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Dunsmore: Cold War Connection

The current stand-off with Russia over Ukraine is very serious and potentially very dangerous. It certainly has echoes of the Cold War, which dominated world affairs for nearly half a century. But in those days Soviet-American confrontations came with the real possibility of nuclear war. I still believe that prospect ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union - but what’s happening in Ukraine right now does have a Cold War connection.

As one who often worked in the Soviet Union, including during its collapse, I wondered then and still do, what would have happened if something similar had occurred in the United States? How would Americans have responded if suddenly their entire political, military and economic systems had been turned upside down?

That’s effectively what took place in the Soviet Union in the final years of the 1980s and it’s remarkable that it did not ignite a civil war. But among some Russians it did leave a seething resentment toward the West. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, who believes that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe in Russian history, is a product of such resentment.

Putin is an ultra-nationalist Russian with no interest in communist ideology. His goal is to restore Russia’s influence and power and the respect it once held as one of the world’s two super-powers. As such he is highly suspicious of European Union or NATO encroachment in his own back yard. And although Ukraine is now a sovereign state, it does have centuries of history with Russia and its loss to the West would be a huge loss of face for Putin personally.

Putin claims he acted to protect the ethnic Russian minority in Crimea. This is believed by virtually no one. It’s true the new government in Kiev doesn’t adequately reflect the Russian minority. But its real threat is to Putin’s continued domination over Ukrainian affairs. By keeping Ukraine a kleptocracy like Russia, where corruption is a way of life, neither Ukraine’s economy nor its democratic institutions have developed during independence, leaving it ever more vulnerable to Kremlin manipulation.

Putin rightly calculates the US and NATO are not going to go to war over this latest Russian military intervention, just as presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Carter and Reagan considered nuclear war too great a price to save Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan or Poland.

The old Soviet Union didn’t care what the world thought. But times have changed. In the new interdependent world where business reigns, Russia’s image matters. Putin just spent $50 billion on the Sochi Olympic Games to show off the new Russia – an investment that will be totally lost if things in Ukraine end badly. But if the current crisis is to end peacefully it will require deft diplomacy that involves providing Putin an exit ramp - in other words, a graceful way out. The use of monitors in Ukraine from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe may hold the key.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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