WE ARE, it seems, about to be embraced by the chill wind of a new Cold War.
Nearly 25 years after the dramatic demise of the Iron Curtain brought an end to an East-West nuclear stand-off that had defined much of the post-Second World War era, another divide could split us into two suspicious atom-bomb-toting camps.
The Ukraine crisis is both the cause of this geopolitical rift and the source of the talk about a new Cold War.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s audacious grabbing of Crimea and his negligible respect for Ukrainian sovereignty has sparked fears that the Kremlin has returned to its old empire-building ways, and that it sees a West peddling notions of democracy as a threat to its autocratic power structure.
So we might have a new Iron Curtain running along the Russian border of the Baltic states and Poland, embracing Belarus before getting lost somewhere in Ukraine.
On one side, we are told, you have the European Union and Nato – on the other Russia and a handful of other states all wedded to the autocracy so beloved by post-Soviet leaders, long after the dark days of Josef Stalin’s reign. But to label the current crisis a new Cold War is somewhat misleading.
To begin with the world is very different today.
The clear ideological bipolarity that defined the original Cold War, and just about all the other wars from 1945 to 1989, has gone, leaving a mishmash of regional conflicts, a number of rising and falling powers and a world presided over by an economically ailing and insecure United States.
And while they might still do things differently in Russia, the country, unlike the Soviet Union, is open to the West and happy to do business. Russia, with its vast potential in sectors such as property and retail, has become a leading destination for foreign investment, and while western money has flowed one way, Russian money has travelled the other way and poured into markets in both Europe and the US.
Compare this situation to the mini-Cold Wars between the West and states such as North Korea and Iran, where only ideological divisions and suspicions and nothing else, define relationships.
For the most part, the East-West business and financial ties will survive the political tumult over Crimea, and undermine or act as a counterweight to any ideological differences between the two blocs.
Another factor that might thaw any new Cold War even before it starts is that in some areas the West needs Moscow on its side. Russia has influence in places the West has not, and this may temper any western desire to punish Moscow for its interference in Ukraine.
Anger Putin and the West’s chances of finding a solutionto the Syrian war or Iran’s nuclear programme could fade with alarming speed.
Energy is another area binding East and West together that did not exist during the Cold War, with large parts of Europe heavily dependent on Russian gas supplies.
While this dependency may limit European wriggle room, when it comes to dealing with Moscow it is worth bearing in mind that Russia relies heavily on the cash its gas brings in. We need the gas, it needs the money, and thus a relationship is born. So talk of a new Cold War is perhaps premature.
But the Ukraine crisis has laid bare differences between East and West, and made it apparent that Putin’s Russia will assert itself to protect and enhance its perceived national interests.
These factors will challenge and threaten relations but should not lead to a new Iron Curtain dividing Europe.