Russia and the West are ‘on the brink of a new Cold War’, according to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev said at the end of last week that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world.’ Actions such as the bombing of Kosovo, the enlargement of NATO, and the wars in Iraq and Libya, led to a ‘collapse of trust’, according to the former communist leader.
Talk of a new Cold War is overblown. The Cold War was not just a case of bad relations between East and West, but rather a global struggle for political hegemony driven by sharp ideological divisions. No such struggle or divisions exist today. Gorbachev’s words are nonetheless striking, not because of what was said but because of who said it.
In his 1987 book Perestroika Gorbachev wrote that, ‘The history of Russia is an organic part of the great European history’. Addressing the people of Western Europe, he remarked that ‘Europe is our common home’ and that Russia was part of ‘a common European civilization’. Never has a Russian leader linked his country more categorically to its Western neighbours. If even Gorbachev is blaming the West for the current tensions, then there can be little doubt that the West has thoroughly alienated not just Russian nationalists but even that segment of the Russian population which was inclined to view it favourably.
Gorbachev’s idea of a ‘common European home’ was one in which Russia and the West cooperated with one another as equals. ‘We must learn to live in a real world, a world which takes into account the interests of the Soviet Union’, he wrote. Substituting Russia for the Soviet Union, this remains a good idea. One does not have to agree with another country’s definition of its vital interests to realize that threatening them is not conducive to harmony. While seemingly idealistic, the idea of a common European home thus rests on a profound realism, in which the nations of Europe not only advance their own interests but also respect those of others. Sadly, this is something which at present we in the West seem to have trouble grasping.