Sean McMeekin. COMPACT
May 12, 2023
PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
To a neutral observer, the proxy war being waged between the United States and Russia in Ukraine must appear bizarre. That Moscow has interests in Ukraine—a mineral-rich breadbasket that is Russia’s most important European neighbor, with which the Russians share a long and vexing history—is easy to explain. But why is Washington so deeply involved in funding and arming the government of Ukraine, a faraway country with which America shares no borders and with which, until recently, Americans had no shared history of note and conducted little trade? “To weaken Russia” is the familiar answer offered by US government officials, but this only begs the question. Why does the United States want so badly to weaken Russia, another faraway country with which Americans share no borders and conduct no significant trade?
The lack of historical or material ties between America and Ukraine notwithstanding, defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity is now, judging by countless pronouncements by official Washington, a cardinal principle of US foreign policy, even as Russia’s most essential interest, judging by countless pronouncements by Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials, now requires waging war against Ukrainians because they are American-supported.
Does any of this make sense?
Judging by the overheated but strangely familiar war of words between Moscow and Washington, much of the Russo-American animosity fueling this dangerous proxy war is a kind of hangover from the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and United States vied for global influence. It is now a cliché to talk about a “renewed Cold War” or to declare, as President Biden and others have done, that the danger of nuclear conflict is the greatest since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
“The new Cold War resembles a funhouse mirror of the original one.”
The Cold War analogy, however, only deepens the mystery. That conflict supposedly ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, if not earlier with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the spinning free of the Soviet Union’s Central and Eastern European satellites in 1989. The USSR no longer exists, Russia is no longer Communist, and neither the United States nor Russia resembles its Cold-War self these days. Once the atheistic bastion of global Communism, friend and sponsor to radicals and revolutionary guerillas, Russia today presents herself as a traditionalist Christian country, hostile to feminism, “woke-ism,” the LGBTQ movement, and all that Western progressives stand for—hostile, that is, to everything the current US government, which in Cold War times defended conservative democratic and authoritarian countries against “godless” Communist subversion, now promotes and funds around the world. The new Cold War resembles a funhouse mirror of the original one, with both sides taking on the other’s former positions, almost to the point of caricature. It is like one of those interminable marital arguments where, by the end, each spouse is arguing what was once the other’s case, just to keep arguing.
To unravel this increasingly irrational feud, it may help to re-examine the original argument—that is, the Cold War. How exactly did these two dissimilar countries get “married” in the first place? Was it blind fate, as Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America? Because of their contrasting approaches to conquest, one “with the farmer’s plow” and the other with “the soldier’s sword,” Tocqueville predicted in a celebrated passage, America and Russia were “called by a secret design of Providence to hold in [their] hands one day the destinies of half the world.”
As prophecy, Tocqueville’s quip is hard to beat, but as history it is misleading. It wasn’t the America of 1840, a still-predominantly agrarian republic with a small central government of strictly limited powers and a tiny standing army, that contested Communist Russia in the Cold War, but the industrialized, militarized, and centralized imperial America that emerged from the Civil War and two 20th-century world wars.
An early foretaste of the Cold War came in January 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson, having plunged the United States into World War I the previous year, unveiled his “Fourteen Points,” a thinly veiled response to the exposure by the Russian revolutionaries (after they burgled the Imperial Russian Archives) of the cynical “secret diplomacy” of Britain, France, and Russia, in particular their carve-up of the Ottoman Empire. Annoyed that Lenin and Trotsky had stolen the thunder of his “war to make the world safe for democracy,” Wilson helped launch the propaganda war between Soviet Communism and American liberal democracy, both of which claimed to be against “imperialism” and secret treaties, among other alleged sins of Old Europe.
Ironies abounded in this early shadow war between Washington and Moscow. While grandstanding for liberal values, Wilson had expanded the federal bureaucracy and curtailed civil liberties with the Espionage and Sedition Acts, running roughshod over US constitutional tradition. Absent American intervention on the Western Front in 1918, Communism would likely have been snuffed out in its Russian cradle by the German armies, which had nearly a million troops occupying European Russia by war’s end—soldiers who had propped up Lenin’s Communist regime only out of convenience. In one of his last decrees before Germany gave up the ghost, General Erich Ludendorff issued orders to topple the Bolsheviks in Petrograd that September—only to be swept out of power himself before the orders were carried out. Taking America to war to “make the world safe for democracy,” Wilson instead made it safe for Soviet Communism.
Perhaps regretting this, Wilson authorized a limited US military intervention on behalf of the Bolsheviks’ “White” opponents in 1919. American soldiers didn’t do much actual fighting in the Russian Civil War, but their very presence on Soviet soil (alongside British, French, and Japanese troops) came to symbolize, for Lenin, Trotsky, and other Soviet leaders, the inherent hostility of the capitalist and “imperialist” powers to the world’s first Communist state. This hostility, in turn, justified the devotion of the Communist International (founded in 1919) to world revolution—the toppling of established capitalist governments worldwide.
Wilsonian interventionism was repudiated by the Harding and Coolidge administrations that followed, as America demobilized and disengaged from Europe. It was only in World War II that the United States crossed the rubicon for good, transforming from a lightly armed commercial republic, albeit one defended by a two-ocean navy, into a heavily armed global empire. The passage of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941, authorizing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to commandeer and export virtually unlimited quantities of war materiél to any country whose defense he deemed “vital to the United States,” was a seminal moment. Congress forfeited its veto power over US military commitments abroad. The US declarations of war on Japan, Germany, and Italy that December was the last time Congress exercised its constitutional authority over war-making. The United States has never since declared war, despite fighting dozens of undeclared wars.
There is rich irony here. The Lend-Lease Act, which unleashed the US global empire that would contest the Cold War, was partly designed to aid the Soviet Union. During the debates over Lend-Lease in March 1941, an amendment was proposed excluding the USSR, then still effectively allied with Nazi Germany via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, from receiving American war supplies. It was soundly defeated, and the Roosevelt administration opened the Lend-Lease spigot to Stalin’s armies after Nazi Germany and her allies invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941—at first secretly and, from November 1941, quite openly. By 1944, despite the USSR no longer being in any danger of collapse, which should have undermined the strategic rationale of the policy, the US government was almost single-handedly feeding, clothing, and fueling an ever-more mobile Red Army powered by American trucks, jeeps, motorcycles, and warplanes. Even the vaunted Soviet T-34 tanks were being built with American aluminum and armor plate.
This astonishing and unreciprocated American “capitalist” generosity towards Communism, at least in the form of shipments across the Atlantic, was cut off by President Harry Truman on May 10, 1945, two days after Nazi Germany surrendered on “V-E-day,” to Stalin’s shock. Expressing his displeasure over the “scornful and abrupt, unfortunate and brutal” cut-off of the Lend-Lease aid on which his armies and war industry had become utterly dependent, Stalin threatened Truman’s envoy, Harry Hopkins, with “reprisals,” in what might be viewed as the opening salvo in the Cold War—had not Hopkins, a longtime Soviet sympathizer, reassured Stalin that Pacific Lend-Lease commitments to the Soviet Far Eastern armies would “be carried out to the end.”
Truman surprised Stalin again that July when, after receiving word that Manhattan Project engineers had successfully detonated the world’s first atomic bomb in New Mexico, he excluded the USSR from the Potsdam Declaration issued by the United States, Britain, and China as an ultimatum to Imperial Japan. Truman apparently hoped that, the United States having done all the work in the Pacific war to date, he could prevent the Soviets from jumping in at the last minute to sweep up territories promised to them by FDR at Tehran and Yalta, including Manchuria and northern Korea. While an understandable and logical strategic choice, it was baldly undermined by Truman’s own promise, underlined by Hopkins, to continue to supply Stalin’s Far Eastern armies, which received more than 4 million metric tons of war supplies in just the last 14 months of the Pacific war—including virtually all of the ammunition, fuel, foodstuffs, motor vehicles, and warplanes Stalin’s commanders planned to use in the North Asian offensive codenamed “August Storm.”
Truman’s effort to muscle the Soviets out of the war at the last minute spurred Stalin to speed up his own military timetable, with the USSR declaring war on Tokyo just hours before the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, launching a swift multi-pronged offensive into Manchuria, Korea, Sakhalin, and the Kuril islands. This campaign redrew the map of North Asia and allowed the Soviet Red Army to link up with Mao’s People’s Liberation Army in Manchuria, helping ensure the ultimate Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. Although Truman balked at Stalin’s demand that the Soviets be allowed to occupy Hokkaido, one of Japan’s home islands, in every other way his gambit to exclude the Soviets from the postwar settlement in Asia, while still arming and supplying Stalin’s Asian armies to the teeth, backfired spectacularly.
“The Marshall Plan confirmed all of Stalin’s fears.”
Stalin was no less shocked when, in summer 1947, Washington offered to share Marshall Plan funds with him and his satellites in Central and Eastern Europe, despite having criticized Stalin’s behavior abroad ever-more loudly over the previous two years. If any event can be singled out as the immediate cause of the Cold War, it was the loaded American offer to open the Iron Curtain with dollars and trade that prompted Stalin to get serious about “Communizing” his satellites, purging the Czechoslovak and other governments of everyone who initially welcomed Marshall aid, justifying the show trials that began in 1948, institutionalizing the Communist sphere in the new “Cominform,” and launching the blockade of West Berlin which prompted the US airlift, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, the formal splitting of Germany, and all the strategic architecture of the Cold War. Following in the wake of the Truman Doctrine in February 1947, in which the US government vowed to support “free peoples … resisting armed subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures,” the Marshall Plan confirmed all of Stalin’s fears about capitalist encroachment near to—and even inside—Soviet borders.
What strikes the historian today is how consistent Russian foreign policy has been, compared to the erratic approach of the United States. Stalin’s policy was straightforward. The Soviet Union, as he never tired of repeating (especially vis-à-vis Poland), wanted “friendly” regimes, i.e. Communist or pro-Communist ones, in neighboring countries. Similarly, Putin’s Russia wants, if not the recreation of the Soviet Union, at a minimum “friendly” governments on Russia’s borders, and to prevent more former Soviet republics from joining NATO, as Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania did. The Russian sphere of influence may be smaller and more constrained now than in 1945, when the Red Army was occupying most of the countries in between Berlin and Moscow, but the basic Russian strategic concept is the same.
Making sense of US strategy is much harder. Between 1945 and the creation of NATO four years later, Washington veered from a policy of unconditional support and exuberantly generous supplying of Soviet armies in Europe and Asia to across-the-board confrontation and (in George Kennan’s words) forcible “containment” of Communism. Of course, the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and Japan, which removed the rationale for supporting the Red Army in Europe or Asia, along with Roosevelt’s replacement with the more anti-Communist Truman, explained some of this.
From the Soviet perspective, however, the dramatic shift in US policy made little sense. How and why was Stalin downgraded from Washington’s best friend to its most dangerous enemy? He was the same man, after all, carrying out the same foreign policy. To be sure, Soviet intervention in the East Bloc was brazen from 1947 to 1949, when the Marshall Plan brouhaha led to purges and show trials. But Stalin’s henchmen had behaved likewise in occupied Poland, the Baltic states, Finland, and Romania in 1939 to 1941, and in reoccupied Poland, Finland, Romania, and then Bulgaria and Hungary in 1944 to 45. Stalin had been just as blunt in refusing to allow US pilots to land on Soviet soil at the height of Lend-Lease cooperation—to the extent of arresting hundreds of unfortunate Americans who crash-landed on Soviet territory after bombing raids on Japan—as he was in refusing to allow US military observers on the Eastern Front, US election observers in Poland in 1945, Bulgarians to meet freely with US or British nationals in 1946, or Marshall dollars to flow into Eastern Europe in 1948. Communism in practice was much the same everywhere, involving forcible nationalization of banks and industry, state confiscation of private property, land reform, political purges, repression of dissidents, suspicion of foreigners, ubiquitous secret-police surveillance, etc. It wasn’t noticeably different in 1949 than it had been in 1945 or 1940 or 1917. What had changed between 1945 and 1949 wasn’t Soviet essentials, but US foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.
This was true at other points in the Cold War, as well. The Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente between 1969 and 1974, for example, which brought arms-control agreements and generous US trade and loan concessions to Moscow, certainly represented a shift in American policy. But the Soviets, as we now know, hardly retreated in the détente years, using funds freed up by Western aid and loans on ballistic missiles and naval expansion, which allowed them to erase and surpass the US nuclear advantage. They also continued to support Communist North Vietnam’s war against the US-supported South, and backed proxies across Latin America and Africa in what was by any objective measure a hugely successful expansion of Communism in the Third World by 1975. It wasn’t any change in Soviet behavior that produced détente or the “opening” of Communist China, but a US administration determined to pursue a new strategy for reasons of its own.
From the Russian perspective, a similarly confounding inconsistency has been at work in the post-Cold War era. There have been subtle changes in Russian foreign policy, too, from greater accommodation of Western demands under Gorbachev and Yeltsin to an increasingly prickly resistance under Putin. But in essentials, Russian policy vis-à-vis her neighbors hasn’t really changed. Gorbachev tried to keep the USSR together, up to and including his Union Treaty, which went belly-up after the failed coup of August 1991. Yeltsin, though presiding over a weaker, truncated Russia, was as clear as he could possibly be that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and more particularly US meddling in former Soviet republics such as the Baltic states or Ukraine, wasn’t welcome to Moscow. Regarding the now-notorious verbal vow of then-US Secretary State James Baker in February 1990 that NATO would not extend “one inch eastward” of the Elbe in Germany, there is no real difference between the position of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, or Putin.
“US behavior can’t but have produced a kind of strategic whiplash at the Kremlin.”
By contrast, US policy in the post-Cold War era has been much less clear and much harder to read for the Russians. From Baker’s “not one inch” promise to Washington bringing a unified Germany into NATO, from multiple reassurances issued to Russia that former Soviet republics would be ruled out of NATO expansion to the incorporation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the anti-Russian military alliance in 2004, to the listing of Ukraine and Georgia as aspirant member countries in 2008—US behavior can’t but have produced a kind of strategic whiplash at the Kremlin.
Strangest of all, from the Russian perspective, has been the shift from the proactive economic policies of the Clinton era, when Russia was showered with Western loans and flooded by Western bankers and economists, to neglect, confrontation, and crippling US sanctions in the Putin era. In theory, these ever-more-aggressive sanctions were provoked by Putin’s meddling in Ukraine, going back to 2014. But from the Russian perspective, the shift from being viewed as sympathetic friends to dangerous adversaries must be just as bewildering as the US strategic about-face on Stalin in the 1940s.
In fact, the dramatic American turn against Russia over the last two decades is far less rational than the post-WWII reversal. By 1945, Stalin’s armies, after all, had invaded and were occupying a multitude of countries from Berlin to Beijing. And by 1949, they had imposed a rigid totalitarian model of governance on nearly all of them. The USSR stood for something—Communism and world revolution—and her leaders were willing to spend blood and treasure to promote these things.
One can’t really say the same about Russia since 1991. The most that could be said of Russia’s post-Communist foreign policy, at least before the annexation of Crimea in 2014, is that Moscow has used economic and political leverage—and a continued Russian troop presence in some countries, such as Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—to maintain Russian influence in the former Soviet republics, with varying levels of success: more in Belarus, Armenia, and Central Asia; less in Georgia and Ukraine; basically none in the Baltics. Russian rule in Chechnya has been secured by force in several brutal wars, but we shouldn’t forget that Chechnya was and remains part of the Russian Federation by international law.
Even after Ukraine turned into a battlefield, Putin has been far less demanding than Stalin and his successors in Eastern Europe, where Soviet frontiers were aggressively redrawn and recalcitrant satellites, such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia, invaded. Certainly, Russian territorial annexations in Ukraine are on the table, but there is no declared Russian war aim beyond installing a friendlier government in Kiev that rules out future NATO membership. The idea that Putin’s Russia, which failed to take Kiev last year and has been trying to subdue the small town of Bakhmut for months, represents a threat to Europe analogous to a postwar USSR may be endorsed by a surprising number of people in Washington and Brussels. But that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous on its face. The Soviet Union garrisoned 2.5 million soldiers in its European satellites and funded Communist parties in Western Europe. There is no comparing the two threats.
If there is any rationale behind the twists and turns in the US love-hate affair with Russia, it seems to involve American perceptions of Russian strength or weakness. A prostrate Russia, like the USSR under the Nazi German onslaught or the impoverished Yeltsin-era basket case, is showered with affection, aid, and loans, regardless of any concrete US foreign-policy interests, aside from preventing utter collapse, as in 1941, or a meltdown which might threaten nuclear proliferation, as in the early 1990s. A stronger Russia, like the victorious post-1945 USSR or Putin’s more assertive post-2008 version, sets off alarm bells in Washington and opens the floodgates for military expenditure and open-ended security commitments to a rapidly expanding roster of anti-Russian proxy states, with equally blithe disregard for any concrete US foreign-policy or economic interests, or general cost-benefit analysis. These erratic lurches between extremes, in turn, excite the worst Russian fears and anxieties, helping to fuel each new proxy struggle, each new bout of hysteria in Washington and Moscow.
There is no winning this argument. No one profits from proxy wars, least of all those living in the countries, such as Ukraine, where they are fought—at least, no one other than Russian and American military contractors and those funded by them. No one can win a nuclear war—not even military contractors. It is time these warring parties meet, as in the US-Soviet summits of old, only this time with divorce lawyers present, who can negotiate a peaceful and amicable separation. A healthier and more consistent US approach to Russia must begin with the acknowledgment of genuine Russian security concerns, ruling out, for example, any further NATO expansion into the territories of the former Soviet Union. Russia, in turn, could be enjoined to limit her territorial claims in Ukraine in exchange for recognizing the new frontiers as inviolable.
Once a ceasefire in Ukraine and a workable compromise on both Ukraine’s borders and NATO expansion is reached, there is no reason why onerous US sanctions and travel controls couldn’t be eased, with Russia easing travel restrictions on Americans, in turn. Inspections of each country’s nuclear modernization program under the New START treaty of 2010, which have been suspended indefinitely, should be reactivated. With so much blood already shed in Ukraine, there may be no return to the genuinely friendly, albeit sometimes fractious, relations of the 1990s, when so many Russians, like Ukrainians, yearned for Western and American approval and Soviet archives were thrown wide open to Western scholars and historians. Perhaps Americans and Russians will never be the closest of friends, enjoying visa-free travel and the kind of robust trading relationship Russia has with Central Asia or the United States with Canada. But there is no reason they can’t be distant and mutually respectful acquaintances.
Sean McMeekin is the Francis Flournoy Professor of History at Bard College and the author of Stalin’s War and The Russian Revolution.