Analysis

The Classic Cold War Conundrum Is Back

It is impossible to forget Russia’s violent and repressive actions in Ukraine, but it is necessary to deal with them to avoid escalation.

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George Wylesol illustration for Foreign Policy
By , the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis distinguished professor of historical studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Early in the blockbuster film Back to the Future, Dr. Emmett Brown, a wacky but lovable scientist who goes by “Doc,” slumps to his death after an attacker pumps multiple bullets into his chest at short range. This surprisingly violent moment disrupts what was, until then, an upbeat teen comedy released to entertain Americans during the Fourth of July holiday in 1985. Doc’s young protégé Marty McFly escapes the same gruesome death only by fleeing in the scientist’s newly built time machine. As a result, Marty unexpectedly finds himself stuck in a frightening past—without a way to get back to a future that had seemed so full of promise only moments before the murder.

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Early in the blockbuster film Back to the Future, Dr. Emmett Brown, a wacky but lovable scientist who goes by “Doc,” slumps to his death after an attacker pumps multiple bullets into his chest at short range. This surprisingly violent moment disrupts what was, until then, an upbeat teen comedy released to entertain Americans during the Fourth of July holiday in 1985. Doc’s young protégé Marty McFly escapes the same gruesome death only by fleeing in the scientist’s newly built time machine. As a result, Marty unexpectedly finds himself stuck in a frightening past—without a way to get back to a future that had seemed so full of promise only moments before the murder.

Sudden feelings of profound disruption, of panic at finding oneself in the throes of struggles seemingly past, of despair at being robbed of a promising future: These feelings have once again dawned—not in comic Cold War-era fiction but tragic post-Cold War reality. In the short space of time since Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin has catapulted the world backward into a dangerous past, one characterized by localized bloodshed under the shadow of potential global nuclear confrontation. This dizzying dislocation induces many questions: Why now? What’s coming next? And is there a way back?

Putin himself has provided some partial justifications for why he dragged Europe backward by amassing troops on Ukraine’s border late in 2021 and then launching a major and unspeakably brutal invasion. In his opinion—vehemently rejected by Ukrainians—Moscow has an unlimited right to dominate Kyiv, thanks to the long, tangled histories of Russians and Ukrainians. He needs to assert his domination now, he claims, because of the way Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors created threats on Russian borders by joining, or cooperating closely with, the European Union, NATO, or both.

Among the many problems with Putin’s justifications, however, is that they are not new. None of these developments arose in late 2021 or early 2022. In other words, the Russian president’s statements don’t answer the question, why now? The answer to that question lies instead in biography, both of Putin and of the Soviet Union, and they are closely intertwined.


Putin’s past actions show that he considers the dates of significant events in his life—and in the life of the former Soviet empire—as occasions meriting displays of violence. Although the decision to shed blood on these dates is Putin’s personal choice, such emphasis on anniversaries is not unusual among Russian leaders. They routinely conduct parades and commission artworks and installations to mark historical dates. World War II commemorations remain common nearly 80 years after that conflict ended. And while the significance of June 22 is often lost on Westerners, Russians rarely forget the Nazi invasion of their country that took place on that day back in 1941.

Putin takes the observation of anniversaries and birthdays to gruesome new lows, however. The killing of the human rights activist and journalist Anna Politkovskaya was achieved with a gunshot, likely fired by a professional, at close range on Oct. 7, 2006—Putin’s birthday. The leaking of emails hacked from the account of John Podesta, aimed at undermining the campaign of U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, occurred on Oct. 7, 2016—Putin’s birthday a decade later. And the large-scale cyber-interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election came the same year as the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Given that Putin has described that collapse as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the previous century, he was clearly not going let its 30th anniversary in December 2021 simply pass without comment. Instead, he spent it massing troops on the border with Ukraine.

Why does Putin care so much about this anniversary? Because of the close links between the history of the Soviet Union’s collapse and of his personal humiliation during that era. To understand, it is necessary to go back to 1989 in what was then East Germany, where Putin was stationed at the KGB outpost in Dresden. When, after the Berlin Wall’s unexpected opening on Nov. 9, peaceful protesters flooded the nearby headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police, Putin resolved not to let the same happen to his outpost once protesters showed up there as well. Seeking armed support, he called the Soviet military forces in Dresden. The person who answered the phone refused to grant Putin’s request, however, without explicit permission from Moscow—and then added, “Moscow is silent.”

Putin decided to act on his own. He walked toward a small crowd that had gathered at the front gate in what a witness later described as a slow and calm manner. After a brief conversation during which the protesters were surprised to hear his fluent German, he informed them that if they entered, they would be shot.

The protesters paused, murmured, and decided to join their friends at the Stasi headquarters instead. Putin returned to the house, where, according to his own account, he and his crew “destroyed everything,” burning “papers night and day” until “the furnace burst”—it was the final humiliating act of a man, and an empire, in retreat. Soon thereafter, Putin carried out his own personal retreat, from a collapsing East Germany to a collapsing Soviet Union. He struggled to find a future and was reduced, by his own admission, to working as a taxi driver.

Throughout, the phrase “Moscow is silent” continued to haunt him and gave rise to a lasting personal conviction. As he later put it, “Only one thing works in such circumstances—to go on the offensive. You must hit first and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet.” As he saw it, “We would have avoided a lot of problems if the Soviets had not made such a hasty exit from Eastern Europe.”

Political events inside the Soviet Union itself in the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall were, in Putin’s view, even more damaging. What he calls the “sovereignty parade” of 1991—the sequence of declarations of independence by Soviet republics—had tragic results. These declarations meant that “millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities,” Putin said in a speech announcing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russians became, in his opinion, “the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders”—with the most painful division being the split between Russia and Ukraine after the latter’s December 1991 referendum on independence, which Ukrainians overwhelmingly supported.

To understand why Europe is at war now, it is essential to understand that 2008, 2014, and 2022 are not separate incidents. Rather, they are links on a chain of events meant to undo what Putin sees as his and his country’s intertwined histories of loss going back to 1989.

As Robert Strauss, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, advised Washington, “The most revolutionary event of 1991 for Russia may not be the collapse of communism but the loss of something Russians of all political stripes think of as part of their own body politic and near to the heart at that: Ukraine.” The so-called color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia in the 2000s exacerbated Putin’s sense of grievance. The announcement by NATO in 2008 that both of those countries would become members inspired Putin to turn to violence.

Russian troops essentially seized disputed regions of Georgia during a short war in 2008. Putin also began using force against Ukraine in 2014—creating the fiction that Moscow was not involved, however, by having troops without identifying markers, known colloquially as “little green men,” cross Ukrainian borders. He then escalated the violence to a new level this February, this time employing the fiction that he needed to “denazify” the country.

In short, to understand why Europe is at war now, it is essential to understand that 2008, 2014, and 2022 are not separate incidents. Rather, they are links on a chain of events meant to undo what Putin sees as his and his country’s intertwined histories of loss going back to 1989.

As the military analyst Michael Kofman has rightly put it, the Ukraine invasion is the latest in the wars of Soviet succession. These wars began in Chechnya in 1994 (and escalated there in 1999), continued in Georgia and Ukraine, and have now reached a new level. Put differently, even though the Soviet Union collapsed on paper in one day, in reality it is still collapsing. Its component parts continue to go through violent agonies as Moscow tries to claw back lost territory.


The most recent of these wars, the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, is by far the most important because it is so much larger in scale than any of the preceding conflicts. It has already reordered international relations profoundly and will continue to do so, much like the 1950 invasion of South Korea by North Korea. A saying emerged after the outbreak of that conflict: The Korean War put the “O” in NATO. To be sure, the Atlantic alliance already existed, having come into being with the 1949 Washington Treaty. But the Korean War inspired that new alliance to prepare for a similar invasion across Europe’s own main line of division, namely the one between East and West Germany.

Putin’s 2022 attack is having a similarly catalytic effect. Just as the 1950 Korean invasion created a willingness among Western Europeans to overcome their bitter memories of combat with Nazis and allow West Germans to become NATO allies, so too has Russia’s war on Ukraine changed minds in profound ways. Among other consequences, it has created a willingness for NATO’s further enlargement to countries that had long avoided such a move: Finland and Sweden. Turkey is, at the time of writing, blocking their accession, but Turkish objections are more about extracting gains for Ankara than anything else, and there is little doubt that the alliance will find a way to address Turkey’s concerns and add two new members.

Moreover, extensive, long-term deployments of U.S. forces to Europe—during the Cold War, more than 15 million Americans served in Germany alone—will become a reality once again. As they once did in divided Germany, these troops will deepen not just military but also cultural and personal connections across the Atlantic, this time in places such as Poland and Romania. And thanks to the ongoing decoupling of Russia from the Western world, there will once again be an Iron Curtain, although farther east, brushing much more of Russia’s borders than the old one as it sweeps shut. The biggest change will almost certainly be the addition of an 830-mile stretch of border between Russia and Finland, which will cause NATO’s land border with Russia to more than double.

There will be, as a result, a much longer front line with Russia on land; for that and other reasons, the new cold war will not look exactly like the old one. New forms of cyber- and space conflict will also add layers of complexity. But there will be strong similarities, most notably in the biggest risk: nuclear war. It is therefore essential to relearn how Cold War deterrence helped prevent such an escalation in the past.

