What Putin Really Wants in Ukraine
Russia Seeks to Stop NATO’s Expansion, Not to Annex More Territory
A MERICANS, indulging their taste for self-criticism, are much given to writing and reading discussions of the effect of their foreign policy on other peoples. The journalist or critic who wishes to arouse an American audience can always attract attention by remarking that this or that aspect of our policy is costing us friends abroad. We are used to hearing that in one way or another words and actions are endangering what Wendell Willkie called our "reservoir of good will," and we attach importance to such charges.
If the leaders of Soviet Russia have a similar habit, there is no record of it, and we therefore have from Russian sources no proper study of one of the most remarkable achievements of recent years—the way in which the leaders of Soviet Russia have contrived to lose friends and alienate people, especially Americans. Yet the topic is not without importance, particularly at the present time, when there is talk of a change in Soviet policy, or at least in Soviet tactics. From the western point of view, of course, the story of events since 1945 is familiar, but for this very reason it may perhaps be profitably reviewed once again now. Sometimes the most prominent part of a familiar landscape is the very aspect which ceases to be remarked upon, or even noticed. And the fact is that the landmark of Russian-American friendship in 1945—the terms of the Yalta Agreement—remains no less prominently a point of reference for American-Soviet hostility in 1949 and for any present estimate of real Soviet intentions.
It is not easy, in these days of charge and countercharge, in which the Communists and many of their opponents have exhausted substantial stockpiles of epithets, to recall the state of mind of the west at the time of Yalta. In the early spring of 1945 no nation had more friends abroad than Soviet Russia; not Communists alone, but ordinary men everywhere were eager to find cause for confidence in the people and leaders of the Soviet Union.
This was the high tide of the Grand Alliance. The results of the Yalta Conference were announced—or announced in part—at a time of victories and approaching triumph, but Yalta was cheered less as a successful council of war than as a clear harbinger of peacetime coöperation. It provided reassurance to the world, and particularly to Americans, on the great question of the day—can we get along with Russia? To understand the extraordinary importance of the Yalta meeting, we must reconstruct the image of Russia in the minds of average Americans in February 1945.
Most of us knew already that Soviet Russia was governed, as the President had said to the Pope, "by a dictatorship, as rigid in its manner of being as is the dictatorship in Germany," but the knowledge had been pushed into the background. After all, the Nazi enemy was not considered harmless, nor was Russia an unimportant ally. We knew that the Russians had shown extraordinary unity in what they called the "great patriotic war;" it seemed at least possible that their dictatorship was merely the peculiarity of a foreign nation, and that they were sincere when their spokesmen said it was not for export. Only the naïve thought the dissolution of the Comintern had made Thorez or Browder independent agents, but it seemed at least possible that they were to be used merely as pro-Soviet advocates of a new policy of collective security, not as front-line fighters in a Communist attack on western society. The war had put a heavy damper on the usual Soviet oratory about imperialism and monopolies, and on our side too there had been a moratorium on gratuitous insult. American officials and private publicists alike, except for a few incorrigibles, had avoided any insistence that we could not get along with Russia, and the country clearly shared the President's belief that a working friendship was worth considerable effort. The desire to study the Russian language was widespread, and in every university there were men who wanted only an opportunity to develop, as a public service, friendly contacts with the students and scholars of the U.S.S.R. The idea that at some future date, Communism and "the American way" might meet on some middle ground combining the best features of both was attractive to many, and in any event few were afraid of a peaceful competition between the two systems, so long as both sides respected the Marquess of Queensberry rules in their dealings with other nations. Russian adherence to the Atlantic Charter and repeated professions of peaceful intent by the Kremlin were taken as hopeful signs, and there was widespread agreement that in the case of her neighbors Russia was entitled to insist on "friendliness." One of the disturbing problems before Yalta was whether "friendliness" and the Queensberry rules were compatible, but the average man hoped for the best.
And he thought he had it, from Yalta. The agreements published after the Crimea Conference were heartening not only on the general ground that they were agreements, though this was important. They were particularly welcome because they seemed to meet American doubts on the two most important issues of the time—the future of Eastern Europe, and the establishment of a new world organization. These were the two questions to which discussions of peace in the American press and American forums returned again and again, in this last year of the war, when it was evident that the shape of the future was not to be determined by the fiat of the paranoiac in Berlin. Would the Communist dictatorship respect the American belief that the small nations which border Germany and Russia are, by right, free countries? Would the Communist dictatorship subordinate its doctrinal objectives to the joint effort of the world community of nations to set up and successfully operate a world organization in which might would not make right?
