WASHINGTON – The Cold War didn’t end. It just took on a 24-year pause. The East-West showdown over Ukraine makes that clear.
As the non-Russian republics broke free in the Soviet collapse and Eastern European Soviet satellite countries snapped the chains of Moscow’s dominion, common wisdom held that the Cold War was over. The victors were the United States and its European allies, bound together in the NATO alliance to block further Soviet expansion in Europe after World War II.
Since the Soviet collapse, that alliance has spread eastward, as Moscow had feared, expanding along a line from Estonia in the north to Romania and Bulgaria in the south. The Kremlin claims it had Western assurances that would not happen. Now Moscow’s only buffers to a complete NATO encirclement on its western border are Finland, Belarus and Ukraine.
The Kremlin would not have to be paranoid to look at that map with concern. And Russia reacted dramatically early last year. U.S.-Russian relations have fallen back into the dangerous nuclear and political standoff of the Cold War years.
The turmoil began when Ukraine’s corrupt, Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of an agreement with the European Union for closer trade and political ties and instead accepted Russian guarantees of billions of dollars in financial aid. That led to prolonged pro-Western demonstrations in the capital, Kiev. The upheaval caused Yanukovych to flee to Moscow a year ago.
When a new, pro-Western government took power in Ukraine, Russia reacted by seizing the Crimean Peninsula and making it once again a part of Russia. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had transferred the strategic region from Russian federation control to the Ukraine republic in 1954. Crimea remained base to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Ethnic Russians are a majority of the population.
Also, Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine — along the Russian border — began agitating, then fighting to break free of Kiev’s control, variously demanding autonomy, independence or to become a part of Russia. As separatist fighters — whom the West claims have been given Russian heavy arms and are backed by Russian forces — pushed deeper into Ukraine, a September peace conference drew up plans for a cease-fire and eventual steps toward a political resolution.
The cease-fire never held, and the fighting between Ukrainian forces and the separatist grew more intense. The separatists accumulated considerable ground in the fighting, which the United Nations reports has claimed 5,300 lives.
Now there is a new peace plan. Hammered out in all-night negotiations, it calls for a cease-fire to take effect Sunday. But since the deal was announced Thursday, fighting has only increased as Ukrainian forces battle to hold a major rail hub in Debaltseve. The town controls transportation between the rebel-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Those regions are home to major heavy industrial complexes, many of which produce weapons for Russia’s military.
As part of the cease-fire deal, both sides are to draw back heavy weapons from the conflict line. Kiev is to write a new constitution that would reflect the autonomy demands of the separatists. Ukraine would retake control of its border with Russia. Moscow views the accord as a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO.
The agreement was heralded as a new chance for peace by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who arranged the deal at negotiations that also involved Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rebel leaders also signed on. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, which has led a tough sanctions drive against Moscow over its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, has taken a wait-and-see attitude.
“The true test of today’s accord will be in its full and unambiguous implementation, including the durable end of hostilities and the restoration of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia,” the White House said in a statement.
American officials are skeptical the deal will hold. Secretary of State John Kerry put it bluntly: “Actions will be what matter now. We will judge the commitment of Russia and the separatists by their actions, not their words.”
In the meantime, the administration has put off a decision on sending lethal weapons to Ukraine and imposing additional sanctions on Russia. Putin, who so far has proven impervious to Western sanctions and crashing oil prices that threaten the entire Russian economy, is a step closer to his goal of making certain there won’t be yet another NATO member along the country’s western frontier.