Moscow, Russia

Cold War In The Post Soviet Era – Analysis


By O. Igho Natufe


When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, statesmen and most political analysts around the world immediately declared the event as the “end of the cold war.” This led Zbigniew Brzezinski to declare “America’s victory in the Cold War.”1 We caution against any haste to retire the cold war permanently from international politics. As a concept in international politics, cold war encapsulates the hostile relationship between contending powers in their struggle for hegemony in the international scene. This phenomenon was vividly expressed by the policies of the Soviet Union and the United States of America (USA), and their respective allies from the end of World War 2 in 1945.2 But did the collapse of the Soviet Union automatically mean the end of the cold war? It is our task to explore this problematic in this paper.

Collapse of the Soviet Union

Soon after the 1917 Russian Revolution, as the embryonic Soviet State was grappling with the rudiments of power, Vladimir Lenin expressed unbridled confidence in the eventual victory of socialism. He declared:

“While capitalism and socialism exist, they cannot live in peace; either one or the other, in the final analysis, will be victorious; either a requiem will be sung over the Soviet Republic, or over world capitalism.”3

But little did he know that one of his successors in the Kremlin will construct the framework that would facilitate that “a requiem will be sung over the Soviet Republic.” President Vladimir Putin of Russia regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “largest geopolitical catastrophe of the XX century.”4 In his analysis of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, Walter Laqueur examined the “role of accident” at both ends of the event. He wrote: “The role of accident was as great in the birth of the Soviet system (the presence of Lenin) as in its demise (the presence of Gorbachev).” He argued that “even with the benefits of hindsight that the disintegration came to a considerable extent as the result of an accident. If at the time of Chernenko’s death some Politburo members had not voted for Gorbachev, or if a year or so later the general secretary had been overthrown by Ligachev or some other conservative, events in the Soviet Union would have taken a different turn.”5 There were interlocking internal and external factors that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.6

Cold War Phenomenon

Though the term cold war is frequently used to describe Soviet-US relations in the post 1945 period, it is conceptually wrong to do so. The cold war phenomenon defines the relationship between the Soviet Union and the capitalist world after the October 1917 Russian socialist revolution, especially following the abortive US-led intervention to crush the emergent Soviet socialist state. As a concept in international politics, therefore, the end of the civil war in Soviet Russia and the failure of the West’s military intervention to subvert the Soviet state should be regarded as the origin of the cold war. While the guns were silenced following this episode, both the Soviet Union and the Western powers engaged in ideological warfare by supporting the centrifugal forces in the opposing camp. This state of mutual hostility acquired a new dimension in post 1945 with the emergence of socialist states in Europe and Asia.

Ideologically speaking, the balance sheet of the war of 1939-1945 favoured communism. With the collapse of Nazism and fascism, and the division of Germany, the prestige of the Soviet Union in world politics was significantly enhanced. The Soviet Union emerged as the most powerful state in Europe, a situation which caused grave panic in Western Europe and North America. If prior to the outbreak of the war in 1939 Soviet leaders feared a capitalist encirclement that was constantly posited as a threat to Soviet survival, the reverse was the case after 1945. At Rapallo the Soviet Union succeeded in breaking the chains of isolationism but did not constitute a serious military threat to the West. However, the spread of communism beyond Soviet frontiers in post 1945 posed a challenge to Western imperial interests.

Winston Churchill, (then) British Prime Minister, in a speech at Fulton, Missouri, USA, on March 5, 1946, attacked what he perceived as “Eastern imperialism” and coined the “iron curtain” as a term describing the establishment of socialist states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He called on the West to halt the spread of communism.7 The policy of “containment” which was later adopted by the US government was an expression of the strategic measures proposed in Churchill’s speech as the West sought ways “to hold the USSR and its Communists satellites within their existing boundaries,…”8 Confident that it had dismantled the capitalist encirclement psychology, the Soviet Union could now talk of a real socialist camp opposed to a capitalist camp within the confines of the “two camps” doctrine. As a follow up to the policy of containment, the West established NATO in 1949 as a politico-military alliance system to halt the spread of Communism, and to abort the anti-colonial liberation movements in the colonies. NATO’s military bases were dotted all over West European member states at strategic striking distance from key Soviet cities. Greece, Turkey, and Berlin became the initial testing grounds of cold war muscle flexing.

