The Only Thing That Never Changes, Is That Everything Always Changes…Except in Putin’s Russia.
What was once true in Soviet Russia, remains little altered in Putin’s Russia…George Kennan saw it all & gave us ‘Containment’ as a remedy.
“At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes everyone whom he meets; — he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! Liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to everyone!…/…But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or by treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader…/…Has he not also another object, which is that they (the people) may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him?…/…And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must always be getting up a war.”
Plato, The Republic (1).
Just over 76 years ago, on February 22nd 1946, George Kennan, and American diplomat living in Moscow, sent an 8000 word telegram to President Truman’s State Department.
Now regarded as a foundational U.S. document to rival the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence, in what became known as ‘the long telegram,’ Kennan made policy recommendations based on “his analysis of the cultural and historical forces that shaped the motives of Soviet leaders and influenced Soviet conduct around the globe.”
Kennan suggested that “the problem of how to cope with [the Soviet] force [is] undoubtedly (the) greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face. It should be point of departure from which our political general staff work at present juncture should proceed.”
And those words have a cyclical resonance now, like the proverbial bad penny rolling back into Moscow. The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought about the end of the Cold War, and ushered in the chance for a new Russia, and for a short time both the Russian people and the West brought into new possibilities. But that hope has largely dissolved under the reign of Vladimir Putin who has become increasingly dictatorial and oppressive at home, and increasingly aggressive abroad.
The reasons why are manifold and, whatever stance you might take on the issue of Putin’s Russia it’s hard to deny that the Russia he promised at his inauguration is a long way from the Russia we have today.
In the West, as I detailed in my last post, the end of the Cold War was taken to mean the victory of the West over communism; of democracy, and of capitalism, over communism. This resulted in an ‘end of history’ mentality that weakened democracies everywhere with the assumption that democracy was the default political system, that the idea of democracy had, in itself, become self evident.
We had forgotten that a healthy, functioning democracy requires it to be worked for; for it to be fought for. Plato knew that democracy was vulnerable (1) to the rise of demagoguery, and of oligarchy, and that the truth, such a fragile concept, was always going to be at risk of being overwhelmed by propaganda.
Tim Snyder said that with the ‘victory’ over communism, and the Western prevalence of the end of history mentality, the West lost its’ fear of oligarchy, and empire or imperialism, and forgot “the organic connection of democracy to ethical commitment and physical courage.”
The war with Ukraine has restored that somewhat; it has shaken the comforting democratic complacency off and part of the amnesia has fallen away, partially restoring some recognition in the worth of democracy.
But Putin’s victims in Ukraine, even in the midst of their ‘imperfect’ democracy — yet to be recognised or acknowledged by those bastions of post-WWII Western civilisation, the EU and NATO — still understand far better than most in the West that democracy does not come easily. That it is not the default political solution.
That it is, above all else, worth fighting for.
And worth dying for.
And whilst communism might have outlived its’ glory days, Vladimir Putin endeavours to ensure that Russia has not. Even as the rest of the world was at the UNGA Putin remained isolated at home, ordering a partial mobilisation and once again threatening the West with nuclear holocaust; threats that were roundly condemned by Biden and other world leaders, even as protests erupted across Russia, and those eligible for call up attempt to flee or self harm to avoid the tragic inevitability of their demise.
And the same, tired old rhetoric resurfaces once again, as Putin claims, without evidence, that the it is the West that wishes to destroy Russia. As always, a mask of victimisation, portraying Russia as the eternal, innocent victim of the evil, capitalist West, has Putin as the miraculous redeemer who cannot just save Russia, but save the entire world, whilst it covers up the desperate truth that Putin’s kleptocratic regime has hollowed out his nation, leaving an empty shell that can only be filled through the creation of non-existent crises that shift the blame to the West and away from his own criminality.
For 1947, write 2022…a summary of Kennan’s findings & analyses of how Stalin’s USSR viewed the capitalist West…
In the immediate aftermath of WWII George Kennan correctly identified areas of weakness in the West that he determined Stalin’s Soviet Union would attack, and the prescient wisdom of his words illuminates today’s conflict in Ukraine with the same brilliance and foresight as it did in the wake of WWII all those decades ago.
In outlining what he called ‘the basic features of the post war Soviet outlook, as put forward by (the) official propaganda machine…’ Kennan said that the USSR lives in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which ‘in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful co-existence.’
“The capitalist world,” reported Kennan,“is…,” so Soviet thinking goes, “beset with internal conflicts, inherent in (the) nature of capitalist society. These conflicts are insoluble by means of peaceful compromise. Greatest of them all is that between England and (the) U.S.”
He underlined ‘England and U.S.’ on the actual telegram, presumably by way of emphasis.
Quoting Stalin, who had said in 1927, “In (the) course of (the) further development of international revolution there will emerge two centers of world significance: a socialist center, drawing to itself countries that tend toward socialism, and a capitalist center, drawing to itself countries that tend toward capitalism. Battle between these two centers for (the) command of (the) world economy will decide (the) fate of capitalism and of communism in (the) entire world,” Kennan went on to detail how, as part of the endeavour of the USSR, their policy should be to “advance the relative strength of the USSR,” and that “no opportunity (should) be missed to reduce (the) strength and influence, collectively as well as individually, of (the) capitalist powers.”
Kennan continued that should the USSR ever manage to stir capitalist nations to conflict — and I imagine here he doesn’t necessarily mean coming to blows necessarily; political strife and policy disagreement might have proved to sufficient to serve the interests of the USSR — there would always be a risk for the USSR, but such an eventuality would “hold out great possibilities for (the) advancement of (the) socialist cause,” regardless, and so that proved to be the case when Britain, France and the U.S. disputed actions during the Suez Crisis. However, there was never any indication of a deeper dispute or lasting damage to the trans-Atlantic relationships concerned.
Interestingly, Kennan specifically highlights what Lenin had called ‘false friends’ to be found in the voices and actions of ‘moderate left-wingers’ or ‘social democrats’ who, the USSR believed, used the socialist ideal to serve the ‘reactionary capital’ and were thus, not to be trusted.
Kennan suggested that such elements might be ‘used’ by the USSR to stir discontent among capitalist nations and press the Soviet agenda. The targeting of these elements would be ‘relentless,’ he stressed.
But Kennan apportioned these ideals to the Kremlin hierarchy alone which, he emphasised used the propaganda machine ‘with great skill and persistence’ to drive home its’ thesis to a remarkably ‘resistant Russian people.’ The Soviet policy was not then, Kennan said assuredly, the ‘natural outlook of the Russian people.’
However, Kennan was quick to illustrate that the Soviet perspective, as per his analysis, was entirely incorrect. He stressed that capitalist and socialist nations were in fact, perfectly capable of living side by side in peace — even the USSR and the West — and that moderate socialists, as found in Scandinavia at the time, were perfectly sincere in their interactions, as any ‘sane’ person would see.
The falseness of the Soviet premises, noted Kennan, which pre-dated the WWII, had been wholly disproven because, despite any lingering differences, England and the U.S. had fought very successfully side by side in WWII; other capitalist nations had shown no inclination to wage war on the USSR (Italy aside, which was part of the axis) as a way to solve their own problems; and finally, and perhaps most pertinently, the USSR had, in the end, to join forces with the very capitalist nations it was attempting to destroy in order to vanquish Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
This did not, however, stop the theses being put forward once again following cessation of hostilities with Nazi Germany, thereby highlighting Kennan said, that the problems existed internally before, and after the war within the USSR itself, and were not a product of any external conditions, just as Plato had suggested following the quote at the top of this post.
The internal problems within Russia, Kennan explained, arose out of a basic sense of insecurity common to Russian rulers throughout history who, having been aware of the relatively ‘archaic,’ ‘fragile’ and ‘artificial’ nature of their rule when compared with the more dynamic, economically prosperous West, made them fearful of contact between the Russian people and those from the outside, lest the Russian people should learn the truth of their plight.
