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Cold War realism: Lessons for Ukraine

It is time to recognize the truth of political realism: that only Russia can guarantee Ukraine’s survival, or extinguish it

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Photo courtesy the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces/Twitter

The new Cold War, like its predecessor, can be traced back to the misinterpretation of Russian intentions. In case of old Cold War, as we now know from diplomatic archives, the West grossly misunderstood the intentions behind the 1948 Berlin Blockade. Western leaders feared it was the beginning of an attack on the West, while Stalin saw it as a means to gain leverage over an increasingly intransigent Truman administration, and induce it to abide by the Potsdam Agreements. Later, the Korean War would also be seen as a feint to distract American attention from Europe, resulting in what historian Odd Arne Westad calls, “an entirely avoidable war, created by the intensity of ideological conflict among Koreans and a Cold War framework that enabled superpower interventions.”

The origins of the new Cold War can also be traced back many years, as the late Stephen Cohen argued in his final book, War With Russia?, reaching a fever pitch only after NATO cavalierly dismissed Russia’s last minute efforts in late 2021 to negotiate a comprehensive pan-European security agreement that would prevent the expansion of NATO into Ukraine.

Once again, many Western leaders labelled the subsequent invasion of Ukraine as a precursor to an attack on NATO, and began making statements about how it must be used to remold the world for future generations. Once this view becomes the conventional wisdom, it is not hard to see how it will be used to ensure domestic support for foreign military adventures for decades to come.

All this hints at the existence of a long-term US foreign policy strategy that outside observers can only guess at. I would not be at all surprised if, thirty years from now, future historians learned of the existence of a new NSC-68—America’s 1950 blueprint for conducting the Cold War—cooked up within the Biden administration in anticipation of just such a confrontation. After all, the contents of NSC-68 itself, although rumoured about for years, were only revealed in 1975.

In sum, just as Russia is to blame for the initiation of hostilities in February 2022, so the West is to blame for prolonging them. In this conflict each side is pursuing its own ends, usually at the expense of the Ukrainian people.

As for what the immediate future holds, I would divide this question into two parts: one is “what does the future hold for Ukraine?” The other is “what does the future hold for Russia and the West?”

For Ukraine the foreseeable future is catastrophic. Its population, which was estimated at 42 million before the war, has now probably fallen to below 30 million, and with reconstruction costs upward of $350 billion USD, there will be little to attract those who have fled to come back. Ukraine’s long-term demographic picture therefore looks exceedingly bleak.

Realistically, one must add to this enormous burden the conundrum that has plagued Ukraine since its independence in 1991—how to create a single national identity in a pluricultural society. The current war has led many Ukrainians to “rally round the flag” against Russian aggression, but as President Zelensky admitted at the 2023 Munich Security Conference, “To be honest, many have fled our state. Many have remained with the invaders of their own accord. And there is plenty of information of this kind.”

The terrible cost to Ukrainian democracy of trying to impose monoethnic nationalism on a country with substantial Russian, Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian minorities is today a taboo subject. Perhaps even understandably so, given the ongoing war. But, as Alexey Arestovych, President Zelensky’s press spokesman until January 2023, recently noted, it will have to be addressed sooner or later:

At every turn we shout about being the freest country, but we don’t even have elementary freedom of speech. In our society, it is considered reprehensible to discuss various scenarios… [but] then what kind of social contract can there be? A social contract is a broad discussion, examining a wide variety of scenarios, even unpleasant ones.
This is something we are absolutely unprepared for. Take the simplest example. Ukraine actually has only two options: a monoethnic state or a united states of Ukraine… [but] the monoethnic project is de facto unfeasible. We won’t be able to achieve it. And if we do achieve it, it will lead to a rapid reduction and aging of the country’s population. We will wind up just like all monoethnic countries.


This savage combination of economic, industrial, and demographic devastation; cultural, religious, and political rivalry (which the inclusion of Donbas and Crimea would only make more acute); alongside the West’s determination to make Ukraine an instrument for containing Russia, will make it extremely difficult to resist efforts by the far-right, and the increasingly politically influential military, to transform post-war Ukraine into an ethnic authoritarian enclave. To appease Western sensibilities, the trappings of electoral democracy will likely be preserved, but within a system designed to ensure that no candidate from the east or south of Ukraine can ever again emerge to offer the country a culturally pluralistic political alternative.

The fact that such a Ukraine will continue to be an apple of discord between Russia and the West long after the current conflict ends, sadly, seems not to trouble political leaders in the slightest. In fact, if there is one thing that Russian, American and European leaders all seem to agree on, it is that they would rather see Ukraine utterly ruined, than allow it to fall into the hands of the enemy.

The only way that I can see to prevent this from coming about is for Ukraine and Russia to negotiate a ceasefire between themselves, regardless of the West’s objections. It is time to recognize the brutal truth of political realism: that only Russia can guarantee Ukraine’s survival, or extinguish it. The question that anyone serious about ending this conflict should be asking, therefore, is this: what does Russia need to end its violence against Ukraine?

According to former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who served as the intermediary in talks in March 2022, at that time Russia was willing to give up both de-Nazification (taking out Zelensky), and the disarmament of Ukraine. What its conditions might be today is anyone’s guess, but the sooner the effort is made to find out, the better the prospects for Ukraine’s survival and recovery.

Ukraine would of course be asked to sacrifice much in any direct negotiations with Russia, but it would survive as a state. And this, as Ukraine’s own historical experience has shown time and again—from the Versailles Treaty of 1919, to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994—is not something that the West has ever been willing to guarantee.

Nicolai N. Petro is Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. He was a US Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine 2013-2014, and is the author of The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us About Conflict Resolution (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2023).

This article was originally prepared for the website of the American Committee for US-Russia Accord.

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