To curb the Soviet “threat” and to combat communism in the international system, the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, postulated the concept of force9 by proposing “total diplomacy” as Washington’s foreign policy which he defined as a “defence against Communism.”10 In pursuance of this objective Acheson argued that the United States must achieve world “peace through strength” by weakening the Communist bloc and the anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Furthermore, the U.S. “liberation” concept based on anti-communism was even regarded as a progression of the Monroe Doctrine, while J. Burnham, in his Containment or Liberation?, advanced the idea of “liberating” the citizens of socialist countries from Marxism, by encouraging internal strife within the Communist states, and also to curb the spread of Marxism by outlawing “Communist activities” in non-Communist states,11 particularly in the colonies.

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan amplified the concept of containment in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. In its National Security Decision Directive 75 of January 17, 1983, the U.S. clearly defined its strategic intent in dealing with the Soviet Union. This included, inter alia, the following:-12

1. “In Europe, the Soviets must be faced with a reinvigorated NATO.”

2. “The primary U.S. objective in Eastern Europe is to loosen Moscow’s hold on the region while promoting the cause of human rights in individual East European countries. The U.S. can advance this objective by carefully discriminating, in favor of countries that show relative independence from the USSR in their foreign policy, or show a greater degree of internal liberalization. U.S. policies must also make clear that East European countries which reverse movements of liberalization, or drift away from an independent stance in foreign policy, will incur significant costs in their relations with the U.S.”

3. “In the Far East we must ensure that the Soviets cannot count on a secure flank in a global war. Worldwide, U.S. general purpose forces must be strong and flexible enough to affect Soviet calculations in a wide variety of contingencies.”

4. “In the Third World, Moscow must know that areas of interest to the U.S. cannot be attacked or threatened without risk of serious U.S. military countermeasures, The U.S. must rebuild the credibility of its commitment to resist Soviet encroachment on U.S. interests and those of its Allies and friends, and to support effectively those Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures or oppose Soviet initiatives hostile to the United States, or are special targets of Soviet policy. The U.S. effort in the Third World must involve an important role for security assistance and foreign military sales, as well as readiness to use U.S. military forces where necessary to protect vital interests and support endangered Allies and friends.”

5. “U.S. policy must have an ideological thrust which clearly affirms the superiority of U.S. and Western values of individual dignity and freedom, a free press, free trade unions, free enterprise, and political democracy over the repressive features of Soviet Communism.”

The U.S., under President Reagan, carefully crafted a stratagem that played a pivotal role in the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

The end of the “cold war” was first proclaimed by Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1989; Boris Yetsin said the “cold war” ended after the August 1991 putsch in Moscow; while in May 2002 President Bush regarded the treaty he had signed with Putin as the “final funeral of the cold war.”13 So the cold war “ended” in December 1989 (Gorbachev) and also after August 1991 (Yetsin), but received its “final funeral” in 2002!

Given the nature of international politics, and the agreed thesis that nation-states will always compete for geostrategic advantages and access to natural resources, and that this competition can threaten the sovereignty of some of the contending parties, can we conclusively declare that the cold war has ended? Karen Brutents posed a vital question when he wrote: “if the ‘cold war’ in its first form has been left in the past, would it not be resuscitated, to be used against Russia, of cause, in a modified form?”14 This is exactly what the U.S. and its Western allies have been doing since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski made an eloquent argument for the domination of the U.S. in global politics in the post-Soviet era, including in the regions contiguous to the Russian Federation. He perceives Euroasia as a vital arena for this U.S. dominance to firmly establish its presence. He argues: “A power that dominates Euroasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions.” He partitioned Euroasia into four key components: Western; Southern; Middle Space; and Eastern. The “middle space” in Brzezinski’s Euroasian Chessboard is the entire territory of the former Soviet Union. He continues: “if the middle space (Russia – Igho Natufe) can be drawn increasingly into the expanding orbit of the West (where America preponderates), if the southern region is not subjected to domination by a single player, and if the East is not unified in a manner that prompts the expulsion of America from its offshore bases, America can be said to prevail. But if the middle space rebuffs the West, becomes an assertive single entity, and either gains control over the south or forms an alliance with the major Eastern actor (China – Igho Natufe), then America’s primacy in Euroasia shrinks dramatically.”15 Brzezinski’s preference is for “a democratic Russia…to become a junior partner in shaping a more stable and cooperative Euroasia.” He argues for an “increasingly integrated Europe, reinforced by a widened NATO….”16

