Russia invades Crimea sparking cold war fears

Superpower declines: Once a good match for American might, Russia now has less clout.

Ukraine has lost control of Crimea to Russian troops, and world leaders are threatening sanctions to halt Putin’s advance. Have the high-stakes East-West tensions of the cold war returned?

Russia has demanded the surrender of all Ukrainian forces in Crimea after invading the peninsula that it counts as rightfully part of its own country. America admits that Russian forces now have ‘complete operational control’ over the region. European governments warn that the continent’s peace and security are at risk and economic sanctions to isolate Russia and engineer a climbdown are being planned. Commentators are calling the crisis in the Ukraine a new cold war. How has the situation become so serious, and how great is the danger?

The original cold war was a long period of mutual suspicion between East and West in the aftermath of WWII when the US and the USSR , once allies fighting Hitler, emerged as the rival superpowers, pitting the democratic capitalism of America against Soviet communism. Knowing that their stockpiles of nuclear weapons would guarantee mutual destruction in any direct confrontation, they fought proxy wars for influence across the globe. Until the USSR’s collapse in 1991, however, the stand-off frightened the world.

Current tensions between Russia and the West are highly unlikely to reach such levels. The USSR’s army was once a colossus, but modern Russia’s military budget is just a seventh of America’s. While the US has navy bases all over the globe, Russia now has just two outside its own borders — one in Syria, and one in Crimea.

Russia is also economically weak and sanctions would be devastating. Unlike in the insular Soviet era, half of Russia’s foreign trade now comes from the EU and it needs imports to maintain living standards. Even the threat of sanctions led to a dramatic fall in the value of Russian stocks and shares on Monday. Some worry that Russia could cut off gas supplies, because the pipelines pass through its territory, but with around half of government revenues coming from energy sales, this could hurt Russia more than the West.

A little local difficulty

Some say Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ‘strongman’ president, is being maligned by the West: he is justified in stepping in to defend the rights of the local Russian-speaking population. Crimea has historically been part of Russia. Using a local crisis as the excuse to reclaim the territory is justified if Putin is to be the trusted defender of Russian rights in the USSR’s former domains.

Others believe that Putin’s invasion is a desperate, badly calculated gamble: the Ukraine crisis demonstrates Russia’s weakness as it tries to keep a grip on its dwindling influence. Russia’s image is severely damaged abroad and economic sanctions will in the end undermine Putin’s support at home. Aggressive nationalism that suited the cold war era will now backfire.

You Decide

  1. Are economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Russia justified?
  2. Is it helpful to compare the stand-off in the Ukraine to cold war history? Give your reasons.


  1. Find a map of the Soviet Union from before 1990 and compare it with modern Russia, Europe and Asia. List the countries that used to be part of the USSR.
  2. Identify three significant events or episodes during the cold war and write a paragraph outlining and analysing what happened in each of them.

Some People Say...

“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’Winston Churchill”

What do you think?

Q & A

How will this crisis affect me?
How the West chooses to respond to Putin’s invasion of the Crimea could affect the whole world. If other countries think that Russia has not paid a high price, they may feel that they too can bully their neighbours with no consequences. If Putin responds to Western sanctions by shutting off gas supplies, energy will become scarcer and more expensive, so prices will rise generally.
So are there general lessons to learn?
Yes, including one about nationalism in politics. Putin has gained popularity at home by being seen to defend Russian’s rights. However, any economic sanctions and international isolation will damage Russia and could end up making him unpopular. Today’s world is interdependent, so nationalist posturing can be a trap for a leader.

Word Watch

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics contained Russia and was governed from Moscow, but it covered vast swathes of Central Asia and included Ukraine. While Russia gave up its rights to rule over these countries in the 1990s and formally gave them independence, successive Russian governments have sought to maintain their influence.
The world came very close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. There was a particularly tense stand-off over 13 days while the two superpowers, America and Russia, confronted each other. The situation was resolved after secret negotiations. The idea of deterring any side from a military attack because of the great risk of an apocalyptic nuclear war was called ‘mutually assured destruction’.
Some of these conflicts became major wars involving large-scale loss of life, including the Korean War in 1955, in which the US supported South Korea against the communist north, and the Vietnam War. Numerous covert tussles between communism and capitalism were fought in Latin America right up until the fall of the USSR.
Growing pressure for a more open political system, coupled with anger at economic management, contributed to the collapse of the USSR. One of the most poignant symbols of this was the tearing down of the Berlin wall in 1989. It had divided Eastern Europe and the puppet governments under Soviet control from the West.


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