Scathing in his criticism of the Russian state and its misuse of ‘the basic altruism’ at the heart of Marxism, Kennan explained how Lenin, then Stalin found justification in their fear of the outside world for the brutality of their dictatorship, without which, he said, they were ill-equipped to rule.
In the name of Marxism, they sacrificed every single ethical value in the pursuit of their methods and tactics, using Marxism as a ‘moral fig leaf’ to present to the world some semblance of intellectual respectability.
This inherent insecurity had been employed by Russia to over-militarise their nation in order to guarantee external security as a means to bolster their internally weak and decrepit system.
Thus, their history and fabricated fears necessitated the need for Russian rulers to present the outside world as ‘evil, hostile and menacing,’ presenting it as bearing within itself ‘the germs of creeping disease,’ ‘destined to be wracked with growing internal convulsions’ resulting from the inherent corruption of capitalism, ‘until (capitalism) is given (the) final coup de grace by (the) rising power of socialism and yields to a new and better world.’
Of course, Kennan added, it was entirely possible that some within Russia, even those at the highest levels, in their ignorance of the outside world, actually believed the propaganda, with Kennan likening this condition to a kind of self-hypnosis.
But he said the ‘great unsolved mystery’ of this vast land was who, if anyone, actually knew the truth. With remarkable foresight that once again displayed the blinding clarity of his thought to pierce time, Kennan wrote, in this “atmosphere of oriental secretiveness and conspiracy…/…(the) possibility for poisoning or distorting sources and currents of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth — indeed, their disbelief in its’ existence — leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for the furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another. There is good reason to suspect that this government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy; and I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin receives anything like an objective picture of (the) outside world.”
And now, more than seven decades later the cyclical nature of Russian leadership has come full circle; the recycling of the same fears andthe same fabricated insecurities; the same enemy — just repainted as the West rather than capitalism — out to get an innocent, victimless Russia at all costs; the same need to build a strong military to promote a vision of strength and power both at home and abroad; the same propaganda designed to keep the people in ignorance and isolation; the same requirement to stifle and shut down any dissenting voices or opinions; the same need to push war onto neighbours as a way to preserve the Russian state.
Kennan saw it all then, and his words, with a modern slant, fit perfectly still.
But does the solution Kennan proposed still fit the circumstances? Is containment, with a modern slant, still up to the job, as it once was during the Cold War?
On February 25th 2022, the day after Putin sent his Russian forces into Ukraine, President Biden, speaking from the White House, said this of his opposite number in the Kremlin; “Now the entire world sees clearly what Putin and his Kremlin allies are really all about. This was never about genuine security concerns on their part. It was always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire for empire by any means necessary, by bullying Russia’s neighbors through coercion and corruption.”
Writing in WaPo that day David Sangar drew comparisons between what Biden had said, and what had passed 76 years before. He suggested that Biden was moving back to a long past policy, few thought they would hear again. It was called containment; in fact, he called it containment 2.0 to follow the jargon of the day, and said it would be like the original, but updated for the present day.
And the original, based on the thoughts, analyses and concerns of George Kennan as we have already seen, was basically about ‘containing’ Russia geographically, to constrain and put limits on Russian influence, aggression and expansion, and ultimately, one might easily argue that the strategy won out.
But it wasn’t always so cut and dried. The Eisenhower administration, for example, was not ‘for’ containment, labelling it a cowardly, passive and reactive policy. They proposed to replace it with the more pro-active policy of ‘liberation’ of the peoples under Soviet sway or domination, but when offered the opportunity to liberate Hungary they demurred, instead saying liberation was more a moral objective for the future than anything else (2).
John Foster Dulles, who went onto become Eisenhower’s Secretary of State (1953–59), was a strident critic of containment who, following Eisenhower’s lead, believed that the U.S. needed to be less defensive in its’ actions toward the USSR and stop retreating into “our own shell” if the USSR were to be cowed.
Writing in 1952 in the NYT (3) he said that the U.S. should not “tremble before the menace of Soviet despotism,” but rather take a more politically offensive position that would instead have the despots doing the trembling.
Likening containment to the infamous Maginot Line in France, Dulles said trying to contain Russian along a Cold War front, some 25,000 miles long, was to compound French stupidity in 1940, more than 25,000 times.
Whilst such thinking was understandable in the years immediately after the end of WWII, I don’t believe it had ever been Kennan’s intention to propose a line of fortified bastions to run the length of the Cold War front, and, to be fair to Dulles, he was likely speaking expansively and not literally; nevertheless, the containment of Soviet Russia was always more a combination of the combined pressures of diplomacy, economy, culture and military engagements to achieve the desired ends and not a purely physical endeavour.
That said, with a few years governmental experience under his belt, Dulles was charged with the implementation of Project Alpha in the Middle East as way of limiting and containing the potential for Russian interference in the region in the months leading up to the Suez Crisis (4).
Whilst Project Alpha itself was ultimately consigned to the trashcan, Dulles, despite his brashness — and the constant challenges presented by Israel’s desires for pre-emptive strikes, mostly against Egypt, and Nasser’s insistence on accepting Russian armaments, as well as French and British subterfuge and secrecy during the crisis — did manage to stop the region erupting into all-out war, but the uncertainty of purpose between the Western allies may have inadvertently led to an increase in Russian influence in the region.
The Eisenhower Doctrine, introduced a year later in 1957, which had its’ primary focus on what we now call the MENA region, offered ‘aid’ to nations threatened by, or in danger of, falling under the Soviet communist yolk, and, despite Eisenhower’s dislike for the term, it came to be seen as a form of containment, that ultimately fell short of its’ aims due to lack of funding (2), and possibly ambition, and still left many avenues across the region open to Soviet exploitation and manipulation, the consequences of which Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, as well as the West, at large, are arguably still dealing with today.
In many ways the Suez Crisis, as it became known, has been accepted as the handing off point of one global hegemon — Britain —to another — the United States (5), because it marked the real start of the growth of American power globally, and was marked an equivalent contraction in influence held by Britain.
Although, one might add an aside here, that the U.S. resistance to the French-British-Israeli attack on Egypt during the Suez crisis was ultimately taken by Muslims as an American desire not only to replace and evict the old colonial powers, but to replace them and insert itself as the regional hegemon. This perception of American actions, rather than being seen from the Western perspective of containing Russian influence during the Cold War, ultimately became entrenched in Egyptian Muslim society, particularly among the Ikhwan (The Muslim Brotherhood), and emanated in large part from the words and books of Sayyid Qutb (6), and in time would feed the wider narratives and hatred that led to 9/11.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day…and something I shall return to sooner, rather later…
Writing in 1947 in Foreign Affairs under his nom de plume ‘X,’ , a year after having penned his ‘long telegram,’ Kennan said, that Soviet pressure against the West, “is something that can be contained by the adroit and
vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.”
The idea of a physical front line was never in Kennan’s mind. Indeed, he wrote, “…it is curious to note that the ideological power of Soviet authority is strongest today in areas beyond the frontiers of Russia, beyond the reach of its police power,” perhaps confirming his observation of the ‘constantly shifting’ geographical points mentioned above and the West’s need to be flexible to adapt to the challenges wherever, and however, they might arise.
Mary Elise Sarotte writing in the weeks after the disastrous exit from Afghanistan in 2021, suggested that successive administrations in the years after the disintegration of the USSR maintained a policy of post-Cold War containment regardless of the end of the war, and that this, combined with errors committed in the mechanics of the subsequent NATO enlargement, and not the enlargement per say, are to blame for the situation in which we find ourselves now.
“New historical evidence,” she explains, “shows that U.S. leaders (namely Bush Sr, and Clinton) were so focused on enlarging NATO in their preferred manner that they did not sufficiently consider the perils of the path they were taking or how their choices would magnify Russia’s own self-harming choices. Put simply, expansion was a reasonable policy; the problem was how it happened.”
The problems were compounded by Yeltsin’s disastrous decisions to “shed the blood of his opponents in Moscow in 1993,” and to begin the war noxious and bloody war in Chechnya in 1994. This gave America pause to reconsider the softly-softly NATO expansionist programme — namely, The Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative — that had given ex-Soviet dominated states the chance for a graded, step-wise, and contingent entry into NATO, and forego the contingencies it in favour of full NATO membership directly, including the protections offered under Article 5.
What’s more, the decision to then station missiles and troop bases in some of these states was also unnecessary according to Sarotte. Just the fact of Article 5, she suggests, would have been sufficient to keep the Russian bear from the doors of the new East European NATO states.
However, we are where are, and whether that be down to Putin’s belligerence, Western hubris in the way NATO expansion occurred, or a bit of both, there is no doubt that Putin has imperialist, expansionist ambitions and feels a desperate need to rekindle Russia’s ‘greatness.’ Whether he would have acted on these ambitions or not, had NATO expansion not been conducted in such an aggressive way, is a moot point now in the midst of what is at this moment, a hot war.
And the way to keep Putin’s ambitions in check is, says Ivo Daalder, by updating containment once again. Writing in the first days after the invasion of Ukraine began, he suggested there should be three pillars of containment 2.0: maintaining U.S. military strength, decoupling Western economies from Russia, and isolating Moscow.
And this is what is precisely happening. But, it’s not easy. It’s not straight forward. And there is pain, particularly in respect of the grave food crisis in Asia and Africa, and the intense economic strife being felt across Europe.
As I detailed in my last post, the fallout from this is worldwide. In today’s interconnected, fibre-optic world, everyone feels the pain; everyone feels the bite. However, that inter-connectedness also gives us the chance to play our part in the story. We can become a willing component in helping to contain Russia — as I hope I’m doing by writing this, and other posts and showing my backing for Ukraine and Ukrainians — or we can protest, as is our right, and make things harder for our governments, for our military’s, and ultimately for the people of Ukraine, and far easier for Putin.
The history of the West’s interactions with the various manifestations of the Russian state over the centuries has invariably been a difficult one. Over the past century or more, the often understandable absence of trust on both sides has undermined the chance for anything more positive.
The prescient wisdom shown by Kennan in the ‘long telegram’ and in his subsequent writings belies and, in many ways contradicts, his strong feelings for Russia. The architect of the policy that brought the USSR to its’ knees, must have been conflicted. Kennan loved Russia; perhaps even more than he did his native United States.
But doing the right thing knows no bounds.
I have not had the chance to see Russia as George Kennan did— and now, maybe that dream will follow me to my grave; but I too, in my own way have a love of Russia, and that contradiction in myself is given sharp recognition in the fascist nature and colour of Putin’s Russia today which I abhor and will continue to speak out against. That love, however, comes as much from Russian literature as anything else — though a deep seated yearning to go to the White Nights Festival is also readily apparent — and in that I am like Kennan.
While in London in 1958, Kennan went to see a performance of Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ and he recorded the emotions it stirred in him:
“Seeing The Cherry Orchard stirred all the rusty, untuned strings of the past and of my own youth: Riga, and the Russian landscape, and the staggering, unexpected familiarity and convincingness of the Chekhovian world — it stirred up, in other words, my Russian self, which is entirely a Chekhovian one and much more genuine than the American one — and having all this prodded to the surface in me, I sat there blubbering like a child and trying desperately to keep the rest of the company from noticing it.”
Thanks for reading.
- The Republic; Plato.
- The U.S. Broadens its’ Containment of Russia; NYT Archive, Dana Adams Schmidt; March 24th 1957.
- Policy on Russia Scored by Dulles; NYT Archive, William M. Blair, February 17th 1952.
- The United States, the Soviet Union and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948–67: Superpower Rivalry; Joseph Heller, 2010.
- The Suez Canal; Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, May 26th, 2021.
- Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East; Fawaz A. Gerges, 2018.