myself a defender of the idea that the cold war rhetoric is outdated, if not even exaggerating the current circumstances, i find myself in the position of having to review my prior assumptions. though my personal optimism on the euro/atlantic-russian relations never derived from a naive hoping but rather from a calculated assumption that both sides have simply too much to lose than to let the situation escalate, working at nato has offered me a new perspective onto the issue and let me to conclude that i might have in fact exaggerated my belief in the interdependence hypothesis. while not able to disclose actual insights or information, i would like to share some stories that led me to question my prior assessment and opinion.
“assertive foreign policy”
when we speak of “the conflict” we speak of ukraine. after all, the swedish hunt for a potentially russian submarine has been displayed as nothing but a scandinavian nightmare no more or less concerning than the search for the monster of loch ness. that finland today is sending similar alerts however might render the issue less of an illusion and more of a playing with fire on the russian part. but not just russia is testing the waters. just as back in the cuban missile crisis the united states firmly asserted a dislike of having “the enemy in the backyard”, so is russia today pointing towards increased encroachment of its own front porch: eu involvement in ukraine is growing. nato is moving ever further east by working actively not just in the baltics but also in moldova and georgia. and ever since the crisis with ukraine and crimea heated up nato troops are stocking up their capabilities. together with reoccurring accusations on both sides towards the other to help separatists and rebels in both ukraine and russia, it is safe to say that it is both sides who are demonstrating a distinctly assertive foreign policy.
but despite the military muscle flexing, diplomatic tough talk, and increasing mistrust, i have recently found what i believe to be the true enemy both sides are fighting against:
the memories of the cold war create a self-reinforcing hypothesis
let’s face it: the generation that is leading the current conflict is old. and i don’t mean that as a derogrative term but simply as a reference to those generations that still lived (actively) through the cold war and those who (thankfully) grew up in a word without the looming cloud of potential human extinction over our heads. watching old movies about the cold war today happens with a dismissive smirk as all the panic and doomsday melody of those days seems almost ridiculously overdone. after all, today we are the blissful who know that “the story has a happy-ending”. and it is therefore impossible for my generation to put ourselves in the head and heart of someone whos personal life covered one or more decades of exactly this memento mori darkness without knowing that everything would indeed be fine.
however, if we try to imagine it – how it must have felt like to grow up into a world of black and white, of mushroom cloud and doomsday fear – we start to understand why the leaders today react to ‘assertively’ against each other. trust is hard to build from its ashes. and the trust between “east” and “west” has been shattered over decades. no wonder then, that when today a russian submarine, soldier, or airplane crosses a border others jump to immediate “defense”. the same holds true for russian reactions. mistrust is so high again that no move on one side can be left unanswered. and if one side ever were to do so, they are both called “weak” in their own population – because also voters see themselves being shaken by the feeling of reviving fears from the past.
it is therefore my opinion that what we actually see happening on the euro-russian continent today is an arm wrestling between the forces of interdependence and common economic interest against the real threat to escalation: the mindset of the leaders who see themselves reliving the past in the present.