The New Cold War: Russia and the U.S. (What Went Wrong?)

Southern Methodist University

Jeffrey Engel is the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. He has taught at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Haverford College, and taught history and public policy at Texas A&M University. He has authored/edited thirteen books on American foreign policy, most recently, When the World Seemed New: George H. Bush and the Surprisingly Peaceful End of the Cold War.



A New Cold War?

The Cold War’s end was supposed to bring about a new era of East-West cooperation, integrating Russia for perhaps the first time as an equal player in European and Atlantic affairs. Democracy was emerging, along with free markets. The end of old history appeared in sight, replaced by the new.  We were poised to share “one common European home,” the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev pledged. And we shall all have peace. “Eastern Europe is free,” George H.W. Bush proclaimed as 1991 came to an end. “This is a victory for democracy and freedom. Every American can take pride in this victory.”

Not very long ago, the United States and its allies declared victory in the long cold war to contain and overthrow the Soviet regime. It looked like George Kennan was a genius. Hopes were high for a transformed world of ever more democracies and ever friendlier relations with Moscow – but something went terribly wrong. Russia fought a brief war in 2008 that left the independent Republic of Georgia dismembered. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine by force in 2014, and continues to support armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s modernizing military conducts aggressive overflights of NATO ships in international waters, and even threatens to use nuclear weapons. Moscow has been cozying up to Communist-led China. Many observers are calling U.S.-Russia relations a new cold war. What happened?

The New Cold War Explained

Explanations for the souring of relations take the form of two opposing sides. On one side, analysts point to the biography and personality of the strongman Vladimir Putin. In their view, the Russian President resembles a villain straight out of Hollywood central casting – a lifelong KGB operative, a leader angry at the collapse of the Soviet empire, looking for revenge and maybe for restoration of Soviet empire. On the other side, analysts point to American and Western mistreatment of post-1991 Russia: a failure to provide democratic Russia with a Marshall Plan, expansion of NATO to former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe and even to former Soviet republics on the Baltic, support for revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, aimed at a similar revolution in Russia. Each side of analysts digs in, sure it is right in diagnosing the escalating tensions: the evil Putin vs. bad Western policies. Who is right? Can we get a deeper understanding of what went wrong – and how it might be fixed? Where is the U.S.-Russia relationship going? What does the current state of bilateral relations mean for the next U.S. president, and for the rest of the world?

Learn More About the New Cold War

Well, the promised post-Cold War peace did not endure. The West’s triumph brought the average citizen in the former Soviet Union a shorter life-span, a lower standard of living, and a long list of new grudges. As Boris Yeltsin gave way to Vladimir Putin by the 20th century’s end, the stage was set for what some are now terming a new Cold War, replete with hacking, election influence, annexations, and new East-West tensions.  Moscow once more appears Washington’s adversary, though that is a view seldom voiced in the White House.  How did we get from the Cold wars end to its apparent renewal?  This lecture tells that tale



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