Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

5 lessons for a new Cold War

By Frida Ghitis
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1751 GMT (0151 HKT)
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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT