30 years after USSR fell, there's tension between US and Russia this Christmas

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev looks downcast as he announces his resignation on a TV image taken in Moscow on December 25, 1991. Gorbachev thus ended nearly seven years of power and signaled the end of the Soviet Union, which had begun in 1917 with a revolution.
This story was excerpted from the December 22 edition of CNN's Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

(CNN)For once, 30 years ago, Christmas really did herald an era of peace.

The Soviet Union finally dissolved when its last leader Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991. Its demise capped the Cold War between Communism and the West, in which hundreds of millions had lived within a wailing four-minute warning of nuclear annihilation.
But this festive season, exactly three decades on, brings the gravest showdown between NATO and Russia since the red hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin, for whom the Soviet collapse was a historic shaming, has Europe on edge, methodically building Russian forces on Ukraine's border as fears of invasion mount.
    While the West and Russia have had their awkward moments since 1991 -- over Serbia, Libya and Georgia -- the current confrontation is the most serious yet because Putin is consciously challenging the post-Cold War European order. After failing to crush pro-Western impulses in the former Soviet socialist republic of Ukraine, politically and diplomatically, he is threatening to do so by force with an incursion that would dwarf the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
      The Biden administration would much prefer to tackle rising China than age-old conflicts in Europe. But Putin is a master in testing the resolve of adversaries who are distracted and divided as questions linger over Western staying power after the debacle in Afghanistan. He's demanded security guarantees, including an assurance Ukraine will never join NATO and the withdrawal of alliance troops from former Warsaw Pact members who joined the alliance. These speak to a Russian sense of being threatened following NATO expansion but are seen by the West as an attempt to recreate a Soviet-style sphere of influence in Eastern Europe it could never accept.
      The US and Europe are offering to talk, apparently hoping to forestall an invasion while giving no sense of concessions that would fundamentally reshape the continent's security. They are painting a harsh picture of costs that would follow an invasion. Moscow will have taken note of a column by Washington Post journalist David Ignatius that revealed debate in Washington over an Afghanistan-style US funded insurgency against Russia in Ukraine.
      The fact officials are even gaming out a cataclysmic proxy war between the US and Russia encapsulates the foreboding mood of a Yuletide when Europe's long-stilled and murderous conflicts are rumbling again.
        Ukrainian soldiers walks at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Katerinivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine on December 7, 2021.

        'The age of spheres of influence is over'

        While NATO is ready to engage in "meaningful dialogue" with Russia, it's not giving an inch to Putin's apparent effort to recreate old Moscow's hegemony over its Soviet-era neighbors, the alliance's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warns.
        "The build-up continues," Stoltenberg said, of Russia's mobilization on Ukraine's borders, warning that any further aggression against the country would "carry a very high price."
          "The age of spheres of influence is over," he added.
          We'll see what Putin thinks about that.