The Gathering Storm Pt 1: Did the Cold War Really End?
Part one of a three-part series describing the origins and impact of the Russo-Ukrainian War
Authors note: Ad Astra is temporarily interrupting the American Economy series in light of the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War. We will resume that series shortly.
· The West expanded NATO significantly after the collapse of the Soviet Union
· Ukraine’s geography has made it the site of bloody combat going back millennia
· Security concerns over NATO or western-linked actors in Ukraine contributed to Russia’s rationale for invading Ukraine
· Since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Russia and NATO-backed Ukrainian forces have continued to escalate the conflict
Cold War – a superpower conflict between the US and the Soviet Union that lasted from the end of WW2 (1945) until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. The confrontation never turned into direct conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but various proxy wars did occur around the world.
NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a Western security alliance designed to counter the Soviet Union and its security bloc, the Warsaw Pact.
Warsaw Pact – a group of Soviet-aligned Eastern European nations intended to counter NATO. The bloc dissolved in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Article V – a collective security provision of the NATO treaty states that “armed attack against one or more of them (members) in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”. An attack on any member of NATO entails a response from the full alliance.
“Every achievement contains within its success the seeds of a future problem” – James Baker, Secretary of State (1989-1992)
There are two schools of thought on US-Russia relations. The first is that the US is blessed by its geography. It has oceans on both sides and weaker countries to its north and south. An invasion of the US would be virtually impossible. We have plenty of energy and food. The only threat to us is nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). And the only nation with more ICBMs than us is Russia, with 5,977[i]. Therefore, we should not poke the Russian Bear and instead seek to contain it.
The second is simpler: Russia is the only nation on earth with the power to kill every American within 30 minutes and must be destroyed.
Opinions on how to handle Russia are thus deeply divided in America. The objective of “The Gathering Storm” series is to provide the relevant recent history of US-Russian relations and better inform our readers about the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.
US-Russia Relations: From the end of the Cold War to Covid
A young KGB agent named Vladimir Putin sat humiliated in East Germany as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, symbolizing the weakening of the Soviet Union (USSR) for the whole world to see[ii]. The USSR officially collapsed as a political entity in 1991 after Ukraine voted for its independence. The 1990s in Russia were a terrible time, with double-digit inflation, bread lines, and the birth of a new oligarch class who got their wealth by thieving vast chunks of the old Soviet state. Comically drunk President Boris Yeltsin handed over power to a political unknown, Vladimir Putin, in 1999. Putin promised to stabilize the economy, restore dignity to the Russian state, and pursue democratic reforms, which the West embraced.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic a debate raged about what to do with NATO. NATO’s founding purpose was to counter the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, both of which had collapsed. Some wanted to expand NATO. Others wanted to disband NATO. Others still wanted to add Russia to NATO. The leading anti-expansion voice was George Kennan, the architect of the US “containment” policy that peacefully won the Cold War. Writing in the New York Times, he said that:
Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.[iii]
He went on to compare expanding NATO to the burdensome conditions the Allies put on Germany after WW1, which are widely agreed upon to have caused WW2.
On the other side of the debate was the argument that Russia may not stabilize as a peaceful democracy and that NATO expansion was a hedge against that possibility.[iv]
Expanding the alliance won out and 13 new countries have been given the Article V guarantee since 1991. Finland and Sweden were invited to join NATO in July 2022 and Ukraine applied to join in September 2022, though their ongoing conflict with Russia and Article V would commit all alliance members to war with Russia (WW3) upon their ascension.
Figure 1: NATO's expansion eastward[v]
Ever since Putin came to power and NATO was expanded, there has been a continuous deterioration of US-Russian relations. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to prevent them from joining NATO. In 2012, failed US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Russia the US’ number one geopolitical enemy, to widespread ridicule. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and launched a covert war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Russia has supported the anti-American faction in the Syrian civil war, a proxy conflict. State-sponsored Russian hackers allegedly meddled with the 2016 and 2020 US Presidential elections and in 2020 launched a massive cyberattack against the US government.
Ukraine: The Bloodlands
Ukraine lies at the western edge of the Eurasian steppe and is often called “the gateway to Europe”.[vi]Its geography at the civilizational intersection of Christianity and Islam has made the region important since the Roman Empire. Its location has also made the territory the site of bloody struggles for control for the last several millennia. The Mongols, the Ottomans, Napolean, and the Bolsheviks have all fought for the area.[vii] In WW2, Stalin’s USSR invaded through Ukraine, then the Nazi’s attempted a failed land assault back on Moscow, before the Red Army (USSR) pushed them back to East Berlin, a border that held until the end of the Cold War.[viii] Ukrainians suffered atrocities under every army that passed through.
In more modern times, the country is complex and diverse but can be generalized as closer to Russia in the east and more nationalistic in the west.[ix] This geography overlaps with the portion of the citizenry with Russian as their native language, which loosely correlates with voting patterns. Ukraine is closely divided politically and its government has alternated between more pro-Russian and pro-Western. As a result, foreign powers often vie to influence elections (read: Russia and the US).
