Revival of the Cold War Rivals - Historical Perspective
It’s not as if Russia’s rivalry with the West began just before WW1, the story goes far behind in time!
Russia’s own history is a uniquely wondrous one, not very old. The Slavs spread along the Volga and Ob in the early 9th Century, before them the land was uninhabited. Kievan Rus', the first united East Slavic state was established by Prince Oleg of the Rurik Dynasty in 882AD. Influenced by the Byzantine Empire they soon came into the fold of Christianity.
The Mongols destroyed the Kievan state by 1240, killing half the population. In 1547 Ivan IV reestablished the state under the Tsardom of Muscovy and Peter the Great's made it the Russian Empire in 1721, which at its height touched the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean, at its four sides. In its quest for more land and power the Empire was constantly at wars at its borders, at times with the Ottomans, at times with the Baltic States and at times with the European Imperialists.
In 1812, Tsar Alexander I defeated Napoleon’s forces, ending an era of French empire-building within Europe. With this Russia began to be seen as a mighty empire and the ‘Savior of Europe’. So when Britain, France and other Europeans were out making colonies around the world, Russia delegated itself as the protector of Eastern Europe’s orthodox population, and was constantly engaged in battles around its neighborhood.
Perhaps the difference between Russian imperialism and that of the others was that it never liked to go off-shore, rather it wanted to go to the shores. For this reason, Russia had its eyes on China and Japan too, and it did always want a warm-water coast via Afghanistan in the Persian Gulf. Therefore when Britain invaded the Indian Sub-Continent in 1858, Russia was intrigued. Hence began the ‘Great Game’, a series of wars and events between the two. Britain strived to contain Russian invasions of more and more land around her and this culminated in the efforts for control over Iran and Afghanistan by both sides. Britain and France even allied against Russia with the Ottomans for once, this was in the Crimean War (1856) – a war that severely damaged Russian power in Europe and their efforts against the Ottomans.
Another factor that separated Russia’s interests from West Europe had been religion. While Western Europe was quick to accept Protestantism, Russia stuck to the old Orthodox Church and the Catholic states stood in between them. Nicholas announced himself as the protector of the Orthodox including those that were subjects of the Ottomans.
The Ottomans controlled the whole of south-east Europe up to Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Austria. Analysts put forth different theories for the Crimean War, it was vague whether the British and French sided with the Ottomans for the ‘protection of the Protestant or Catholic rights in the Holy Land’ or that they did not want Russia to build its empire down to the Balkans, rather they wanted a Europe free of the Russian and the Ottomans alike.
But as the British/French alliance was busy getting rid of Russian and Ottoman dominance in Europe there were other just-as-bad evils developing around the world. These were to be labelled fascist, expansionists and a threat to human civilization, they were Japan, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Germany had united its territories into the German Empire in 1871 as a result of defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War. And within its short life up till 1918 it became an industrial, technological, and scientific giant, taking more Nobel Prizes in science than Britain, France, Russia, and the United States combined. Its military and naval might was being seen second only to the British Royal Navy. Germany’s immediate ally at its south, Austria-Hungary also became an empire in 1867, it too had tremendous industrial advances, with having the fourth-largest machine building industry of the world. Together they posed as an internal threat to Britain and France who were all-busy acquiring and warring for colonies throughout the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Asia. In the larger world the British and the French were bitter contenders, but inside Europe they had to unite, to suppress others from entering the big-game.
The 1882 Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy had left both Russia and France vulnerable. Germany projected more power at the Berlin Conference of 1884, where the plan for the ‘Scramble for Africa’ was being formalized between the imperialist powers of Europe - all of Africa was to be divided between white friends on a table via pen and paper in Berlin - and Germany was asking for its share. With this Africa became the playground for bitter rivalry between France, Britain and Germany. In 1892, France and Russia signed the Dual Alliance, with the understanding that if one of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) attacked France or Russia, its ally would counter-attack. Unlike other treaties that would end conflicts this treaty was aimed against another country - thus a precedence for war.
As Germany entered the global scene, it increasingly threatened the balance of power already being juggled between the imperialist states. Control of colonies, their trade and access to trade routes, especially via the oceans where matter of high concern. German initiative of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway (started 1903) aiming at acquiring a seaport in the Persian Gulf meant a stronger Ottoman and a global Germany – reaching with a hand-shake, the waters Russia had been dreaming for centuries and for which it had fought wars with both the Ottoman and the British. On the other hand Germany provoked France in 1905 with Germany’s sudden announcement of Morocco’s independence from French dominance, signaling that it was war-ready.
For these reasons Russia, France, Britain, US and Japan were allies in WW1. And because Russia, Britain and France had been breaking away Ottoman lands for the last several decades, the Ottomans allied with Germany. The Allied’s victory against the Triple Alliance and their ally the Ottomans resulted in the end of not only the German, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires but also of the Russian Empire.
One should ask, if Russia was an ally, why was it allowed to break as an empire? Was it really the warfronts where Russia lost or was it in Saint Petersburg, where the Tsar’s family was abducted and later massacred by the communists? The Communist Revolution (1917) ended the Romanov’s 300 years rule and the Red Terror it brought killed around 20million Russians. But where did the Communist suddenly come from? Well! the Social Democrats had been taking root for the last many decades in places like Switzerland, Munich and London, especially London was a metropolitan hub where many liberal thinkers from around Europe found asylum. But under the Tsar, there was no notable communist activity in Russia, except what was being organized underground. So, for the October Revolution (1917), the Bolsheviks Lenin and Stalin came from London, where they had dwelled for over a decade and Trotsky came by ship from the United States – was this not enough to intrigue the Russians?
In November 1918, with several hundred other Hungarian Communists of the same Bolshevik Party, and with a large sum of money provided by the same Bolshevik Communists, Bella Kun returned to Hungary with a revolution that would oust the Hungarian Monarchy and break the Empire. When defeat became obvious, Emperor Charles sent a commune to the United States asking for negotiations, Woodrow Wilson in his telegraph bluntly rejected the ‘continuation of the monarchy’ as a negotiable possibility, and instead he demanded a "freest opportunity to autonomous development", which would practically translate to ‘absolute dictatorship’ under Bella Kun!
In Germany the Socialist Democratic Party was active for a decade now. Under the Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II there was an effort for smooth transition from absolute monarchy to a democratic socialization under the crown. But this did not match the intent of the communists – they wanted end of the empire and absolute control in the hands of the Vanguard Party (in communist theory a vanguard party should remain with absolute power until the society is educated and organized enough to behold the communist ideals on its own, which may take decades). So what happened was that the SDP kept supporting the war against Russia until the October Revolution, but after that they became bitterly against the war, making grounds for the German Revolution.
In 1918, when the people of Germany were thinking that they were winning at the frontlines and many were even cheering the Russian Revolution that had resultantly made them victors at the Eastern Front, not everybody knew that the SDP was capable of organizing large riots in major cities or could build crushing pressure on the King. As in Austria-Hungary, the SDP’s ultimate demand was the abdication of the monarchy and the formation of a republic. Though Germany had been winning at most fronts up till now but the fear of a communist revolution at home forced it to sign an armistice in the November of 1918 with the Allied Powers, which would end WW1. In June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to give away parts of its country to partners of the Allied Nations and also to give up all of its colonies. In spite of all this retreat, the Empire could not be saved and the Communist won Germany.
The Revolution swept into the Chinese Empire too. Here, fearing the Communist, locals organized the Boxer Rebellion demanding all foreigners to leave Beijing. An army of 60,000 was arranged under the Eight-Nation Alliance of Britain, France, United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary, Russia and Japan to attack Beijing to defend the foreigners and to defeat the Boxers. With a defeat, the Qing government had to allow the foreign countries to base their troops in Beijing, and the Empire was to give way to democracy.
Though Japan was in the Allied camp in WW1, but it seems that when the Chinese Empire fell in 1912 at the hands of the Kuomintang, a fear of the revolution griped them too – as Japan was an empire too, under the Yamato Dynasty. Perhaps this was the reason, when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, it placed a puppet Manchu ‘emperor’, Puyi, on the throne. Perhaps this meant to be a buffer zone between communism and monarchy. In 1936 Japan formed the anti-Comintern pact with Germany and invaded more Chinese territories in 1937, starting the 2cd Sino-Japan War.
On the other side, revanchism had grown in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, they had re-militarized at great speed and aspired to regain their lost empires. By 1939, Italy had invaded Ethiopia and Germany invaded Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. This write-up, in no way intends to defend monarchy, which is definitely among the worst choices of organization, nor are the communist ideals completely void of any good. In fact the ideas of a social democracy, if applied in their true essence can be a blessing for humanity but if misused, like all other ideologies have been, they can be an equal threat to humanity and civilization. What is intended is only to unveil, how those states that killed more, plundered more and occupied more of other’s lands, stigmatized and destroyed the smaller states who, in their own prospect, wanted some share in power and progress too.
The irony of power is – it has to be complete or not at all.
In Dec 1941, Japan invaded Thailand and attacked British possessions in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong and US military bases in Hawaii (Pearl Harbor), Wake Island, Guam and Philippines – this was all-out war.
So, clearly Japan, Germany and Italy started WW2. They challenged the status quo of imperialism. They wondered that if Britain, France and a handful of allies could occupy whole continents, enslaving them for centuries, why could they not secure their neighborhood to make themselves stronger and prosperous. But the colonials knew that this little tilt in power would eventually fall the whole line of dominos upon their heads – victory is like a fire that spreads, if it ceases to, then it is doomed to complete failure. WW2 brought an end to the Japanese Empire and Italy’s dream of becoming one and broke Germany into two halves.
Thus in the event of WW2, the Allies re-organized, used resources and recruits from all colonies to destroy these new colonizers, the axis-of-evil, and as a treat occupied and controlled more lands. Communist Russia was an ally, and at the end of the war almost half of Europe was occupied or client of Russia, on the other side Russia took Manchuria and Korea.
When WW2 ended in 1945, the idea of revolution, freedom and the right to democracy had spread around and most colonized states began their struggles for independence. One by one states regained their freedoms, but with it had also begun the era of the Cold War. Russia had emerged so great out of WW2 that now it was the 2cd to USA, both being the two superpowers of the world. And the Cold War was a battle between the two superpowers to readmit into their camps as many states as possible, but this time without occupying them but by a new tactic, neo-colonialism.
Five decades of Cold War changed the tone of global politics, frontline warfare was given-up, with much more reliance on espionage, erasing the lines of the ‘sovereignty’ of states. Guerrilla warfare against rogue states was supported with arms, funds and training, terrorist groups were raised and trained, social activists were bought to propagate ideology that suited the superpowers and make riot for ulterior purposes, and psyops were designed to lure the masses into desired thinking. And the US emerged as the victor in this new game.
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, marked the end of the Cold War and the world finally got the chance to experience global unipolar super power of the US. What this did for humanity in terms of poverty, disease, education, human rights etc. is another question – but did this system help maintain peace in the world – certainly not.
The unipolar experience proved to be just as unstable as any other – perhaps it is humanity itself that is ever unstable and unpredictable. To foster their interests the US and its Allies increased their reliance on 4th Generation Warfare techniques, which meant to gain economic, strategic and cultural dominance by the use of the non-state-actor in the form of guerrillas, terrorists, and rioters, creating a number of unstable states around the world – until they reached Ukraine.
With the uprising in Ukraine and the ousting of its pro-Russian regime, it seems that the Cold War rivalry has been re-kindled by the western powers. If Ukraine decisively enters the US/Euro camp and the US ballistic missile defense system is successfully planted in Poland, Russia would feel decisively vulnerable and encircled.
Inside the EU, Germany is feeling the heat again. Something about Germany is odd, in spite of being utterly devastated and marginalized in and after the two World Wars, Germany has again turned out to be an industrial and technological giant. Germany is the largest exporter of Europe, as of now 27.3% of all EU exports and 47% of EU exports to China come from Germany. While Germany has shown willingness to integrate into the EU and form alliances with the West, yet it has kept a foreign policy that prefers to stay away from issues such as Libya and Syria. Germany’s abstention in the UNSC’s resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya in 1973 indicated Germany’s alignment with Russia and China against France, US and UK. In fact, after the Greece crisis, Germany has realized that it’s growth-speed out-runs that of the EU’s and being a part of EU and dealing with the world while keeping to the EU framework does not benefit Germany as much as it slows it down.
Western experts fear that Germany is ‘going alone’ in its dealing with the multipolar world, especially in its increasing trade with Russia and China. Amidst the fear of a global economic recession, Germany’s unwillingness to slow down or to remain integrated with the EU would cause to remind the West why it fought the first two World Wars.
Events happening everyday can trigger change in geopolitical scenario, looking up front this makes it hard to assess what is really happening. Only the long threads of history provide us with a little help to unravel the seemingly winding conglomeration.