Russia-West relationship: The Long Telegram revisited

While the prospect of a nuclear war is limited now, the gross violation of the Budapest memorandum can derail efforts to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons



The Russian invasioninto Crimea sent the Russia-West relationship to the lowest point in a long time and many commentators talk about the return of the Cold War: although Russian media talked about turning America into radioactive dust, few want to have a military conflict in Europe and yet the Russian aggression has to be stopped (the UN resolution on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity strongly indicates that the world condemns the invasion). Almost 70 years ago,George Kennan—the author of the long telegram which was further elaborated in The Sources of Soviet Conduct (1947)—outlined the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. Surprisingly, many of the points he made are still relevant. This post briefly reviews some of the key points in The Sources of Soviet Conduct.

In the first part of this article, Kennan describes the evolution of power in the USSR. Interestingly, he notes:

“The circumstances of the immediate post-revolution period — the existence in Russia of civil war and foreign intervention, together with the obvious fact that the Communists represented only a tiny minority of the Russian people — made the establishment of dictatorial power a necessity… Let it be stressed again that subjectively these men probably did not seek absolutism for its own sake. They doubtless believed — and found it easy to believe — that they alone knew what was good for society and that they would accomplish that good once their power was secure and unchallengeable. But in seeking that security of their own rule they were prepared to recognize no restrictions, either of God or man, on the character of their methods. And until such time as that security might be achieved, they placed far down on their scale of operational priorities the comforts and happiness of the peoples entrusted to their care.”

This seems similar to how the current elite in Russia came to power and why it concentrated the power to an extreme extent. Once opposition within the country was removed, the Soviets had to justify the existence and practice of the “organs of oppressions.” The solution was to blame “foreign menace” encircling the country:

“… Since capitalism no longer existed in Russia and since it could not be admitted that there could be serious or widespread opposition to the Kremlin springing spontaneously from the liberated masses under its authority, it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad. … In accordance with that theory, and from that time on, all internal opposition forces in Russia have consistently been portrayed as the agents of foreign forces of reaction antagonistic to Soviet power.”

Again, this seems to be similar to the wave of hunting for foreign spies and the fifth column, banning international NGO, etc. in modern Russia. The response to the menace is to build a militarized society with ever-increasing oppression of dissenting voices:

“Now the maintenance of this pattern of Soviet power, namely, the pursuit of unlimited authority domestically, accompanied by the cultivation of the semi-myth of implacable foreign hostility, has gone far to shape the actual machinery of Soviet power as we know it today. Internal organs of administration which did not serve this purpose withered on the vine. Organs which did serve this purpose became vastly swollen. The security of Soviet power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state. The “organs of suppression,” in which the Soviet leaders had sought security from rival forces, became in large measure the masters of those whom they were designed to serve. Today the major part of the structure of Soviet power is committed to the perfection of the dictatorship and to the maintenance of the concept of Russia as in a state of siege, with the enemy lowering beyond the walls. And the millions of human beings who form that part of the structure of power must defend at all costs this concept of Russia’s position, for without it they are themselves superfluous.”

One can’t help drawing a parallel to this point. Russia today has one of the largest standing armies as well as a huge force of police and security agencies.

In the second part of the article, Kennan overviews the practice of Soviet foreign policy:

“If the Soviet government occasionally sets its signature to documents which would indicate the contrary, this is to be regarded as a tactical maneuver permissible in dealing with the enemy (who is without honor) and should be taken in the spirit of caveat emptor. Basically, the antagonism remains. It is postulated. And from it flow many of the phenomena which we find disturbing in the Kremlin’s conduct of foreign policy: the secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity, the wary suspiciousness and the basic unfriendliness of purpose. These phenomena are there to stay, for the foreseeable future. There can be variations of degree and of emphasis. When there is something the Russians want from us, one or the other of these features of their policy may be thrust temporarily into the background; and when that happens there will always be Americans who will leap forward with gleeful announcements that “the Russians have changed,” and some who will even try to take credit for having brought about such “changes.” But we should not be misled by tactical maneuvers. These characteristics of Soviet policy, like the postulate from which they flow, are basic to the internal nature of Soviet power, and will be with us, whether in the foreground or the background, until the internal nature of Soviet power is changed.”

There are many examples of how Kennan’s predictions were validated in recent history. For example, Ukraine, Russia, U.S. and U.K. signed the Budapest memorandum in 1994 to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but Russia violated it when the moment was right. The Obama administration wanted to “reset” US-Russia relations because Russia “became a different country” but the reset apparently did not work.

How did Soviet justify such an approach to foreign policy? Kennan argued that the Kremlin viewed itself as infallible and the only source of truth.

“The leadership of the Communist Party is … always right, and has been always right ever since in 1929 Stalin formalized his personal power by announcing that decisions of the Politburo were being taken unanimously. … Once a given party line has been laid down on a given issue of current policy, the whole Soviet governmental machine, including the mechanism of diplomacy, moves inexorably along the prescribed path, like a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force.”

To appreciate this point in the present context, one may recall unanimous votesof the Russian parliament to allow using military force in Crimea and to accept Crimea into Russia and the standing ovation to Putin for bringing in Crimea “home.” One may also recall recurrent “true” stories of Russian diplomats about neo-nazi forces in Kiev taking power and the like as well as unprecedented pro-government propagandaand crackdownon independent media.  

Given no internal opposition, the government in Russia can a take a long-run approach to achieving its goals in the sense that short-term losses and defeats are acceptable. In light of this, Kennan recommends the course of action and identifies the weak points of the Soviets:

“In these circumstances, it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward “toughness.” While the Kremlin is basically flexible in its reaction to political realities, it is by no means unamenable to considerations of prestige. Like almost any other government, it can be placed by tactless and threatening gestures in a position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism. The Russian leaders are keen judges of human psychology, and as such they are highly conscious that loss of temper and of self-control is never a source of strength in political affairs. They are quick to exploit such evidences of weakness. For these reasons, it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.”

In the third part of the article, Kennan evaluates the U.S. prospect of winning in the Cold War. His main argument is that while the Soviet system can show superior performance over relatively short periods of time, it is not robust in the long run because violence and coercion have limited effects on people (e.g., one can’t compel to work somebody around the clock in all times) and economy (e.g., quality falls) in the long run. In short, “the future of Soviet power may not be by any means as secure as Russian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men in the Kremlin.” This appears a valid point now as well because the Russian economy is resource-dominatedand sooner or later commodity prices can collapse thus bringing the Russian economy to a stall or an outright collapse.

In the fourth part of the article, Kennan draws implications for policy:

“It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist and capitalist worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power.”

In other words, Kennan expected the Soviet Union to keep poking the boundaries of what’s allowed. The response should be containment:

“… the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

and, in Kennan’s view, the stakes were high

“The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”

While the prospect of a nuclear war is limited now, the gross violation of the Budapest memorandum can derail efforts to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons because the only force that can stop aggression of a large country against a small country is a nuclear bomb. Over time, as more countries accumulate nuclear arsenal and means of delivery, the chance of regional conflicts with limited use of nuclear weapons is likely to increase which in turn raises the probability of a much larger conflict with massive nuclear strikes and counter-strikes (see more discussion here). Given this “end game,” the stakes are high now again. 


The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations