Friday, March 21, 2014

Another long telegram

In February 1946, George F. Kennan, then the Chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Moscow, wrote what became known as the Long Telegram in an effort to awaken his superiors in Washington to new realities.  No one could have spoken with more authority than Kennan: he spoke Russian fluently and was highly familiar with its literature and history, and he had been serving in the Moscow Embassy for several years.  The telegram, which may be read here, stated his case simply and clearly. The wartime alliance against Hitler was over, Kennan wrote, and the Soviet Union's hopes for the new world had little or nothing in common with those of the United States.  The Communist leadership deeply believed in the historical  necessity of a worldwide struggle against capitalism and would do nothing that did not, in its view, further that cause.  Yet Kennan was not without hope, because he did not believe that the Soviets saw the struggle as a military one, or that they had the slightest wish to resume a world war.  Eighteen months later he published some of the same insights in his famous X article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct."  By then he was the chairman of the State Department's Policy Planning Council. By a stroke of extraordinary good fortune, his boss, Secretary of State George Marshall--one of the half-dozen greatest unelected public servants the United States has ever produced--was a man who had risen to the command of the American Army by identifying the ablest available subordinates and following their advice.  He believed the Policy Planning Council should plan policy, and during the next two years, Kennan laid the foundation for the strategy of the Cold War.

I cannot pretend to expertise comparable to Kennan's.  I have made only one brief visit to Russia, 42 years ago, and I have never studied the language, although The First Circle and Dr. Zhivago are among the books I return to again and again in translation.  Yet I would like to think that I learned diplomatic realism from him, among many other sources, and that I can put it to use in examining the new situation that has been created by President Putin's annexation of Ukraine.  Kennan has become increasingly unfashionable in recent years, and the publication of his diaries, which are a very poor substitute for his extraordinary memoirs, isn't helping his reputation either.  But never in my whole life have I felt so acutely the complete absence of anyone like him in the highest councils of our government--and thus, I am going to yield to temptation and try to suggest what a young Kennan, were he posted in Moscow today, might say.

The Chargé d’affaires to the Secretary of State
March 21, 2014

The current situation in Russia, the Ukraine, and surrounding nations inevitably calls to mind the immediate aftermath of the last great crisis in the Atlantic world in 1933-45, when the defeat of Hitler and the Japanese was immediately followed by the Soviet installation of Communist regimes in various countries of Eastern Europe.  It also recalls developments in the wake of the First World War, when Russia was briefly reduced almost to its current extent within Europe, facing a newly independent Ukraine and Baltic States, while retaining control of Belarus.  That previous example is, in fact, more relevant.  The problem Lenin and Trotsky faced at the time of the German collapse was to recover the territory they had lost early in 1918 in the Peace of Brest Litovsk, and they successfully reincorporated Ukraine into the new Soviet Union, but failed in a war against Poland and had to tolerate the independence of the Baltic states for twenty years, until the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler.  The current crisis began, of course, with the collapse of Communism in 1989-90, followed by the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union.  Vladimir Putin did not come to power in Russia until 1999, and he has obviously moved much more slowly than Lenin in 1919 or Stalin in 1920 to begin increasing the extent of his territorial control and influence.  The nature of his goals has become clearer in recent years, and his speech last Monday in Moscow, which I encourage all serious students of Russian policy to read, leaves relatively little doubt of how he sees the world and where he may be heading.  Our first, and perhaps easiest, task, is to understand what he had to say.

The collapse of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union were indeed world-historical events comparable in impact to each of the two world wars.  We must be extraordinarily thankful that they were accomplished with relatively little serious bloodshed, a most remarkable outcome, but no one should have expected the emergence of a new order to be a smooth process.  Indeed, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker plainly had mixed feelings, to put it mildly, about the disintegration of the USSR, and the kinds of regimes that have emerged in many of the successor states have not been inspiring.  In his speech, Putin regretted the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but he did not dwell upon it, much less lay the blame on foreign influences, as he so often likes to do when discussing unpleasant subjects.  What he objected to was, first, the way in which the boundaries of Soviet Republics automatically became the borders of newly independent states, and, second, the ways in which, as he sees it, the western powers have taken advantage of the situation over the last 25 years or so.  There is not the slightest evidence that Putin wants to embark on a worldwide crusade comparable to those of Lenin and Stalin, and it is highly doubtful, to say the least, that he has any designs even upon eastern European nations such as Poland and Rumania.  But he is not willing to accept the situation within the former Soviet Union as it has evolved to date, and the events of the last month show that he has powerful cards to play.

