“Deja vu all over again” – “Yogi” Berra
The steady worsening of relations between Russia and NATO is starting to bear, if you’ll pardon the expression, all the signs of a second Cold War. Much of it seems familiar to someone who served at the end of the first Cold War. Sabre rattling, accusations, and propaganda. Bears probing airspace, fighter intercepts and ships at sea watching each other closely.
Much of it seems new though, as if we haven’t done this before. It’s not new, it’s just that most of us forget the high level of tension and paranoia of the Cold War in its early days. Weapon systems have changed as well, making everything seem far more dangerous than it was before. This too is actually a replay, atomic bombs were the boogie man of that era.
The situation on the ground is vastly different this time. NATO is not facing off against the Warsaw Pact, Warsaw is even the capital of a NATO nation. There are not two great standing armies staring at each other across the inter-German border.
Today’s conflict isn’t rooted in a battle between Communism and Democracy like the last one was either. Today we have putative democracies at loggerheads. I say putative because it is difficult to assess just how much democracy actually exists in Russia today. Between Putin and the oligarchy Russia is tied up as neatly as during the Soviet era.
What hasn’t changed, and may never change, is the underlying tension between a paranoid Russia and the West. Russian history has instilled a fundemental paranoia about being overrun by its enemies. They’ve seen this play out in the past.
The West has trouble understanding this, but geography can explain part of the difference. Russia sees itself surrounded by potential enemies. From inside Russian borders, in any direction you choose to look, your gaze will fall on a potential enemy of Mother Russia.
Western countries don’t share this viewpoint. A country like Canada looks at a map and sees friends and neighbours stretching from Japan to Latvia. Most of our allies see the same broad global village.
So, the question then is: “How do we make Russia understand?” As it stands, if Russia acts paranoid, we act guarded. If Russia acts aggressive, we push back. But if Russia acts like a stable country, at worst we will ignore them and leave Russia alone.
For Vladimir Putin, being ignored is intolerable. Like many who are bullies he confuses respect and fear. He’s never learned that we respect people based on the good works they have done, we fear people based on the evil acts they have committed.
Because he doesn’t understand, Vladimir Putin will continue on his course. In so doing he will make 21st century Russia the most fearsome 19th century country on the planet.
And the rest of us will have to learn to live with a chill in the air.