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How the Cold War can explain our current standoff with Russia

“This is payback.”

Getty Images/Vetta

Can the Cold War help us understand how we’ve arrived at our current standoff with Russia? Harvard historian Odd Arne Westad thinks it can, but not in the way most people suppose.

Westad’s new book The Cold War: A World History undercuts the conventional narrative that the Cold War began shortly after World War II and ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Instead, he argues that it started in the late 19th century as part of a broader struggle between socialism and capitalism, and more or less ended in 1991.

More importantly, he claims that our current conflict with Russia isn’t an extension of the Cold War or even a second Cold War; rather, it’s the result of decisions made by the United States and Europe after the Cold War ended.

I asked Westad what we get wrong about the Cold War, and how it can shed light on US-Russia relations today.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing

You have an unconventional view of the Cold War. What do you think it was about, and when do you think it began?

Odd Arne Westad

Near the end of the 19th century, you had two very different visions of what the future should look like, and they were represented by these two ideological systems — socialism and capitalism. If you want to understand the intensity of the conflict throughout the 20th century, both on the American side and the Russian side, it’s essential to trace it all the way back to this divide.

Once you do that, it’s clear that the broader Cold War wasn’t a conflict between two countries but a conflict between incompatible visions of life.

Sean Illing

How is it that Russia and America came to represent these two opposing systems of thought?

Odd Arne Westad

At the end of the 19th century, these two countries became great transcontinental powers. They had the resources to become key players for most of the 20th century. You also had two countries that had a very clear sense of what they were about.

The United States was about democracy and free markets, and Russia was about collectivism — they believed the future was based on planning and local markets. Both, moreover, were willing to project their power around the world to shape it in their own image. And so these two powers were basically on a collision course from the 19th century onwards.

Sean Illing

So what happened in the early ’90s, after the Cold War presumably ended? There was a reasonable amount of goodwill, and many thought US-Russia relations would radically improve, but obviously that didn’t happen.

Odd Arne Westad

Many things went wrong right at the end of the Cold War. I think both in Europe and in the United States there should have been more attempts to bring Russia into the global economic and political order.

A lot of Russians felt that they had been excluded from Europe, from the world order, after the Cold War was over. That created a lot of discontent and anxiety and resentment in Russia. Putin didn’t spring out of a vacuum. He is very much a product of this resentment, and he capitalized on it politically.

Putin was never particularly fond of the Soviet Union, but he preyed on that anger and bitterness. He told Russians that he would stand up against this anti-Russian world order, and he offered a new form of Russian nationalism, which persists to this day.

Sean Illing

How does this history help explain current tensions between Russia and the United States?

Odd Arne Westad

Well, most of the people who are currently involved on the US and Russian side came of age during the Cold War, and so that conflict colored their view of the world. All of these ideas and concepts that were formulated in that context are still relevant for these people.

But I think it’s important to understand that the tensions we’re seeing now are real and dangerous, but it’s very different than it was during the Cold War. Putin is a lot of things, but he’s not a socialist or a communist. He doesn’t believe in a collectivist vision of the world. In that sense, he’s not that far away from the US or Europe.

What Putin wants is more for Russia. He’s perfectly willing to live within a capitalist system so long as it provides more and more for Russia. He’s an opportunistic expansionist more than a committed oligarch.

Sean Illing

Are we not then in something like a second Cold War, even though the dynamics and ambitions are much different?

Odd Arne Westad

Russia-US relations are obviously strained right now, but these aren’t two superpowers colliding the way they did for most of the 20th century. Indeed, Russia isn’t even close to being a superpower in the way they once were and, increasingly, their economy is tied to their oil and gas industry.

So we no longer live in a bipolar system where the world order is more or less defined by these two empires. Thus, it’s only a second Cold War in the sense that the same two states are in competition with each other, but nearly everything has changed.

Sean Illing

Are you surprised to see Russia meddling in our elections so blatantly and aggressively?

Odd Arne Westad

I wasn’t surprised by it at all. In Putin’s manner of thinking, the West did nothing but meddle in Russia’s affairs in the ’90s when Russia was weak, and this is payback for that. This is how politics is conducted as far as he’s concerned. Putin wants to spread confusion and dissonance in the United States and other countries for that matter, and he loves to use these modern digital methods to do it.

Sean Illing

If Russia is no longer advancing a global ideology, then why are they so interested in undermining the US, and other political systems?

Odd Arne Westad

It makes it more difficult for other countries to act against Russia. If other countries are disunited, if they’re fighting amongst themselves, then Putin feels like Russia can get away with more.

Now what exactly “more” means in this case is unclear. I’m not even sure Putin fully understands what he wants. But again, he’s an opportunist, and he’ll seize every chance he has to weaken rival states.

Sean Illing

Perhaps the stake aren’t as high, but plenty of people believe that tensions between Russia and the US are as strained as they’ve ever been. Do you buy that?

Odd Arne Westad

No, I don’t. You could argue that the level of mistrust today is as high as it’s ever been, but I don’t think you can argue that tensions are as strained as they were during the height of the Cold War. The lack of a genuine ideological confrontation makes it much less likely that one side will truly cross the line and risk total war.

Also, the fact that the global power structure is so different now means that the United States has far more problems to manage. The rise of China, for example, is infinitely more important than anything Russia is doing. So, yes, tensions are high, but this is nothing like what we saw at various points of the Cold War.