Cold War Lessons for Dealing with Russia

Newly released archival material offers insights into the current Ukraine crisis.

As Russia tightens its grip on the Crimean peninsula amid heightening East-West tensions, observers have drawn evocative parallels between the current crisis and the Cold War.

In some ways such comparisons are misplaced. Clearly, Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet behemoth. It is a regional, not a global player. Economically, culturally, and socially, it is too tightly integrated with the West for it to be easily shut off with another Iron Curtain. Moreover, unlike the Soviet Union, which represented an alternative vision of modernity—Communism—Russia represents no such thing. Putin’s foreign policy is not underpinned by a coherent ideology.

Nevertheless, Soviet decision-making during the Cold War provides useful reference points for understanding Putin’s actions. For twenty-five years scholars have scrutinized declassified Soviet records, translated and published by the Cold War International History Project. They have unwrapped mysteries, deciphered enigmas and solved many of the riddles that had plagued Western perceptions of Soviet policies at the height of the Cold War. With hindsight, we can say see where the West got it wrong.

Lesson 1. Russia does not always act opportunistically. Western perception of Moscow’s actions have been colored by an assumption that Putin ‘is out to get us,’ if he is given a chance. Best, then, not to give him one. The intellectual forefather of this line of thought was none other than George Kennan who wrote in the Long Telegram of February 1946 that “Soviet power… does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, it is highly sensitive to logic of force.”

The answer to the Russian challenge, in Kennan’s view, was containment, a word that has already crept up in relation to the Crimean situation in commentary by Western scholars and policy makers. Yet the key assumptions of “containment” strategy turn out to be misplaced.

Stalin, recent Cold War scholarship shows, prioritized great-power cooperation with the West in the immediate postwar years, evidenced in his approach to civil wars in Greece and China and to the crisis in Iran, and his initial preference for a unified and neutral Germany. It was not until the Marshall Plan of 1947, which, Stalin thought, unfairly interfered with ‘his’ sphere of influence, that he decided firmly on taking his spoils and shutting his bloc off from the West. Stalin initially preferred Western recognition of what he thought to be his legitimate interests to mindless, opportunistic expansion.

Putin, likewise, had tried to work with the West. It is easy to forget amid the Crimean passions that he was supportive of George W. Bush’s war on terror and even volunteered, at one point, to join NATO. In days not so long ago, Putin was an enthusiastic advocate of a “reset” in Russia’s relations with the West. It may well be that, like Stalin, Putin is not at all ‘out to get us.’ He may simply be reacting to changing circumstances seeing his dreams of great-power cooperation impaled on the horns of another big “M”: not the Marshall Plan but the Magnitsky Act.

Lesson 2. Russia does not always act strategically. This is something that Cold War-era policy makers found very difficult to comprehend. When in 1962 Nikita Khrushchev shipped off Soviet missiles to Cuba, the assumption in Washington was that he was seeking to redress the nuclear missile imbalance vis-à-vis the United States. Cuba offered a perfect strategic platform for holding a knife right to America’s ‘soft underbelly.’

In reality, however, Khrushchev was not so much motivated by far-fetched strategic calculations as reacted emotionally to what he perceived was a credible threat to the Cuban revolution. The Soviets missiles, in his view, were a magic solution that would prevent a probable American invasion to topple the Castro regime. Khrushchev imposed his harebrained schemes on the senior leadership at a time when his growing cult of personality practically shut out alternative opinions from reaching his ear.

Likewise, for all the talk about the Russian naval base, Putin’s play in the Crimea may well be more emotional than strategic, a response to perceived inevitability of the loss of Ukraine to Western plotting confounded by stifling of policy discussion that leaves no scope for alternative views. Like Khrushchev, Putin has been unable to see through the haze of his own propaganda.