THE BLOG
11/07/2014 08:38 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

25 Years Later, Another Wall Is Rising Between the West and Russia

GERARD MALIE via Getty Images

VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA -- I was 13 when I watched TV pictures of the Berlin Wall crumbling on the euphoric days of November 1989. I was a boy living far away, in the Soviet Far East, but the historic significance of the moment was not lost on me -- it was about much more than just East and West Germany reunifying. It was about the Cold War coming to a close. The new era of global peace and collaboration was dawning, in which Moscow would join hands with Washington and other world capitals. Such was the main message of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Western leaders, the prevailing discourse of the news media and foreign policy pundits, all of that, as a politically literate kid, I avidly followed -- and believed.

True, this feeling of optimism was tinged with a nagging worry. Even though the Soviet media largely put a positive spin on the events in eastern Europe, it was apparent that the empire was losing its satellites. Was it a good thing? Could it diminish the status our nation had proudly enjoyed, sharing with America the superpower status? After all, like almost all of my compatriots, I was brought up on the narratives of Russian greatness, and even Gorbachev's "new thinking" was not able to change this deeply ingrained mentality. Yet this apprehension was overshadowed by the overall mood of hopefulness.

Twenty-five years have passed since the wall was torn down. NATO identifies Russia as the principal security threat to the West, alongside the Islamic State and Ebola, and prepares to deploy a rapid response force close to Russian borders to deter possible aggression from the East, while the EU and the U.S. tighten the noose of economic sanctions on Russia. Moscow is engaged in nuclear saber-rattling to remind the West of the possible costs of military action against Russia, while making efforts to form a grand anti-U.S. alliance with China. And the parties to a new Cold War are clinched in an intense ideological fight, though this time it centers not on communism versus capitalism, but rather democracy versus autocracy and human rights versus traditional values. Closing the symbolic circle, Ukraine, which replaced the Cold War Germany as the main frontline state, is now building a physical wall at the border to protect itself from Russia.

How did we get to the sad situation in which we are finding ourselves now? How was the chance missed to build a safer international order after the end of the Cold War? Back in 1997, former Prime Minister of Australia Paul Keating prophetically stated: "The great question for Europe is no longer how to embed Germany in Europe -- that has been achieved -- but how to involve Russia in a way which secures the continent during the next century." Unfortunately, Keating's warnings, as well as similar appeals from others, were not heeded. The end of the Cold War, epitomized by the Berlin Wall destruction, quickly came to be seen by the West as its own triumphant victory and the USSR/Russia's unconditional surrender. Hence Russia was to be treated accordingly -- as a second-rank country, a regional power at best, that was expected to obediently follow whatever directions may have come from Washington and Brussels.

THE "THIRD WALL" -- ISOLATING RUSSIA

The problem was that the Russians did not share this view of themselves as a defeated nation obliged to accept the victors' terms. At first, Moscow hoped that it would still be dealt with as a more or less equal partner in constructing the new international order. Before long, these hopes were dashed. Not only did the West deny Russia a meaningful stake in the world governance, but it also continued to treat it as a potential enemy, which was manifested most dramatically in NATO's eastward enlargement, extending all the way to the areas that Russia has always considered crucial for its security. The response of Russia, when it somewhat recovered from the shock of the Soviet Union collapse, was predictably forceful. First, in 2007, came Putin's Munich speech, where, addressing the West, he laid down Moscow's red lines. This was followed by the 2008 war with Georgia. And now the Ukraine crisis is unfolding, complete with the Crimea annexation and the war in Donbass. This confrontation cycle may not end with Ukraine. Potential flashpoints include Moldova, the Baltic states and the Caucasus.

During the last hundred years, the building of "walls" seems to have become an established business in relations between Russia and the rest of Europe. In 1919, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau urged the newly independent states in eastern Europe to form a cordon sanitaire, a defensive alliance against the Bolshevik Russia in order to quarantine the spread of communism to western Europe.

In 1961, Moscow and its client communist regime in East Berlin resolved to erect a barrier to isolate the German Democratic Republic, and the entire Eastern Bloc, from the Western subversion. The "Third Wall" in Europe is now being built by both sides -- with equal zeal. The West is trying to isolate Putin's Russia economically and diplomatically so as to make it a pariah state. The Kremlin is clamping down on liberal NGOs, severing humanitarian exchange programs and ramping up anti-Western hysteria.

In a throwback to ideological battles between the capitalist West and communist East, Putin's Russia is not without its admirers in Europe and the United States. They are mainly found among the more extreme elements -- the far right sympathize with Putin for his nationalist credo and support of conservative Christian values, while the left radicals like Putin's anti-Americanism. However, the mainstream Western elites seem to be furious with Putin and eager to pick up fight with a resurgent Russia. After all, was not Moscow the loser in the bipolar rivalry? "Russia did not accept the outcome of the Cold War. That is what all this is about," as Anders Rasmussen, recently retired NATO chief, put it when referring to the root cause of the tensions between Russia and the West.

Watching the Third Wall rising in Europe cannot help but stir some memories from my earlier childhood. I grew up in a coastal town that was home to a major naval installation where the Soviet Pacific Fleet's strategic submarines were repaired and maintained. Almost every kid there knew that our town was high on the American hit list of Soviet targets. That was the high point of the Cold War that came to be known as the "nuclear scare." I still very vividly remember that haunting fear of an imminent nuclear attack. I also remember the shooting down, in September 1983, of a South Korean Boeing which strayed into the Soviet airspace -- invoking recent eerie parallels with another Asian passenger jet whose flight tragically ended over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. And I still remember the words of Ronald Reagan, who called my country the "empire of evil."

Today historians tell us that, back then, the world was much closer to a nuclear Armageddon than most people realized. Probably we were just lucky to avoid mutual annihilation in the era of the Berlin Wall. Will we be as fortunate in the Third Wall Age?

PHOTO GALLERY
Berlin Wall 50th Anniversary From LIFE.com