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Analysis

East vs. West conflict over Ukraine not a new Cold War

A man kisses the Soviet Union flag in Simferopol's Lenin Square on March 16, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE)

LONDON: NATO planes monitor Ukraine’s border. East and West fight for influence and trade angry warnings. Russian troops conduct massive war games as tensions rise.

With its brinksmanship, bellicose rhetoric, threats and counter-threats, the crisis over Moscow’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula seems to have whisked the world back to the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union squared off in a high-stakes standoff that divided the world into two opposing camps.

But this is not Cold War 2.0.

Communism has long ceased to be the feared enemy. The ideological certainties of that era are gone. And Russia and the West are locked in economic interdependency.

Here is a look at how the Ukraine crisis may have turned into an East- West standoff – but not a Cold War.

ENTWINED ECONOMIES The West’s economic and diplomatic pressure may harken back to an age of isolated blocs. And measures such as visa bans, financial sanctions and threats to boycott the G-8 summit that Russia is slated to host all certainly seem intended to isolate Moscow.

But the economies of Russia and the West have become entwined since the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago – meaning it would be hard to go back to the hermetic “us-versus-them” world of the Cold War.

U.S. brands including McDonald’s and Pepsi have a big presence in Russia, and the European Union does far more trade with the country than the U.S. The Europeans are less eager than Washington to take punitive economic measures, in part because European companies from German engineering firm Siemens to British oil giant BP have major Russian investments.

And Russia supplies almost a third of Europe’s natural gas.

But economic rupture could hurt Russia even more. Moscow relies heavily on income from oil and gas, which make up more than two-thirds of the country’s exports. Around half of Russia’s exports, mainly natural gas, oil and other raw materials, heads to the EU.

And rich Russians rely on places like London for a place to stash their cash in homes, businesses and discreet, stable banks – so much so that some British people refer to their capital as “Londongrad.”

“ London is more important to Russians than Russians are to London,” said Yolande Barnes, head of global research at real estate agent Savills. She says Russians buy about 2.5 percent of prime London properties. “If Russians disappeared, I think London would barely blink.”

MILITARY LIMITSRhetoric such as “dangerous escalation” and “brink of disaster” – as well as talk of boosting military defenses in Europe – echo Cold War tensions. But Western leaders show little appetite for a military response.

NATO did deploy two surveillance planes to fly over Poland and Romania Wednesday to monitor Ukraine, and the U.S. sent additional fighter jets to Lithuania and Poland to boost air patrols. Russia is in military control of Crimea but has not moved into other areas of Ukraine, aside from seizing a gas distribution facility just outside of Crimea’s border.

The crisis could still escalate. Adrian Basora, a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, said that if Russia sent troops into eastern Ukraine, it could trigger an escalation that might pull NATO troops into Eastern Europe. He acknowledged that would be “an extremely dangerous situation.”

But even that is unlikely to turn into a global confrontation.

Crucially, China – the rising global power of the 21st century – has shown no desire to take sides. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has discussed the crisis with U.S. President Barack Obama, has merely urged calm and restraint.

It is true that Putin has launched a huge military modernization program. And Russia’s defense minister said last month that it was seeking to expand its worldwide presence by seeking permission for navy ships to use ports in Algeria, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Seychelles, Vietnam and Singapore.

Still, Matthew Clements, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Review, said Russia’s “ability to undertake operations across the globe is fairly limited.”

“This is not a reformation of the Soviet Red Army,” he said.

CLASH OF

CULTURESIn one area the Cold War comparison may be apt: a mutual lack of comprehension and trust.

The crisis has revealed that Russia and the West remain far apart – not just politically and diplomatically, but culturally and temperamentally.

Putin has stoked a brand of macho nationalism increasingly at odds with liberal Europeans, who have reacted with anger to the jailing of punk protesters Pussy Riot and Russia’s ban on homosexual “propaganda.”

Attempts to isolate Russia further may boost support for Putin – whose poll ratings have soared due to his tough stance on Ukraine – and make rapprochement harder.

But historians see fundamental differences. “Two things characterized the Cold War. First of all there was an ideological divide which was kind of black and white – ‘You’re either with us or against us,’” said Margot Light, professor emeritus of international relations at the London School of Economics. “That really doesn’t exist anymore.

“And the Cold War started off as European, but it became global. And again, this isn’t it. I think neither Russia nor the United States have that kind of global reach any longer,” Light said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 18, 2014, on page 10.

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Summary

Russia and the West are locked in economic interdependency.

Here is a look at how the Ukraine crisis may have turned into an East-West standoff – but not a Cold War.

The economies of Russia and the West have become entwined since the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago – meaning it would be hard to go back to the hermetic "us-versus-them" world of the Cold War.

U.S. brands including McDonald's and Pepsi have a big presence in Russia, and the European Union does far more trade with the country than the U.S. The Europeans are less eager than Washington to take punitive economic measures, in part because European companies from German engineering firm Siemens to British oil giant BP have major Russian investments.

And Russia supplies almost a third of Europe's natural gas.

But economic rupture could hurt Russia even more.

Adrian Basora, a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, said that if Russia sent troops into eastern Ukraine, it could trigger an escalation that might pull NATO troops into Eastern Europe.

The crisis has revealed that Russia and the West remain far apart – not just politically and diplomatically, but culturally and temperamentally.


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