We are watching an ominous scenario: Putin is not only arming Ukrainian separatists but is also massing Russian troops on the Russian/Ukrainian border. It looks like the kind of saber-rattling associated with the Cold War (1945-1989).
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the “West” (defacto: the United States) lurched from crisis to crisis. Josef Stalin’s suspicions/paranoia about the behavior of the Allied forces in World War II led him to seize all of central Europe. The Soviet Bloc, consisting in part of Eastern Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, was the bulwark that would protect the USSR from attack from the West. There would be no repeat of Hitler’s attack in 1941. Crisis moments erupted over the status of Berlin, as well as Polish, Hungarian and Czech independence movements in an era where no citizens of the East had contact with or travel opportunities to the West. The Cold War froze international relations in place.
But the Ukraine (like Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, the Black Sea states and the “Stans”) was a Soviet Socialist Republic during the Cold War. The Ukraine was not an international player in the Cold War: it was one of 15 Soviet Republics in the USSR. When the USSR disintegrated in 1990, the Soviet Republics went their own way and developed new relationships with the major remnant of the USSR, Russia.
On one level, then, Putin’s actions in seizing the Crimea and supporting Russians living in the Eastern Ukraine is not akin to Cold War control over states seized by the Red Army by 1945. The crisis in the Ukraine is the evolution of the relationship of Russia to former USSR states. The most likely resolution of this entanglement is the partition of the Ukraine. Time will tell.
However, in an even more fundamental way, this is NOT Cold War II. The Cold War was also an ideological confrontation of two economic systems: capitalism versus communism. Each side was committed to antithetical economies and political views. This is no longer the case. Russia today is a third world economy in a capitalist system. Russia is using its natural resources rather than its industrial base to build economic relationships with the world, devoid of any ideological tint. Putin is running a dictatorship, but he has to pay attention to the stock markets.
The ICBMs (InterContinentalBallisticMissiles) are now rusting in their silos both in the US and in Russia. They once threatened a hot resolution to the cold war. That threat has not been revived. Tanks on the ground and even missile strikes against planes are not the equivalent of the threat of ICBMs. The battle for the Eastern Ukraine is a painful event, but it is a local, not a global event.