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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Why the Cold War didn't really end when the Soviet Union collapsed

Poland has requested an American armoured division on its soil to counter Russian interference. It should pursue diplomacy instead, writes Gavin Esler

American Soldiers during Nato Saber Strike military exercises in Orzysz, Poland in 2017 to boost combat readiness in the face of an ever-more assertive Russia. AFP
American Soldiers during Nato Saber Strike military exercises in Orzysz, Poland in 2017 to boost combat readiness in the face of an ever-more assertive Russia. AFP

The Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 – or did it? What certainly did happen was that the decades-long struggle between capitalism and communism ended with capitalism utterly victorious, even in – or especially in – China. But in Europe, Cold War hostilities have never gone away.

Across Europe and in the US, there is a persistent view that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants his empire back and that Russia is the world’s worst neighbour. And across Russia there is the constant and historic fear of encirclement by foreign enemies. Both fearful caricatures have enough truth in them to be dangerous.

In the past few days, the Polish government has appealed to the US to set up a permanent base for an American armoured division on Polish soil. Warsaw would pay the set-up costs of around $2 billion to bring 250 tanks and 15,000 soldiers close enough to Russia to make Moscow very nervous.

It almost certainly will never happen but the fact such an appeal is being made reminds the world of the recent serious escalation in tension between Nato and Russia.

The British government and its allies are absolutely convinced Russia was involved in the nerve gas attacks on the former Russian intelligence officer and defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England. Russian involvement in violence in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia plus recent military exercises near the Baltic states worry Nato officials and Nato partner countries such as Sweden. And then there’s the continuing investigation of Russian interference in the US and possibly other elections.

The Polish proposal for a US tank force puts it bluntly: “Russia’s strategy under Mr Putin is to openly disrupt and change the European security structure and decrease the level of US leadership and involvement throughout the continent to weaken the transatlantic alliance.” The Polish government argues that “establishing such a (tank) force is necessary to present an unequivocal challenge and deterrence to Russia’s increasingly emboldened and dangerous posture that threatens Europe".

Yet in all this suspicion and name-calling, there is a far more profound question. Should the countries of Europe, along with Russia and other interested friends and neighbours, including the US, try to bring the Cold War to a final, peaceful end?

Throughout European history, there has usually been some kind of grand peace conference after great and bloody wars.

In 1648 it was the Peace of Westphalia. In 1815 it was the Congress of Vienna and after the First World War, it was the Treaty of Versailles. During the Second World War in various locations, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill attempted to reach some kind of defined settlement for peace.

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Read more from Gavin Esler:

Lies, damned lies and statistics: when does a fabrication become permissible?

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Whether it's Chairman Mao or Churchill, why not let history be taught by the victors?

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These grand schemes were never perfect. The Treaty of Versailles was seriously flawed and a source of conflict even now. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 there was no such grand conference, no real agreement on European security.

Nato struggled with German re-unification. Russia collapsed into near anarchy. Mr Putin, for all his many flaws, did what his KGB training would suggest – after coming to power in 2000, he restored order and ruthlessly dealt with opponents. Seen from Mr Putin’s Moscow, Nato responded to this stabilisation of a huge and unruly country with triumphalism, unilaterally moving Nato’s borders eastwards, exploiting Russia’s weakness to create a new encirclement.

Again, that is a caricature of a more complicated reality. When Nato expanded, it also agreed not to station large permanent forces in former Soviet bloc countries – which is why the Polish tank force may never happen.

But surely the time has come for all powers interested in a stable and secure Europe to enter new discussions aimed at de-escalating tensions, especially in Eastern Europe? Russia was once derided as if it were a violent developing country and was even once described as “Upper Volta with rockets”. If Mr Putin wishes to advance his country’s economy beyond exploiting oil, gas and other natural resources, he needs to consider a better relationship with his trading partners.

Europe, especially the EU, also has much to gain from treating this most difficult neighbour with a degree of respect as well as suspicion.

The threat of a new US armoured force being deployed in Poland therefore should not be acted upon – but neither should it be utterly rejected. The model for a new relationship should not be the grand rhetoric and vengefulness of the Treaty of Versailles.

Instead it should be more like the Congress of Vienna, which destroyed Napoleon’s imperial ambitions but accorded the defeated France the respect due to a great power. Instead of a force of tanks, the Polish government should consider a Congress of Warsaw.

As Winston Churchill once put it: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” We do not have a Churchill, unfortunately. We do have a Donald Trump. And we need American leadership to make any of this happen.

Let us hope Trump diplomacy works on the Korean Peninsula but either way a push towards a more stable Europe would, as Mr Trump puts it, be a “Yuge” benefit to the world.

Gavin Esler is an author, journalist and television presenter