One of the biggest paradoxes about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that it takes place within the most peaceable era in Europe’s entire history. For as long as civilization existed, Europe was arguably the most warlike continent. Warfare and militarism dominated its affairs over the ages and were ultimately manifest in the Second World War which left the continent in ruins. Afterwards, Europe remained the forefront of the Cold War for decades, a period during which both sides barely managed to keep the peace. The Cold War eventually ended suddenly and peacefully. Since then, Europe has maintained something it never experienced before, almost complete amicability among its nations.
Putin’s actions in recent years, especially his current invasion, has torn apart this historic reign of peace. So, perhaps, it was temporary. But the real paradox lies in the fact that no armed conflict approaching the scale of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ever happened during the Cold War. Europe last saw major action in 1945, but the Cold War was clearly its most hostile period ever in peacetime. That was when the whole continent was divided into two armed camps that rattled their full military strength at each other continuously for 40 years. But fighting remained minimum over Europe’s entirety. Civil war raged in Greece for years after WW2 ended, but that was on Europe’s outskirts. Then were brief invasions of Hungary by the USSR in 1956 and Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact in 1968. These two nations were already Soviet satellites that were stepping out of line, not like Ukraine today.
When the Cold War ended in 1991, violence became common in Europe again, all of it in the former territories of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, which were completely peaceful throughout the Cold War. The Balkans had its brutal civil wars spanning the ‘90s, in which genocide returned to Europe. Several former Soviet republics dealt with turmoil from the very beginning, in Transnistria, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, etc. Later came escalating clashes between Russia and its neighbors, culminating in last February’s invasion. This war, and the resulting international crisis between Russia and nearly all other European and Western nations, continues after months and is only intensifying.
The question is, why? Why should the Cold War be more peaceful than today, and why has the overall trend towards greater peacefulness been reversed in Europe recently? To answer this, we should understand that, in human relations, there are four levels of conflict: harmony, discord, hostility, and violence.
Harmony is the absence of dispute between parties. They are perfectly fine with each other’s policies and behavior, and that means their relationship is stable.
Discord is when parties are in disagreement with each other, or one side is wary or disapproving of the other. Conflicting goals are shown some level of commitment. Parties might try to resolve their issue through mutual channels, but potential can exist for something more serious down the line.
Hostility is when a dispute between parties is so strong that they start taking action against each other. It can include economic sanctions, embargo, or intense rivalry. Hostile parties usually arm themselves against each other in preparation for the next stage of conflict.
Violence is the stage when restraint is abandoned and each side resists the other with lethal force. They are ready to inflict damage and incur cost to get what they want. Some restraint can be shown by warring parties through limiting the conflict or observing the laws of war, but violence easily escalates to the highest level.
WW2 was the greatest violence Europe ever saw and the subsequent Cold War the greatest hostility. The period afterwards is remarkable not only in Europe’s general absence of violence or hostility, between or within states, but also discord, an achievement long in the making. It began when France and West Germany created the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 to foster mutual trust. Later, in 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt followed East Germany in formally accepting the Oder-Neisse Line as Poland’s western border. Harmony was thus established over two historical powder-kegs, setting a template for the rest of Europe to follow.
That template has steadily eroded from the east. After an uneasy harmony in the ‘90s, discord arose between Russia and the West/Europe under Putin’s leadership. Ukraine and Russia became bitterly hostile from 2014 onwards. It turned into all-out war in 2022, in turn creating extreme Cold War-level hostility between Russia and the West. But this sort of violence, reminiscent of WW2 (or rather WW1), would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. Let’s analyze why.
A hypothetical Cold War equivalent of Putin’s campaign against Ukraine would likely have been the USSR invading Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a large, very important country, filled with ethnic divisions which enemies could exploit, that bordered the Soviet bloc but chose to stay out. This created tensions with the Soviets. At the same time, Yugoslavia never aligned with the West. In the late ‘40s, Soviet hostility was so high, including the threat of attack, that Yugoslavia negotiated some Western assistance. All of this closely mirrors Ukraine’s recent circumstances.
However, a much bigger concern for the Soviets was Finland, because it was Western-oriented, though not Western-aligned, and directly bordered Russia, exactly like Ukraine today. Finland and USSR also fought fierce wars before. After 1945, Finnish-Soviet relations were deeply uneasy, enough to make Finland a potential Cold War flashpoint.
