Saeed Khan / AFP / Getty Images

Don’t call it a cold war

Why the Ukraine crisis could give way to something much scarier than the USSR

July 23, 2014 11:30AM ET

In September 1983, Soviet fighter jets intercepted and shot down a Korean commercial airliner flying over Soviet territory, killing all 269 civilians aboard. The incident quickly became an international scandal, and the Kremlin adopted a defensive posture that failed to satisfy the families or governments of the victims.

When a Malaysian commercial airliner carrying 298 people was shot down over eastern Ukraine last week — by separatists armed and supported by Russia, many in the West believe — many commentators cited eerie parallels with the 1983 incident. 

The two airline disasters certainly have their similarities — above all to the families who have suffered irreparable loss in a conflict they had nothing to do with. But they also illustrate the profoundly different Russia the world is now confronted with: an impulsively governed, ideologically rudderless petro-state whose society is crumbling from within.

The downing of the first plane at the height of revived Cold War tensions was denounced as a crime against humanity by then–U.S. President Ronald Reagan. At the time, the Soviet Union was portrayed as an “evil empire” in control of a military alliance spanning half of Europe and engaged in a massive ground invasion of Afghanistan. Just two months after the crash, a misunderstanding over a military exercise brought the U.S. and the USSR closer to a nuclear exchange than at any time other than the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is the context to remember when influential politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein describe U.S.-Russia relations as having sunk to Cold War levels.

The more recent incident ultimately stems from Russia’s decision to intervene in, and exacerbate, Ukraine’s political crisis out of concern that a former member of the USSR might opt to join the European Union. Russia refuses to acknowledge its role in backing small bands of armed, masked separatists in eastern Ukraine, and while these separatists have caused chaos and now tragedy, they have shown little aptitude for conventional warfare. The Kremlin has seized Crimea and disrupted the Donbass, but most of Ukraine continues to tiptoe westward, along with several other former Soviet republics.

The impulse to revive the Cold War among some in Washington misses the point. The scary thing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia isn’t that it’s too strong: It’s that it’s quite weak, as indeed the Soviet Union before it turned out to be. The rebels in eastern Ukraine, an irregular wannabe army too incompetent to tell the difference between a troop transport and a commercial jet, are scary not because they are likely to reconquer Eastern Europe but because they represent a lawless future that Russia is creating — both for itself and its neighbors — that is a danger to all.

Motley crew

The Cold War frame tends to present Putin as a totalitarian leader in the mold of the old Soviet Union, while his most prominent critics, a motley crew of muckraking bloggers, dissident business elites, chess champions, reality show hosts and punk rockers concentrated in Moscow, present a broadly familiar face to sympathetic Westerners. This is an attractive and easily digestible narrative, but it overstates both the extent of Putin’s control over Russia and the influence of the liberal opposition.

The truth is that Putin’s reign has hollowed out Russia’s already weak civil society. While there is no obvious threat to his power, all regimes eventually end, and Putin’s will too. When it does, it is far from clear that either a handpicked successor or a reform-minded alternative will emerge in his place. Beneath Putin’s veneer of stability, Russia is increasingly a breeding ground for the kind of violent thuggery that caused last week’s disaster. Putin encourages these elements, but as the downing of MH17 shows, that doesn’t mean he can control them.

The once mighty Soviet empire, which sacrificed millions of soldiers to defeat Nazi Germany, now outsources its wars to militias and glory seekers.

Beyond the Starbucks-studded heart of Moscow, Putin’s Russia can be a dangerous place. Hate crimes by far-right groups are common, both against ethnic minorities (who make up nearly 20 percent of the population and may include as many as 11 million migrants from other former Soviet republics) and against LGBT Russians. Vicious young men have been known to arrange meetings with the latter on online dating sites and then torture them for sport. These crimes frequently go unsolved by Russian police, who themselves have a reputation for harassing and abusing minorities. A culture of nationalism, xenophobia, male entitlement and gun fetishization flourishes online, reminiscent of a similar culture in the U.S. but with even less pushback. Even Russia’s influential anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, seen by many as a positive political alternative to Putin, has felt the need to pander to these groups.

As The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe and others have reported, these are the kind of men now terrorizing eastern Ukraine with heavy weaponry provided by the Kremlin. It is difficult to tell how many of the rebels are actually Russian citizens and how many are ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, but either way, they consume the same media and reflect the same violent cultural tendencies. The once mighty Soviet empire, which sacrificed millions of soldiers to defeat Nazi Germany, now outsources its wars to militias and glory seekers. What role might the veterans of these conflicts play if Russia’s political future is called into question?

Degrees of distance

Despite his instrumental use of these angry young men, Putin has always maintained a degree of distance from them, both in Ukraine and at home. He stokes nationalism when it suits his purposes, but he has also been criticized by younger nationalists for being insufficiently intolerant of immigrants. Workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia have flowed into Russia under Putin. They run markets, drive cabs and engage in both legal and illegal low-wage activities, attracted by Russia’s commodities-driven economic boom. Putin has generally tolerated their presence; after all, cheap, exploitable labor is good for business, and Putin has built much of his popularity on steady growth.

Even the infamous “homosexual propaganda law,” which Putin signed and which creates a deliberately vague legal basis for arresting gay rights activists, originated at the local, not the executive, level and enjoys substantial support from ordinary Russians. Putin never goes all in on bigotry: He insists that homosexuality remains legal and that he has nothing against gays. He has also notably never shown any hostility toward Jews in a country with a long history of anti-Semitism, which has by no means ended.

None of this is to defend Putin, whose regime has appeared ever more illiberal and unstable since his return to the presidency in 2011. It is merely to suggest that there are forces in Russia that Putin has selectively encouraged, but that could turn out to be more destructive than anything we’ve seen from Putin himself.

What happened over eastern Ukraine last week wasn’t a symptom of a revived superpower competition. It was one more example of the world’s largest country losing control of its own weapons and the men who wield them, the consequences of which could be far bloodier.

David Klion is a writer and editor focusing on Russia and the former Soviet Union. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Russia, Ukraine
Vladimir Putin

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter