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Does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signal the start of a new Cold War? Foreign policy specialists weigh in.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2004.VLADIMIR RODIONOV/ITAR-TASS/AFP via Getty Images

Foreign policy watchers are warning of a new Cold War possibly emerging between Russia and the West, as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military continues to shell Ukraine in a bloody invasion that’s triggered wide-ranging economic sanctions against his government by the US and its allies.

“We have entered a new cold war between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism,” said Robert Reich, a former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, in a recent Twitter post.

During the Cold War, “the main danger came not from policy makers purposefully deciding to use nuclear weapons,” tweeted Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, early Wednesday.


“The main danger came from ‘inadvertent escalation,’” Radchenko tweeted. “There were several moments when we could have fallen off the brink. Recall October 1962, and all the things that went wrong (the shooting down of a U2 ... the submarine standoff etc). All these could have ended badly.”

Radchencko referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, a 13-day saga that began when US surveillance aircraft found proof Soviets were building a missile base in Cuba, 90 miles from US soil, with missiles that could reach major American cities in just minutes.

When President Kennedy demanded the missiles be removed, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev balked. For days, Kennedy met with advisers to discuss options, knowing the wrong move could escalate tensions and lead to nuclear war.

Kennedy settled on a naval blockade rather than a military strike on Cuba, but negotiations with Khrushchev continued for days. Finally the superpowers reached an agreement: The Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba, and the United States would end the naval blockade and remove its own nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Radchenko in his Twitter thread urged officials to work to prevent the current violence in Ukraine from spreading.


“Inadvertent escalation is a thing,” he tweeted. “That’s why in the midst of all tensions we must continue to stay calm. Even as we condemn Russia’s brutalities and (rightly) apply strong sanctions, we should stay focused and not allow this war to widen.”

That’s also why, he continued, he’s criticized no-fly zones for Russian aircraft.

“Not because establishing a no-fly zone immediately leads to a nuclear war,” Radchenko wrote. “That’s not how it works. But it would be a step-up on the ladder of escalation that will result in a direct hot war between Russia and the West.”

Europe and Canada said Sunday they would close their airspace to Russian airlines after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a combat veteran and 2020 candidate in the Democratic presidential primary, tweeted recently that a new Cold War’s been “firmly established” amid the hostilities.

“Warmongers have got what they wanted: firmly establish new Cold War, guaranteed trillion$ for the Power Elite (including military industrial security complex and mainstream media),” Gabbard tweeted.

María Isabel Puerta Riera, a visiting professor of political science at Valencia College who studies the impact of authoritarianism on exiled communities, tweeted Tuesday that a “New Cold War” has begun.

“The first Cold War was about the confrontation between Capitalism and Communism,” Riera tweeted. “The New Cold War is about the survival of Democracy vs. Autocracy. That’s why you have left and right illiberalism rooting for Putin.”


But what do these academics mean when they say Cold War?

Generally speaking, the term “Cold War” refers to the period spanning from the conclusion of World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The often tense decades were marked by a no-holds-barred arms race between the US and the former USSR; proxy wars involving the two powers in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; relentless espionage and counter-espionage campaigns from the dueling intelligence services; and occasional brushes with barely-avoided nuclear annihilation, such as the aforementioned missile crisis.

The Cold War years also carried an aura of interminability, with the US and the Soviets constantly jockeying for even the slightest advantage on the world stage, decade after decade.

Stephen Walt, an international affairs professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy,” suggested in a lengthy Twitter thread Tuesday that the present Ukraine crisis could lead to both sides coming away with concessions - after a prolonged, painful period.

“It is quite possible that none of the major parties in the Ukraine crisis/war are going to achieve their maximum goals,” Walt tweeted. “In this scenario, Putin won’t get a quick victory, a docile Ukrainian puppet state, a weak and divided NATO, and a rapid return to business as usual. Good.”

Similarly, Walt added, “Ukraine won’t get to join the EU or NATO anytime soon (esp. if Russia wins in the short-term), and perhaps the best it could hope for in a future peace settlement would be some form of armed neutrality.”


Walt said that under this scenario, the US and its allies won’t see a “rapid Russian defeat,” an independent Ukraine headed toward alignment with the west, or the peaceful removal of Putin from power. And if no one gets everything they want, Walt tweeted, the question becomes whether there are “future arrangements” everyone can live with, with each camp satisfying some but not all of its priorities.

“To get there, everyone involved will have to revise their current expectations of what they can realistically expect to achieve,” Walt tweeted. “As near as I can tell, no one is even close to moving in that direction yet.”

Don’t expect the hot war in Ukraine to cool off anytime before then, Walt continued.

“Until that happens, the war will continue, and the consequences will become more severe with each passing day,” Walt tweeted. “The lesson: starting wars is easy; stopping them is hard.”

Alexei Navalny, a jailed Russian opposition figure, alluded to the Cold War-era USSR in a Twitter thread early Wednesday skewering Putin for launching the current invasion of Ukraine and calling on Russians to oppose the president’s aggression.

“I am from the USSR myself,” Navalny tweeted. “I was born there. And the main phrase from there - from my childhood - was ‘fight for peace.’ I call on everyone to take to the streets and fight for peace.”


Navalny stressed that Putin doesn’t represent all Russia and praised the demonstrators in his country who were recently arrested for protesting the Ukraine invasion.

“Putin is not Russia,” Navalny tweeted. “And if there is anything in Russia right now that you can be most proud of, it is those 6824 people who were detained because - without any call - they took to the streets with placards saying ‘No War.’ "

Material from Globe wire services including the Associated Press was used in this report.

Travis Andersen can be reached at