The Cold War, Modern Ukraine, and the Spread of Democracy in Former Soviet Bloc Countries

As Russia masses forces and equipment on the Ukrainian border, international tensions over a possible invasion are escalating almost daily. Ukraine has become ground zero for what some experts have called a new cold war between Russia and the West.

In my opinion, as a Cold War historian, this comparison distorts the Cold War and distorts the stakes of the current crisis.

Yet it is important to revisit the Cold War, as its legacy shapes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy toward Ukraine.

While Ukraine was a Soviet republic during the Cold War, it became the front line of a post-Cold War standoff between Russia and the West. By insisting that NATO withdraw its forces and weapons from the countries of the former Soviet bloc, Putin would like to go back to the mid-1990s, before NATO expanded to Eastern Europe.

From my reading of the public accounts, Putin sees NATO as a relic that retains his Cold War goal of containing Russia. In response to NATO expansion, Putin is seeking to create his own buffer zone, just as former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin did in response to US aid to Europe after World War II, and to consolidate a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

What is the Cold War?

The Cold War was a global struggle of the United States and democratic capitalism against the Soviet Union and communism. It erupted in the mid-1940s after the two nations emerged from World War II as superpowers and saw each other as existential threats.

During World War II, they had cooperated to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan. After the war, both agreed to occupy Germany jointly with Britain and France and wanted to continue the alliance once the fighting stopped.

But irreconcilable disagreements over the post-war international order have resurfaced.

The Soviet Union asserted control of Eastern Europe – the nations of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania – which the Soviet military had liberated from the Nazis. Stalin supported local Communists and intimidated their opponents, and countries rarely held free elections. The administration of US President Harry Truman accused Stalin of betraying a wartime Yalta conference agreement on respect for European democracy.

Prime Minister Joseph Stalin and President Harry S. Truman smile during the 1945 Potsdam Conference, where they negotiated terms for the end of World War II.
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Yet what terrified American officials most was the possibility that Soviet ideology would resonate with the peoples of Western Europe and Germany struggling to recover from the war. American policymakers feared that the desolate masses would elect communist governments that sided with the Soviet Union against the United States.

Winning hearts and minds

At one of the turning points in the early Cold War, US Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced an economic assistance initiative for Europe in June 1947. Congress authorized the program in April 1948. The The Marshall Plan, as it came to be known, provided over $12 billion to help European reconstruction during its three years of operation.

Two women walk down a street with an overturned car and a devastated building in the background.
Berliners walk through the ruins of the city in May 1945 towards the end of World War II.
Sovfoto Group/Universal Images via Getty Images

But the logic of the Marshall Plan worries Western Europeans. Fresh from two traumatic wars against a belligerent Germany, Western Europeans feared any effort to rebuild West Germany and set it on the path to statehood.

Breaking a long-standing tradition of avoiding entangled alliances, the United States joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949 to guarantee the security of Western Europe from West Germany. who became independent the following month.

Alarm bells have been ringing in Moscow. The Soviet Union lost 27 million soldiers and civilians during World War II. And the United States wanted to rebuild post-war Germany.

In response, Stalin ordered the Communists of Eastern Europe to crack down on their domestic rivals. Moscow also created East Germany to counter West Germany. It now had a buffer zone of loyal communist countries to protect itself from the West.

The Cold War started in Europe, but quickly spread to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Each superpower feared that a setback in one developing country would give the other the advantage in the Cold War.

Although their forces did not clash directly, the United States and the Soviet Union fought each other by proxy in bloody conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam wars.

A group of men in military uniform meet in an office with another man.
President John F. Kennedy discusses the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 with General Curtis LeMay and other military leaders.
Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The high stakes of the Cold War also brought the world closer to nuclear annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, erupted in October 1962 when the Kennedy administration discovered that the Soviets had deployed missiles in communist Cuba. The United States and the Soviet Union avoided nuclear war after making a deal: the Kennedy administration promised never to invade Cuba and to withdraw American missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal of arms from Cuba.

Soviet Ukraine

Ukraine joined Russia, Belarus and Transcaucasia, a federation made up of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as founding republics of the Soviet Union in December 1922.

Ukraine suffered greatly under Stalin’s rule in the 1930s. A famine in the early 1930s, known as the Holodomor, killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians. Today, many Ukrainians call the event an act of genocide.

So when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, many Ukrainians welcomed them first. Nationalist Stepan Bandera collaborated with the Nazis in an effort to establish an independent Ukrainian state.

In a move whose significance contemporaries could not have foreseen, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. Crimea was important because the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet there had its headquarters.

The Soviet Union stationed a third of its nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil. When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Ukraine ranked third among nuclear states.

Ukraine transferred its nuclear weapons to Russia in the mid-1990s in return for Russian promises to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. The United States and Britain were also parties to this agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum.

After the fall of communism

The Cold War ended more than three decades ago, when West Germany and East Germany united and communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Union Soviet.

NATO has since expanded to 14 countries that were part of the Soviet bloc. This number includes three former Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all bordering Russia.

NATO said at its Bucharest summit in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia, also former Soviet republics, would also become members in the future.

Where NATO has expanded, membership in the European Union has usually also come.

Soldiers watch as a forklift loads a crate of weapons onto the back of a truck.
On February 11, 2022, Ukrainian servicemen load a truck with American anti-tank missiles at the airport in Kiev, Ukraine.
Sergei Supinsky/ AFP via Getty Images)

In my opinion, Putin fears that Ukraine will join NATO and become a springboard for the United States to destabilize his regime. I also agree that Putin thinks Washington is already using the current Ukrainian government as a proxy for US interests.

The Russians annexed Crimea in March 2014, reversing what they saw as a historic injustice. They supported Ukrainian separatists in the eastern part of the country, known as Donbass. These measures help prevent Ukraine from joining NATO because countries are not allowed to join the alliance if they have unresolved territorial disputes.

Putin’s fears are not unfounded. The momentum for a democratic, prosperous and secure Ukraine could spill over to Russia and heighten domestic challenges to Putin’s grip on power.

By precipitating a crisis on Ukraine, Putin wants to ensure that this never happens.

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