If one is to believe the newspaper headlines and TV talking heads, we are in the midst of “a new Cold War” as a result of Russia’s decision to seize Crimea. Perhaps for many people on both sides of the Atlantic the comparison is comforting: After all, the real Cold War was the last war that America and the West “won,” or seemed to have won. But it is seriously misleading.
This is not a new Cold War. The world is not heading for a clash of civilizations between two fundamentally different ways of ordering society.
It is a tragedy for Russia, and for its near neighbors, that after the Soviet Union collapsed the state was stolen by the likes of Vladimir V. Putin and so many of the state’s assets were filched by his cronies. One-party rule has turned into one-clique rule by Mr. Putin’s erstwhile K.G.B. colleagues, Kremlin fixers and assorted kleptocrats.
But there is no “Putinism” that can be exported far outside Russia’s borderlands. Old-fashioned Russian nationalism and gangster capitalism offer no alternative view of the world, no vision and no universalist value system.
Whatever its flaws and the brutality it bred, communism was a Big Idea, almost a religion, that for decades satisfied the minds of brilliant if misguided people and inspired hope of “salvation” to millions throughout the world. It is very unlikely that Mr. Putin will inspire ideals in anybody apart from the crowds cheering him in Moscow on Tuesday after his fiery speech lambasting the West — and perhaps some ethnic Russians in Crimea and elsewhere in Russia’s “near abroad.”
It is fanciful to imagine there will be leaders of peasants in South America, Asia and Africa fighting for a revolutionary creed preached from Moscow, as they did in the Cold War. “Workers of the World Unite … for Gazprom Profits!” isn’t an appealing slogan.
For most of the Cold War, the threat to liberal democracy and freedom was not the Red Army or the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, but an ideology that for a long time seemed to offer an alternative to capitalism and to Western values. It was an illusion, but one many people in the West shared. There is no prospect today that the residents of European capitals will one morning wake up to find that commissars have nationalized the means of production.
If there is a threat, it is geographical, not ideological, and it is to a confined area on Russia’s periphery. Despite bloodcurdling talk from a few officials in Moscow and some armchair warriors on Fox News, there is no global military challenge, no clash of a cultural or economic kind. If anything, it’s the reverse. During much of the Cold War, there were few economic or business links between East and West. Now trade is interconnected as never before. Russia exports its gas in huge amounts — and its millionaires. On the day after Russia took effective control of Crimea, the Moscow stock exchange fell by nearly 10 percent, though it has since rallied. Throughout most of the Cold War, Moscow didn’t even have a stock exchange.
In one depressing way, though, the Cold War is echoing loud and clear. The rhetoric already sounds eerily familiar. The United States Secretary of State, John F. Kerry, says democracy would “never be stolen by bullets or invasion,” the kind of thing which his predecessors might have said in the 1960s and 1970s. A cautious Democratic president stands widely accused at home of being soft on dictators. Mr. Putin talks of rescuing Russians in Ukraine from a “neo-fascist coup” — an old script the major players must have dredged up from deep in their memories.
If the script from the past is followed, the rhetoric will get louder and sharper the clearer it becomes that in reality there is little the West will do against a Russian fait accompli in Crimea, and if the Russians are determined to carve Ukraine in two.
During the Cold War, American leaders talked of “rolling back communism” and “liberating the captive people behind the Iron Curtain,” but did nothing that would risk armed conflict, certainly not after the Cuban Missile crisis.
The hot wars were fought by proxy, with an unwritten agreement that the superpowers would not confront each other anywhere near the Iron Curtain itself. When the Soviets committed some atrocity, in Hungary in 1956 or in Prague in 1968, American presidents and British prime ministers described it as “unacceptable” — and then accepted it.
These were entirely reasonable judgment calls: Nobody in the West was prepared to go to war for Budapest. It was the overblown rhetoric, the implied promises unkept, that left a bitter taste of hypocrisy. And when the critical moment came, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire collapsed, it was Eastern Europeans who liberated themselves; outsiders had little to do with it, despite the triumphalism in the West.
Now America and Europe have ruled out any military response in the Crimea crisis. The bigger European countries are opposed to any serious sanctions, which is reasonable given the possible costs at a time of great economic fragility on the Continent.
What is unreasonable is to keep ratcheting up the rhetoric about freedom and democracy, which achieved little in the Cold War and will most likely achieve very little now.
It is no time for hyperbole and hypocrisy. The honest thing for Western leaders to do would be to tell Ukraine that it is on its own, that there is little that in reality they are prepared to do, and admit that their power is limited and circumscribed. That would be the honest thing to tell Western voters, too.
Victor Sebestyen is the author of Twelve Days, The Story of the Hungarian Uprising, and Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire.