Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

5 lessons for a new Cold War

By Frida Ghitis
updated 12:51 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis says Russia looks ready to claim Crimea; it's a new Cold War
  • Crisis shows that U.S., EU are not feared, but their values first prompted protests
  • Other lessons? Mess with Putin at your peril; giving up nuclear weapons leaves you vulnerable
  • Ghitis: Putin shows brute force still works, but U.S., EU may still rise to challenge

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- Russia looks set to slice off a part of Ukraine and keep it for itself.

With heavily armed Russian-speaking troops patrolling the streets, the Crimean Parliament voted Thursday to join Russia and put its decision to a referendum. The all-but-inevitable annexation of Crimea is moving forward, despite protests, warnings and threats from the U.S. and its allies.

We have entered a new Cold War.

The clash between Vladimir Putin's Russia and the forces arrayed in support of Ukraine's independence-minded leaders has crashed the vaunted "reset," ending hopes that Moscow and the West would smooth relations and work hand-in-hand toward common objectives.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Nobody can predict with certainty how this conflict will end. But the world can already glean important lessons. Unfortunately, most of those lessons are cause for deep concern. Here are five clear messages from the crisis in Ukraine.

1. Nobody's scared of America, but American and European values hold strong appeal.

Lest we forget, this all started over a move by the now-deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who broke his promise to sign a partnership agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow. Ukrainians were enraged, not just because they want more trade with Europe but because they have seen what Western standards can bring to a society.

They were fed up with corruption, authoritarianism and stagnation. They wanted their country to be free of Moscow's interference, and many gave up their lives to fight for an ideal of stronger democratic institutions, rule of law and fair play.

As strong as the pull of these values is, their principal advocate, the U.S., has lost much of its ability to stare down its foes in support of those who want to institute democratic principles in their countries. We saw it when President Barack Obama declared -- years ago -- that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must step down. We saw it when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was pelted with tomatoes in Egypt. And we saw it in Ukraine, when Obama warned Putin to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity, only to see the Russians capture Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. America does not intimidate.

Its loss of influence means strongmen and dictators have a freer hand.

5 possible directions in Ukraine

2. You don't mess with Putin without paying a price.

Obama orders sanctions over Ukraine
Ukrainian PM urges Russia to pull back
Hillary Clinton compares Putin to Hitler

Even if Moscow were to relinquish all control of Ukrainian territory today, Putin has already achieved a main goal. He has sent a clear message to countries that were once part of the Soviet Union -- and perhaps to the USSR's former Eastern European satellites -- that they cannot defy his wishes without paying a painful price. In that sense, Putin has won.

A top Putin aide warned last summer that Ukraine was risking "suicide" if it dared to defy Moscow. Now we know this was no bluff. Putin is serious about protecting Moscow's sphere of influence. It's not clear how closely he wants to control what are supposed to be independent countries.

Opinion: Did you expect Russia to ignore Ukraine chaos?

3. If you are a vulnerable state, you may regret surrendering nuclear weapons.

This may be the most dangerous of all the lessons from this crisis. Ukraine had a sizable nuclear arsenal at the end of the Cold War, but it agreed to give it up in exchange for security guarantees. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine committed itself to dismantling the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal. Russia, in exchange, vowed to respect Ukraine's borders and its independence. Now, Russia has clearly violated those commitments. If Ukraine still had its atomic weapons, Moscow would have thought twice before seizing parts of Ukraine.

4. Don't expect support from all international peace activists (unless the U.S. invades).

To liberal activists in Ukraine and Russia, the reaction from international peace movement must be a hard pill to swallow. Parts of Ukraine have been captured at the point of a gun by a regime that actively suppresses dissent. When liberal Russians protested, police arrested hundreds of anti-war demonstrators.

While Russia's invasion of Ukrainian territory and its harsh crackdown on local protests have been criticized by some human rights activists, the reaction among some prominent "peace" activists has been astonishing. Several have mimicked Putin's line, blaming the U.S. for the crisis. Instead of taking a clear stance in support of a country with invading military forces on its soil, some so-called anti-war groups have taken the opportunity to dust off their anti-American vitriol.

A favorite line of discussion is whether Washington has any right to criticize Russia's invasion of Ukrainian territory after the U.S. invaded Iraq, a country that was ruled by one of the world's most brutal, genocidal dictators. However misguided America's Iraq invasion, even drawing the comparison is an insult to Ukrainians.

Opinion: Putin's Ukrainian endgame

5. The use of brute force to resolve conflicts is not a thing of the past.

One day, if history moves in the direction we all wish, countries will solve their disputes through diplomacy and negotiation. Sadly, that day has not arrived. John Kerry has expressed dismay at Putin's "19th-century" behavior, but power politics, forcible border expansion and brazen aggression have not been relegated to the history books; witness events in places like Syria, the Central African Republic and now in Ukraine.

Those are the first five lessons. But allow me to offer a bonus, a work in progress that could join as No. 6: When the stakes grow high enough, the U.S. and Europe may rise to the challenge.

Western nations seemed caught off-guard by Putin's "incredible act of aggression," as Kerry termed it. Some of Putin's gains (see No. 2) may be irreversible. But the U.S. and Europe have been shaken up by events, and they may yet send a message of their own, helping Kiev's government succeed and prosper as it sets out to chart a future of its own and limiting Putin's ability to replicate his acts of intimidation.

Kerry's visit to Kiev was a powerful moment. His unvarnished message to Putin, if backed by action, was a respectable start. The U.S. would prefer to see this crisis resolved through negotiations, he declared, but if Russia chooses not to do so, Washington's and its partners "will isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically." Already the EU is offering Ukraine an aid package comparable to the one Putin used to lure it away. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is boosting ties with Poland and the Baltic States, and economic sanctions are under discussion.

If Putin wants another Cold War, he has one.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT