Russia’s Cold War habit is hard to break

A few weeks ago, Mikhail Gorbachev — the last leader of the Soviet Union and the man who did more than anyone to end the Cold War — told the German newspaper Bild that it is possible “to recognize all the features of a new Cold War in today’s world.” The United States “has already dragged” Russia into it, Gorbachev has said, in an effort “to realize its general triumphalist idea.”

But is the current antagonism between the U.S. and Russia really “new”? And is it credible to place the blame overwhelmingly on the U.S., as Gorbachev and certainly the Kremlin are inclined to do? To answer these questions, we must look to history — beginning long before Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain Speech” in 1946.

In fact, the adversarial relationship between Russia and the West began over a century before the Cold War. Back in the 1820s, Russia emerged not only as the principal victor in the Napoleonic wars, but also as the most conservative — or, more accurately, reactionary — force in Europe. Under Czars Alexander I and Nicholas I, it stood ready to counter any sign of a renewal of the “revolutionary plague” infecting the continent’s monarchies.

By 1830, the rift between the “Holy Alliance” countries (Russia, Prussia and Austria) and the rest of Europe was deep. And, when Russia suppressed two “color” revolutions — the Polish revolt of 1830-1831 and the Hungarian revolution of 1848-1849 — it became even deeper. Both interventions incited a massive surge in anti-Russian sentiment across the continent.

To strengthen Russia’s position, Nicholas I looked to the Orthodox populations in the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire, with his naval minister, Alexander Menshikov, demanding in 1853 that Russia be named an official protector of the Ottoman Empire’s 12 million Orthodox citizens. When the demand was rejected, Russian troops occupied Ottoman-controlled Moldavia and Wallachia — a move that eventually…

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