How America Is Replaying the Cold War and Russia Is Replaying World War II

Russian soldiers on the move, MiG jet flyovers of U.S. naval ships, NATO war maneuvers, a capital of a European country at risk of invasion. American news headlines from the last few months look like they belong to another era. The same can be said for Russian newspapers, which have whipped the country into nationalist frenzy in response to perceived aggression from the West.

The Americans are replaying the Cold War, while Russia is replaying World War II -- wars that each side can claim that they won. Neither era has very much in common with the current conflict in Ukraine, but reference to past battles in order to understand and respond to present-day opponents has potential consequences.

Allusions to the Cold War in American news and media outlets have made a dramatic resurgence as the Ukrainian Crisis has heated up and dominated headlines. The line of continuity can be read: Budapest 1956, Prague 1968, Kiev 2014. In this particular guise, Putin is behaving like the General Secretary of an only slightly reformed Soviet empire.

In Russia, mention of a "new Cold War" is scarcely heard. Instead, rhetoric of nationalism, outside invaders, and threat of fascism have become part of a template of rationalization for Russia's opposition to Ukraine's European-oriented government. These are signals to Russian citizens -- codified language belonging to the World War II era when invaders from Western Europe almost destroyed the Motherland.

History has always been used -- and often cynically manipulated -- to inform present conditions and make the case for a particular set of political aims and objectives. Yet, in the ongoing Ukrainian Crisis, the two competing sides have appropriated different histories. In asserting their victories, both east and west are reconfiguring the past to align with contemporary narratives rooted more in political necessity than the history books. On June 6, 2014, Russian leader Vladimir Putin attended a celebration on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Russian media downplayed the strategic importance of the invasion and, more generally, the Allies' contribution in World War II.

The Motherland lost twenty million people in the fight against fascism, after all, and the battle is not yet over. Now, the fascists in Ukraine, as it is implied, are once again threatening peace. Meanwhile, there is little evidence to support the claims. Paradoxically, significant support in "New Europe" for accession to Russia's policies can be found in the ranks of the rising right-wing parties deemed by some to be neo-fascist.

The United States, for its part, seems to have dusted off the playbook from the Cold War era, framing the very complex circumstances of the Ukrainian Crisis as having been fueled by "Russian agents" in a Soviet-style "incredible act of aggression" as Secretary of State John Kerry summed it up for the American public. Kerry implored his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to resist turning Ukraine into a "pawn" for ongoing Russo-American tensions. After a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the concept of proxy wars with Russia is now back in fashion.

Yet, for all the rhetoric, the underpinnings of the Cold War -- ideological competition, threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, and global bilateral balance of power - no longer exist. Without the bitter Manichean struggle that viewed Communism as a global and contagious virus (with nuclear capability), Cold War analogies to present-day Russia appear misplaced or at a minimum grossly overdone.

Reacting to historical periods that were enormously antagonistic and bloody to guide action on the emerging battlefield of eastern Ukraine has the potentiality for further escalating conflict, fueled by past victories and memory of old clashes.

Rather than appropriating particular histories in service of immediate political goals and provoking further animosity, study of long-term cultural values and social tendencies can provide a foundation for understanding motivations and strategies.

If history can inform ongoing developments in eastern Ukraine, Russia is acting as it always has -- as a nationalist entity that transcends both ideology and ruler. Stalin understood this when he dubbed World War II "The Great Patriotic War." His soldiers might not fight for him, or even communism, but they would give their lives for Mother Russia, as they did for Tsar Alexander in 1812.

And for America's part, intervention in foreign affairs and conflicts might also belong to a tradition much older than the Cold War -- Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. The idealistic tendency toward active promotion of democracy, self-determinism, and transparency, has the capacity to conflict with others' national interests, including Russia's, even while Russia's own expressions of its geopolitical interests are shrouded in similar democratic rhetoric.

Russia will likely always act in what it perceives as its geostrategic interest, protecting its sphere of influence and its Slavic/Eurasian uniqueness. The U.S. will also act in its perceived interest, which often somewhat confusingly includes ideology and idealism as manifestations of American Exceptionalism.

History informs us of the past and perhaps its meaning, but memory and rhetoric are used as tools to validate states' interests. For all the differences in how Russia and the United States are representing the current clash in Ukraine, pointing to historical examples that do not stand up to rigorous analysis, both countries share a strikingly similar approach to using past episodes as justification for present action.

While this does not tell us anything new about history, it does illuminate the malleability of official versions of "what happened" and signal the potential risks of exploiting past conflicts burned into the collective psyche of both countries, provoking antipathy, fear, and possibly war.