Vol. 3, No. 20 (October 15, 2010)

The Cold war: A Russian perspective

Vladimir Pechatnov, Dr.
Professor, Chair
European and American Studies Department
Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)
Editorial Note: What follows is an excerpt from the speech Prof. Pechatnov delivered at Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy’s Global Perspective Series on September 27, 2010.  

The Cold War remains a matter of intense discussion in many countries both because of the enormous issues it involves and the differences in opinions about them.  Today, I would like to focus on three key questions: What was the Cold War about? Why did it end the way it did? And what lessons can we learn from it? Had I been speaking to you in Soviet times, my title would have been “The Russian Perspective,” but those days are long past and so what I am going to say is only one of many although it is shared by many others as well.
As far as the first question—What was the Cold War about?—there are three main interpretations: the ideological which views that conflict as a clash of ideologies and argues that the conflict began with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and ended only with Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking;” the Realpolitik which presents that conflict as an unusual bi-polar phase of great power competition and argues the conflict began long before 1917 and will continue into the future albeit in a milder form, and the cultural which sees the Cold War as a chapter in the long clash of civilizations between Orthodox authoritarian and collectivist Russia and the liberal individualistic Catholic/Protestant West.

As you know, many analysts pick one or another of these perspectives, but in my view, the Cold War reflected all of them and was thus a messy mixture of ideology, geopolitics and culture, in which each reinforced the other two.  That shouldn’t surprise us given that most historical phenomena involve a variety of factors and can’t be reduced to a single explanation.  

Obviously, Realpolitik and geopolitics played essential roles, especially after World War II when there were only two great powers remaining and a large number of power vacuums between them around the world.  Once the threat of a common enemy—the axis powers—disappeared, these two powers began to compete in earnest for influence among all the other states.  People in both the Soviet Union and the West saw their opponent as possessing a hostile ideology as well as a huge military capability and thus a threat to its existence or at least to its own view of what it deserved as a droit de regard.

Had the ideological factor been absent, this geopolitical rivalry would have taken more traditional and hence restrained forms.  But given the presence of this ideological clash, each side viewed the other in more apocalyptic terms, thus leading each to behave in ways that made the Cold War more intense, global and dangerous.

But at the same time, the cultural dimension added an additional complicating factor.  Russia has always been a country standing between East and West and never belonging completely to one or the other.  Since the 13th century, its relationship with the West has been particularly difficult, with Russians usually viewing the West as a cultural and security challenge and many in the West viewing Russia as a huge and powerful authoritarian state.  The 1917 revolution instead of overcoming this divide as many of its authors hoped had the opposite effect of deepening this divide.

To sum up, the Cold War was a confrontation between the two social systems (and power blocs headed by the Soviet Union and the United States) which had geopolitical, ideological and cultural dimensions, was global in scale and was conducted by all means short of big hot war between the two antagonists.  Because of this combination of factors, the Cold War was in my view inevitable—to the extent there is inevitability in history.  But the shape of the conflict might have been different, perhaps better if the two sides had been more prepared for compromise and much worse if one or both sides behaved more irresponsibly given the dangers of nuclear war.

One of the most important features of the Cold War was each side’s possession of nuclear weapons.  On the one hand, such weapons made the arms race extraordinarily expensive with negative consequences for both societies.  And on the other, because of their lethal power, nuclear weapons led both sides to avoid taking steps that might have led to a nuclear exchange.  Indeed, they led to a fairly stable system which some historians have called “the long peace.”

The Cold War competition had some positive consequences for each side.  The Soviet development of space technology prompted the United States to respond and develop its educational system and technological base.  Indeed, to use the words of Arnold Toynbee, “the Soviet Union became a functional equivalent of the Devil that forced us into doing what we should have done anyway.”  That became obvious when with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the US fell into a kind of complacency that helped bring on the current financial and economic crisis.  Moreover, in the absence of a unifying “Soviet threat,” the United States would hardly have launched the Marshall Plan or rehabilitated Germany and Japan, steps that led to the European Union of today.  The Soviet Union’s counter-effort with Comecon, which reflected a similar impulse, did not survive, however.  

The Cold War balance was based on deterrence, a system that forced both sides to act with greater responsibility than might otherwise have been the case.  Had there been no nuclear balance, it is not difficult to imagine many times over nearly half a century that the situation could have gotten out of control. 

Many people in both the West and the Soviet Union thought that this arrangement would continue for a long time to come.  John Gaddis was one of the few who asked in 1987 “How the Cold War Might End.”  And while his answer was not quite right, he at least asked the right question, something not many others did.  That is why I want to turn my attention to the second question: “Why did the Cold War end the way it did?”