In the American view, these were the points of reference for judging the direction of Soviet aims. By the terms of the Yalta Agreement, the aims of the U.S.S.R. pointed toward peace and coöperation. The "Declaration on Liberated Europe" contained most specific guarantees that the small nations between the Great Powers were to be permitted self-government determined by free election and secret ballot, under the protection of Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, acting together; and it was also announced that the three Powers had reached agreement on voting procedure in the projected United Nations Organization, the only major question in regard to the new world agency which had remained unsettled after Dumbarton Oaks.
Thus it seemed that the Soviet Union, in enlightened self-interest, was prepared to engage in the building of peace on terms acceptable to western democrats. The importance of these two touchstones for measuring Soviet sincerity and American good will cannot be overemphasized. The autonomy of Eastern Europe, and genuine coöperation in the United Nations were the preconditions of American willingness to deal cordially with the Kremlin. For these two things the Americans were willing to give much. It is notable that the terms of the Polish compromise, like those of the voting compromise in the U.N., were generally accepted as legitimate concessions for the greater purpose. Praise of Yalta was well-nigh universal, running from Herbert Hoover to Henry Wallace by way of Governor Dewey. Many a man was aware that the proof of the pudding would come in the eating, but few indeed were prepared to deny that a good beginning had been made. When Russian and American soldiers met in comradeship two months later, the satisfaction of the United States was enormous. The reservoir of good will was full.
It is now fashionable in this country to look back at Yalta as a time of wishful thinking, in which American statesmen were outsmarted by Stalin. Critics of Yalta have never shown that Mr. Roosevelt or Mr. Churchill granted anything that they were in a position to withhold (except perhaps the Kurile Islands). The object of the western statesmen at Yalta was to persuade Stalin that the common interest required genuine coöperation on the basis of self-restraint by the Great Powers. It seemed for a moment that he was persuaded. In the event, we have seen that he was not. Perhaps the western statesmen, and the peoples whom, in this, they truly represented, should not have believed peaceful coöperation between Russia and the rest of the world a practical possibility, but it is hard to deny their central conviction: that such coöperation would have been to the great advantage of all concerned. In any event, they did in fact obtain agreements which, if kept, would have amounted to a pledge of lasting peace.
The Yalta agreements had a short life. Within two weeks after the Crimea Conference had adjourned, the Russians had begun to drain their reservoir of good will. Even before Mr. Roosevelt had reported to the Congress, Mr. Vyshinsky had intervened in Rumania, personally, unilaterally and imperiously, to replace a coalition of moderates with a puppet régime. That a two-hour ultimatum brought the Communist-dominated Government to office has never been disputed. (Less well known, but hardly less revealing, was Mr. Vyshinsky's reply, in Bucharest in January 1946, to the comment that the political methods he required the Rumanian authorities to use would not be well received in the United States and Britain. He said: "Let the sparrows twitter." [i])
Shortly afterward it became clear that the Polish agreements were not intended by the Kremlin to lead to any genuine coalition of democratic parties. Meanwhile, at San Francisco, Mr. Molotov, in his first western appearance, was intransigent in his demands for a free hand for the Soviet Union in the world organization. The two central pillars of the Yalta settlement—self-government in Eastern Europe and coöperation in the United Nations—seemed already shaken. Indeed, the information that came to the American Government was more disheartening than anything made available to the public (an official reticence which continued for about two years), but both citizens and officials were disturbed. At this juncture the new President sent Harry Hopkins to Moscow.
The Hopkins mission to Moscow is one of the most interesting episodes in American diplomatic history.[ii] Harry Hopkins saved the U.N., and he patched up the Polish problem (for a while). But the point of greatest interest in his extraordinary conversations with the Generalissimo is his eloquent, persistent and wholly unsuccessful effort to direct the attention of Stalin to the fact that the Kremlin was making trouble for itself with American public opinion. Over and over again Hopkins warned Stalin, in friendly and diplomatic language, that the future of the Roosevelt policy of coöperation depended on a favorable public opinion, and that the Polish question, with others, was creating grave doubts among the very people who had been, and wished still to be, friendly to the Soviet Union. As plainly as he could be expected to do, given the conciliatory purpose of his mission, Hopkins indicated that the trouble lay in Soviet actions, not just in misunderstanding. And always he came back to his central point—Americans who had rejoiced at Yalta were now seriously disturbed, and for this reason the whole future of Russian-American relations was in danger.
If Generalissimo Stalin understood this point, he never showed it. First he taunted Hopkins genially with hiding behind the shield of public opinion. Then he indicated that as between colleagues in statecraft, he was ready to make adjustments in order to help Churchill off the Polish hook. But he never made any reply which indicated a serious interest in the central point of Hopkins' mission. He never asked why Americans were disturbed, or what Soviet Russia might do to calm them down. American public opinion, whose controlling influence in all American policy Hopkins was trying to communicate, seemed to Stalin either a weapon in bargaining or a problem for management by western statesmen. Neither the value of its support nor the cost of its opposition seems to have struck him as very important. There is no greater error in statesmanship than the underestimation of a significant force. Much—if not all—of the frustrated confusion into which Soviet foreign policy had worked itself by 1949 was the result of the total Soviet disdain for the attitude of the west which underlay the failure of communication between Hopkins and Stalin.
The men in the Kremlin had three choices after Yalta. One was to accept its principles and to devote themselves to the construction of a sincere peace, based on mutual respect for vital interests, and self-restraint in other areas. The second was to pretend to accept the Yalta principles—in other words, to make an effort to conserve the advantages of the reservoir of good will—while continuing under the surface the great contest for the world ordained by Stalinist theory. It may be that Soviet leaders thought this was in fact the course they were following. But the course that seems most nearly to fit the actual record of Soviet behavior since Yalta is a third one—a policy characterized by an apparent decision to disregard as unimportant the good will of the non-Communist west and to proceed as energetically as possible to expand and consolidate Communist power.
The reservoir of good will, in 1945, had many ingredients; none was more important than the general belief that Russians and Americans could "talk the same language." The Soviets proceeded to use a vocabulary which, for the westerners, turned language inside out. (The "free flow of ideas" became a "Fascist" proposal, and so on.) But there was nothing ambiguous about Soviet actions. By early 1946, whatever Americans might think of Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain speech at Fulton (and many were critical then who would find it mild today), it was hard for anyone to deny his plain words that "this is certainly not the liberated Europe we fought to build up." Privately, the Russians sometimes offered explanations; Stalin at Potsdam, for example, remarked that free elections in Eastern Europe would result in a hostile régime, which he could not permit.[iii] But publicly, abroad as at home, the Russians merely proclaimed that the "new democracies" were models of virtue. Anyone who expressed doubt of this was an enemy of peace; anyone who referred to Yalta was answered by violent explanations that "true" freedom (the blanket qualification which is so often used to smother men's liberties) had been safeguarded. This sort of talk tended merely to confirm for Americans the evidence of their eyes: that one basic premise of Yalta—an autonomous Eastern Europe—was being deliberately and cynically flouted.
The question of behavior in the United Nations offered the Soviets a more complicated problem, for the forum was world-wide; and it was impossible to sing two songs undetected. But the disdain for American good will seemed no less evident in Russian procedures. When the storm blew up over Iran—the first major disturbance in the Security Council—nothing could alter the fact that the Soviet Union had directly violated an agreement. Soviet rage was educational, but, alas, in a left-handed way. Had Mr. Molotov studied the record of the Japanese in 1931, he might have gained a new perception of the possibilities of a soft answer in such matters. And the Iranian episode was only the beginning. On atomic energy the Russians were completely recalcitrant (and abusive); and with the indiscriminate use of the veto they brought to a stop the work of the Security Council—that agency of the United Nations which is responsible for the prevention of aggressive war. These actions are on the record. There are elements of a case for the Russian position both on atomic energy and on the veto; there is no case at all for the manner and evident intent of their actions in both fields. Since the success of the United Nations was an issue closer to the heart of Americans than perhaps any other in the field of international relations, the effect on the reservoir of good will need scarcely be described.
The rigidity of the Soviet bloc was apparent in the United Nations long before the west had solidified against it. Could there not have been some variety in the dance of the puppets? Soviet critics have never been impressed by what they regard as the spurious independence of Brazil or Mexico, but they need not have thought that others were equally unimpressionable. A little planning might have produced a most pleasing and harmless effect of diversity. And however that may be, the decision to ignore and avoid all of the specialized agencies of U.N. except one (W.H.O., from which they have now withdrawn) seemed to set the final mark of Communist disdain on the new world organization.
No doubt it was thought dangerous for a country devoted to a policy of hermetic isolation to get heavily involved with some of those agencies; but it is hard to believe that a few trained seals could not have been sent to meetings of UNESCO, for instance, with orders to "come and go, talking of Michelangelo." Just a little of this sort of thing would have been a most powerful reinforcement to the eager hopes of thousands of intellectuals in the west. This failure to exploit the cultural opportunities of 1945 and 1946 is the more surprising because Marxists have not ordinarily misunderstood the importance of friendly intellectuals.
But more important than anything done or not done in U.N., from the point of view of its effect in the United States, was the decision to reimpose an iron discipline of aggressive hostility upon all the Communists in the world. Here again we have a decision of policy, not a question of "public relations." Yet the very purpose of the policy was to influence the west. Apparently the deliberate choice was to influence the west toward hostility to the Soviet Union. Apparently the Politburo reasoned that what was lost in good will would be made up by gains from the tactics of boring from within, in the various non-Communist countries. It was a queer decision for rational men to make even in Italy and in France, but it was preposterous in Great Britain and the United States. Ever since 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt talked to Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Government had been on notice that Americans of good will felt strongly about Soviet-dominated agitators in the United States. Only men blind to reality, or possessed by a frantic need to sharpen conflicts, could have thus surrendered an appeal to the amiable in favor of an appeal to the non-existent revolutionary masses. When Foster replaced Browder, a very heavy drain on the reservoir was opened.
The Iron Curtain, the veto and the revival of aggressive world Communism, all of them accompanied by a mounting din of self-praise and denunciation, had combined by the end of 1946 to kill the war-born hopes of Americans. Meanwhile the sessions of the Foreign Ministers had continued, and out of their ups and downs had come a conviction that Secretary Byrnes was correct in his prescription of "patience and firmness."
The detailed points at issue in each of the sessions—London, Moscow, Paris, New York, Moscow, and London—need not concern us here. What is interesting for our present purpose is the premise on which the Soviets constantly sought to strike bargains: it was the premise of two-Power domination—the premise of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. When Mr. Byrnes registered protests against Communist behavior in Eastern Europe, Mr. Molotov wondered audibly what bargain he was trying to drive. Disregarding non-Communist opinion in their policies and propaganda, the Russians seemed to disregard it also in their efforts at negotiation. They never seemed to understand that Mr. Byrnes was responsible to American opinion, and that he had neither asked nor received any commission for the expansion of American imperialism, or any authorization to conclude even the most advantageous two-Power agreement at the expense of the rest of the world.
One result of this misunderstanding was that Russian proposals and counterproposals, Russian public statements and private comments, were seldom framed attractively even on the rare occasions when they were designed to please. Many agreements were reached during the first four sessions of the Council of Foreign Ministers, but neither the process of negotiation nor the upshot of many of the agreements added to the reservoir of good will. By the latter part of 1946 the Russians had succeeded in relieving Mr. Byrnes of one earlier difficulty: he was no longer under constant and heavy pressure to get agreement for the sake of agreement. With the completion of the satellite treaties, the knotty problem of Germany was about to come on-stage. UNRRA was ending. (Was it intelligent for the Soviet Government to give no syllable of thanks for UNRRA?) But in China the scales were still in uncertain balance; in France and Italy the Communists were still in the Governments. Peace was certainly not made, but for most Americans the period of hostility had not begun.
The year 1947 brought in succession the Truman Doctrine in March, deadlock in Germany in April, and the original Marshall proposal in June. All three were indications of a new American policy: Americans were determined not to leave the initiative with the Soviet Union, or even with history. Here were strong hints that the course of Soviet conduct had produced untimely results. The Russians responded in a way which not only disarmed the critics of the Truman Doctrine, who were many, but made the necessary friends for the Marshall Plan.
Let us grant—though it is only to save space—that Soviet policy required open hostility to the Truman Doctrine and complete intransigence on Germany. The Russian decision not only to stand apart from the Marshall Plan but to employ against it every weapon short of open war in the armory of Communism remains incomprehensible. For it is clear that this was the indispensable evidence needed to persuade the average American of two great facts: first, that Soviet Russia was wholly hostile to the idea of peaceful reconstruction in any part of the world not under Communist government; and second, that such reconstruction must be pushed ahead, not only on its own merits, but for the purpose of containing Communism. And the hearty approval of the average man in America was a sine qua non of the Marshall Plan. How much of the original impetus of the plan would have survived if Molotov had really sat down at Paris, deployed the enormous retinue he took with him (and one still wonders what they were doing there if this notion was not considered) and coöperated in form but not in fact? Seldom have so few contributed so much to so many as the men in the Kremlin who made Molotov tough in Paris and Zhdanov tougher in Warsaw when the Comintern was revived.
Whatever the considerations which governed these decisions—and we may speculate endlessly on this point—it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they were made without proper calculation of their effect on opinion in the west. No effort was made to soften them; no credit or mention was given to the good intentions which filled the hearts of average Americans. And to cap the climax, Mr. Vyshinsky presented to the General Assembly in September a list of American warmongers at which Americans could not decide whether to laugh or cry, such was its vicious absurdity. What Vyshinsky said in New York had been said a hundred times already, but mainly for domestic consumption in the Soviet Union. When he said it on the world stage it could be taken only as proof that the Kremlin was not merely doping its own masses and its Cominform agents. Either it was doping itself, or it was engaged in a cynical and brutal assault on the whole fabric of non-Communist society—or possibly both.
Finally, we come to the Czechoslovak putsch. In retrospect, it is difficult to overestimate the value of Beneš and Masaryk and their relatively free government and people to the Soviet Union, and it is almost impossible to overestimate the damage done to Communism in the west by the coup of February 1948. In the United States it ensured the creation of an effective E.C.A.; in Italy it helped to turn the scales in the crucial April election; all over the world it had an impact greater than anything done before or since in the satellite countries. Whatever was feared from a continuation of parliamentary democracy in Czechoslovakia, and whatever was hoped of Gottwald, was the extinction of Czechoslovak independence worth the price the Politburo paid for it?
Whatever the particular conclusion as to Czechoslovakia, the general import of that question has at last, apparently, engaged the students of revolution in the Kremlin. Behind each of the Russian actions we have thus summarily recalled, there lay, of course, a policy consideration. No skill in public relations could have made the Iron Curtain invisible or attractive, nor could Litvinov himself have been lovable if it had been he who was tying the U.N. in knots. Until the middle of 1947 the course of Russian policy was such that a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" could have retained some—possibly no little—Russian good will in the west. After the decision to attack the Marshall Plan, that is no longer true. But if it was true after 1945 that even within the Soviet choice of policy there was room for different public relations, may it not also be true that even within Soviet grand strategy there was room for different policies? We must conclude that Stalin's failure to understand what Hopkins said about American opinion was only a part of a broader and deeper failure—a failure to understand the very nature of western society. And one of the results of the last four years of Soviet behavior is that millions of Americans have in fact reached this conclusion.
It must be admitted that two years ago it seemed far from clear that an all-out Communist effort would fail to capture any one of the western nations; criticism of Russian policy now has the great advantage of hindsight. But it is just such criticism from hindsight that illuminates the cause of Soviet failure. For what saved Western Europe from Communism was American public opinion, and it was the Russians, not Wall Street, that armed this mighty force. The tide in Europe runs toward the west, and the United States has confounded Soviet calculations by displaying timely energy and remarkable constancy. It is at least possible that the Soviet leaders have begun to understand how greatly they and their agents have contributed to this result.
But the record of the last four years remains. How shall we summarize it? Shall we say that we are grateful for a lucky escape? The thought of what might now be happening to Europe if, after 1945, the Russians had chosen words and tactics designed to allay and not to arouse American public opinion is not a pleasant one. And if we are grateful, are we perhaps also safe, for the present, from the effects of a policy of deceptive friendliness by Russia? Perhaps we have learned that the basis of Soviet conduct since Yalta is a concept of human society not merely alien, but actively hostile to our own. If this is one of the lessons we have learned, the Soviet leaders now have not three choices, but two: they may meet the terms of Yalta in good faith, or they may refuse them; it is too late for them to say one thing and do another.
Writing in 1947, a statesman who had long urged conciliation with Soviet Russia came to the reluctant conclusion that there could be no lasting settlement until the men in the Kremlin should "either change their minds or lose their jobs." [iv] They have not lost their jobs; it remains to be seen whether—and how much—they have changed their minds. The basis of American hopes in 1945 was the double commitment of Yalta: self-government in Eastern Europe, and coöperation in the United Nations. Nothing that has happened since 1945 has made this double test of friendship less important. If it now seems stern, that is perhaps a measure of the distance that Soviet leaders have traveled from the path toward peace. The test of lasting settlement is still the test of Yalta.
[i] H. F. Arthur Schoenfeld, "Soviet Imperialism in Hungary." Foreign Affairs, April 1948.
[ii] Robert E. Sherwood, "Roosevelt and Hopkins." New York: Harper, 1948, p. 887-912.
[iii] Philip E. Mosely, "Face to Face with Russia." New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1948, p. 23.
[iv] Henry L. Stimson, "The Challenge to Americans." Foreign Affairs, October 1947.