The Cold War may be over, but the battle never was
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It was called a “sister city”.
The Berlin Wall had crashed into a pile of rubble. The Cold War was thawing. The Soviet Union would soon disintegrate as well.
I worked as a reporter for WKRC-AM in Cincinnati when I was in college in 1990. The Queen City has formed a sister city partnership with Kharkiv, Ukraine. And one spring morning in 1990, I flew into the Cincinnati airport to report as officials from Kharkiv were about to land. Cincinnati officials waited at the door (remember, this was years before 9/11) to greet their counterparts.
President Dwight Eisenhower pushed Sister Cities in the mid-1950s. It was an effort to help connect American cities with cities abroad for cultural and sometimes economic exchange. The program sometimes tried to connect cities that had similar cultures, geography or history.
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As I said, it was long before 9/11. So I drove to the airport and found the gate where the flight would land. There would be a small press conference, wedged between digital television screens announcing arrivals and departures.
I was standing near the door with my microphone in my hand. The heavy metal door opened. And a few moments later, a small delegation descended the catwalk. An Eastern Orthodox religious leader from the candy-striped Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kharkiv stepped forward in front of everyone. Uninvited, he said a prayer, right next to the Delta sign. Incense flowed from his brass censer. It floated through the terminal, mingling with the smell of caramel corn and hot dogs.
A few Cincinnati officials spoke. Some Ukrainian officials spoke – through an interpreter. And then everyone was on their way. I grabbed my yellow legal size notebook. I stumbled into an adjacent door while waiting for a flight out of Tampa and knocked out some hand scripts. I then called the station from a payphone near the men’s restroom and dropped off my reports.
That day in 1990 was not so much about what was said, who was there, or what we felt. That day was about the future.
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The Soviet Union was still intact at that time. But everyone felt that things were going to be different.
I had been on the air the night the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. I kept running around the studio to get live specials on ABC News. They had several correspondents reporting from the Brandenburg Gate and Bonn. I distinctly remember a journalist leaving “West Berlin”. A few days later, his outcue changed to just “Berlin”.
I was on the air on Christmas Day in 1989 when Romanians arrested and tried dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in Bucharest. They executed Ceausescu at nightfall.
The winds of change in Eastern Europe have dominated almost all geopolitical news for years.
East Germany and West Germany reunified into the new “Germany” in the fall of 1990. In the spring of 1991, I was a student in what had been East Berlin. One sunny day, I took a long walk along the remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall. I paused for quite a while in front of the famous graffiti painted on a section of the wall depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German dictator Erich Honecker kissing. I walked through an open Brandenburg Gate where so many Germans – East and West – claimed that night in November 1989 when the wall came down.
I was shocked traveling through what had been East Germany. During a walk, my classmates and I came across a Soviet military base, with troops doing calisthenics early one morning.
It was NATO territory at this point, mind you. And the Soviet troops were on the soil of a NATO member. My classmates spoke briefly with a soldier. He gave me a Soviet military cap and a tie pin. I still have both today.
We boarded a train and went as far east as possible. We spent a few nights in Prague. Then on to Budapest.
The world was changing.
Sometimes not for the best.
Civil war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in the summer of 1991. Serbia and Croatia went there first. The bloody “ethnic cleansing” conflict in Bosnia came later and drifted into the mid-1990s.
There was an attempted “coup” against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the summer of 1991. Gorbachev eventually realized the concert was over. He dissolved the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
Although I was a “local” journalist, I did many “local” stories about the fall of Eastern Europe and the demise of the Soviet Union between 1989 and early 1992. I remember a heated debate at a symposium about why Poland was lagging behind. the rest of Eastern Europe in democratic reforms – even though the “solidarity” movement began at the Gdansk shipyards in 1980.
I took a course in graduate school devoted to understanding the 15 new, former Soviet republics. The class even set up a survey on each of these new countries. Our body of work examining every republic was more comprehensive than anything even the CIA has assembled.
A professor brought Nikita Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, to give a lecture on campus. He was also in a class I was taking on the Soviet Union. A classmate and I joked that when Khrushchev came in we had to take off our shoes and bang them on the desk in the middle of his remarks. Khrushchev’s father infamously kicked a shoe against his desk during a Filipino diplomat’s speech at the United Nations in 1960.
I covered various forums at local universities about the changing global environment and what it meant for the United States
I remember interviewing a local congressman from Ohio in the early 1990s who talked about how the federal government might soon cut defense spending, after “winning” the Cold War. Budget hawks and military doves have called this opportunity a “peace dividend.” A professor of musicology at the University of Cincinnati told me in an interview that political upheaval often drives the creative and artistic profession. He suggested that we may soon see the popularity of Hungarian and Eastern European folk music skyrocket.
I was on the early morning shift in late 1990 when news broke about diplomatic talks involving Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. As I was writing a story about Shevardnadze, my colleagues were amazed to learn that I knew he was not Russian, but Georgian. A few years later, Shevardnadze became the first ruler of an independent Georgia. I then impressed the rest of the newsroom, noting that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was not Russian, but also Georgian like Shevardnadze.
If you were a journalist at the time, it helped to know that stuff.
Hopes are shattered for the future.
The Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were the first former Soviet republics to adopt democracy. Lithuanian leader Vytautus Landsbergis and Czech leader Vaclav Havel were darlings of the West, appearing regularly in US media interviews.
The world had seemed to tilt on its axis. The Western world was overflowing with optimism. That said, Russia was forced to cut defense spending and the country plunged into a deep economic depression.
Russia and the former Soviet satellite countries were decades behind the capitalist West. Millions of people died in various proxy wars between the Western and Eastern blocs. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and fighting in Central America punctuated the Cold War.
But it has been suggested, perhaps not accurately, that the West ultimately prevailed – not militarily – but with “Madonna and Coke”.
The United States has become the world’s only superpower.
The end of the Cold War also meant two fundamental geopolitical changes. For the first time in 500 years, the “Russian Empire” was no longer expanding. He was backtracking. At the time, NATO began to encroach, almost to Russia’s doorstep. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined in the late 1990s. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined in 2004. The newest country to entered was North Macedonia in 2020.
Such interference naturally made Russia uncomfortable. NATO now dominated the spheres of influence formerly under Moscow’s tutelage.
However, by the mid-1990s communism was once again in charge in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Voters were still experimenting with democracy. But they weren’t electing “little d” Democrats.
The refrain in some Eastern European neighborhoods was that even if the communist system stumbled, at least they had food.
But after 9/11, the United States and the West suddenly faced a new enemy: terrorism.
Vladimir Putin began to methodically rebuild the Russian military and consolidate its power for more than 20 years. It is said today that Putin is trying to “rebuild the Soviet Union”.
That may not be entirely true. But it’s close.
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So why is a reconstituted Russia trying to rebuild parts of the Soviet Union? And if that’s true, has the West wasted the last three decades after dominating the Cold War?
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine did not completely erase the Western “victory” of the Cold War. But one thing is certain: the West has failed to stem Russia’s rise from the ashes. The same adversary that the United States seemed to have defeated more than three decades ago has rallied. As a result, the United States and Western Europe now face the same Cold War enemy.
The Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union may be over. But the battle never eroded.