Vladimir Putin is a product of the Cold War. Russia’s president made his career in the old Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, and he viewed the superpower rivalry and nuclear stalemate fondly, at least in some respects: after taking office in 2000, he famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union a “genuine tragedy” and “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Yet in the context of the current crisis over Ukraine, it is far from clear that Putin has seriously studied the history of the Cold War or comprehended its lessons.

At key Cold War junctures, Kremlin leaders miscalculated by launching, approving, or threatening aggressive actions that ultimately proved counterproductive to Soviet interests. From sending tanks into Hungary in 1956 to pressuring the communist government in Poland to snuff out the Solidarity trade union movement in the early 1980s, the Soviets’ efforts to bring countries to heel reminded Western leaders why they had banded together against Moscow in the first place.

Today, it appears Putin may be repeating the errors of his Soviet predecessors. His attack against Ukraine is buttressing Ukrainian opposition to Russian influence and breathing new life into and unifying the Western alliance.

Adventures in Adventurism

From the beginning of the Cold War, Soviet leaders erred on the side of applying maximum pressure in their effort to solidify their influence in Eastern Europe. After World War II, the Soviet Union’s pressure and threats against Iran, Turkey, and—to a lesser extent—Greece inspired the rise of the U.S. “containment” doctrine to resist Soviet expansion beyond those countries where it had already imposed communist rule. In 1948, Stalin tried to force the United States and the United Kingdom, his former allies in defeating Nazi Germany, out of Berlin by cutting land access between the city’s western zones—an island in Soviet-occupied eastern Germany—and the U.S. and British occupation zones about 100 miles to the west. The move backfired: a massive Anglo-American airlift foiled the blockade and spurred Western leaders to forge a military alliance to combat the Soviet threat, resulting in the creation of NATO in April 1949. Moreover, images of West Berliners stubbornly plodding through the frigid winter despite Moscow’s threats helped transform the imagery of the contending sides in American popular culture: just a few years after the end of a war in which Americans deeply admired the heroic Soviet resistance to the Nazis’ onslaught, now “good Germans” were standing up to the Soviet Union’s “godless commies” and their tyrannical dictator (“the Reds”).

A year after the futile blockade, Stalin made another mistake: approving the appeal of Kim Il Sung to let North Korea invade South Korea in June 1950 and put the entire Korean Peninsula under communism. Kim assured Stalin that Koreans below the 38th parallel eagerly awaited his arrival and would arise to hasten his triumph; Stalin, for his part—perhaps misled by the Truman administration’s indications that the United States was reluctant to intervene militarily to defend South Korea—mistakenly assumed that Washington would refrain from coming to Seoul’s aid. The fact that the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb the previous summer buttressed that faulty supposition. Of course, Pyongyang failed to swallow the South and the fighting ended three years later with the peninsula still divided. Far worse, from the Soviet standpoint, was how the North Korean invasion prodded the West, even the French, to allow West Germany to arm itself.

In 1955, West Germany joined NATO (aided by its promise to forswear nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future), but a year later, in the fall of 1956, the alliance seemed on the verge of collapse. At the end of October, the United Kingdom and France, NATO’s two European pillars, attacked Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal, which Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized a few months earlier. They acted in conspiracy with Israel (whose surge into the Sinai Peninsula allowed London and Paris to claim they were protecting the canal) and behind the back of the United States, which had favored negotiating with Nasser. The Europeans’ effort to reassert colonial dominance in Egypt infuriated U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, and he forced the British, French, and Israelis to withdraw. The Western alliance would have been in shambles, except a few days later, in early November, the Soviets invaded Hungary. This move was prompted by a cascade of events in the Warsaw Pact satellite state: after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech criticizing aspects of Stalin’s rule, Hungarians chose a reformist (but still communist) regime. Moscow, in turn, brutally suppressed the Hungarian uprising.

Moscow's suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 strengthened NATO.

Moscow’s assault reminded the alliance why it existed. Despite numerous, recurrent strains within NATO over the ensuing decades, the alliance persisted for the rest of the Cold War. Periodic demonstrations of the Soviet peril—the Kremlin’s renewed designs on West Berlin (the second Berlin crisis, lasting from 1958 to 1961), the invasions of Czechoslovakia (in 1968) and Afghanistan (in 1979), and threats to invade Poland (in 1980–81)—strengthened the alliance’s cohesion.

Sometimes, the Soviets did not pay an immediate price for these aggressive moves. To be sure, the Soviet Union’s tendency to flex its military muscle chipped away at its international public approval, but U.S. sanctions were in most instances halfhearted. In each case, however, the Soviets made enemies and helped solidify opposition to their influence. Barging into Czechoslovakia, for instance, sped the rise of “Eurocommunism”—that is, more nationalistic communist parties in Western Europe, for instance in Italy, that were less subservient to the Soviet Communist Party—which reduced Moscow’s influence and control. And in Afghanistan, Moscow, which hoped and planned to enter and exit within a few months, successfully implanted a preferred communist leader (and killed the one he replaced) but found itself mired in a long, grinding struggle against a Washington-backed insurgency that eventually forced it to retreat a decade later. The war in Afghanistan palpably weakened the Soviet Union as it headed for oblivion.


That final scenario should particularly concern Putin. Although neither the United States nor NATO has any appetite to intervene militarily to save Ukraine from a Soviet invasion, they would not be averse to aiding a likely Ukrainian partisan guerrilla war against a hostile occupying army—which history suggests could be prolonged and substantial, as Adolf Hitler’s forces discovered during World War II. The Ukrainians appear far more ready and willing to fight than, for example, the Czechoslovaks were in 1968.

Of course, Putin evidently feels entitled to seize (or, in his Soviet-rooted view, reconquer) Ukraine because, unlike Hungary and Poland, it is a former republic of the Soviet Union and historically, ethnically, and linguistically closely tied to Russia. Yet the rest of the world (and even Russia itself, in a 1994 agreement) has recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty as an independent nation following the Soviet collapse. Many Ukrainians recall angrily how Moscow egregiously mistreated their country when it was incorporated into the Soviet Union; the great manmade famine that killed millions of Ukrainians during Stalin’s rule in the 1930s looms large in the country’s public consciousness. Such historical memories could underpin violent resistance to Russian occupation.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine will likely accelerate the outcome he wants least: a bigger and stronger NATO. After the chaos of the Donald Trump presidency, the alliance tightened ranks in a bid to deter Putin from launching an assault on Ukraine. Countries along or near the Russian periphery that value their independence but do not yet belong to NATO may now seriously consider joining or intensify their efforts to do so. Potential new members could expand beyond former Soviet republics to include countries that remained neutral during the Cold War, either voluntarily (such as Sweden) or as a result of Soviet coercion (such as Austria and Finland). Already, some Finns are publicly musing about un-“Finlandizing” and abandoning their traditional distance from NATO.

Putin is not oblivious to these Cold War antecedents, instances in which Moscow’s aggression ended up backfiring, yet he apparently doesn’t care. Shortly after coming to power, he published First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President, in which he acknowledged that the Soviet Union’s violent suppressions of uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were “major mistakes.” He added: “The Russophobia that we see in Eastern Europe today is the fruit of those mistakes.” The word “mistakes” suggests that he considers these actions miscalculations rather than morally wrong or unjustified. In any case, in weighing his options, Putin must have known that invading Ukraine would dramatically revive and reinforce Russophobia in surrounding countries, with consequences he may not like. His nostalgic desire to effectively re-create the Soviet Union (without its global ideological rationale, since he stands only for autocracy and Russian power), if necessary by force, has led Russia to war.

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