Yet, no Soviet attack on either country ever came during those five decades. By contrast, Russia has deployed force against Ukraine ever since a pro-Russian government was overthrown there in 2014, carrying out the Crimean seizure, Donbass proxy war, and current offensive. This is curious, because the USSR had much more to fear in the Cold War than Russia does today, including from the West. The West was communism’s arch-enemy, but NATO expanding up to Russia’s borders today does not carry the same threatening implications. One crucial factor, however, may be Yugoslavia and Finland’s commitment to remaining non-aligned, whereas Ukraine sought membership of NATO and EU prior to invasion. What’s more, a less militarized West likely emboldened Russia for years.
Another question arises. Yugoslavia and Finland were in much greater danger from Moscow than Ukraine ever was before 2022. Stalin even sent several spies to assassinate Yugoslav premier Josip Broz Tito, whereas Russian attempts on Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s life didn’t come until February 24, 2022. It seems Ukraine tried entering the Western camp first and subsequently invited the Russian threat. So why did Yugoslavia and Finland forego Western protection then, while today’s Ukraine sought it?
Remember also, today, Finland is applying to join NATO in response to the Ukraine invasion, after the careful balancing act it maintained during the Cold War (Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine) to placate Moscow. Another instructive example is Switzerland. It stayed out of every war and international dispute since 1815, despite being enveloped by France, Italy, Germany, and Austria, the standard-bearers of European warfare. But the Swiss have made the historic move to join sanctions against Russia, even though Putin is objectively less of a threat than several European leaders of the past two centuries.
That, in fact, is precisely why Europeans are so willing to stand up to him. Putin is not as dangerous as Bismarck or Hitler, but what he endangers is bigger. The order of life for centuries has been every nation making it for itself. Now it is one of uniting under common values. Swiss neutrality, tradition for 500 years, first attracted controversy with regards to Nazism, then Apartheid. Now, Switzerland joins fellow nations in standing up for Ukraine, in accordance with prevailing norms. Speaking of which, while Cold War-era Finland knew it had to navigate in-between two worlds, present-day Ukraine considered the pursuit of an independent foreign policy its natural right in the 21st century.
A fundamental factor is that, during the Cold War, and prior periods as well, far more was at stake in Europe than now. WW2 ended with big powers securing the continent, and their top priority was preventing such horrific violence from being repeated. The main recourse was for Europeans to fall into either of two unifying pathways, the liberal, or westernized path (for Western Europe, Finland, and Greece) and the communist path (for the Soviet bloc, Yugoslavia, and Albania). The westernized path was mainly for countries already well-developed, in material and societal terms. In the rest of Europe, home to most of the tensions that drove the world wars, communism became a roughshod way to bind people together and keep the peace. But these two paths were immensely hostile to each other, shifting all of Europe’s historic tensions into a well-organized mode. In this situation, any armed conflict could trigger war between great powers or shatter the fragile peace in the east. Hence, it was avoided.
Eventually, the westernized path emerged victorious, but could not incorporate all of Europe completely. As such, the collapse of communism left Eastern Europe at risk of historic tensions resurging, even as tensions on a grand scale vanished from Europe. The conflicts that did flare up in former Yugoslavia were simply relics of the past, and have died away, but it is the post-Soviet conflicts that are getting worse with time. That’s largely because Russia remains Europe’s last big stumbling block to westernization. And as the West, confident in its triumph, spreads its hegemony eastwards, its clash with Russia deepens. In effect, today’s world of increasing connectivity is fueling the threat of war.
One last Cold War comparison: early on, Stalin withheld support from Greece’s communist insurgency, in order to avoid clashing with Western powers. Putin is willing to stage the ultimate provocation in Ukraine for two likely reasons. First, being weaker than its Soviet predecessor motivates Russia to expand its power, it being in Russia’s nature to dominate or fear being dominated. Second, he understands a war like this today has less capacity to escalate. With the Cold War over, war has vastly diminished as a threat, in Europe and globally, but also has more opportunities to manifest on a small scale. That is because strong central authorities, be it the USA and NATO, USSR, or the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state, are no longer in control so much. The same principle plays out in civil strife and war becoming common in the Global South upon decolonization.
Back in Europe, war has gone from being a huge risk to a recurring problem – and that is what clouds Europe’s future.
This is Part II of Raja Shahzeb Khan’s series ‘The Ukraine War in Historical Perspective.’ Author is political analyst and director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management (PPLDM) based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected].