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Time to end the Cold War once and for all

This week's heartening rapprochement of the U.S. and Cuba reminds us of the complexity of regional security relations and the very long shadow of the Cold War. Washington, Moscow, and Berlin would do well to build on the spirit of this week's breakthrough in the Western Hemisphere to find a similar solution in Ukraine. It is time to end the Cold War once and for all.

Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev last November.
Odd Andersen | AFP | Getty Images
Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev last November.

In all entanglements, each side tends to see the other as the sole aggressor. This is not mere cynical posturing. It is probably hardwired into our imperfect cognitive apparatus. Jesus was remarking on this bias when he cautioned his followers against pointing to the mote in the other's eye while neglecting the beam in their own. Cuba and Ukraine are classic cases in point.

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The roots of the U.S.-Cuba split go back over 50 years, following Fidel Castro's victory over the corrupt, U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Relations quickly deteriorated as Castro looked to the Soviet Union for support. Tensions turned to disaster when the U.S. invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev countered the following year by placing offensive nuclear weapons on the island, thereby sparking the world-threatening Cuban Missile Crisis. Only the bravery of both John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev in facing down their own hot-head generals and their not-so-intelligent intelligence agencies saved humanity as the leaders steered a peaceful way out of the crisis. Emotions and politics ran sufficiently hot to last a half-century more. Last week, the U.S. right wing objected to Obama's move to normalize relations even now.

The roots of Ukraine's current conflict are even deeper. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union through Ukraine in June 1941, less than two years after Germany and the Soviet Union had ruthlessly and cynically divided and invaded Poland. The Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people in the war against Hitler, an almost incomprehensible scale of heroism and loss.

While the Cold War is universally seen in the West as a righteous defense against a unrelenting communist campaign of global domination, the Russian experience and perspective is very different. The great, unsolved question after World War II in Soviet minds was the German question: How should post-war Germany's military power be constrained so as not to be a threat again?

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The industrial recovery of West Germany in the 1950s heightened Soviet fears. In the Western eyes, NATO was designed (as then famously described) to "Keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Yet to the Russians, NATO was pointed at them, pure and simple, especially since plenty of U.S. generals flirted with a first strike against Russia. The Soviets watched with alarm at the end of the 1950s as the U.S. even considered granting Germany access to nuclear weapons under the NATO umbrella. President Kennedy's wise decision to shelve this provocative proposal greatly improved U.S.-Soviet relations, laying the groundwork for the historic Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

Fast forward to 1989. Germany was reunified as Mikhail Gorbachev, the greatest statesman of our age, sought to end the Cold War. He reached a verbal understanding with the U.S. and Germany that NATO would stop at the West German border, but blundered by not getting it in writing, as he almost certainly could have done in 1989. While Gorbachev aimed for a new reconciliation in Europe, the U.S. neoconservatives led by Richard Cheney (then the U.S. Secretary of Defense) aimed instead for a new U.S.-led "unipolar" world. Soon Gorbachev was gone, and the U.S. unipolar moment arrived.

In an important speech, Gorbachev recently put it this way:

[I]nstead of building new mechanisms and institutions of European security and pursuing a major demilitarization of European politics… — as promised, incidentally, in NATO's London Declaration — the West, and particularly the United States, declared victory in the Cold War. 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, refusing to heed words of caution from many of those present here…

The U.S. right wing to this day will not listen to the Russian viewpoint. As NATO has expanded to the East, the Russians have repeatedly and vehemently protested. It was perhaps the inevitable and even prudent spoils of the Cold War that NATO would expand to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and perhaps even to Bulgaria and Romania. But NATO's march to Russia's very borders continued: the Baltic States, and then, in 2008 to a showdown with Russia over Georgia and Ukraine. The Russia reaction vis-à-vis the potential NATO membership of Georgia and Ukraine has been violent: NATO must not enter here! Looking at a map and at history, the Russian reaction is understandable.

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Some claim that each country has the "right" to choose its own military alliance: that this is simply Ukraine's choice to make. Yet the U.S. has never allowed its own neighbors like Cuba (or Nicaragua, Granada, and several others) to choose their own alliances. To claim to Russia that Ukraine's membership in NATO is Ukraine's decision alone is the beam in the eye of the West.

NATO's recent behavior beyond Europe gives Russia little confidence. NATO toppled the Qaddafi regime almost on a whim (going beyond the clear purpose of the UN Security Council mandate in Libya), and then left Libya as a failed state. The U.S. has repeatedly and recently claimed its right to overthrow governments it doesn't like, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Syria. For Russia, NATO on the doorstep is a self-evident security threat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine are violent, brutal, cynical, and against international law. There is no justification for Russia's war on Ukraine. Yet there is an explanation: both the U.S. and Russia continue to play very dangerous great-power games. The biggest losers, of course, are not the U.S. and Russia, but the Ukrainians, Libyans, Iraqis, Syrians, Afghanis, and others who are caught in between.

Let us listen to the wise words of Gorbachev, to whom we all owe our safe deliverance from the Cold War era:

Attempts to solve the problem of security in Europe by enlarging NATO or through an EU defense policy cannot bring positive results… We need institutions and mechanisms that would function in the interests of all.

Let us, in short, search for a new European peace, built not on NATO reaching the Russian borders through Ukraine, but on a shared vision of pan-European economic, military, energy, and environmental security. That shared vision was within reach in 1989, but was squandered; a quarter century later, it can be within reach again.

Commentary by Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet professor of sustainable development, and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @JeffDSachs.