The Sources of Russian Conduct
(Paul Goble, February 12, 2021)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. While there, he launched the “Window on Eurasia” series.
Prior to joining the faculty there in 2004, he served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He writes frequently on ethnic and religious issues and has edited five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former Soviet space. Trained at Miami University in Ohio and the University of Chicago, he has been decorated by the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for his work in promoting Baltic independence and the withdrawal of Russian forces from those formerly occupied lands.
The views of the speaker are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westminster Institute.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Bob Reilly, its director back from a two-month leave of absence when I temporarily rejoined the government, and I am so happy to be back with you, especially with the speaker we have today. Now, in 1947 George Kennan under the pseudonym Mr. X published the famous essay titled, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” This helped formulate the policy of containment. Well, the Soviet Union is long gone but there are still very few people who know how Russia ticks internally and how that affects its external behavior.
Paul Goble is a scholar and writer at the top of that list. He has expertise on Russia, Eurasia, public diplomacy, and international broadcasting. He also served as a visiting scholar at the University of Tartu, Estonia. Prior to joining the faculty there back in 2004, he served in various capacities in the government, including the U.S State Department as a special adviser to the Secretary of State on Soviet Nationality and Baltic Affairs, at the Central Intelligence Agency, and at the International Broadcasting Bureau, as well as the Voice of America where I had the privilege of being his colleague, and also at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
He writes frequently on ethnic and religious issues and has edited five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former Soviet space. Trained at Miami University and the University of Chicago, he has been decorated by the governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. To update George Kennan’s essay titled, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Paul will speak today on the sources of Russian conduct. Welcome, Paul Goble.
Thank you, Bob, it is a great pleasure to see you again and to be invited to make a presentation to your group. It was in fact seventy-five years ago this year that George Kennan wrote his Long Telegram, which a year later as you have mentioned became the Foreign Affairs article, The Sources of Soviet Conduct. That essay (or that telegram first) and that essay became the basis for the American understanding of the Soviet Union, the Soviet challenge, and structured what became known as containment, American policy that was directed against the Soviet Union between 1947 and the end, 1991. There are many things in that article that are worth remembering, but three I think are particularly important now because so much is being said about containment once again given Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foreign policy and a question about what the United States should do to protect its friends and itself under the circumstances.
First of all, Kennan understood and argued in his telegram, which became the article, that the Soviet Union was driven by an inherently false and self-contradictory ideology and that if the United States and its Western allies could contain the Soviet Union, could prevent it from metastasizing into other states, that those contradictions and that falsehood would ultimately breed the downfall of the Soviet system, and that we would know that containment had worked when the USSR ceased to exist. That was the basis of what the U.S. did. It was something that was possible because of the relative power positions of the United States and its Western allies compared to the much weaker Soviet Union and because of the particular economic and cultural arrangements that existed in the world in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
The second point that Mr. Kennan made that is important for us to remember is that in opposing the Soviet Union, it was critically important that the United States government and the United States intellectual leadership combined two forces that all too often operate against one another, and that is that the containment policy of the United States needed to have the support of American industry and it needed to have the support of the American human rights community, which was interested in producing, in promoting democracy. Kennan understood that without the economic power of industry, this policy would not be sustainable, but without the ideological commitment of the human rights community, it would not have the content that was necessary to defeat Soviet Marxism.
Fortunately, in Soviet times the economic community was quite willing to support this position for two reasons. On the one hand the Soviet Union was a closed economy and it was very difficult for American firms to make money in the USSR. Some tried, a few succeeded, but most realized it was hopeless. And the second thing is that the business community in the United States from the late 40s until the 1980s was constrained by any attempt to get involved inside the Soviet bloc because the human rights community could be counted on to denounce them as soft on communism if they did, and as a result there was very very little economic involvement by the American companies in the USSR. That kept that alliance together and it was one that Kennan understood from the beginning was essential to winning the Cold War.
The third thing that that Ambassador Kennan understood is something that is often forgotten. The Soviet agenda driven by this ideology was to spread communist systems and Soviet control of them across the world country by country. What that meant was that the Soviet ideological agenda was in many ways a very traditional foreign policy effort of aggrandizement. Moscow wanted to control Poland, so it wanted Poland to have a communist government, which would allow Moscow to control it. It wanted to control East Germany, same thing. That was a kind of challenge to Western powers like the United States, and Great Britain, and France.
That was something we knew how to respond to, keeping an aggressive power bound up, limited in its activities of expanding its power over other states, entire governments, was something we had experienced with before because that is how foreign policy was played in the 19th century. And it was certainly how we had seen Hitler behave with respect to the Third Reich just a few years earlier, so what Kennan said is this means that the United States has to in the first instance form military alliances to buck up those countries threatened by Soviet expansionism, that it needs to provide assistance to those countries’ governments to take care of those social classes, usually the poor, that the Soviets might exploit against those governments. And at the same time the United States needed to have a policy of income redistribution at home that would ensure that there was never an underclass that the Soviets would have any chance of getting recruits from.
