Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
We are evidently at the beginning of the third major effort since 1945 to establish whether or not it is possible for the Soviet Union and the West to live together on this planet under conditions of tolerable stability and low tension. The first effort occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War; the second, in the years after Stalin's death; and historians may well date the third from the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis of last October.
Sandwiched between these intervals of diplomatic exploration and negotiation were two massive, sustained Soviet offensives: Stalin's, of 1946-51; and Khrushchev's, of 1958-62. To understand where we are and what the prospects and conditions for success may be, it is, perhaps, worth recalling briefly this familiar sequence which takes on a certain shapeliness with the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight.
It starts, one might properly assume, with Stalingrad. From the time when victory appeared certain, Moscow prepared actively to exploit the confusion that the war itself and the postwar years would inevitably bring. Communist rule in Russia was born of such confusion; and, as the Second World War came to a close, it became increasingly clear that, despite vast destruction within Russia, its rulers looked to the postwar period as an interval of opportunity for expansion, based in part on the disposition of the Red Army and the leverage this provided.
How far expansion could go depended, of course, on how the then overwhelming power of the United States would be deployed. In 1945-46 Stalin evidently judged that the United States was, in fact, behaving as President Roosevelt told him it would behave when he predicted the United States could not maintain troops abroad for more than two years after the war. We negotiated about Europe and China against a background of hasty, drastic, unilateral demobilization.
Assessing his opportunities hopefully, Stalin made clear in his tough speech of February 9, 1946, that he regarded the days ahead as a period for the extension of Communist power. And he mounted a sustained offensive, first in the West, then in the East. In the West, Stalin, although set back in Iran, increased Soviet pressure against Turkey by diplomacy and threat during the summer of 1946; in Greece by supporting substantial guerrilla warfare; and in Italy and France by vigorous Communist Party efforts to gain parliamentary power. In 1947 he accelerated the movement toward total control in Eastern Europe, symbolized by the creation of the Cominform in September 1947. He succeeded in Prague (February 1948), but failed in Belgrade where Tito's defection was announced in June 1948.
But from early 1947 the Western counterattack began with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. The election in April 1948 saved Italy, and the Communist effort in Greece fell apart in the face of the Greek effort and Communist schisms. France found a group of center parties capable of governing, if uncertainly, and containing the domestic Communist menace.
Germany drifted, from the spring of 1946, toward a split; and the resulting deadlock in the Berlin Control Council was dramatized by the Soviet walkout on March 20, 1948, which set the stage for the full blockade on the ground three months later. The success of the airlift ended, in effect, Stalin's main thrust to the West. The interacting process set in motion by this offensive, however, had yielded not merely the Marshall Plan but the Brussels Pact (September 1948), NATO (March 1949), and the creation (May 1949) of the Federal Republic of Germany with its close ties to West Berlin.
As this duel in the West proceeded, Stalin launched an offensive in the East which can be roughly dated from the activist injunctions of Zhdanov to the Communist parties in Asia at the founding meeting of the Cominform in September 1947. Open guerrilla warfare began in Indochina as early as November 1946; in Burma, in April 1948; in Malaya, in June; and in Indonesia and the Philippines, in the autumn. The Indian and Japanese Communist parties, with less scope for guerrilla action, nevertheless sharply increased their militancy in 1948. As victory was won in China in November 1949 (contrary to Stalin's earlier expectations), Mao's political- military strategy was openly commended by the Cominform to the Communist parties in those areas where guerrilla operations were under way. The meeting of Stalin and Mao early in 1950 undoubtedly confirmed the ambitious Asian strategy and planned its climax in the form of the North Korean invasion of South Korea, which took place at the end of June 1950.
The American and United Nations response to the invasion of South Korea, the landings at Inchon, the march to the Yalu, the Chinese Communist entrance into the war, and the successful United Nations defense against massive Chinese assault in April-May 1951 at the 38th parallel brought this phase of military and quasi-military Communist effort throughout Asia to a gradual end. Neither Moscow nor Peking was willing to undertake all-out war or even to accept the cost of a continued Korean offensive. And elsewhere the bright Communist hopes of 1946-47 had dimmed. Nowhere in Asia was Mao's success repeated. Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines largely overcame their guerrillas. At great cost to Britain, the Malayan guerrillas were contained and driven back. Only in Indochina did local conditions favor real Communist momentum; but Ho Chi Minh was finally forced to settle for half a victory (Geneva, 1954) in the wake of Stalin's death and in the shadow of possible United States intervention.
Where were we, then, when the truce negotiations on Korea began in the summer of 1951? Stalin had consolidated Eastern Europe; Mao, China. But the global balance of power still lay-even if precariously-with the free world. And the West, led by the United States, had answered three basic questions which underlay the hopes of Communist planners. First, it was demonstrated that the United States commitment to Europe had survived the war, belying Roosevelt's fears and his unfortunate prediction. Second, it was demonstrated that Western Europe had emerged from the Second World War with the capacity to find again its economic, social and political vigor and, with American aid, to fend off the Communist thrusts against the Eastern Mediterranean, Italy, France and, climactically, against Berlin. Third, it was demonstrated in Korea that the United States and the free world as a whole had the will and capacity to deal with an aggressive thrust with conventional forces across the truce lines of the cold war.
Between the summer of 1951 and the launching of Sputnik in October 1957 there emerged a relatively quiet interval, interrupted by the Suez and Hungarian crises, which resulted directly less from the tensions of the cold war than from the dynamics of change within the free world and within the Communist bloc. It is likely Soviet planners recognized that the phase of exploitation of immediate postwar opportunities was over; and the positions taken at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 1952 in Moscow reflected thoughts about a new, longer-run Communist strategy. Then Stalin's death intervened, yielding some four years of quiet struggle for power. It was only in 1957 that Khrushchev established unambiguous control over the machinery of the Soviet Government as well as over the Communist Party. There were also significant and absorbing changes in policy within the Soviet Union and adjustments within the satellite empire, yielding the Gomulka régime in Poland in October 1956 and the Hungarian revolution later in that year.
There evidently was also some thought given to the possibilities of accommodation with the West. As noted above, the Indochinese war was brought to a formal close, Moscow acquiesced in the Trieste settlement, and Austria was granted its freedom in neutrality (July 1955). But on the two great issues-arms control and Germany-no substantial progress was made. The summit meeting of 1955 yielded no important result; and the subsequent Foreign Ministers' discussion of Germany (October 1955) proved fruitless. A surface atmosphere of relative détente persisted, nevertheless, down to the summit meeting of May 1960, which was exploded by the U-2 incident. But in fact the sky had darkened at least two years earlier.
In retrospect, the reason for the failure of the détente of the 1950s is tolerably clear. Two major new factors had emerged on the world scene and Soviet policy-makers evidently came to the conclusion that they could be turned to major advantage.
First, there was the emergence in the 1950s of thermonuclear weapons and the possibility of their delivery over long distances by rockets. For the first time the Soviet Union was put in a position of being able to threaten the destruction of Western Europe and the imposition of massive direct damage on the United States. Contemplating these instruments, Moscow evidently judged it possible, in their shadow, to force the West to make limited diplomatic concessions. The theme of nuclear blackmail first emerged in Soviet policy in 1956, most notably during the Suez crisis.
The second great new factor on the world scene, which evidently inflamed Soviet hopes, was the marked acceleration in the revolutions of nationalism and modernization in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. There is no doubt that Moscow came to believe that it had deeply rooted advantages in seeking to expand Communist power and influence in these regions at the expense of the West by orchestrating flexibly the devices of subversion and guerrilla warfare; trade and aid; appeal to anti-colonialism and nationalist sentiments; and by the claim that Communism was not merely the fast-closing rival of the United States but the possessor of a method for the more efficient-even if ruthless-modernization of an underdeveloped region. The 1955 arms deal with Egypt and the agreement to build the Aswan Dam represented the first major efforts along these lines.
But it was only after the launching of Sputnik in October 1957 that the second great Communist offensive of the postwar years was fully launched. It was in 1958 that Moscow laid down its ultimatum on Berlin. It was in 1958 that the Communist Party in Hanoi announced it would undertake a guerrilla war in South Viet Nam. Soon afterward the Pathet Lao, with the active help of Communist North Viet Nam, resumed their effort to take over Laos. It was in these first post-Sputnik years that the Soviets sought to exploit the potentialities for acquiring in the Congo a Communist base for operations in central Africa; it was then that they invested a billion dollars in military aid in an effort to induce friction, if not war, between Indonesia and The Netherlands over West New Guinea and also to strengthen Soviet influence and the Communist position in Indonesia. It was also, perhaps fortuitously, at the end of 1958 that Castro took over in Cuba.
At two points the forward momentum of the post-Sputnik Communist thrust was slowed down by major and successful United States actions: in the Lebanon- Jordan and Quemoy-Matsu crises of 1958. But, as of January 1961, Khrushchev's offensive had considerable momentum in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The first charge on the Kennedy Administration in 1961-somewhat like the challenge faced by the Truman Administration early in 1947-was to turn back this Communist offensive by demonstrating that the two hypotheses on which it was built were not viable. Roughly speaking, between May 1961, when a precarious ceasefire in Laos was arranged, and the October 1962 missile crisis in Cuba, the task was substantially accomplished.
The answer to the first question posed by Soviet policy-our possible vulnerability to nuclear blackmail-was given by the whole course of the Berlin affair in 1961-62, including especially the President's July 1961 speech and the subsequent military build-up. After the failure of the Soviet effort in February-March 1962 to crack the unity of the Western Alliance by intruding into the Berlin air corridors, Moscow apparently judged the Berlin position of the West too difficult to undermine directly. The Cuban missile gambit was then mounted, and its denouement brought to an end, for the time being at least, the notion that vital interests of the free world would be surrendered under the threat of nuclear war.
The answer to the second question-concerning the ability of the West to avoid Communist takeover in the underdeveloped areas-had to be given at many points by many devices: in Laos, by an evident determination to frustrate a Communist takeover; in Viet Nam, by the mounting from December 1961 of a massively enlarged counter-insurgency program; in Indonesia, by the successful negotiation over West New Guinea by The Netherlands and Indonesian Governments; in Africa, by the whole cast of our approach to the new African nations-in particular, our support for the U.N. effort in the Congo; in Latin America, by the isolation of Communist Cuba, combined with the Alliance for Progress.
By the end of the Cuban missile crisis in the autumn of 1962, the momentum had drained out of Khrushchev's post-Sputnik offensive, despite the unresolved crises in Cuba and Southeast Asia.
In the course of this sequence, situations emerged which were bound to affect the future of Soviet policy. First, Western Europe continued to display an astonishing economic momentum, not matched since 1914; and it moved toward great-power status, with a strong likelihood of expansion, in one form or another, of its nuclear role.
Second, quite aside from the efforts of the United States to deal with the major dimensions of the Communist thrust into underdeveloped areas, those nations and peoples demonstrated a capacity to defend their independence with increasing skill and determination and with an increased understanding of Communist objectives and methods. The over-all trend of recent events in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, while still marked by dangerous instability capable of Communist exploitation, made the notion of Moscow control over these areas an increasingly unrealistic prospect.
Third, within the Communist bloc the assertion of nationalist impulses- notably in the Sino-Soviet split, but elsewhere as well-shattered the intellectual unity and organizational discipline of the international Communist movement. The process also yielded the possibility that the Chinese Communists might emerge with some kind of independent nuclear capability within a time span relevant to current planning.
Fourth, quite aside from the chronic inability of Communist nations to grow food efficiently, a marked industrial deceleration began to take hold in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as the heavy-industry sectors on which postwar momentum was built ran their inevitable course. In 1962 the countries of NATO had an average growth rate of 4.8 percent of G.N.P.; the Communist bloc-leaving wallowing Communist China aside-of 3.6 percent. The effect of this deceleration, which has brought the over-all Soviet growth rate down in recent years from something like 7 percent to just about 4 percent, is to reduce the annual increment of Soviet resources available for allocation to military, foreign-policy and domestic purposes, although the declining industrial growth rate is still quite high. (The United States' over-all growth rate figure for 1962, as we continued to emerge from recession, was a better-than-average 5.4 percent.)
Finally, while Moscow's post-Sputnik offensive was being conducted with great éclat and considerable acceptance of risk, long-run trends operating in Russia and Eastern Europe tended to liberalize somewhat those societies as well as to strengthen nationalist strands within them and the popular will for peace.
This, as nearly as we can understand it, is the setting in which the third major round of postwar negotiations is being undertaken.
There is a sense in which the fundamental diplomatic issues and problems involved remain precisely what they were in the immediate postwar days. The fundamental issues are arms control and Germany. The fundamental problems are the unwillingness of the Soviet Union to accept the kind of inspection and international control required to get a serious grip on the arms race, and the Soviet unwillingness to accept a clear separation of its legitimate national security interests in Central Europe from its ideological commitment to hold East Germany as a Communist state against the will of its people.
In 1945-46 the diplomatic issues were dramatized by the Baruch proposal for international control of atomic energy and Secretary of State Byrnes' proposal for a 50-year German disarmament treaty to be applied to a German nation unified by free elections.
