it's not considered normal here."

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24 this year, Biden, now 79, has been even more undiplomatic and insulting toward Putin, 70. Putin appears cool and inscrutable when dealing with Biden but is not a man to forget or forgive slights or insults. He is a former intelligence officer turned politician whose rule has been characterised by economic growth and liberalisation as well as a clamp-down on dissent and burgeoning corruption.

Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952, eight years after the 900-day German seige of the city ended when Russia was struggling to rebuild the devastated country after World War II. A million died in Leningrad which resumed its original name. St Petersburg in 1991 while Putin was launching his political career on the municipal council.

A fluent German speaker, he had previously served in Russian intelligence (the KGB) in Soviet East Germany and was there when the Berlin all began to come down. He resigned as a Lt. Col. in August 1991 in protest against the hard-line Communist failed coup attempt against Gorbachev who was ousted when the Soviet Union dissolved.

Some Western commentators argue that Putin's war aim is to retake territory which was once held the Soviet Union. A realist, Putin would not think of launching such a campaign because most of the former Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact countries have joined NATO. Putin's war aims are to protect Russia from futher NATO depredations and stay in power.

Putin is not a man to be rattled by political turmoil and is unlikely to yield his demands that Ukraine renounce its NATO ambitions and agree to cede to Russia the Donbas region, Crimea and the wide band of territory linking them. He understands that this war, which he launched without imagining its repercussions, has become a proxy war with NATO which is taking place on Ukrainian territory.

After a brief visit to the Ukrainian capital on Sunday, US Defence Secretary LLoyd Austin made it clear that the US was prosecuting a proxy war by arming Ukraine.  He defined the US war objective by saying, "We want to see Russia weakened to a degree that it can't do the kinds of things it has done in invading Ukraine." The operative word in his statement was "we". He added that the US sought to deny Russia the ability to reconstitute its military and rearm.

Putin will do his utmost to prevent this from happening, prolonging the confrontation with NATO in an updated and upgraded version of the Cold War.

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