With all the benefit of hindsight, the answer seems obvious.  First of all, the West had a better model: capitalism, involving markets and democracy, proved to be more productive both in guns and in butter than did Soviet socialism.  Moreover, the Soviet alliance model was inferior to the US-led Western alliance.  Second, the West had much greater resources than the Soviet bloc, especially after China left the Soviet orbit.  Third, the US had a better strategy for prosecuting the conflict, one rooted in NSC-68, something the Soviet leadership did not have.  That is an interesting paradox because the hyper-centralized Soviet system in many respects lacked a plan while the pluralist West had one.  That is not to say that Moscow did not have some strategic guidelines, but its vision was deeply flawed, fundamentally distorted by ideological wishful thinking.
Given this correlation of forces, it is clear that the Soviet Union never had a real chance to win the Cold War.  Western preponderance lay behind the policy of containment, one that was based on the assumption that given Soviet weakness, all the West had to do was maintain its own strength and vitality, block Soviet expansionism, and facilitate the demise of the USSR by pressure overt and covert.  The USSR might have achieved a draw if the West had mishandled the conflict—even stagnant systems can maintain themselves for a long time—but it could not have won.

But in the case of the Cold War, the accidents of history—the famous “human factor”—intervened in such a way as to allow for a quick and relatively peaceful dissolution of Soviet power.  Mikhail Gorbachev was no Deng: he unleashed forces of change but having lost control of them preferred to accept the dissolution of Soviet power rather than stopping it by force.  That led to a kind of velvet revolution.  George Kennan, the main architect of containment, prophesized in 1946 that in 10-15 years the Soviet system would either “mellow” or “break up.”  It took longer than that, was messier, and mellowed before it broke up, but in general Kennan was right. 

Kennan was also right in foreseeing the dynamics of a future Soviet collapse.  Kennan always thought that the Kremlin masters, whose rule was based on iron discipline and total obedience rather than compromise and mutual accommodation, were so alienated from their own people that in case of a grave legitimacy crisis, the system would have very few defenders.  Hence instead of a civil war there would likely be a swift and bloodless collapse of the Soviet regime.  But in the wake of that collapse, as Kennan clearly saw, there would be no political force capable of running the country more or less effectively because communist rule had destroyed civil-society and all capacity for self-organization.  So, if Communist Party is incapacitated, Soviet Russia would, in Kennan’s words, “almost overnight turn from one of the mightiest into one of the weakest and miserable nations of the world…”. 

Had Gorbachev read Kennan and realized this causal connection (as Deng and his Chinese colleagues most definitely had), he might have thought twice before abruptly terminating the Communist monopoly on power. 

Even more remarkably, Kennan foresaw a chain reaction between internal and external dissolution of the Soviet empire.  He always considered Eastern Europe to be the most vulnerable part of that empire ready to run away should the Moscow control seriously weaken.  But that loss, as he predicted, would deal such a blow to Kremlin’s legitimacy and self-confidence that it would “unleash an avalanche downfall of Soviet influence and prestige which would go beyond satellites countries and reach the heart of the Soviet Union itself.”

Our final question is thus what lessons have we in Russia learned from our country’s experience in the World War—and as a result, what has changed in Russian foreign policy since the end of that conflict and what has not?

Some of the changes have been dramatic and are obvious.  First of all, Russian policymakers now operate from a much narrow resource base than Soviet leaders did during the Cold War.  Second, there has been a radical de-ideologization of Russian foreign policy.  Third, Russia has radically downscaled its military and security requirements.  Instead, its primary foreign policy goals are rather modest: to secure the new borders and to have stable, friendly or at least neutral governments in neighboring countries.  Russia doesn’t want to restore the Soviet Union because as Vladimir Putin once said: “those who do not miss the USSR have no hearts but those who want to recreate it have no brains.  And consequently, Russia pursues a so-called multi-vector foreign policy developing mutually beneficial ties with all major power centers without regard to the nature of their political systems.

Yet on a deeper geopolitical and cultural level there is some continuity with the past.  A great power mentality, a vulnerability complex, a zealous defense of Russian sovereignty and identity, and a mixed attitude toward the West are all elements that are re-emerging.  And this is happening not simply because of historic inertia, but also as a reaction to the Western and especially American policies.  NATO expansion to the East and the advance of its infrastructure all the way to the Russian borders, a forceful regime change policy in the former Yugoslavia, active resistance to Russia-led integration of the post-Soviet space and cultivation of anti-Russian forces there have caused growing Russian concern.  Clearly, for the U.S. and its allies, Russia’s legitimate security interests are less important than expanding their own influence and locking in Cold War geopolitical gains. 

For the Russian policy makers it has become clear that the end of the Cold War and of the ideological divide hasn’t done away with interstate rivalry and with old Western syndromes concerning Russia as a bastion of ideas alien and even hostile to Western culture and values.  As a result, today, we live not in an ideal world of perpetual harmony, but the world we do live in is a big improvement over that of the Cold War period.  There are and will be conflicts, but none of them carries within itself the threats that earlier ones did.  And that is real progress, even if we have not gone all the way along the road we hope to follow.