Figure 2: Ukraine divided by native language
In 2004 after the pro-Western candidate was mysteriously poisoned by a compound found in Russia[x], the more pro-Russian candidate “won” the presidential election but the result was widely seen as rigged. After massive peaceful protests, a re-vote was ordered with the pro-Western candidate winning 52%-45%. The election was declared clean by international observers. This became known as the Orange Revolution, which was one of several “color revolutions” in states of the former-USSR around this time where pro-Western governments came to power. CIA involvement in these “color revolutions” is suspected, but not proven. However, overt US support of the pro-Western candidate’s campaign was reported by various media outlets.[xi]
The pro-Russian candidate won in 2010 and massive protests broke out in 2013 after he did not sign a free trade agreement with the EU. The Revolution of Dignity, as it became known, escalated into 2014 until shots were fired into the crowd from an unknown source. In the ensuing chaos, government security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing over 100 protestors and dozens of police officers. The democratically-elected president was overthrown, he fled to Russia, and a pro-Western government was installed in a revolution…or coup depending on your perspective. The new Ukrainian government said the snipers were Russian[xii], but that has been disputed. Again, Western involvement was suspected in the events but never proved.[xiii]
This chain of events led to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the initiation of a Russian-backed covert war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in 2014. The war in the Donbas sparked an international incident when an errant anti-aircraft missile shot down the civilian airliner Malaysian Air Flight 17. Suspicions of US-involvement grew after leaked audio appeared on YouTube of a US State Department official conspiring about who should replace the overthrown president and “f**k the EU”.US President Barack Obama declined to get involved after the Russian annexation because he concluded that there was no vital US interest in Ukraine. The conflict was largely frozen until February 2022, when Russia invaded.
Figure 3: Ukraine's size versus the US
What Russia wants in Ukraine
Like any war, there are many reasons for the conflict. Most can be grouped under “Putin fears the US and its Western allies’ influence on Russia.”
· Ukraine forms a territorial buffer between the NATO alliance and Russia. Furthermore, given its bloody history as an invasion route to Moscow, Russia wants to keep it from hostile actors. The parallel would be Mexico entering a security alliance with China. The US wouldn’t like that.
· The Russian state is in demographic collapse. They took massive casualties in WW2 and the terrible 1990s compounded the problem. As a result, they don’t have many military-aged males. If they push through Ukraine, they can economically defend the Bessarabian Gap and use the Carpathian Mountains as a natural defense. With NATO in Ukraine, they would need more men to defend their border.
Figure 4: Eurasian invasion approaches[xiv]
· A party to an active conflict can’t join NATO. As long as Russia is in Ukraine, they can’t join NATO.
· Putin views the West and its democracy promotion efforts as existential threat to his autocratic regime and wants to keep them at arms-length.
Putin has been saying Ukraine entering NATO was his red line since the 2000s, but unfortunately an agreement couldn’t be made to prevent this war.[xv]
Figure 5: Putin negotiates with French President Emmanuel Macron
Much has been made about how Putin wants to revive the USSR or even Tsarist Russia, and that might be true. Putin even requires every Russian soldier sent to Ukraine to carry a copy of his 5,000-word essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”[xvi] But that is likely ancillary to his primary security and geopolitical goals.
February 2022 Invasion and Subsequent Events
Russia amassed forces on the Ukrainian border at the start of 2022. US officials loudly declared Putin intended to invade but many were skeptical. Then, Russia launched the largest land invasion since WW2.[xvii] They attacked in the east and made a failed decapitation strike on the capital Kyiv. TikTok videos from a defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky elevated the conflict to a global information war. Since then, the US has been very loudly providing Ukraine with arms, intelligence, and other military aid. This is in contrast to our previous proxy war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, where our aid to the Afghan Mujahedeen was covert.
Since then, the war has continued to escalate and all sides eschew a negotiated peace. In Ukraine, Zelensky risks overthrow by ultra-nationalists if he entertains any territorial settlement that infringes on Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders. They proved that in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. The West, whose funding is sustaining the Ukrainian side, also refuses to negotiate. Ukraine and Russia had a tentative deal back in April before former-British PM Boris Johnson traveled to Kyiv to scuttle it.
Russia and Ukraine may have agreed on a tentative deal to end the war in April, according to a recent piece in Foreign Affairs.
“Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement,” wrote Fiona Hill and Angela Stent. “Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, when it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.”
The news highlights the impact of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s efforts to stop negotiations, as journalist Branko Marcetic noted on Twitter. The decision to scuttle the deal coincided with Johnson’s April visit to Kyiv, during which he reportedly urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to break off talks with Russia for two key reasons: Putin cannot be negotiated with, and the West isn’t ready for the war to end.[xviii]
Since then, the war has brutally progressed with the Russian’s capturing territory inch by inch. For all the talk of war in the 21st century relying on cyberattacks and AI, the primary tactic has been the use of old-fashioned heavy artillery. One surprise has been the Russian Air Force’s failure to establish air superiority, which has kept Ukraine in the war. Winter is coming and major fighting is likely to stop soon until spring.
Figure 6: Territorial control in Russo-Ukrainian War[xix]
In September 2022, somebody sabotaged the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, which was the most significant state-sponsored act of war since the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. These pipelines supplied a substantial portion of Europe’s energy and had been shut off by Russia. Their destruction eliminated Russia’s only leverage over Europe, an offramp to the conflict, and will have profound consequences for Europe’s economy. That story will be covered in our next post.
Figure 7: Methane from the sabotaged Nord Stream pipeline bubbles to the surface of the Baltic Sea
The next post in “The Gathering Storm” will discuss the Russo-Ukraine War’s impact on energy in Europe.
Note: The Gathering Storm is the first volume of a six-part book series by Winston Churchill on the history of WW2. The Gathering Storm discusses the Interwar Period after WW1 and the events leading up to WW2.
[ii] Sarotte, M. E. Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. Yale University Press, 2022.
[vi] Plokhy, Sherhii. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Basic Books, 2021.
[viii] Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books, 2022.
[ix] SAKWA, RICHARD. Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC, 2022.
[x] Plokhy, Sherhii. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Basic Books, 2021.
[xii] Plokhy, Sherhii. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Basic Books, 2021.
[xiv] Zeihan, Peter. The Accidental Superpower: The next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder. Twelve, 2016.
[xix] Institute for the Study of War