This is a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, Putin is a thug who will go as far as allowed, so resistance—such as the astonishingly courageous and fierce kind offered by Ukraine—is necessary. But, on the other, he often likes to talk about how a cornered rat will lash out. He would presumably do the same. In awareness of this risk, the West must deter Russia without giving rise to escalation, as it did during the Cold War.

This won’t be easy, not least because of Russian failures in the early weeks of the 2022 war. Moscow’s hopes of swiftly seizing Kyiv and toppling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proved delusional. Multiple retrenchments have now yielded a grinding land war for small pockets of territory in eastern Ukraine. Yet even the jaw-dropping courage of Ukrainians cannot undo the reality that Americans and Europeans find themselves trapped in a past they’d hoped never to revisit.

Just as Marty discovers in Back to the Future, Western leaders are now grasping that once you return to the past, you inevitably change the future.

Yet revisit it they must, because the sad reality is that there is no easy way back. Even if Putin decides tomorrow to cease all military operations on what was Ukrainian territory prior to 2014—an extremely unlikely development—Americans and Europeans will not, as a result, find themselves transported back to the future they were expecting prior to Feb. 24. It would still not be possible to agree to some kind of settlement for Ukraine’s, or Europe’s, future as if the attack had never happened. Just as Marty discovers in Back to the Future, Western leaders are now grasping that once you return to the past, you inevitably change the future.

And just as it’s unlikely for Putin to change course, it’s also unlikely that someone who does want to change course will come to power in Russia, as desirable as that may be from the Western point of view. While there is a precedent for such a development—the rise of the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—the very existence of that precedent makes the rise of another reformer less likely because of how Putin and other contemporary Russian leaders still regret the consequences of Gorbachev’s reforms.

To understand the shadow cast by Gorbachev’s legacy, it’s useful to consider Russia’s neighbor China. The Chinese Communist Party paid close attention to the collapse of its fellow Communist Party in the Soviet Union. For years afterward, Beijing funded extensive research into, and distribution of the findings about, the causes of that collapse.

Among other party outputs from this research is a kind of training video, specifically for viewing by party officials. The goal of this video is to teach a new generation of Chinese leaders that the terrible Communist collapse ultimately arose from Gorbachev’s misdeeds. The takeaway from the training video is clear: Gorbachev was simultaneously stupid and evil—and similar reformers must not come to power if the current leadership is to survive. Presumably leaders in Moscow have the same view. In short, the fact that there was a Gorbachev in the past makes the likelihood of a new Gorbachev coming to power in the future much lower.

A period of prolonged hostility with Russia is now likely. The sheer uncertainty about the scope of the current conflict—will it go chemical, biological, or nuclear, as some of Putin’s more hard-line advisors are reportedly urging—is paralyzing. Eliminating that uncertainty, by doing everything possible to move away from violent conflict toward what will presumably be contentious but at least nonviolent relations with Russia, is an urgent need.

This won’t be straightforward. With the odd exception—such as Boris Bondarev, a Russian diplomat in Geneva who chose to resign rather than defend his country’s “warmongering, lies and hatred”—Moscow’s diplomats seem willing to employ whatever rhetorical strategies their leaders prefer. For Western diplomats to have to sit and listen to them will be an excruciating process—although nowhere near as excruciating as what Ukrainians are suffering. But there is no way around this process. The diplomats will need to focus on what remains of mutual benefit, such as resuming military-to-military contacts in the hope of avoiding, at a minimum, dangerous miscalculations that might lead to a widening of the war.

If there is any silver lining to developments since Feb. 24, it is that the crisis in Ukraine has created a sense of cohesion inside the EU and NATO. Despite recent suggestions of cracks in alliance unity, fundamentally there’s a new shared sense of the imperative to push back hard against what Putin is doing. Even problematic member states and allies such as Hungary and Poland are acquiescing in workarounds to enable measures such as an EU oil embargo.

As they push back in the short term, it’s important for Western diplomats to maintain an awareness that Russia achieved democracy once and may be able to do so again. In other words, when dealing with Russia now, keep in mind those who dissent from Putin’s rule. They most certainly do not have the upper hand at present; for now, Bondarev is a lonely exception in his public actions. Such people exist, nonetheless, and they symbolize a better Russia, one that had admittedly imperfect democratic governance within living memory—but in the long term may be able to achieve it once again.

But, for now, dealing with the Russian leadership means dealing with precisely those individuals who ordered the unspeakable slaughter in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine. It is impossible to forget their violent and repressive actions, but it is necessary to deal with them to avoid escalation—the classic Cold War conundrum.

There’s no escaping the reality that, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, Moscow and Washington still control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads. The conflict in Ukraine raises the chance of their use, which is what Western countries need to reverse—because if there’s a nuclear exchange, there will be no future to go back to at all.