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24 June 2024

Russia’s great-power complex

Whether acting as an adversary or a partner to the West, the Kremlin has long yearned for recognition and respect.

By Serhii Plokhy

“At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” wrote the US diplomat George Kennan in his “Long Telegram” of February 1946, which has been considered the first intellectual salvo of the Cold War. According to Kennan, the Kremlin was burdened with two types of insecurity. During early Russian history, agriculturalists had struggled to defend themselves against their nomadic neighbours. Later, it was mostly their elites who suffered from a sense of inferiority to the West. “Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries,” suggested Kennan.

 Kennan was writing at the very start of the Cold War. He developed his views in an article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, published in July 1947 under the pseudonym “X”. Now, more than 75 years after the appearance of Kennan’s writings and 30 years after the end of the Cold War, Sergey Radchenko picks up where Kennan left off. In his latest book, To Run the World, Radchenko offers his take on the sources of Soviet conduct. He does so with the benefit of hindsight, his deep knowledge as a prominent historian of the Cold War, and acknowledgement of the threats posed by the new cold war involving the United States, China and Russia. In his analysis, Radchenko brings to life some of the key participants in the original Cold War, elucidating their beliefs, ideas and positions, as well as the restraints on their ability to implement their desired policies. The book is exceptionally well researched, even better argued, and beautifully written.

As the title suggests, this is first and foremost a study of Soviet thinking and action on the world stage. An important feature, less obvious from the book’s title, is Radchenko’s ability to go beyond the bipolarity paradigm – in which Soviet thinking was defined by Kennan and others through competition with the US alone. He brings China into the picture as well: more often than not its role in the Cold War has been obscured in historical narratives, but as it now looms large in discussions of a new cold war, this helps to re-evaluate Beijing’s role in the original. Having written a number of important works on the non-Western Cold War, Radchenko carries out his analysis with exemplary confidence and primary-source knowledge.

While Radchenko asks the same key question as Kennan, he diverges from the views of the dean of American Cold War geopolitics more than he follows them. While Kennan declared “the political personality of Soviet power” was “the product of ideology and circumstances”, Radchenko refuses to place ideology in the centre of his analysis. According to him, “the sources of Soviet ambitions are not specifically Soviet, but both precede and post-date the Soviet Union, overlapping with the Cold War”. Radchenko claims that it is almost impossible to separate ideology from “the quest for security (in the benign version) or outright imperialism (more commonly accepted)”. But he moves closer to Kennan when he writes: “At some level the Soviets felt very insecure about whether or not they really were America’s equals.”

Radchenko identifies the interplay between the Soviet Union’s great-power ambition and its search for legitimacy as the key driver of its behaviour during the Cold War. Legitimacy from the West “was attainable through recognition either as a partner or as an adversary”, he writes, with communist and anti-imperial forces offering alternative sources of legitimacy. This is another radical departure from Kennan, who focused exclusively on Russia’s relations with the West.

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What does this new approach allow us to understand about the Cold War that we did not know before, and how that can help us understand Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Radchenko begins with the negotiations between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta in 1945 to shape the postwar order. Stalin was seeking not just security but also legitimacy, emphasises Radchenko. The Soviet dictator achieved his goals for the Far East at Yalta and got pretty much what he wanted in Europe at the Potsdam conference later that year. He backed off in Iran and Turkey, failing to obtain Western consent to keep his sphere of influence in northern Iran and establish military bases in the Black Sea straits. He also did not insist on acquiring the former Italian colonies in Africa. But he refused to bow to American nuclear power, matching the US atomic project with his own.

Africa, denied to Stalin by the West, became a target for his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Why? Radchenko suggests that decolonisation produced opportunities unavailable to Stalin. One can argue with that: after all, the British lost India, the Dutch parted with Indonesia, the French got involved in a bloody war in Indochina, and the Americans withdrew from the Philippines, all on Stalin’s watch. For Radchenko, however, the key argument concerns ambitions, not opportunities. Khrushchev’s ambition was to be recognised for his contribution to the anti-colonial movement. “Such recognition translated into legitimacy,” writes Radchenko. This time the legitimacy came not from the West but from the communist and anti-colonialist camp, in which China played a key role.

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, arguably the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, became a platform for Khrushchev to realise his dual ambition – to make the USSR the equal of the United States, even though it possessed too few ballistic missiles to present a serious threat to American territory, and of China, whose leader, Mao Zedong, challenged Khrushchev’s leadership in the communist and anti-imperial movement. Khrushchev’s gamble did not pay off. He managed to secure Cuba for the communist bloc but was perceived as a loser both at home and abroad. His removal of Soviet nuclear arms from Cuba became part of a public deal, while the Americans’ withdrawal of their missiles from Turkey remained secret.

If Khrushchev tried only one strategy, that of challenging Washington, to achieve recognition and legitimacy from both the United States and the communist and anti-colonial forces, his successor Leonid Brezhnev, who became leader in 1964, diversified his tactics. He was determined to acquire legitimacy from the United States more as a partner than an adversary in the field of nuclear arms control even as he continued to challenge the United Sates in the former colonial world. The Soviet nuclear strategy, which had almost produced a nuclear war over Cuba, was now divorced from its anti-colonial policy. By
the late 1960s, the more likely scenario became nuclear war with China rather than with the United States.

Radchenko is reluctant to offer conclusive answers regarding the sources of Soviet policy under Mikhail Gorbachev (leader from 1985 to the union’s dissolution in 1991), but he demonstrates very well how Gorbachev tried to satisfy his craving for recognition as “the prophet of a new world order” by positioning the Soviet Union as America’s partner not only in the realm of nuclear arms but also in the Third World. Ultimately, he failed to win recognition as an equal, but succeeded in positioning the USSR as a junior partner of the West in general and the US in particular. This status came with partial delegitimisation at home and almost complete delegitimisation in the anti-imperial camp – processes that led to, and accompanied, the end of the Cold War.

From the 1990s onwards, Boris Yeltsin’s and especially Putin’s foreign policy became in many ways an attempt to regain the great-power status Russia had lost by the end of the Cold War. Craving Western recognition, Yeltsin offered the United States partnership in the denuclearisation project in the post-Soviet region and continued Gorbachev’s policy on control of nuclear weapons. Putin, whose first presidential term began in 2000, offered Moscow’s partnership in the “war on terror”. In return he wanted Western acknowledgment of Russia’s right to intervene politically, economically and militarily in the post-Soviet space. It was more a return to Stalin’s spheres-of-influence approach than Khrushchev and Brezhnev’s search for superpower equality on the global stage. The West wisely never provided him with such recognition or legitimacy, leading Putin to complain about “double standards”.

In his speech after seizing Crimea in March 2014, Putin justified the first annexation of European territory since the Second World War by referring to the independence of Kosovo in 2008, aided by the West to stop a genocide. “We keep hearing from the United States and Western Europe that Kosovo is some special case,” argued Putin. “What makes it so special in the eyes of our colleagues? It turns out that it is the fact that the conflict in Kosovo resulted in so many human casualties. Is this a legal argument? This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism.” With the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014, Putin moved from a partnership model with the West, to an adversarial one – a strategy that very much defines the current foreign policy of Russia.

To Run the World helps explain why Russia’s grasping for great-power status often looks so irrational. The Kremlin repeatedly punches above its weight, and strikes militarily before it is ready economically or strategically. Its outsize ambitions, inherited from the Russian empire and often challenged by the West – which learned in the 20th century to treat Russia as both culturally and ideologically alien – are often responsible for such behaviour. With no sign that Russia’s ambitions are waning, the book offers a silver lining of sorts. Russia’s policies can change. After failing to gain legitimacy as an adversary, it tends to pursue the same goal as a partner. Its war on Ukraine has failed to give it legitimacy in the West and has positioned Russia as a weak junior partner of China in the east. Russia will have to change its strategy in future. For that to happen the West needs to show resolve, as Truman did in the 1950s, Kennedy in the 1960s, and Reagan in the 1980s.

Serhii Plokhy is a professor of Ukrainian history and author of “The Russo-Ukrainian War” (Penguin)

To Run the World: The Kremlin’s Cold War Bid for Global Power
Sergey Radchenko
Cambridge University Press, 768pp, £30

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine