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 6:45 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
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 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.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT