The Cold War is dead. Long live the Cold War

`Even after the collapse of Communism, we still instinctively regard Russia as an enemy'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I KNOW where and when it was supposed to have ended, because I was there. Along with a hundred or so other journalists, jam-packed into the assembly room of the Soviet cruise ship Maxim Gorky, just before lunch on Sunday, 3 December, 1989. George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev had just wound up a bizarre superpower summit off the island of Malta (in seas so rough that the two of them couldn't even physically meet on the Saturday) by hailing a new era in relations between their countries.

"From Yalta to Malta," cracked Gennady Gerasimov, the Soviet leader's unfailing scene-stealer of a spokesman, "the Cold War ended at 12.45pm today."

And, naive and impressionable as we were, we believed him. In the two years that Mr Gorbachev had left in the Kremlin, Washington and Moscow signed a raft of arms-control agreements, Germany was reunited, and the Soviet Union even gave us a small helping hand in the war against Saddam Hussein. Just a decade on, however, Malta seems a millennium ago.

Indeed, history may show I was also there at the moment when a new cold war is officially determined to have begun - the recent European security summit in Istanbul. Boris Yeltsin had given the West a thunderous lecture about intervening in the Chechnya crisis, and spent a lordly seven minutes at a long-planned double summit with the leaders of France and Germany before getting on an aeroplane and returning to Moscow.

To suggest that the past has returned exactly is, of course, a nonsense. Russia is a far weaker power now, a cross between a kleptocracy and a charity basket case. For all the vagaries of the Soviet system, it may safely be said that one of its leading orchestras would never have been reduced to busking outside a McDonald's burger restaurant in Swansea just to keep body and soul together - the fate that befell the touring National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia this week.

Barring Belarus and the rump of Yugoslavia, Russia has no allies through which to further a proxy war with the West. But Mr Yeltsin's performance in Istanbul rekindled a few memories. It wasn't quite Khrushchev banging his desk with his shoe at the United Nations, but "Yeltsin was definitely untying the shoelaces", as one diplomat put it. And Russia remains the one country that can wipe us all out with the push of a nuclear button. Let's be honest. Even after Cold War Mark I officially ended, Communism collapsed and our rockets were de-targeted from Russian cities, we still instinctively regarded Russia, albeit apparently benign and increasingly "like us", as the closest thing left to a serious enemy.

Whatever Russia is right now, it isn't benign. What strikes me are the parallels between today and not so much 1989 but 1983, one of the most fraught years of the old Cold War, when Soviet jets shot down KAL flight 007, Nato deployed cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe and, as is now known, the Kremlin came pretty close to unleashing a hot war.

We're not at that point yet, but even so, several of the old ingredients are present.

Once again, the Kremlin is fighting a dirty war of suppression on the southern marches (then Afghanistan, now Chechnya, where some of the Islamic radicals involved in the insurgency learnt their trade in Afghanistan). In 1983 a new generation of nuclear weapons was installed to protect Western Europe. To strengthen the Caucasus and Central Asia today, the name of the game played by the West is oil, carried in new pipelines routed as far from Russia as possible. But if the means are different, the strategic objective is much the same: to hem Russia in, and peg back its influence. Unsurprisingly, the Russians don't like it one bit.

Finally, there is the Star Wars parallel. Back in 1983, Ronald Reagan's public dream of a space-based defence to destroy incoming ballistic missiles horrified the Soviet leadership, which knew it could not compete. Today, the very real prospect that Bill Clinton next year will unilaterally breach the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty and approve a national missile defence system elicits a similar reaction in Moscow. The generals warn that the ABM treaty is sacrosanct, and that if the Americans go ahead Russia will simply build new missiles to swamp whatever system is put in place. As for ratification of the Start-2 agreement to cut weapon stockpiles - forget it. In other words, another Cold-War-style arms race beckons.

The resemblances should not be exaggerated. Russia's hostility now reflects not a superpower's geostrategic calculations, but a much-humiliated country's refusal to be lectured and kicked around, its determination to show that it still counts for something.

None of this is to justify Chechnya. But it does help to explain it, and show how hard old mindsets die. And not only in the Kremlin.

We have found it no less difficult to change the way we think. "Victory" in the old Cold War made us assume that Russia would take to the winner's economic and social system like a duck to water. It was right for us, so it would be right for them. Hence the pseudo-capitalism foisted on a country that was manifestly unequipped to receive it. But the West pressed ahead, just as it pressed ahead with the eastward expansion of Nato. Dress it up as you will, this was the ancient doctrine of "containment" resurrected.

The hard truth is that entrenched adversaries do not become close friends simply upon a wink to the press from George Bush, or the snake-oil pronouncements of Gennady Gerasimov. Back in the Eighties it seemed natural that we should be at odds with Russia. For all the changes in Moscow since, the depressing thing is that it seems just as natural now. Perhaps the Cold War never ended at all.