It was to be expected that the collapse of Communist authority over Eastern Europe would lead to turmoil, and even to the redrawing of borders, as indeed it has.  The process was not confined to the former USSR.  Czechoslovakia immediately separated into its two component parts, ironically vindicating those who in the 1930s pronounced it an artificial creation that was not destined to survive.  Yugoslavia, which Serbia had managed to create in 1919 by virtue of having played the key role in unleashing the First World War that destroyed Austria-Hungary, came apart much more bloodily, and it took the better part of a decade to establish new frontiers for Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia--the last still a very fragile construction.   The first Bush Administration declined to intervene in the war among the successor states, but the Clinton Administration took a different view.  It brought what seemed to be the last phase of the struggle to an end with the agreement on Bosnia in 1995.  Then, in 1999, the rump state of Yugoslavia apparently embarked upon a campaign to cleanse Kosovo of ethnic Albanians, and the government of the United States, supported by NATO--but not by the UN Security Council--went to war with it to stop this process.  The war, conducted entirely from the air, succeeded, and Yugoslav (really Serbian) authorities gave up Kosovo.  Kosovar independence followed, and the United States and other NATO countries recognized it.  In the succeeding 15 years, most of the Serb population has been driven out of Kosovo, although peaceably, not violently.

It was the Kosovo war, Putin makes very clear, that established the precedent that he is determined to fight.  Confronted with a conflict generated by the collapse of Communism, NATO, as he sees it, unilaterally took responsibility for determining the proper outcome without the endorsement of the UN Security Council, where both Russia and China would have refused assent.  And in so doing, NATO only extended the approach it had already taken to the aftermath of the collapse of Communism: its belief that the extension of western influence and western values must be the inevitable result.

It is at this point in the story, it seems to me, that our own government must for a moment reflect upon the wisdom of the choices made by previous administrations.   There were those of us who believed that NATO, having functioned successfully for more than 40 years as a defensive alliance against Communism, had lost much of its raison d'etre when Communism collapsed, and that its role in a new world might be re-evaluated.  The government of the United States, however, did not take this road.  Instead, NATO became a mechanism for expanding western and American influence as far eastward as possible, and all the former Soviet satellite states of the Cold War era, as well as the former Soviet Republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, are now members.  The second Bush Administration, indeed, was on the point of offering Ukraine membership in 2008, but the current Administration--wisely in my view--did not pursue this initiative.

The US government made these decisions, it seems to me, in the belief that the Russian government's views did not matter.  They also made them in the belief--encouraged by our triumph over our Cold War adversary--that American institutions and American values were destined to triumph over the entire world.  That view, specifically enunciated in the National Security Strategy of 2002, still seems to remain the basis of our policy. As one who has never held it--who has instead believed that democracy is the heritage of certain specific nations, who must always be vigilant to make sure that it functions well, and hesitant to assume that it will thrive elsewhere--I cannot say that I believe this to be the basis of a sound foreign policy.  In the past five years, we have adopted another set of assumptions highly relevant to the current crisis.

Those assumptions, in essence, seem to hold that any uprising against an authoritarian or dictatorial government must be a good thing, and that the United States should embrace revolutionary movements as soon as they have become large enough to fill the main square of their nation's capital city with demonstrators.  That is what the United States has done, Putin points out in his speech, in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria--with very mixed results.   And that is also what both the United States and the EU did in Ukraine.

Ukraine has been, indeed, the test case for our assumption that democracy must follow Communism, and its recent history has not born it out.  We have assumed that anti-Russian elements within Ukraine would be both more democratic and less corrupt, but that did not turn out to be the case. The Orange revolution of 2004 did not have the results we had hoped, and a pro-Russian government returned to power.   The Ukrainian people, like so many others in the western world, have been hit hard by the Great Recession, and last year they turned against that government.  Both the EU and the United States seized upon this as an opportunity to return a friendly regime to power.  To this Putin decided he must respond.

In arranging the secession and rapid accession to Russia of Crimea, Putin, as his speech makes clear, has taken advantage both of ethnic realities and of history.  Russians constitute the bulk of the Crimean population, and Khrushchev's decision to transfer it to Ukraine 60 years ago took place within a completely different context.  As Putin pointed out in his speech, were a Ukrainian state that included Crimea to join NATO, as has been discussed recently, NATO forces would acquire the only major naval bases in the Black Sea.  The referendum just held almost certainly reflects the wishes of the bulk of the population.

In my opinion, our government must reconsider the wisdom of the sanctions it is imposing in response to these events, since we have no means of undoing them.  We do face a continuing crisis and we need strategies to face it, but we cannot make Crimea part of Ukraine again, and it will not serve the interests of the American, Russian or Ukrainian peoples to create an endless confrontation over what has taken place.  Diplomacy must be based upon reality.

The serious question we now face involves the future of the government of Ukraine. Putin denies its legitimacy, and clearly threatens in his speech to make that a pretext for intervention in Ukraine proper, and perhaps for the separation of the large Russian-speaking portions of eastern Ukraine and their addition to Russia as well.  Meanwhile, the new Ukrainian government--which, it must be acknowledged, did not come to power by constitutional means--is moving rapidly to strengthen its ties to the European union.  It may ask for NATO membership.  Putin, very simply, is determined not to allow the West to choose who shall govern Ukraine.  He clearly desires to turn more of the former USSR into a Russian sphere of influence based upon his Eurasian union.  He will use what cards he has to play to achieve these goals--but he will only use the military, in all probability, if there is no opposition, as there was not in Ukraine.

Elections are now scheduled in Ukraine.  I would suggest that we invest our political capital in ensuring that all interested parties, including the Russian government, will respect the results of those elections.  A conflict over the legitimacy of the government within the shrinking territory that divides the NATO alliance from Russia is a recipe for disaster, one that could even lead to war.  Meanwhile, we need Russian cooperation to deal with both Syria and the Iranian nuclear program.  We need, in short, to do the work diplomacy has always tried to do: to find a solution that we all can live with.

Here the Cold War, properly understood, provides some useful examples.  We must face the fact, as we did in 1946-7, that Putin does not share our values or our vision of the future. He feels Russia to be different from the West and he wants to increase its influence.  He is not, however, prepared to do so by war.  The early years of the Cold War featured a number of struggles within contested nations that were decided by political, rather than military means.  Hungary in 1947 and Czechoslovakia in 1948 fell to Communism because of internal political changes, not Soviet military power.  Finland and Austria remained outside the Soviet orbit for parallel reasons: their anti-Communist forces proved stronger than Moscow's satellites.  That also happened in the critical nations of France and Italy.  It will happen now, one way or another, in the Baltic States, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Our assumption that democracy would spread, as it were, automatically, has proven false.  That does not however mean that it cannot spread--only that its spread will require determination and character on the part of the nations of the former USSR, and also of the United States and the nations of the European Union.  They must assess each situation wisely and do what they can.  They must also realize that the Putin government remains very important to a host of broader problems in which we have an enormous interest.  Let us not not once again allow dogma to trap us into an endless confrontation with a nuclear power, punctuated by crises that put the whole world at risk.  Let us base our ends upon realities and trust to the long-term movement of history.

[sgd) George Kennan

(not really--DK)

(Please share this as widely as you can. Thanks.)


Larry said...

I am not familiar with Kennan's work, to my loss, but if your analysis here on the Ukraine is even remotely close to his abilities as a foreign ambassador back in the 1940's then he was one savvy guy.

His qualifications reflect a practice we seemed to have moved away recently, giving ambassadorships to political cronies and fund raisers rather than people who have an in-depth understanding of the people and their culture to which they have been assigned to.

Unknown said...

I read the Kennan Note.The American response post WWII was remarkable in saving the world from a new dark ages-Marshall Plan, containment of Stalinist system-global communism, etc. Sensible dealings with modern Russia can also be managed as with Iran, China, etc. through cultural and historical understanding and not through war-mongering of Neocon types with a missionary concept to free the world for American democracy and capitalism against communism, Islam, whatever the flavour of the day is. This basic attitude is very dangerous, i.e that the enlightenment is a crusade against powers of darkness in say medieval catholic ignorance, Islamic backwardness, Oriental Russian obscurity,etc. Rationalism, growth, planning of economic future with technological progress can free humanity from want and ignorance and superstition is an unfortunate long-term myth (although we have done a lot of good for several generations). This attitude is hitting its limits in the world as resources run down, climate and environmental damages increase due to population explosion and consumerist culture driven by banking interest growth based modern industrial capitalism (not simply a free marketplace as every Arab or Amerind had for thousands of years to sell his grain in the local market).

Concretely from Kennan to show those who have fear of Russian agression I quote here:

"Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventunstic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw--and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so. If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige-engaging showdowns."

This is a defensive Russia, always was and always will be. Don't stir up a wasp's nest and you won't get stung.

The Soviet system was massively engaged, as Kennan said in destabilizing of colonial governments in 3rd world or western left wing parties, attempting ideological expansion as a sort of buffer against perceived western expansionism.

A confident Russia under Putin could do similar in terms of destabilizing American finances(dollar dominance in all trade, massive over -indebtedness of Western system), hegemony over the seas(Aircraft carrier groups-with) through new missile types, energy control over world-Petrodollar - control of gulf Arabs. The Chinese will definitely help Russia where possible to further their own ends in global dominance.

Ukraine has its own problems which are chronic and long-term and not an entirely Russian thing but half European and half-Russian :

"Since gaining its independence in 1991 Ukraine chronically suffers from separatists movements directed to reunite some of the Ukrainian territories with Russia and other neighboring countries. UNA-UNSO managed to stop enthusiastic activities of a People's Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union Goncharov in Donets basin in reestablishing the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic and its Donetsk National Guard. In Kiev was liquidated an organization "Patriotic forum" (Otyechestvyennyi forum). In November 1991 UNSO disperse their congress and rally. Due to the brawl involving UNSO fighters the government conducted the first mass arrests against UNSO activists. In Odessa UNSO stopped an initiative in creation of the "Novorossiysk Republic" which also influenced another separatists movements in Bukovina and Zakarpattia. On June 7, 1992 a Lviv team of UNSO dispersed the Romanian congress in Chernivtsi which was provoking in uniting of the Northern Bukovina with Romania."

Unknown said...

(a bit more)

The USA, in a style reminiscent of the destabilizing style of Soviets Kennan describes in his memo, used(Nuland and co.) such movements as nationalistic UNA-Unso from above Wiki article possibly to do the sniper work to topple the Pro-Russian govt. in Kiev to implant Pro-Western Neo-liberals in their place to expand US market and military dominace to just one more country. When dealing with Russian interests this was a very bad idea. Russia is not some banana republic. US system is growth based due to industry and interest greedy banks. How long the US growth and global dominance can last is a good question. It has advantages of natural sea dominance due to geography and its isolation from attack (think Italian boot in mediterranean for Rome). Since no one can get a foothold on North America and invade USA as USA did against Germany or is apparently trying against Russia this could ba a long game. China is isolated by Mountains and sea and Russia by Siberia. We have natural enemies here circling one another like wild animals. Ideologies(Kings in England or Western Europe,communism/capitalism), players in the game(Tsar, Stalin, Putin, Emperor, Mao, Deng) unimportant. The game continues over centuries. Patience, patience.

looking at the basic global change brought about by Columbus discovering Americas without the USA there would have been no French, Russian or Chinese revolution due to the very rapid advance of technology forcing the hands of people globally through constant change in basic technological-economic conditions. For example just note the reasons for Arab Spring-

1)USA increasing expectations of democracy due to invasions against Saddam Hussein
2)Satellite TV(AL Jazeera)spreading objective news,
3)Internet and smart Phone-facebook communications
4)drought conditions causing food price increases in Syria,etc. caused by climate change due to automobile based CO2 climate alterations(oil based economy and assembly line cars-Ford-came from USA)
5) food price increases due to speculations of western banks(mainly US based but also in western Europe) with derivatives raising basic commodity prices in poor countries.

So America is a force for change in the last several centuries in terms of tech, ideology, etc. Maybe it won't stabilize someday and become insular like Russia or Italy or China or India over a very long term and global culture will become stable and boring.

Just some thoughts of mine. Great essays of yours, always thought provoking.

Comrade Dos said...


A very good post! Have you ever considered the idea of "submerged empires"? Because I think what you are seeing within Ukraine is product of two "submerged" empires contesting each other for influence in territory that once belonged to them.

The key state here is not the US, but Poland. It is because of Poland that we have developed an awareness of and interest in Ukraine. One of the top policy thinkers in the US continues to be Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was born in Poland, and who married into the family of the former Czech president Benes. Brzezinski and those who agree with him have cited one fact tirelessly and that is "If Russia dominates Ukraine, then Russia again becomes an empire."

Brzezinski's policy therefore is to not allow Russia to become an empire by controlling Ukraine. He does this partially in the interests of the US, but to a much greater degree in the interests of Poland and other former Warsaw Pact countries. Their concept is a Europe whole and free, and Europe cannot be whole without Poland, and it cannot be free under Russian domination.

Poland, especially, resented Russian and then Soviet rule. They see it in their vital interest to keep it from occurring again.

Moreover, Poland (and Lithuania with it) were one of the greatest powers in Europe up until the end of the 18th century. Poland-Lithuania controlled much of what is now Western Ukraine all the way down to Odessa on the Black Sea. Their historical memory is just as self-serving and long as Russia's is. To them, it is not a historical fact that Ukraine belongs to a Russian sphere of influence. To them, Ukraine belongs to THEIR sphere of influence. Indeed, Ukrainian itself is similar to Polish. The faith is Catholicism in Western Ukraine, as it is in Poland and Lithuania. The EU, and NATO, are but stalking horses for this strategy. And if NATO and EU expand eastward to include Ukraine, then the center relationship of European power is no longer Paris-Berlin, but Berlin-Warsaw.

The same principle applies to the Baltic States, but that construct is Soviet in origin. Originally, there were four or five "Baltic countries" -- Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. The Second World War left the USSR with three "Baltic republics," the "Soviet Scandinavia" or "Soviet West," regarded as such because they were so different from, say Uzbekistan or Armenia. In Estonia, the submerged empire was the Swedish Kingdom. Even today, 28 percent of FDI in Estonia is Swedish, 25 percent is Finnish, and a distant third, 10 percent, is Dutch. Russian is less than 5 percent. The leading banks in Estonia are all based in Stockholm -- Swedbank, Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken(SEB), and Nordea. Estonia is not only an EU member and NATO member, but an OECD member.

About your point of it submitting to Russian power, well, it just signed away territory stolen from it by Moscow in 1944 with a new border treaty. And the new government is going to liberalize some of the citizenship requirements for stateless persons. But I have a hard time imagining a parliamentary democracy that is well integrated into the Nordic economy coming under the direct control of Putinism as Crimea has.

Bozon said...

Great post. Perhaps, blog- diplomatically, a commenter is better placed to break the sad news, that not only was Kennan hardly ever appointed an ambassador, in his long career, but also that we have almost always given ambassadorships to cronies and fund raisers, rather than to people with in-depth understanding.

all the best,

CrocodileChuck said...

George Kennan was correct on the impact of broadening NATO: