Like many other observers, Karl Marx noted that from the time of Peter the Great Russian foreign policy showed a general tendency not merely to expansionism, but to "unlimited" power. He put this even more strongly in a speech of January 1876, when he spoke of Russia's lodestar being "the empire of the world." Engels, too, wrote of her "dreaming about universal supremacy." They were referring not to any fixed plan, or wholly explicit intention, but rather to the spirit and character of the Russian State. The extent to which this general tendency (though, of course, with different content) still subsists, and the degree to which it is expressed in actual practice, are clearly central to any but a superficial estimate of Soviet foreign policy.

Even under the Tsars expansion was not constant. There were periods of stasis, even of withdrawal. The provisions of the Treaty of Paris, which limited Russian naval power in the Black Sea, were not repudiated until the opportunity at last arose in 1871. And comparably, the Soviet Union abandoned expansion for more than a decade before 1939.

The assurances given that this would be permanent were various and formal. In the sensitive matter of the Baltic republics, for example, a series of treaties provided against any conceivable Russian pressure. The renunciation of "all rights of sovereignty forever" in a treaty signed (to take the Lithuanian case) on July 12, 1920, was followed on September 22, 1926, by a nonaggression pact, twice renewed in the thirties, guaranteeing Lithuanian sovereignty in all circumstances. This was strengthened in 1933 by a convention defining aggression, which said that "no considerations of a political, military, economic or any other nature" would justify it. Even when, on October 10, 1939, Lithuania signed under pressure a "Mutual Assistance Pact," under which Soviet troops set up bases in the country, its Article 7 guaranteed that this would "not in any way affect the sovereign rights of the contracting parties, in particular their state organizations, economic and social systems, military measures and, in general, the principle of nonintervention in internal affairs." Annexation came the following summer (and is one of the "Stalinist" measures not repudiated by Khrushchev: "he wept but he kept"). In fact, of the multifarious pacts the U.S.S.R. signed with various neighbors, there was only one which was punctiliously observed, and that was with a power disposing of formidable military sanctions-the Nazi-Soviet Pact. "What have we done," Molotov justifiably complained when the German attack came, "to deserve this?"

This was all a generation ago, and there would be no point in raising it if it could be shown that the Soviet leaders have in principle abandoned the attitude to foreign affairs then prevailing; or that present circumstances have, regardless of any question of abstract good will, made it obsolete.

Stalin, in foreign affairs, might be described as a prudent aggressor. His moves against Finland and Poland in 1939, the attack in Korea in 1950, were made when he was, or felt he was, safe in making them. The Berlin Blockade of 1949 was conducted with a sort of brutal tentativeness and abandoned when failure pronounced itself. The Greek Civil War was allowed to go ahead in the likelihood that it would cause trouble to the West without leading to retaliation-even though Stalin himself (as Djilas tells us) saw that there was no real chance of victory.

On all the evidence, Stalin's heirs and pupils, Russia's present rulers, seem to be motivated in the same sort of way. They have not abandoned the principle of hostility toward the West. It is not to their own good will but to their prudence that our policies should be directed.

Their desire to avoid nuclear war is of course solid and genuine. The great expansion of industry has long been regarded as the régime's leading achievement. Pure dogmatists might perhaps be willing to suffer the vast economic and human loss that war would involve, if world revolution were to be the fairly certain result. But such certainty is, in any case, unlikely to be attained. The Chinese "dogmatists" have indeed been accused of willingness to sacrifice whole nations in such a war. But their stake is inevitably a smaller one. Not only is the dogmatism of the Soviet rulers considerably more attenuated, but they also see that a Soviet-U.S. nuclear exchange would end by reducing both countries to the level of China. As a leading Soviet defense commentator pointedly wrote, it is not merely that half the world's population would perish, but "moreover, the most active, capable and civilized portion of mankind would be wiped out."1 For Peking, of course, the opposite consideration applies. If China cannot catch up with the advanced countries, here is a mechanism for bringing them down to the Chinese level.

Yet even on the part of the present moderate Soviet leadership there is no reason whatever to believe that all this represents more than an accommodation mainly based on a particular balance of weaponry. To be sure, this is something well worth having for its own sake. And, if we are very fortunate, it may harden into a permanent truce, with consequent erosion of the anti-Western certainties at present so deeply rooted in the minds of the Soviet leaders. But to misinterpret it, to overestimate it as signaling the abandonment of the very principle of hostility, must almost certainly lead to a relaxation of that vigilance and preparedness which is one of the fundamental conditions of the détente as we have it. "He's a good fellow and 'twill all be well" is not an adequate substitute for careful estimation of "his" real attitude and intentions.

It is sometimes said that because communism is no longer monolithic it no longer presents a threat. This seems to resemble the application of a linear equation to a problem requiring at least a quadratic. That Christianity was split by deadly feuds did not save the Saracens in the Crusades. The Tripartite Pact was by no means monolithic, but it contrived to present a most unpleasant threat to the rest of us. And so on. Splits and divergencies doubtless make such threats less effective, but they do not remove them.

It is true that to the Soviet Union some communist régimes are now illegitimate. But all non-communist states remain illegitimate. The solution proposed for "bad" communist states is the replacement of the aberrant leadership-and the success of plots and intrigues such as those of Marshal Peng in China and Admiral Sejko in Albania are all that are required to restore communist normality. A communist régime may indeed evolve into a "bourgeois-democratic" position, as Imre Nagy's did in 1956 and the Czechs seem to be doing now. And from our point of view this represents the hope of tempering the intransigent hostility of the movement. But this is a move from heresy into actual paganism; it is quite unlike the lapse of adequately despotic communisms into mere doctrinal and political error.

Of course, when we look into the detail more carefully, we can see that the foreign policy of the U.S.S.R., like that of any other state, is not generally conducted with the clarity of intention and the consistency of action a political philosopher might think proper. It does not at a given moment take the form of a settled plan-even a flexible plan-being put into action; it is the product of various forces. Action is often plainly the result of compromise between various political tendencies within the leadership. Odd gestures of international amity, particularly in the field of cultural exchange, may accompany (and even distract attention from) hostile moves in more substantial spheres.

The evidence of a more aggressive trend in Soviet circles, even as to nuclear war, is clear.2 Among the Soviet military considerable divergence of view was noted in 1961 and even earlier. But 1965-66 saw the frankest expressions of a "hard line." A whole series of articles in the military press argued against regarding nuclear weapons as a "threat to the physical survival of nations and states;" urged that victory in a nuclear war was attainable and depended on building up superior weapon strength; and suggested that to spurn the possibility of victory was to relapse into passivity and "fatalism."3

There is no doubt that these views (to be printed at all) were receiving some measure of political protection-and little doubt that this came from the "dogmatic" section of the leadership represented by Suslov, Shelepin and others. The Brezhnev-Kosygin majority reasserted itself in 1966, and such intransigence has ceased to be voiced. But in general the tone even of later pronouncements has a more militant tang than in Khrushchev's post- Cuba years.

More important is the fact that Soviet politics is in principle highly unstable. A single major setback-which would not be at all unlikely in Eastern Europe, for example-might at any time panic the lesser leaders on whom the present group relies for its majority, throwing them into the arms of the hard-line extremists. And other political issues, including internal ones, could also change the balance of forces in the Politburo and Central Committee. Whatever the reason, a differently aligned leadership would then face the West.

Of course it can be argued (and there is much to be said for such a view) that a more extremist, dogmatic leadership might not necessarily be more imprudent. In a sense Molotov was more hostile and yet more prudent than Khrushchev. But the considerations make the matter not one of mere tactical prudence, but rather one involving a whole outlook on the present world situation. A policy of détente, the Soviet hard-line military have argued, serves the capitalists' interests by lessening their fears and giving them a margin for "aggressive" initiative in the Third World; at the same time it undermines the unity and the revolutionary dynamism of the communist countries. This is a serious argument, and to some degree a sound one from the communist point of view. It is certainly taken into account, if only partially, by the present leaders. It would be a formidable brief for a more intransigent set.

The Soviet launching of a "thin" anti-ballistic missile system in 1967 seems to have been in part a concession by the leadership to these more "activist" arguments. But one must accept as at least equally important a motive common to the United States and the Soviet Union: the desire to cope with the problem of proliferation, and in particular the growth of Chinese nuclear power. Even the U.S. response in the autumn, though attacked as a "useless escalation,"4 was said by the Soviet press not to represent an obstacle to the discussions at Geneva and in the General Assembly on antiproliferation agreements.5

Soviet development of ICBMs has meant challenging the United States in a field where the decisive factors are advanced technology and material wealth. The Soviet Union's technical and economic resources, if strained heavily, can just produce an adequate, though inferior, counter to the U.S. nuclear forces. A crucial factor that has seldom been noted in argument about an ABM race between the two countries is that, costly though it would be for the United States, at a certain point it would probably strain Soviet resources beyond the breaking point.


Soviet policy remains a "forward" one in principle. In practice it is so only in areas where prospects seem promising and where the American interest and involvement are not judged sufficient to lead to a direct and dangerous confrontation (the peril here being that the Soviet assessment may be incorrect). This tactical line was summarized by Brezhnev in September 1965: "We are striving to make our diplomacy vigorous and active and at the same time we exhibit flexibility and caution."6

All factions, it would seem, agree that an activist approach should be adopted where it is feasible and seems to involve no serious risk of world war. The dispute is rather about the degrees of risk in each case. Even Shelepin would doubtless not recommend an assault on England or the Low Countries; even Brezhnev would hardly refrain from at least some forward action in the Aden area.

To see how these distinctions work out in practice, we can divide the world into three or four areas of Soviet interest. In spite of occasional hopeful soundings of the trumpet outside the walls of West Berlin, there appears little prospect of serious political opportunities for the Russians in Western Europe, and military adventure is excluded by the guarantee of successive American presidents that any attack would automatically mean nuclear war. Perhaps the lesson here is that this is indeed a sound method of reserving peace. The real problem in Europe should be formulated differently: Will developments in Eastern Europe provoke fighting and Soviet intervention, as they did in 1956? And if there is a crumbling of communist power in Eastern Europe, what sort of political crisis may occur in the U.S.S.R. itself?

Latin America, too, seems not to be regarded as an area of opportunity. As with Stalin's attitude to Greece in 1948, the Soviets appear persuaded that the United States would not tolerate a serious thrust there. They are stuck with Castro's Cuba but their support is qualified. As we know, they oppose Castroite tactics elsewhere, and while not altogether abandoning a policy of exploiting advantages and footholds vis-à-vis China as well as the United States, they would prefer on the whole to keep the area subcritical.

In Asia, in the sphere largely influenced by the Chinese, Moscow has a special problem. Viet Nam in particular constitutes a most awkward and peculiar case. At one level the arguments are familiar: the U.S.S.R. enjoys having the United States entangled; failure to support Hanoi would weaken communist loyalty elsewhere; the testing of Soviet military equipment is a valuable bonus; and so on. On the other hand, the Soviets are no doubt fearful of the danger of serious escalation. All these points have some validity, though as regards the communist ideological "commitment" all but a few disaffected Asian parties would certainly accept a Soviet-sponsored compromise. The difficulty is rather that Ho Chi Minh is not under control.

But more basic in Moscow's thinking on Viet Nam is its relations with China. The strongest argument of the pro-Soviet faction in China (usually in the army) is that modern arms are needed to defeat the Americans, and that these can be obtained only from Russia. The true Maoist view is, of course, that an American attack on China proper could effectively be met by retirement to the interior and resort to guerrilla warfare. Therefore, the more weapons the Russians can send to Hanoi, the bigger the object lesson in favor of the anti-Maoist thesis and the stronger the possibility of rallying a pro-Soviet power group to take over in Peking. This interpretation, originally put to me by Dr. Uri Rana'an, I find largely convincing. It raises the curious possibility that a blockade of Haiphong would have been in the interests of both the Americans and the Maoists.

And the new Chinese nuclear capability certainly complicates all these issues. Although it may be true that, as President Kennedy said, what the communists are quarrelling about is the best way to bury us, it does seem that for the Maoists the Soviet Union now appears as the most immediate threat. The whole area, in fact, is one in which the Soviet leaders face special-and perhaps temporary-problems of great intricacy, which to some extent confuse the issue of confrontation with the West.

With Europe, East Asia and Latin America taken as special cases, we are left with the traditional major area of Soviet interest-the area south of the national territory, in the direction of the Indian Ocean.

Africa south of the Sahara, the most distant extension of this area, is presumably not an immediate target. Soviet policy in Africa has been extraordinarily inept, partly in consequence of an attempt to impose Marxist class analyses on refractory material. The distances have been too great-as in the case of the Congo troubles-and the régimes supported by the Russians have been insufficiently solid, with the result that in one of the most advanced black African countries, Ghana, the people have now been effectively vaccinated against anything even remotely resembling communism. Though more sophisticated policies now seem to be emerging, it still appears unlikely that much can be achieved-unless the East coast is left in a power vacuum by British withdrawals.

The Middle East then, or rather an area centered on the Middle East and stretching from Morocco to the Gulf of Bengal, is the sector in which the activist element in Soviet policy receives its chief exercise. It is an area whose politics have long proved unmanageable and unpredictable to every outside power which has become involved. Nor does the U.S.S.R. appear to have a coherent policy, except to buy friends, keep the pot boiling and await any suitable opportunities. The political-military investment in Syria and Egypt has so far proved unremunerative. Moreover, throughout the area, the Soviet Government is faced with an old dilemma: Is it best to rely on indigenous anti-Western movements and régimes or try to replace them with reliable communists? The first choice usually leads eventually to divergence and hostility; the second throws the local nationalists into the arms of the West straightaway. The usual solution has been an attempt to combine the two, which leads to endless friction.

But there is also a special geographical difficulty in the area. The Soviet Navy cannot for the foreseeable future match the American, and its communications through the Dardanelles are vulnerable. In the air, the Soviets suffer similar difficulties. Turkey and Iran remain resistant obstacles to a real move south. Politically and economically, they appear to be growing stronger; to subvert their governments grows increasingly difficult. To attack them would be to take the ultimate risk. And so the prudential element in Soviet thinking dominates the scene in the Northern Tier, leaving activist elements the upper hand (though not exclusive control) in the softer but less accessible Arab lands. The extremist group in the Kremlin has tried to make the most of trouble in the Middle East, though serious disputes arose in the U.S.S.R. over the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, leading to the fall of Moscow party secretary Egorychev, one of Shelepin's associates.

From this we conclude, once again, that dangerous policies are given rope unless and until to develop them further would lead to a direct confrontation with the United States. In the 1967 war, the U.S.S.R. produced the maximum trouble compatible with this final precaution. The fact that one faction wanted to go further is not reassuring.

A most significant development has been the creation, particularly in the last two years, of the ability to deploy conventional forces on a world scale-long-range aircraft like the AN-22 and a blue-water fleet, including tank- and troop-landing ships and helicopter-carriers. This force is not, or not yet, capable of challenging the great fleets of the United States, and to make it so would mean a further heavy strain on the Soviet economy for a perhaps chimerical advantage. The amount that must already have been allocated, however, is a strong indication that the Soviets want the ability to intervene in hitherto immune areas-or to deter the United States from doing so. It reflects an activist rather than a prudential policy and is the more dangerous because it tends to draw the Soviet Union into situations in which its leaders might prefer to avoid involvement.

Conversely, when we consider that the governments of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania all were saved quite recently from military coups simply by the intervention of a few companies of British Marines (just as a small force of French paratroops has done the same for ex-French African states), the projected withdrawal of Britain from the Indian Ocean leaves an area where- unless and until the Americans accept responsibility-a couple of Soviet cruisers with a few hundred troops could play a decisive part in immediate crises.


What many observers overlook is that all the present leaders are the product of a specific tradition. Kosygin, Brezhnev, Suslov, Mazurov, Kirilenko and the others took the first big steps in their careers precisely during the great purge of the thirties, when only the most ruthless advanced, or even survived. Their subsequent careers have confirmed this. The political machine they now embody is precisely that created by Stalin, and their repudiation of certain Stalinist excesses has not meant abandoning the principle of strife against all other political entities. Understanding this party background is essential to any realistic assessment of the present leaders. This is not to say that no more moderate group than Brezhnev's can possibly arise within the apparat. A leader could conceivably come to power who would want to revert to the policy of noninvolvement. Recognizing that the U.S.S.R. could not outface America, he would retire his country from the competition temporarily, to concentrate on building up its economic, as well as military, capability. An intelligent despot might make such a decision. But it would be less easy to do so now than a generation ago. This is partly because of objective circumstances, like the existence of Mao's China. But it is also partly because an exaggeratedly confident spirit prevails among the Russian apparat.

Because the Soviet Union remains in principle in a position of permanent hostility to the non-communist world, the détente must inevitably remain limited, whatever the possibilities of a stable truce. Brezhnev put it flatly in his speech of March 29, 1968, to the Moscow City Party Conference: "Our Party has always warned that in the ideological field there can be no peaceful coexistence, just as there can be no class peace between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie." There cannot be, he added, "political indifference and passivity or neutralism" in this matter.

What will affect the stability of the détente is the firmness of the United States. It is only when the initiatives of the extremists in the Kremlin are thwarted, are shown to lead to the risk of serious confrontation, that they are overruled and defeated. It is also true that the U.S.S.R. must not be pushed into a situation where its rulers feel that there is no future for the régime except in nuclear confrontation. But for the moment the greater danger for Western policy is perhaps in encouraging the extremists by too complaisant an attitude to their adventures, thereby helping to ensure the rise of a dangerously imprudent leadership. One finds at present, in the Western press and elsewhere, a notion implicitly expressed that the détente between the Soviet Union and the United States is based not merely on a common interest in avoiding nuclear war but also on a growing Soviet tolerance-a complete misapprehension.

I conclude, then, that the present détente is real, sensible and vital from both Russian and Western viewpoints, and with some luck it might eventually develop into a genuine world peace; but that it is not based on Soviet acceptance of any basic principle of permanent coöperation or of pacific orientation; and that it is in practice ill-defined, variable and subject to instabilities. To exaggerate it is to do a disservice to peace, which cannot be secured on a basis of misunderstanding of fact and misconception of motive. 1 Major-General N. Talensky, Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn, no. 10, 1960. 2 See Roman Kolkowicz's "The Dilemma of Super Power: Soviet Policy and Strategy in Transition," Institute of Defense Analyses, 1967. 3 Krasnaya Zvezda, December 7, 1965; Kommunist Vooruzhenykh Sil. no. 17, 1966; ditto no. 1, 1966; Krasnaya Zvezda, September 22, 1965; and Kommunist Vooruzhenykh Sil. no. 24, 1965. 4 Pravda, September 24, 1967. 5 Izvestia, October 4, 1967. 6 Pravda, September 30, 1965.

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  • ROBERT CONQUEST, author of many works on Soviet topics, including "Marxism Today" and "Russia after Khrushchev;" editor of the recent "The Politics of Ideas in the USSR" 
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