In the 1950s, in a world already complicated by nuclear weapons produced in three countries, the issues were embedded in complex arms-control negotiations designed to roll back the history of the arms race. But at their core was still the problem of inspection, dramatized by President Eisenhower's 1955 proposal for mutual aerial surveillance. Similarly, the German question assumed a different form with the emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany fully a part of NATO, and with the emergence of the German Democratic Republic to the East. The required effort to reshape, if not to roll back, history was reflected in the package proposal for disarmament by stages that was presented in Geneva in May 1959. But the root of the matter remained the problem of free political choice by all the people of Germany and an even-handed European security system.
Neither in 1945-46 nor during the 1950s was the Soviet Union prepared to seek a higher degree of national security for Russia at the expense of effective international measures of inspection; nor was it prepared to accept a solution which would remove the dangerous tensions from Central Europe at the risk of even slowly staged corrosion of Communism in East Germany.
These two great unresolved issues pose for those responsible in Moscow the same question which the Chinese Communists have put to them in recent months with such brutal candor: Is the policy of the Soviet Union to be a policy rooted in the interests of the Russian nation and its people? Or is it to be a policy rooted in an abiding effort to spread the cause of Communism over the face of the earth? In the end, this remains the relevant question.
As of the present time no one can say with confidence whether the Soviet Union is prepared to move toward a definitive settlement of the critical issues of arms control and disarmament-which evidently require mutual inspection-or toward a system of mutual security combined with the right of self-determination in Central Europe.
The objective case for effectively controlling the arms race and easing the dangers to all represented by the Ulbricht régime is strong, even viewed from Moscow's perspective. The first steps resulting from the limited test ban could lead on, with patience, toward more solid results. But one cannot expect men of the age, history and commitment of Khrushchev and his colleagues suddenly to undertake the revolutionary transformations which a stable peace demands. We must allow time and the workings of process rather than coups de théâtre.
On the other hand, the whole of the story since Stalingrad has in it important lessons for the West.
First, we must reckon that the impulse in Moscow to seek the expansion of Communist power is so deeply rooted and institutionalized that Soviet leaders will feel almost an historical duty to exploit gaps in the capacity, unity and will of the West. The five basic questions which we had to answer in the course of Stalin's and Khrushchev's offensives we must be prepared to answer again and again. That is, the United States commitment to the security of the Western world must remain firm; Western Europe must continue to demonstrate its economic, social and political viability; the whole of the West must be prepared to deal effectively with any Communist thrust across the frontiers of the cold war; we must continue the still incomplete demonstration in the underdeveloped areas that, with our help, these peoples and governments can maintain their independence and move on to build and shape modern societies in conformity with their own traditions, cultures and ambitions; and, above all, the West must continue so to equip itself and so to behave as to make nuclear blackmail a counter- productive diplomatic or military technique.
Second, in a world where, as the result of the burgeoning energies of nations and peoples in many quarters, power and authority are becoming diffused, we, as leaders of the West, must conduct this sequence of explorations in ways which respect not merely the interests of other governments but their proper desire for consultation and a voice in the outcome. Only over a very narrow range of issues, indeed, is this still, in fact, a bipolar world. The agreement of Washington and Moscow is necessary to make a framework for peace; but its substance must take into account the interests and engage the energies of many peoples.
Third, the solutions that we propose must encourage the Soviet Union-and, indeed, other nations with Communist governments-to perceive that the world we in the West are trying to create by our own efforts and by negotiation has a place of dignity for all nations which pursue their national interests with integrity, which respect the hard imperatives of interdependence and the rights of other nations and peoples.
Fourth, since what we are likely to see, at best, is a slow and protracted process, it is also essential, if this third round is to succeed, that there be no premature throwing of hats in the air. We deluded ourselves and tempted the Communist leadership by popular over-reaction in the West in 1945-46 and in the mid-1950s, two intervals of apparent détente. Very minor progress yielded a widespread sense that peace had broken out. We of the West ought to be mature enough and case-hardened enough now to permit our celebrations to match the actual performance in moving toward peace- whatever that performance may prove to be. We can well afford, at the present time, to attach to the test-ban agreement the importance it deserves as a major step forward, since we now are sufficiently experienced to know it is but one of a difficult series that must be taken for success.
The stakes for us all are so great that this sequence of negotiation must be approached-by ourselves and by our allies-with all the imagination and sincerity we can summon. It is unrealistic to assume that history is static and that we are doomed to repeat failures of the past. But the hard-won lesson of a generation's hazardous experience is that our powder should be kept dry. An awareness of the truly revolutionary character of the ultimate issues-and an awareness also of the undiminished, even gathering strength and vitality of the West and its values-should give us the poise to be patient. We should make the most of the third round, but not be afraid, if necessary, to await the fourth.