Analysis & Opinions - Harvard Kennedy School

Are We Entering Another Cold War? Probably Not—But it Could Be Even Worse

| Mar. 08, 2022

Veteran historians ponder the 20th century world for lessons from Russia's Ukraine invasion.

A pair of prominent historians of the Cold War agree that the current global showdown over Ukraine does not signal a second Cold War, but that isn't necessarily good news. Indeed, one scholar suggests that a better comparison is to the tense, multipolar world in the first years of the 20th century—culminating in the devastation of World War I. 

In a conversation Tuesday at Harvard Kennedy School, Fredrik Logevall, the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at HKS, spoke with Arne Westad, the Elihu Professor of History at Yale University (and former Harvard faculty member). Their topic: "A New Cold War? Geopolitical Implications of the War in Ukraine." 

Westad, author of 16 books including The Cold War: A World History, called the Russian invasion of Ukraine "a war of conquest of the kind we haven't seen in Europe since 1945." He said it differed from the Soviet Union's interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in that the invasion is not about reconstituting a communist empire or creating a buffer zone against the West. "This is an attempt not just to take over a foreign state, but to wipe out the Ukrainian sense of nationhood."

"The problem for the Russian side is that whatever happens on the battlefield, they are not going to achieve that. It's an unobtainable goal," Westad said. And that will make the conflict all the more intractable and all the more difficult to resolve.  

Logevall, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of the French and U.S. wars in Vietnam, said that leaving aside the military outcome in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already lost the political and moral war with the Ukrainian people. 

He said that from his previous study of the U.S. war in Vietnam and other conflicts, and from scholarly research more broadly, "imposed regime change seldom bolsters the relationship between the intervening country and the target nation."... 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Smith, James F. "Are We Entering Another Cold War? Probably Not—But it Could Be Even Worse." Harvard Kennedy School, March 8, 2022.

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