Another Cold War? Obama says 'no' but Americans aren’t so sure

President Obama says Russia is a mere 'regional power' acting out of 'weakness' in Ukraine. But a new poll shows half of all Americans believe the US and Russia are headed back to Cold War.

Eduard Korniyenko/REUTERS
Participants wear vests depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally in Stavropol Saturday. Russia said it has no intention of sending its armed forces into Ukraine, signalling Moscow wants to ease tensions in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold war.

In Brussels for meetings with other world leaders this week, President Obama said that despite the current dispute over Ukraine, the US and Russia are not headed back to the bad old days when the two great superpowers aimed nuclear missiles at each other as a means of averting “Mutual Assured Destruction” – the deterrence policy known (without irony) as “MAD.”

“This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into,” he said. “After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. Nor does the United States, or NATO, seek any conflict with Russia.”

But according to a new Gallup poll, half of all Americans say the US in fact is headed back to Cold War – twice as many as when the Soviet Union fragmented in 1991.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Republicans are more likely to hold this view (67 percent). But a large number of Democrats (44 percent) and Independents (47 percent) do too.

The more interesting divide is by age group.

Majorities of older Americans – 54 percent 50-64 years old and 64 percent age 65 and older – anticipate another Cold War. That’s the generation that remembers “duck-and-cover” atom bomb drills at school.

But most 18-29 year-olds don’t worry about the possibility of another Cold War (just 36 percent). Similarly, far fewer younger Americans are paying attention to the situation in Ukraine than are older people.

“This difference in opinions between ages could be linked to Americans' experiences with the Cold War,” writes Gallup’s Rebecca Riffkin. “The oldest Americans in the 18- to 29-year-old age group would have been five years old when one of the death knells of the Cold War occurred – the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Overall, many in this younger age group were not alive at all during the Cold War. Americans who are older than 65, however, were at least 40 as the Cold War ended, and they grew up when tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union dominated American foreign policy.”

The Russian military incursion into Ukraine’s Crimea region and subsequent “referendum” annexing Crimea to Russia is a major challenge to the Obama administration and to US economic and military alliances in Europe.

While ratcheting up his rhetoric and economic sanctions, Obama also has made a point of not over-stating the situation.

“Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors – not out of strength but out of weakness,” he said this week.

In any case, Russia reportedly has some 40,000 troops – some reports cite larger numbers – along its border with Ukraine.

"You've seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises, but these are not what Russia would normally be doing," Obama said in an interview with CBS News. "It may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine, or it may be that they've got additional plans.”

It is the prospect of “additional plans” that has many Americans thinking in terms of a new Cold War.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the US President this week to talk about Ukraine.

“President Obama underscored to President Putin that the United States continues to support a diplomatic path in close consultation with the Government of Ukraine and in support of the Ukrainian people with the aim of de-escalation of the crisis,” the White House said in a readout of the hour-long discussion.  “President Obama made clear that this remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

The two leaders are leaving it to Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to work out any negotiated details.

At this point, it’s hard to see how Mr. Putin under any circumstances would agree to pulling out of Crimea and letting Kiev have it back. Which reminds one of what former US Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R) of California said in jest about whether the US should keep control of the Panama Canal: “Of course we should keep it. We stole it fair and square.”

And it is Putin’s military-led fait accompli in Crimea that is reviving Cold War feelings among many Americans.

“Even if U.S.-Russia tensions do not escalate to the point they did during the Cold War era, for the immediate future, Russia may be the most challenging foreign policy issue facing the US,” writes Ms. Riffkin in the Gallup poll analysis.

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