Cold War Lessons for Dealing with Russia

March 25, 2014 Topic: History Region: Russia

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.

Lesson 3. Remember the Brezhnev Doctrine? After the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, Moscow claimed the right to intervene anywhere it felt its core interest—preservation of socialism—was at stake. In fact, the doctrine was in operation before Brezhnev, for in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev ordered the invasion of Hungary when it looked like it would slip from the Soviet hands. Washington looked on, full of reproach, but not much more than that. For it was clear to all involved that the Soviets held their hands on the button, and who would want to exchange Budapest and Prague for London and Paris? Moscow, likewise, knew where the red line was, and did not dare to violate what it perceived to be the core Western “sphere of influence.”

This logic still holds. For all the international outcry, Putin knows that Crimea is widely perceived to be in the Russian “sphere of influence,” and that no Western power will want to risk a war or even a prolonged confrontation with Russia over Crimea, if not over Ukraine. It’s a bad precedent, to be sure, but so were Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and yet the Soviets never made the feared dash for the English Channel. Instead, the Soviet empire collapsed from its many problems, not least the dead weight of conquest.

Lesson 4. Containment helps authoritarian regimes consolidate their power. Détente, by contrast, fosters dissent. The breakout of the Cold War coincided with a wave of Stalinist repression against Soviet intellectuals. The Korean War helped Mao Zedong in China to carry out domestic “thought reform” against those who dared to disagree with his policies. Pyongyang resorted to warmongering every time Kim Il-sung needed to destroy his imagined political opponents. Castro would have not been nearly as successful in repressing dissent were it not for the fortress-under-siege mentality that Cuba succumbed to in the wake of the Bay of Pigs.

Putin is no exception. The Crimean crisis has given him a golden opportunity to tighten his grip on power. His annexation speech of March 18 contained ominous references to “national traitors” and the “fifth column” allegedly supported by the West. The Russian government further tightened its control of the media and recently blocked websites of opposition activists like Aleksey Navalny. In the patriotic frenzy, the corrupt kleptocrat Putin has become the savior of the nation, his hold on power practically guaranteed by the deepening conflict with the West. Whatever fragile sprouts of openness survived the fifteen years of Putin’s rule, they are quickly withering away as Russia edges towards another “Cold War.”

The Cold War was punctuated by a series of international crises, some of which brought the world to the brink of catastrophe, while others deteriorated into quagmires whose painful legacies and unhealed wounds persist even today. Cuba, Afghanistan, Korea and the Middle East are all reminders that the road from dialogue to confrontation is often very, very short. Doors are shut and keys slip out of hands.

Our Cold War experience can offer guidance in avoiding past mistakes. First, dialogue matters. By pretending that one’s opponent is a maniac on a spree can only lead to making him one. Posturing and ultimatums don’t work. The Cold War has shown that Moscow cannot be forced into reverse. It can only choose to reverse itself. The reality is that the West has lost Crimea, and there is nothing it can do about it, short of war. Washington should instead explore the scope for linking de-escalation with prospects of a new “reset” in East-West relations, giving Russia a greater voice in international organizations like the IMF and World Bank (both being Putin’s long-time aspirations) and perhaps even doing away with legislation like the Magnitsky Act, whose main effect so far has been to rub salt into Putin’s wounded pride.

Second, democratic rebellions at the periphery do not and will not lead to a revolution at the center. The fact that the people of Hungary and Czechoslovakia rose up against the Soviet rule did not lead to the fall of Communism. By contrast, Soviet political reforms in the 1980s paved way to peaceful transition to democracy in Eastern Europe. Color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, far from serving as catalysts for Russia’s democratization, tended to have the opposite effect. The recent events in Ukraine have dealt a near-death blow to the prospects of democracy in Russia. Yet without a democratic Russia, there can hardly be a democratic Ukraine, a democratic Caucasus, or a democratic Central Asia. It is therefore important to keep Russia engaged rather than isolated, for isolation breeds ignorance and chauvinism who are poor midwives to freedom.

Third, Russia, under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin has desperately sought recognition as an equal by the West. Such recognition not only entails respect for Russia’s interests in Ukraine and the “near abroad,” but also Russia’s constructive involvement in key international problems, something that we have seen very little of since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, from Afghanistan, to the Middle East, to Europe, an iron curtain of a kind has descended along the Russian perimeter, practically barring Moscow from having a voice at the table. Today, the chickens of post-Cold War unilateralism are coming home to roost. A confrontation with Moscow will mean that regional problems like North Korea, Iran and Syria cease to be merely difficult and become utterly impossible.