A pair of prominent historians of the Cold War agree that the current global showdown over Ukraine does not signal a second Cold War, but that isn’t necessarily good news. Indeed, one scholar suggests that a better comparison is to the tense, multipolar world in the first years of the 20th century—culminating in the devastation of World War I.
In a conversation Tuesday at Harvard Kennedy School, Fredrik Logevall, the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at HKS, spoke with Arne Westad, the Elihu Professor of History at Yale University (and former Harvard faculty member). Their topic: “A New Cold War? Geopolitical Implications of the War in Ukraine.”
Westad, author of 16 books including The Cold War: A World History, called the Russian invasion of Ukraine “a war of conquest of the kind we haven’t seen in Europe since 1945.” He said it differed from the Soviet Union’s interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in that the invasion is not about reconstituting a communist empire or creating a buffer zone against the West. “This is an attempt not just to take over a foreign state, but to wipe out the Ukrainian sense of nationhood.”
“The problem for the Russian side is that whatever happens on the battlefield, they are not going to achieve that. It’s an unobtainable goal,” Westad said. And that will make the conflict all the more intractable and all the more difficult to resolve.
“Imposed regime change seldom bolsters the relationship between the intervening country and the target nation.”
Logevall, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of the French and U.S. wars in Vietnam, said that leaving aside the military outcome in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already lost the political and moral war with the Ukrainian people.
He said that from his previous study of the U.S. war in Vietnam and other conflicts, and from scholarly research more broadly, “imposed regime change seldom bolsters the relationship between the intervening country and the target nation.”
Westad said that if the more powerful Russian forces prevail militarily, “they’ll have to keep Ukraine occupied in order to get what they want. The cost is going to be tremendous, the cost in terms of dead Russian soldiers, but first and foremost, the economic cost of it, which Russia is entirely unprepared to take.” With sanctions punishing an already weak Russian economy and the ruble all but worthless, and facing the costs of trying to keep the Ukrainians down, “in my sense of how history generally works out, this is not doable. This is not possible.”
Westad, a native Norwegian, and Logevall, who was born and raised in Sweden, marveled at the extent to which Nordic countries as well as Germany had united in standing up for the Ukrainians against Russian aggression. They attributed much of that support to the leadership of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with his clear and honest messages to his people and to the world. That unity, Logevall said, “underscores the degree to which Putin miscalculated here—and the degree to which this alliance has been strengthened in the short term.”
Westad, whose academic work has focused in part on China during the Cold War, said this is the first global crisis where China might have a greater impact than the United States. He said Russia has quickly become much more dependent on China, and “the moment the Chinese decide that they’ve had enough of this murderous conflict, the conflict will in some way stop.”
“I see the current conflict as fundamentally different from the Cold War.”
Whatever happens, he said, “the end result will be a Russia that is even more in the pocket of China than what has been the case in the past, and China will be able to further exploit Russia with regard to natural resources, energy, oil and gas.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, Westad said the Ukraine war could end up reducing the likelihood that China would try to seize Taiwan by force. The Russians’ struggle with Ukraine has signaled for China just how tough such a war could be.
Still, both historians agreed, this is not a second Cold War.
Logevall noted that the first Cold War was a bipolar conflict in large part between East and West blocs. There was a massive arms race and a general absence of diplomacy, and a deep ideological schism. He said those factors are missing in this confrontation. “Perhaps it’s not that helpful to think of this as a Cold War 2,” he said.
Westad agreed that the Cold War analogy “is not particularly useful. I mean, except perhaps for some propagandistic purposes. But analytically, it doesn’t help because if you do draw those kinds of comparisons simply for the purpose of political expediency, then everything becomes like everything else,” Westad said. “I see the current conflict as fundamentally different from the Cold War.”
Citing one difference, he said Putin’s claim on Ukraine echoes some of the colonial racial arguments of imperial powers of the past, ideas from the late 19th and early 20th century rather than the Cold War.
But Westad added that while many people would respond, “oh, thank goodness, it’s not as simple as that,” in fact some alternative historical examples such as the days before World War I “are in many ways more frightening that the Cold War scenario, which after all, in a deadly way offered some degree of stability.”
The global system now doesn’t seem particularly stable, he said, in part because it is not bipolar but multipolar. “No, it’s a more difficult world. I have sometimes compared it to the world prior to 1914, which as you know, is not a comparison that would make you sleep more easily at night.”
Banner image: A livestream of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shown at a rally for peace in Berlin on March 6, 2022. Photo by Gerald Matzka/Getty Images. Faculty portraits by Martha Stewart