History is poised to return. There are enough ominous signs to suggest that the world is poised to return to the charged days of the Cold War, which informed international relations in the second half of the 20th century. The familiar vocabulary of containment of Russia is back in the lexicon of strategists in the government of the United States of America. If the coming down of the Iron Curtain over large parts of eastern Europe signalled the beginning of the Cold War in the 20th century, then the crisis in Ukraine marks the onset of a new chapter of the Cold War. It is possible, of course, to push back the date of the onset and link it to the end of the first Cold War. The latter ended with the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. This same process left fault-lines across the erstwhile Soviet Russia. Ukraine lies on one of those major fault-lines. Ukraine is large and its relationship with Russia has not been free of tension. The present crisis began in November 2013, when Ukraine’s cabinet announced that it was postponing a proposed association with the European Union. Russia, always apprehensive of the anti-Russian attitude of the Ukraine government, feared that the move would adversely affect Ukraine’s membership of its own Eurasian Customs Union. Thus began the downward slide in Ukraine politics.
The Russian response was predictable. It began to intervene in Ukraine by sending in forces on the pretext of safeguarding its interests. The intervention has been going on over the last few months, and critics of Russia are inclined to describe it as an invasion. Russian moves in Ukraine have set alarm bells ringing in Western capitals, especially Washington DC. The fear is that Vladimir Putin is deliberately following an expansionist policy. And the conclusion among many of Barack Obama’s advisors is that Mr Putin cannot be permitted to follow such policies. One way of stopping him, it is being suggested, is to isolate Russia from the rest of the world by cutting off political and economic ties. It is also being argued that whatever the resolution to the impasse in Ukraine, the US can no longer engage with Russia on the same terms as it has done in the recent past. The feeling is that Russia under Mr Putin can no longer be trusted. A line has been crossed. Mr Putin cannot be unaware of this. It is time to ask the question made famous in the first Cold War: who will blink first?