Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday November 9th, 2014


When the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago today, the Cold War effectively ended. As an eye witness to this historical event, I shared the joy and relief of much of the world. But even at that moment of elation, I did express a sense of unease about what might become of us, now that we had apparently been granted our fervent wish that the Cold War be over. 

The Cold War was a dominant feature of many of our lives. Any direct military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, carried with it the real possibility of nuclear war, And at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis the world did indeed teeter on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Yet in perverse way, this policy of MAD - Mutual Assured Destruction – had a stabilizing effect. The two adversaries eventually understood the rules of the confrontation. The rhetoric would often become extremely heated, but each side came to recognize what the other considered its vital interests- and was careful not to cross that red line.

Without the Cold War, we entered a new era when those rules, and the game itself, would profoundly change. For American neo-conservatives, that meant the U.S. was no longer “a” superpower. It was “the” superpower, so it could do as it liked. But such hubris was ill-suited for the new challenges of the 21st century, when a dozen or so Islamic fanatics armed with box-cutters, could bring down the Twin Towers and kill more than 3000 people in the most powerful country in the world. That led to the disastrous decision to invade Iraq where overwhelming American military power not only failed to win the day, but opened the way for much of the Middle East’s current sectarian turmoil.

In the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Wall breach, President George H.W. Bush and his team deftly managed the unification of Germany, the fall of Soviet communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Among other things they got more than half a million Russian troops and all of their equipment out of the countries of Eastern Europe. And they were able to safely secure the former Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal.

We talk about these things matter-of-factly today, but at the time, they were by no means certain - just as it was not certain then, that the Cold War would ultimately end peacefully. Think of it this way. What do you suppose would happen here in the United States, if within a period of less than two years all the economic, military, political and social structures of the country were turned upside down? I think, quite likely, civil war.

As it happens, 25 years later Russia still carries scars from the late 1980s. But it may be its deepest wound was inflicted by the persistent American claim that “We won the Cold War.” Just last month in Sochi,  at a conference of international journalists and scholars specializing in Russia, President Vladimir Putin had this to say: “It looks like the so called ‘winners’ of the Cold War are determined to have it all and reshape the world that could better serve their interests alone.”

In an analysis of Putin’s Sochi performance, long-time New York Times Moscow correspondent Serge Schmemann wrote, “What seemed most strongly to feed his rage, was that the United States refused to show him the respect he saw as his due as the leader of Russia and Russia’s due by virtue of its might, expanse and history. On Ukraine, on Syria and other crises, he insisted Russia’s sole interest was that ‘our position would also be taken into account- that we be treated with respect.’ Several times more the word ‘ivazhenie’ (respect) came up.”

American disrespect for Russia and Putin, was the theme of a commentary this year by Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan’s top specialist in Soviet affairs before serving as the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow in the key years 1987 to ‘91. Matlock also authored the definitive book “Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.”

In April, Matlock wrote in an Op-Ed, “(President Mikhail) Gorbachev maintained that ‘the end of the Cold War is our common victory.’ Yet the United States insisted on treating Russia as the loser.”  Matlock went on to note that after 9/11, Putin been the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush to offer support; that he cooperated with the U.S. when it invaded Afghanistan, and voluntarily removed Russian troops from Cuba and Vietnam.

And what did he get in return, Matlock asks?  “Further expansion of NATO in the Baltics and the Balkans, and plans for American bases there; withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; invasion of Iraq without U.N. Security Council approval; overt participation in the ‘color revolutions’ in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; and then probing some of the firmest red lines any Russian leader would draw, with talk of taking Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.”

On the subject of NATO expansion, critics claim that granting NATO membership to any former Warsaw Pact member was actually a violation of an agreement between Gorbachev and Bush, reached during the Malta Summit in 1989. Ambassador Matlock, who was there, confirms there was an “understanding” that the Soviet Union would not use force in Eastern Europe and the U.S. would not “take advantage” of changes there. But Matlock stresses, “This was not a treaty, binding on future governments.”

Another informed view of Putin is much less forgiving. Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott, translated the secret memoirs of deposed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and as President Bill Clinton’s number two in the State Department, dealt directly with Putin during Boris Yeltson’s presidency. In a speech last May, Talbot said, “I don’t want to leave the impression that Putinism came out of the blue as a result of the current crisis in Ukraine.  It’s been taking form for some time. There have been plenty of hints over the last 15 years that you can take the man out of the KGB but you can’t take the KGB out of the man…. In short, he’s offering (the Russians) a reinstatement of the worst and ultimately fatal features of the U.S.S.R.”

I do not believe that a new Cold War is inevitable. But as we look at the instability in much of the world today - fed by a toxic brew of Islamic fanaticism and anti -Western ideology- it is clear we are in dangerous and uncharted waters. And this perilous new world, in large part, is a direct product of the end of the old Cold War.

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