The Russian invasion into Crimea sent the Russia-West relationship to the lowest point in a long time and many commentators talk about the return of the Cold War: although Russian media talked about turning America into radioactive dust, few want to have a military conflict in Europe and yet the Russian aggression has to be stopped (the UN resolution on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity strongly indicates that the world condemns the invasion).
Almost 70 years ago, George Kennan — the author of the long telegram which was further elaborated in The Sources of Soviet Conduct (1947) — outlined the policy ofcontainment of the Soviet Union. Surprisingly, many of the points he made are still relevant. This post briefly reviews some of the key points in The Sources of Soviet Conduct.
In the first part of this article, Kennan describes the evolution of power in the USSR. Interestingly, he notes:
This seems similar to how the current elite in Russia came to power and why it concentrated the power to an extreme extent. Once opposition within the country was removed, the Soviets had to justify the existence and practice of the “organs of oppressions.” The solution was to blame “foreign menace” encircling the country:
Again, this seems to be similar to the wave of hunting for foreign spies and the fifth column, banning international NGO, etc. in modern Russia. The response to the menace is to build a militarized society with ever-increasing oppression of dissenting voices:
“If the Soviet government occasionally sets its signature to documents which would indicate the contrary, this is to be regarded as a tactical maneuver permissible in dealing with the enemy (who is without honor) and should be taken in the spirit of caveat emptor. Basically, the antagonism remains. It is postulated. And from it flow many of the phenomena which we find disturbing in the Kremlin's conduct of foreign policy: the secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity, the wary suspiciousness and the basic unfriendliness of purpose. These phenomena are there to stay, for the foreseeable future. There can be variations of degree and of emphasis. When there is something the Russians want from us, one or the other of these features of their policy may be thrust temporarily into the background; and when that happens there will always be Americans who will leap forward with gleeful announcements that "the Russians have changed," and some who will even try to take credit for having brought about such "changes." But we should not be misled by tactical maneuvers. These characteristics of Soviet policy, like the postulate from which they flow, are basic to the internal nature of Soviet power, and will be with us, whether in the foreground or the background, until the internal nature of Soviet power is changed.”
There are many examples of how Kennan’s predictions were validated in recent history. For example, Ukraine, Russia, U.S. and U.K. signed the Budapest memorandum in 1994 to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but Russia violated it when the moment was right. The Obama administration wanted to “reset” US-Russia relations because Russia “became a different country” but the reset apparently did not work.
“The leadership of the Communist Party is … always right, and has been always right ever since in 1929 Stalin formalized his personal power by announcing that decisions of the Politburo were being taken unanimously. … Once a given party line has been laid down on a given issue of current policy, the whole Soviet governmental machine, including the mechanism of diplomacy, moves inexorably along the prescribed path, like a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force. “
To appreciate this point in the present context, one may recall unanimous votes of the Russian parliament to allow using military force in Crimea and to accept Crimea into Russia and the standing ovation to Putin for bringing in Crimea “home.” One may also recall recurrent “true” stories of Russian diplomats about neo-nazi forces in Kiev taking power and the like as well as unprecedented pro-government propaganda and crackdown on independent media.
“In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward "toughness." While the Kremlin is basically flexible in its reaction to political realities, it is by no means unamenable to considerations of prestige. Like almost any other government, it can be placed by tactless and threatening gestures in a position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism. The Russian leaders are keen judges of human psychology, and as such they are highly conscious that loss of temper and of self-control is never a source of strength in political affairs. They are quick to exploit such evidences of weakness. For these reasons, it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.”
In the third part of the article, Kennan evaluates the U.S. prospect of winning in the Cold War. His main argument is that while the Soviet system can show superior performance over relatively short periods of time, it is not robust in the long run because violence and coercion have limited effects on people (e.g., one can’t compel to work somebody around the clock in all times) and economy (e.g., quality falls) in the long run. In short, “the future of Soviet power may not be by any means as secure as Russian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men in the Kremlin.” This appears a valid point now as well because the Russian economy is resource-dominated and sooner or later commodity prices can collapse thus bringing the Russian economy to a stall or an outright collapse.
In the fourth part of the article, Kennan draws implications for policy:
In other words, Kennan expected the Soviet Union to keep poking the boundaries of what’s allowed. The response should be containment:
and, in Kennan’s view, the stakes were high:
While the prospect of a nuclear war is limited now, the gross violation of the Budapest memorandum can derail efforts to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons, because the only force that can stop aggression of a large country against a small country is a nuclear bomb. Over time, as more countries accumulate nuclear arsenal and means of delivery, the chance of regional conflicts with limited use of nuclear weapons is likely to increase, which in turn raises the probability of a much larger conflict with massive nuclear strikes and counter-strikes (see more discussion here).
Given this “end game,” the stakes are high now again.
Cross-posted from Vox Ukraine.