Established in April 1949 as the main politico-military organization to contain Soviet communism, the existence of NATO in the post-Soviet era is a clear reminder that cold war mentality still defines the geostrategic calculus of the U.S. and its allies. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has expanded eastward in a stratagem reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s eastward policy.17 Former East European communist states – Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Poland and Slovakia – and the former Soviet Baltic republics of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have joined NATO, while the U.S. and its Western allies are intent on admitting other former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan into NATO in a move that would completely encircle Russia.18 One would have thought that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the declaration of “America’s victory in the Cold War”, NATO could have lost its relevance. But Brzezinski sees a relevance for NATO’s continued existence. He posits that NATO’s “preservation is vital to the transatlantic connection” because, according to him “Without NATO, Europe not only would become vulnerable but almost immediately would become politically fragmented as well. NATO ensures European security and provides a stable framework for the pursuit of European unity. That is what makes NATO historically so vital to Europe.”19 Without NATO Europe “would become vulnerable” and “politically fragmented”? NATO “ensures European security” from which enemy? We could not locate much stronger argumentation for retaining NATO in the cold war years before 1991. This type of argument, postulated by Brzezinski and shared by U.S. and NATO officials seriously questions the basis for anyone to declare an end of the cold war. Since the Soviet “threat” and the fear of “communist expansion” have been extinguished, the continued existence of NATO, or what Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya has aptly called The Globalization of NATO poses a threat to the sovereignty of non-NATO states. In fact, in his Forward to The Globalization of NATO, Denis J. Halliday, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General stated that “the leaders of NATO countries do love war and the arms profit from warfare” and concluded that “NATO must be abolished.”20

Brutents’ categorization of the “cold war” as a “confrontational condominium of the Soviet Union and the United States” may not be germane in the post-Soviet era. However, while the architecture of the “condominium” may have undergone drastic perestroika, the elements of “confrontation” remain solidly in place. U.S.-Russian relations in the post-Soviet era increasingly demonstrate the vitality of those elements. He reminds us that: “The interests of Russia and USA are often not identical, not in Europe, not in Asia, not in the Near East. We are rivals in all the post-Soviet space. We have different positions in relations to China and India, Iran and Syria, Cuba and Serbia, Venezuela and Kosovo, and such a list can be continued.”21 Elena Chernenko has “continued” Brutents’ list by her analysis of “cyberspace as the new arena for confrontation” between Russia and the USA.22


The analyses in the preceding pages underscore the misconception of declaring an end of the cold war. The twin issue of cooperation and confrontation has defined the form and content of inter-state relations from time immemorial. The management of this issue depends on the balance of a state’s global ambition and its internal dynamics. Where the contending powers fail to achieve a state of manageable equilibrium in their approach to the international system, then a crisis becomes inevitable. We witnessed a series of inevitable crises in U.S.-Soviet relations prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 readily comes to mind. Both parties agreed to resolve the crisis in order to maintain a state of manageable equilibrium, recognizing the threat of a mutual assured destruction, by collaborating on a series of bilateral and multilateral disarmament agreements. This collaboration or cooperation did not dissuade either party from continuing their respective confrontational policies in other areas and regions of the world.

While the collapse of the Soviet Union may have removed a vital ideological edge from the cold war, the architecture of U.S.-Russian relations in the post-Soviet era still stands on the frame of the cold war, as exemplified by U.S. policies and the globalization of NATO. There is no indication to suggest that the U.S. has deviated from its anti-Soviet intention of destabilizing the Kremlin leadership by lending support to centrifugal forces inside Russia. In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union has emboldened the U.S. leadership in intensifying its strategies along this path by constructing a “fence” around Russia “from Europe, the Black Sea basin and Caspian region” via the establishment of “USA and NATO military bases in Ukraine, in the Caucasus and Central Asia….”23

But can NATO survive without an enemy? A military alliance is sustained by a real or perceived threat of an enemy. Will there be a counter military alliance to challenge NATO? History is replete with cases where a military alliance leads to the construction of a counter alliance. The history of Europe testifies to this fact as expertly captured by A. J. P. Taylor in his seminal work, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918.24 The retention of NATO keeps the flame of the cold war alive, and it would be unthinkable to expect Russia to acquiesce to the diktat of the U.S. Like all empires before it, the U.S. imperial edifice contains its own internal dynamics that will facilitate its disintegration. Brzezinski identified three scenarios that could challenge U.S. hegemony in European and/or global politics. These are a Sino-Russo-Iranian alliance; a German-Russian alliance; or a Franco-Russian entente. He also recognized a crucial phenomenon that could precipitate any of these scenarios when he declared: “The brutal fact is that Western Europe, and increasingly also Central Europe remains largely an American protectorate, with its allied states reminiscent of ancient vassals and tributaries. This is not a healthy condition, either for America or for the European nations.”25 Brzezinski’s depiction of Western Europe as “an American protectorate” and “vassals” is not dissimilar to the criticism of Soviet policy in the former East European socialist states where the Brezhnev Doctrine of “limited sovereignty” prevailed.

The fallout from the Edward Snowden affair may contain the ingredients for rocking the foundation of U.S. imperial rule in Western and Central Europe. The revelation that the U.S. has been spying on its European NATO allies has caused grave disturbances in America’s key European allies. While the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius said U.S. spying activities, if confirmed as correct, would be “totally unacceptable,” the German Justice Minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger saw it as a cold war tactic: “If the media reports are accurate, then this recalls the methods used by enemies during the Cold War. It is beyond comprehension that our friends in the United States see Europeans as enemies.”26

The cold war ranges on in the post-Soviet era. Russia and the U.S. may be the key only players, given their cold war rivalry prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Other equally vital players hostile to U.S. policies and interests – China, Iran, for example – or suspicious of U.S. intentions – France, Byelorussia, for example – may begin to sharpen their arsenal to fully participate in the cold war of the post-Soviet era.


O. Igho Natufe is a Research Professor at the Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia. He is the author of Soviet Policy in Africa: From Lenin to Brezhnev, Bloomington, IN., 2011, and is currently working on several foreign policy studies, including Russian Foreign Policy: In Search of Influence, forthcoming. He can be reached at: [email protected]

1.  Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard. American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, Washington, D.C., 1997, p.20.
2. See, O. Igho Natufe, Soviet Policy in Africa. From Lenin to Brezhnev, Bloomington, IN., 2011, pp.132-136.
3.  Lenin, Sochineniia, vol. 31, pp.426-427, as cited in Natufe, Soviet Policy in Africa. From Lenin to Brezhnev, p. 15.
4.  Cited by K.N. Brutents, Zakat amerikanskii gegemonii. Konets ognopoliarnogo mira I velikaia geopoliticheskaia revoliutsiia, Moscow, 2009, p. 19.
5.  Walter Laqueur, The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union, New York, 1994, pp.74-75; 100.
6. These factors are examined in Natufe, Russian Foreign Policy: In Search of Influence, forthcoming.
7. W. S. Churchill, The Sinews of Peace. Post-War Speeches, edited by Randolph S. Churchill, London, 1948, p.100.
8. Julius W. Pratt, A History of United States Foreign Policy, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1955, p.719.
9. See, D. Acheson, “‘Total Diplomacy’ to Strengthen U.S. Leadership for Human Freedom”, Department of State Bulletin, March 20, 1050, pp.427-430.
10. D. Acheson, “Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union”, Department of State Bulletin, March 27, 1950, pp.473-478.
11.  J. Burnham, Containment or Liberation? An Inquiry into the aims of United States Foreign Policy, New York, 1963, pp.31-34; 130-140.
12. NSDD 75 on “U.S. Relations with the USSR”, January 17, 1983.
13. See Brutents, op.cit. pp.9-10.
14.  Ibid., p.10
15. Brzezinski, op.cit., pp.7; 19.
16.  Ibid., pp.27; 44-45.
17. See, Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Boston, Mass., 1971, pp. 660-661; 664-665.
18. See,;;;
19. Brzezinski, p. 39. Italics mine.
20. Denis J. Halliday, “Forward” in Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, The Globalization of NATO, Atlanta, GA., 2012, p.12.
21. Brutents, pp.16; 453.
22.  Elena Chernenko, “Cold War 2.0?’, Russia in Global Affairs, 15 April, 2013,
23. N. A. Diakova, “Postsovetskoe prostrnstvo”, in V. I. Batiuk, D. A. Volodin, N. A. Diakova, amerikanskaia voennaia politika v XX1 veke: Regionalnyie aspektyi< Nauchnii doklad, Moscow 2012, pp.39-40.
24. A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, London, 1980.
25.  Brzezinski, pp. 29; 30.

About the author:

Eurasia Review

Eurasia Review is an independent Journal and Think Tank that provides a venue for analysts and experts to disseminate content on a wide-range of subjects that are often overlooked or under-represented by Western dominated media.

Despite the combined Eurasia and Afro-Asia areas containing over 70% of the world’s population, analysis and news continues to be dominated by a U.S. slant, and that is where Eurasia Review enters the picture by providing alternative, in-depth perspectives on current events.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>