Yes, it is true there were an awful lot of Soviet agents penetrating the American government at the time of Franklin Roosevelt, but it is also true that those numbers were microscopically small compared to the American population. And what Kennan understood is that as long as they remain small, they could be dealt with as criminal activities that we had means to address. They must never be allowed to grow, and therefore there was a certain discipline imposed upon ourselves in coping with the Soviet Union forty-five years later. The importance of these three insights and, of course, many more things that Kennan offered over the years meant that the USSR self-destructed, it ended, it simply ceased to exist.
This was an amazing thing. It was so amazing that people did not quite know how to respond to it. The United States (it is sometimes forgotten) was so uncertain what would happen if the Soviet Union finally disappeared that it kept the Soviet flag up in the U.S. Department of State a week after it was taken down over the Kremlin and over the Russian embassy, which is hardly a sign of great insight and planning of the kind that is often claimed by participants in the administration at the time. The tasks that we faced in the Cold War were remarkably simple. As I have suggested they were traditional as Kennan understood they simply required that the discipline be maintained for a very long time, that discipline was possible because of the Soviet government’s commitment to communism, which provided a kind of focus, an enemy that the United States could deal with.
When Gorbachev came to Washington for the first time, he brought along with him Georgy Arbatov, the Soviet Union’s leading expert on American political affairs, and Arbatov made a remarkable comment, which I have never forgotten because I think it says a lot about the way this country functions. Arbatov said that Gorbachev was going to do something far more terrible to the United States than any earlier Soviet leader had done. Namely, he was going to take away the enemy of the United States. And without an enemy he was not sure the United States would be able to function because having an enemy, as the Soviet Union clearly was and was understood to be, provided a discipline of American politics and a focus of American political activity, which, without this, without such an enemy, the United States rapidly lost its way.
Indeed, as evidence of that it is difficult to imagine any other country on earth where Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History, could have become a bestseller. The idea that history could be over because of one singular event, and there was a celebration of American democracy and American capitalism, free market capitalism, was all very well, but it was so ahistorical as to be unbelievable except by the American political elite of the 1990s, which desperately wanted to proclaim victory, pocket the benefits of that victory, and ignore foreign policy for a decade.
And in the 1990s that is exactly what happened. The United States ignored what was happening around the world. It ignored what was happening in Russia it celebrated its own achievement and it acted as if that was inevitable and that we would never have a problem again. Our ignoring problems in many parts of the world led to deterioration. It is difficult to imagine that either the crisis in Rwanda, leading to the deaths of 800,000 people or the vicious civil wars in the former Yugoslavia would have happened had the United States not decided to look away.
We were only pulled back into world affairs when we were attacked by what was the candidate for the next new enemy, namely Islamist radicalism, in 2001, and more recently some have suggested that China represents the kind of challenge that will reimpose discipline on the United States and that will force us to organize ourselves so that we can be in a position to defend our national interest and to promote them around the world, and not see ourselves go under to a new rising power.
There is a lot one could say about what happened around the world between 1991 and 2001. Most of it is not all that positive to remember, but what is especially not positive to remember is the way in which the United States looked away from the Russian Federation, adopted a policy of weak neglect rather than tough love, and therefore saw something emerge in Russia which is far more threatening to the United States, far more dangerous to what the United States stands for, a far greater challenge than anything we faced from the Soviets, and one that is going to be far more difficult for us to counter.
We simply did not pay attention to what was going on. We were unwilling to take these steps of providing assistance to the Russian peoples so that they would be able to get through what was a difficult transition, and not surprisingly, they began to blame us and the transition from communism as something we wanted to hurt them. Not surprisingly, politicians rose up, including Vladimir Putin, who promised to take revenge, and that is what we are seeing. We also ignored throughout the 1990s, having proclaimed Russia democracy in 1991. It was not a democracy then, it is not a democracy now, but we proclaimed it a democracy and we assumed that everything would work out as long as they got privatization right.
This sort of pseudo-marxist economic determinism had the effect of leading us to ignore the collapse of any progress toward a rule of law, something Russia did not have and does not have, that leading to a situation in which there was more income differentiation with the richest Russians now being among the richest people in the world while most Russians are vastly poorer than even sub-Saharan African countries. We ignored that and we failed to see what that would mean as a political motivation for launching a new crusade against the United States, and against Western democracy, and indeed even against what we understand is free market capitalism.
And the third thing that happened in the 1990s, which is perhaps the most important and certainly the easiest to understand although it was a horrific mistake, that we were not paying attention to the way in which the Yeltsin regime handled the privatization of the Soviet state. The Soviet economy resulted in the creation of a class of oligarchs of exceedingly wealthy people who, in the course of that decade and the following one, transferred out of Russia more than 1.5 trillion, with a t trillion dollars.
The Soviets had never had that kind of economic presence in the in in the West by three or four orders of magnitude. They had never had that kind of money to throw around, to buy up people, to corrupt other societies, to exploit various possibilities, to promote Russian policy. I mean corrupting an entire country is a rounding error if you have 1.5 trillion dollars. That is explode about largely uncontrolled, especially because you could be sure that those Western institutions, banks, corporations and governments that are benefiting from that money flowing through their their coffers are going to be interested in making sure that that money continues to flow rather than opposing it.
And that is something that perhaps is at the basis of what has changed in the relationship between Moscow and the West with the rise of Vladimir Putin. Putin came to power of course not as a fully formed revolutionist and fascist, I would argue, politician, but rather somebody committed to providing some kind of stability in a country that had been profoundly ratcheted around by the collapse of communism, by the failure of Russia to have an economy that produced anything anyone wanted. The only thing anyone wanted to buy from Russia or indeed even wants to buy from Russia now are raw materials that Russia has not processed; oil, gas, rare earth minerals, and the like.
So what happened is the Russian people sank further and further down and Putin to cover that, and to protect his wealthy friends and his own personal wealth, and he is certainly one of the wealthiest people on the planet, beginning in 2008 at his speech at the Munich Security Conference he warned that Russia was coming back, that it would use all the tools at its disposal to prevent other people from abusing Russia further, and that it would use those tools as well to destabilize, divide, and confuse Western democracies so that they could not pose a threat to Russia as he understands it. That attack in 2008 was at the time dismissed by most Western governments as for a domestic audience, that he was speaking to Russians who had suffered a great deal in the previous twenty years and he was giving them some kind of of sense that the government was going to look after them and the interests of Russia as a country.
Those people were wrong. What this was was a road map for a revolutionist state that was going to be attacking other countries in its neighborhood and seeking to undermine Western democracies, including our own, began by attacking Georgia, invading Georgia in 2008. In 2014 Mr. Putin invaded and then illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea. He has put his armies into Africa, his money into any opponent he can find to the United States, and he has used Western technologies against themselves.
Unfortunately, as Vladimir Putin was doing that, many American strategic thinkers were going right back to George Kennan’s article on the sources of Soviet conduct and therefore they were fighting the last war as old generals often do, but because the sources of Russian conduct now are not identical to the sources of Soviet conduct in 1946. It is critically important that we understand the difference, that we can see that what is happening now. What Mr. Putin is doing reflects an entirely different set of sources of conduct and what I would like to devote my remarks today primarily is to examining the key elements of those sources. They are, as I say, fundamentally different from the Soviet Union and they are going to prove much harder for the United States to counter, not just because Moscow has resources in the form of money that it never had before, but because it is not in an ideological straitjacket that the Soviet government often was because of its belief in communism.
Former Estonian President Thomas Hedrick once remarked that if the Russians ever came back to Estonia, they would not be constrained by communism. That is a very useful place to begin because in many ways the constraints that the Soviet governments operate on there were things it did not do. No Soviet government attempted to recruit rich people, no Soviet government attempted to work through the banking system, no Soviet government had the opportunity to make use of social social media. They did not even exist. Putin is prepared to do all those things because his agenda is not to spread Soviet control country bike under Moscow’s control country by country in the name of an ideological vision of the transformation of the world, and because he is willing, able, and quite frankly all too ready to do things that do not make sense, that do not seem to be consistent, and because they do not seem to be consistent, they are often ignored.
That is what has happened in the last decade and it is terribly important that we get beyond this obsession with either assuming that Russia is a liberal, democratic, free-market ally of the United States once and forever, as the readers of Francis Fukayama’s book would have believed, or that it is simply a remake of the Soviet Union that it is driven by the same ideological concerns, and seeks the same kinds of advantages. What Russia wants now is not what the Soviet Union wanted. What it is prepared to do to get what it wants is very different than what the Soviet Union was prepared to do, and the resources that Moscow has to achieve those ends are different and in many ways far larger than anything Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev could ever have dreamed of.
So now I would like to divide the rest of my remarks into two parts. In the first I would like to talk about how Russia is not the USSR because it is important to understand that Russia today is not the Soviet Union and is not going to be the Soviet Union again. The people who came to power in 1991 and 2001 do not want to go back to the Soviet Union. They might want to go back to a time when the West feared Moscow the way it feared Moscow in Soviet times, but they are not interested in going back to that system because that system would preclude them from gaining the wealth, and influence, and access to the goods of the West that they are not prepared to give up. That is critical to understand. The second thing I want to talk about is the sec is and related to that are to specify a little more clearly exactly what Moscow’s goals are, what resources it has, and what tactics it can and has been using. Each of those is important if we are going to address the final point in my remarks today.
What do we do about it? So often when I have done congressional testimony, I have described problems, and the first question I always get from one or another congressman or senator is, ‘well, you have told us what the problems are, now what is the solution?’ I wish I could tell you the solution was easy, quick, simple, and that we are likely to do it. Unfortunately, it will not be easy, it certainly will not be quick, and the likelihood that we as a society are going to come together in ways that will allow us to achieve the great successes we had by those who followed Kennan’s advice dealing with Soviet conduct are much less likely to be available in our attempts to cope with Russian conduct.
Russia is not the Soviet Union
What I want to talk about first then is on how Russia is not the Soviet Union. First, it is much smaller. The population is less than half as big. It is economically less important. The Soviet Union for all of its problems had an economy that actually produced things that it was able to sell abroad or to people who often had few choices to turn it down namely, the Soviet bloc. Today, the only thing the Russian Federation exports is oil and gas and other natural resources.
The country is fundamentally weaker in all of the strategic ways we measure these things. In 1990 there were five million men in the Soviet military. Today, there are 800,000 in the Russian military. That is simply not all that big. In fact, Turkey, which has the second largest standing army in the West, is within spinning distance of having an army as large as the army of the Russian Federation. To be sure, Russia still has nuclear weapons, although it is far from clear how many of them actually work given the decaying situation in Soviet nuclear technology and research.
The biggest change however is that the Soviet Union had real allies, not all of them willing, but some were very willing. It built up allies because it was able to organize people against the United States, against the Europeans, anti-colonial movements. The Third World movement was a Soviet creation. It was directed against the West. Right now, Russia has no allies. Even Russian commentators routinely say that the only country that might be an ally of the Russian Federation is Turkmenistan, which is hardly going to allow Moscow to stand up against anybody. The countries that vote with it at the UN are equally outcast as as the Russian Federation has become since its violations of the law, international law, with regard to the absorption of Crimea, with its use of chemical weapons to attack its own dissidents and emigres, and so it does not have the kind of alliance structure on which a great power has to rely in a complicated world like ours.
It is also not governed by communists. The people who believed in Marxism-Leninism probably were killed off by Stalin, but even under Brezhnev there were people who believed in the Marxist idea of progress in the notion that this was socialist state socialism was the wave of the future and they wanted to promote it. Vladimir Putin and the generation of secret policemen who have taken over the Russian Federation have no such commitment to those ideas. They are absolutely indifferent to social inequality. As far as they are concerned the wealthy can get wealthier and the poor ever poor, and if they die out, that is just okay too if we do not need their labor power.
The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has continued to spend more on the military at a time when during the pandemic Russia continued to close thousands of hospitals, which has led to more deaths from the coronavirus in Russia than were necessary at all. This kind of thing just is a very different attitude. It is a kind of extremist, Ayn Rand-selfish capitalism unconstrained by any morality other than power, and that is a very different kind of political leadership than anything we ever saw in Soviet times.
The Soviet argument with the West was in fact an argument within the West. It was an argument between those who believed in the primacy of the state as opposed to those who believed in the primacy of society, but it was not an attack on state and society. At the same time I would argue that the Russian Federation today is better understood as a massive corporation run for the benefit of its owners, namely the people at the top and the Kremlin, rather than as a state designed to function, to benefit its population.
The numbers are conclusive and that leads to a very, very different kind of approach to foreign and domestic policy. The agenda that this government has, the Russian government has, is not then to retake territory to take control of governments that become slavishly obedient to Moscow. At least that is not the case beyond the borders of the former Soviet space or at most the borders of the former Soviet bloc. Moscow simply is not trying to do that because it cannot. Its own approach to things does not allow it to build the kind of social and political base foundation that might make that possible.
Instead what the Russian government under Vladimir Putin is interested in doing is destabilizing other countries and the leadership of the West in particular so that it is not in a position to focus on what Russia is doing, to unite and act in concert against what Russia is doing, but instead are forced to focus on their own internal problems so that Russia can do what it wants in its neighborhood, and anyone who challenges it can be isolated through the use of social media and corruption. And if those things do not work, it is quite prepared to use, as we have seen, weapons of mass destruction, namely, poisons of various kinds injected into the veins of people that Vladimir Putin does not like.
To cover all this and to make it more popular within Russia, Vladimir Putin and his leadership have promoted a revengeless foreign policy of making Russia great again. They have promoted a radical nationalist agenda where ethnic Russians are superior to everyone else in a country which is going from being approximately one-fifth non-Russian in 1991 after the USSR came apart to a country which at present is certainly more than one quarter and indeed almost a third non-Russian, a situation which is explosive but which amazingly the West has largely ignored.
I want to come back to that, but if Russia is suffering from a lot of losses in terms of its ability to promote its policies, it has also gained a number of advantages compared to the Soviet Union. The first and probably the greatest is that most people, large numbers of people in the United States and most people in the West, do not want to see Russia as an enemy. They want to see Russia as a potential partner that may have gone astray on this or that issue rather than the kind of existential threat that they were almost all prepared to see the Soviet Union.
What that means is that whatever Moscow does, there will be those in the West and in Western governments who will argue that what it is doing is not a threat, that it is being misunderstood, that it should be that we should make it take steps to find a reset, to find new bases for cooperation because after all, they are capitalists and if their democracy does not look exactly like ours, well, democracies vary.
And again and again there has been almost complete unwillingness in the West to see the threats that the Russian Federation poses. Even when people talk about Russian use of the internet and social media against Western democracies, including our own, there has been a reluctance to see that as part of a larger strategy directed against the destabilization and weakness, weakening of the West so that it can be brought down to Russia’s level, and Russia can get away with what it has been doing.
Their second great advantage, I have mentioned this before but it needs to be stressed again and again because people forget it, in Soviet times people in Western countries or third world countries who signed up to work with the Soviet Union did so almost exclusively for ideological reasons. The Soviet government was notorious in not paying its spies very much. People who spied for Moscow in the 40s, 50s, and 60s did so because they foolishly believed in communism.
Now, Russia has enormous amounts of money and is prepared to buy people and governments and institutions because it can. When you have 1.5 trillion trillion U.S dollars floating about in Western banks that by itself has an influence, but it means that a tiny portion of that is siphoned off and that is easy enough for governments and intelligence agencies to do. A tiny fraction of that can create enormous problems and offer the opportunity to recruit people either by offering them trips, by offering them employment in Russian corporations (as they did to former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder), by providing financial assistance to businessmen who may be in trouble in their own societies.
These are things that the Soviets could never do because they did not have the money and if they had had the money those were things that their ideology would have prevented them from thinking about doing because it would be anti-Marxist. They had a Leninist to fund rich people in order to pursue your own goals. Only people who would come over on their own from among the rich people, like Alger Hiss for example, were acceptable, but to buy those people that was not something any self-respecting Soviet communists could consider and they were.
The Russian government also did something that the Soviet government generally did not in the Soviet times. The Soviets saw Western institutions as the enemy. They saw them as something to be taken down as such. The Russian government on the other hand sees Russian or Western institutions as providing opportunities to those same institutions, which are at the core of Western economy and society, to turn them against in martial arts fashion. And Putin, of course, is famous as a martial arts enthusiast. By turning the strengths of his opponents against them, by exploiting the inherent weaknesses of these institutions, and Putin has done that again and again.
And as we all know now to be very clear the sources of Russian conduct are about goals, they are about resources, and they are about tactics. The goals are so different from the Soviet goals that it is difficult to imagine. What Moscow wants today is not what Moscow wanted in 1946, and trying to stop it with the same tactics that were used in 1946 while it may be attractive is not very clever. It will ensure that we will be building Maginot lines and the dictator, the new dictator, will be running around them just as Hitler did in 1940 in France.
The Russian Federation is a declining power. It is a country that is going to be weaker and weaker. It is going to have a smaller and smaller population. This year it lost 500,000 additional people, excess deaths over births. About half of that maybe can be ascribed to the pandemic, although not all of those. Even that half were victims of the coronavirus, but rather the collapse of the Russian medical system, which could not cope in many places with the pandemic. It simply does not have enough people to be able to draft a a large military. It does not have an attractive ideology. I do not know anyone in the West who is signing up to be a foot soldier for the Russian world the way there were lots of people in Soviet times who were prepared to sign up to be foot soldiers for the communist future. And that means it has to adopt a different policy.
The first and foremost goal, the basic structure, basic impulse behind Putinism is to bring everyone else down to his level by spreading destabilization and disinformation. That is the basis of his efforts to destabilize democracies, by promoting radicalism on the far right as well as the far left. The Soviets would have welcomed promotion of radicalism on the far left, seeing such people as the natural allies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but Vladimir Putin is quite prepared to get in bed with Nazis and with the far right of other kinds because anything that undermines, that corrodes democratic structures, is from his point of view valuable. That is a big change and unless we recognize that that is where he is coming from, we are not going to get it right.
He is also committed as part of his own contempt for the people and for democratic values to undermine the principle of truth on which democracies rely. Democratic governance is only possible if people can have some confidence that they share the same facts even if they do not share the same opinions. What Vladimir Putin has promoted, and he has had lots of willing accomplices in this, is the idea that there is no such thing as a fact, there are only opinions and therefore one person’s opinion is as valuable as any, and therefore any fact is as likely to be true and untrue as any other fact. That has led to a post-truth world, which has meant democracies across the West have been destabilized, not just our own.
And third, he has tried by promoting a combination of smiles and frowns to keep the West off balance whenever it appears that the West may be waking up to the fact that Putin’s regime represents an existential threat to themselves, albeit a very different existential threat than the Soviets presented in 1946. He will do something that somebody likes and then people will say, ‘well, all should be forgiven, we should ignore anything bad that he did’.
And that is going to be accepted for the worst of all possible reasons, namely, that the business community in the West, which in the past could be counted on to stand up against communism either because there were no real possibilities of making money there or because they did not want to be charged with being soft on communism, will be only too happy to jump in and they will have an impact, an important impact, on the governments of the countries of which they are citizens. We have seen that again and again and again; the resources.
The second part, the resources that are part of this new Moscow agenda, first and foremost, of course, is money. I have talked about that, but I think we need to understand that it is not just money, it is that the level and intensity of contacts between Russia and the West have expanded geometrically under Putin. There are far more people going back and forth. There are far more friendships and linkages and these things are all being used to stop those efforts to promote an understanding that Russia does represent an existential threat.
I know many Russians who have come to this country, vastly more than ever came in Soviet times, and the numbers in Europe are even greater. What they are doing is not necessarily that they are self-conscious agents, but their presence creates a different situation, one in which Westerners begin to depend on them. They invest in the local economy, they offer trips to various places in the Russian Federation, and that means that they have an influence.
Shortly before I came and recorded this talk, I got an email from someone who said I have just been offered a free trip to a Russian city if I am willing to do a review of this this one rather obnoxious Russian figure, and the person said I think I will take it. Well, when you get to that point you can imagine the kind of networks that are out there, and that kind of arrangement has allowed Moscow to exploit things like social media, like the internet, in ways that are very difficult for people to track down.
This all leads to the fact that Putin, unlike the Soviet leaders, does not operate under the constraints that they did. He is not a prisoner of ideology. He is driven by naked self-interest and because he is, some people say well, that is what everybody does. Well, no, everybody does not do that. When we live in complex societies, we have to find ways to live together, and to cooperate, and to have rules and rule of law. Putin does not believe in that. His behavior toward Alexei Navalny and others shows that he has nothing but contempt for law. What he is doing is engaging in a brutal, brutal dictatorship and he is willing to ignore laws and rules of the game at all levels, nationally and internationally.
It is going to be a situation that is going to be very, very difficult for people in the West to counter. We have already seen how difficult it is to deal with Russian penetration of our social media and our political system. We have already seen how difficult it is to control black Russian financial flows through Western banks, and American banks especially because the Western banks are only too pleased to have this money because having the money allows them to make a big profit and they are not interested in giving that up. They do not see that what they are doing has negative consequences for their country because there is no explanation being given by the government or by the intelligentsia to explain that if you are involved in this kind of thing, you are promoting the kinds of negative consequences for the United States, and the American system, and democracy, and free market capitalism more generally that should never be allowed.
Are we going to be able to respond? Well, I think we can and I think in thinking about that we need to take something from the containment principles offered by George Kennan seventy-five years ago. I think we also need to take some lessons from those like the Dulleses in the 1950s and Ronald Reagan later, who called for a much more forward approach of coping with communism and an approach which often was referred to as roll back, of trying to drive that system out of existence by challenging it directly.
And third, I think that – and this is the most important – I think we need to change ourselves. The world we are living in is not the world of 1946. It is a very different world and that means that if we are going to cope with it, if we are going to win, we need to begin to change ourselves, and that is not something that is going to be easy.
From the principles of containment I think that there are two big lessons that apply to the kind of policies the United States needs to adopt. First, we need to build up our alliances, not neglect them. When Russian troops invaded Ukraine in 2014, I was among those who argued that the United States and NATO should offer preemptive NATO membership to Ukraine. Moscow should have been put on notice that invading a neighboring country which exists under various agreements that say that Moscow is supposed to respect its borders will get Moscow in much bigger trouble than it imagines because it will guarantee that it will find itself locked in a conflict with the West as a whole. That was not done, but we can still do it again.
There are other places where Russia is projecting force that the United States can use its alliance system to educate and resist Russian efforts. We can work with our partners to identify black Russian money, the corruption that it is bringing. We can work with our partners to fight the misuse of the internet and social media to undermine democracy. We can work with our partners to make sure that Russia will be identified as the culprit. It is in the rise of groups on the far right as well as groups on the far left, something that is not recognized in a large number of countries in the world.
The second aspect of that that we can take from the containment principles is that we can use economic force. The United States is still the most powerful country, economy, in the world. Together with our European allies we are going to be the most powerful economic bloc for the rest of this century. China is rising. Given its population it should. One can only hope that it will rise in that sense, but the West, that is to say Europe and the United States, are the dominant economies going, and we can make use of our economic power against countries that do not behave well.
Sanctions work. They really work. It is no accident that Russia has not been able to launch any satellites this past year. It simply cannot because it cannot get the equipment it needs. It cannot refit its only aircraft carrier because it cannot get the equipment it needs thanks to sanctions. Sanctions are a valuable tool. They are not the only one, but they can matter.
And with regard to the economy, the united, the West, Europeans have shown the way to make sure that income differentiation does not get out of hand. The United States, unfortunately, has allowed income differentiation to grow more than is safe for a democratic society. We can change that. Politics suggests that we will and because we need to do that to make our society more defensible against others. We need to isolate the radical, anything-goes kind of capitalism on offer from Putin in Moscow to make sure that the entire population of every country is taken care of rather than there being a handful of very rich people and a large mass of very poor ones.
The second point I would make is that we need to draw from the principles of rollback. It may very well be that the best we can do in countering Vladimir Putin’s Russia is to work for its disintegration. There are large parts of the country, some of them non-Russian, but some of them ethnic Russian like most of Siberia and the far east, that are as oppressed by Moscow as anybody else. I see no reason for not saying that it is the policy in the United States as it has been historically to support the right of peoples to self-determination, and that goes for people in the North Caucasus, the middle Volga, Siberia, the Urals and the far east. It also goes for the Russians who quite frankly are more oppressed than a lot of other people in other countries simply because their government invokes them, but it does not provide them with the support that it promises.
With regard to that I think there is no reason that the United States should not radically step up its sanctions regime, seeing Russia as an existential threat means that sanctions should be extended not only sectoraly but in terms of individuals, and those individuals should include everyone right up to the dictator in the Kremlin. We can do that without difficulty and I also see no reason why given Russia’s actions against ourselves and against its neighbors and our friends that we should not suspend Russia immediately from the SWIFT financial settlement system. Yes, some New York bankers would lose money because Russians would pull out some of their deposits, but the fact is until Russia decides that it is going to live by the rules rather than live in a world that seeks no rules as Mr. Putin does, we need to take the kind of steps we can take short of war to put Russia back in the box, and radical sanctions will do that.
Third one of the things that I am most proud of in my career is that I worked for both sides of the aisle as it were of USA international broadcasting, both surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the government broadcaster, the Voice of America. We should be doing a lot more than that. We should be broadcasting more, we should be thinking about moving to direct to home satellite TV broadcast.
Now that we are no longer doing very much in the shortwave area, most people do not realize that when the United States decided to stop using shortwave radio, it effectively handed a censor’s pencil to the Russians. If you broadcast only in FM, you need to have your broadcasting center within 30 to 50 miles of the people you want to reach. What does that mean? It means if you want to reach the people in Moscow, you have to broadcast from the suburbs of Moscow. Guess what that does? It gives Moscow itself the ability to set the rules and Moscow is using them increasingly against both the government broadcaster and surrogate broadcaster. That needs to change. Greater reliance on the internet is a good thing, but I am convinced that direct to home satellite television broadcasting is the future. It may be expected, it may seem expensive, but it is cheap in terms of the geopolitical rewards.
And the third point I want to make is that we have to change ourselves. First and foremost that means we need to stop living in this dream world that the only threats that are on the horizon to the United States come from Islam in the Middle East or China in the far east the biggest threat to the United States and our way of life right now from abroad comes from neither of those places. It comes from the Russian Federation and its government, which is committed to the destabilization and destruction of American democracy, the undermining of American influence throughout the world and destabilization of our friends and allies in such a way that the West will cease to exist. That is the kind of challenge we should be responding to rather than remaining in denial. It is important that we therefore first and foremost recognize that we have a problem because if we realize there is a problem, we are much more likely to do something about it.
Second, that means that the American people need to recommit themselves to a much more serious program of public education/civic training as it is oft used to be called. Courses like ‘problems of democracy,’ which I took fifty years ago when I was in high school, those things need to be restored. We have so much to be proud of in this country. That does not mean we do not have problems and that does not mean that we are not ashamed. We are free enough and strong enough to be ashamed and to admit our problems, but we need to rebuild the foundations of American identity so that we will be immunized against the kinds of things, the kinds of attacks on truth, the kinds of attacks on civility, the kinds of attacks on democracy that are on offer by Vladimir Putin and his king.
Finally and more immediately, the United States needs to set put in place a system of media monitoring and response that will allow us to do something to counter these Russian activities. Most people are not aware of how much Moscow does and how much it spends to expand its influence. They are simply not aware that is a national task. It is something that should be pursued by a combination of the private sector and the government so that people will be aware that this problem is not some small thing dreamed up by a coterie of dissident ex-cold warriors or not-so-ex-cold warriors, but by people who are legitimately and deeply concerned about the prospects for American democracy where many of its leaders are in denial about the threats we face, looking at the wrong threats and ignoring the more fundamental ones.
Doing all this is going to be extraordinarily difficult for Americans, especially given that we think that what we did from 1946 to 1991 provides a model for success, forgetting that that model was appropriate against the threat we faced then but is not appropriate anymore for the threat we now face, coming from Moscow, but I am absolutely convinced and therefore I am especially pleased to have the chance to talk with you today. That with some understanding of the nature of the threat we can win out and we will.
History is on our side. History is on the side of democracy and free market capitalism. And the words ‘free’ and ‘market’ are just as important as ‘capitalism’ in that Vladimir Putin is a man of the past, not a man of the Soviet past but a man of the vicious, unrestrained, swashbuckling capitalist class before societies took measures to bring it under some measure, some degree of social control. That may be something some people in this country want to go back to, but it is not something that we as a modern democracy can ever afford. We need to recognize that the existential threat coming from Moscow today is far greater than the existential threat that came from Moscow under the late Soviet Union. Thank you.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, thank you very much for both the breadth and depth of your analysis. One thing George Kennan said in his famous essay was that the Soviet Union was impervious to the logic of reason but highly susceptible to the logic of force. Does that statement still apply to Russia as it did to the Soviet Union?
Well, I think that the Putin regime is also impervious to reason. What the Soviet Union or what the Putin regime believes however is that force only exists if someone is prepared to use it. The United States has enormous capacities to use force, but it usually chooses not to use them. We are, of course, entirely reasonably and justifiably concerned that any direct use of force against the Russians might lead to a nuclear exchange where we would be victimized too. What Kennan was driving at is that force used with some cleverness can constrain what Russia.
Do I think that is probably still true and hence that is why I argued for revival of our alliance system and its expansion eastward? I would love to see the day when Georgia and Ukraine and Azerbaijan are part of NATO. I think they should be they should have been already, but I would like to see that happen, that is to send it, put a marker down that there is a force that Russia had better not cross. The Russian military simply is not capable of standing up to a NATO country.
One of the reasons that the war in the southern Caucasus ended the way it did is that Russia realized that its weapons were not as good as the ones Azerbaijan had gotten from Israel and Turkey, and its military was not as well trained, and therefore it did not want to risk getting into a confrontation with Turkey where the weapons are better and the training is better too. So force does work but you have to use it, so you have to be able, you have to be ready, willing, and able to deploy it in ways that do not lead to nuclear war but that do send a message. Is Russia impervious to getting those messages? I think not, but it requires cleverness and sophistication that regrettably we do not always display.
Robert R. Reilly:
Paul, whereas it was fairly easy if you were willing to undertake the effort to understand the the motivations of the Soviet Union by knowing something about Russian history but most particularly Marxist-Leninist ideology, what you have been describing as Russia’s motivation or more exactly Putin’s is simply – I mean aside from greed – grievance that Russia or the Russian state is driven by a sense of grievance, so it is animated by revenge?
That is right. I spoke about that. It is a revolution-state. That is a little harder for people. There is not a communist manifesto to show them in which they can get some idea of. Yeah, they can read Mein Kampf. Hitler pursued exactly the same strategy of relativism to come to power in Germany, that Germany had been stabbed in the back according to him at the end of World War One. It had not lost the war, groups inside had undercut German power and that he, Adolf Hitler, was going to restore it and take revenge on all those who had done those terrible things to Germany, inside and on Germany’s enemies, France, Britain, and more generally.
Revolutionism is tragically a common feature of countries that have lost some major geopolitical competition. That is why we made such a terrible mistake in my mind in the 1990s by looking away and not asking ourselves how can we provide both assistance and structuring to make the transition? We did not do that. We were unwilling to make the kind of investment in the transition. We proclaimed victory and we looked away. That was a mistake and we are now living with the result of that. Had for example there have been some adjustment into the draconian arrangements of Versailles, I think very few people in the world would have ever heard of Adolf Hitler. If reparations had not been imposed to the degree that they were, that was a big mistake.
Unfortunately, in 1991 or years thereafter there were very few people in the United States and the West more generally who said, what can we do to make sure that ordinary Russians see that the new system benefits them in very concrete ways? We did not do that. Instead we proclaim that Russia was already a democracy, which it was not. We did not provide very much assistance because we were looking for quote “a peace dividend” constantly and so Russians were hurting. I mean it does not surprise me at all that people would want revenge. The important thing to remember however is that they want revenge for the fact that they lost power. They do not want to go back to exactly what what existed when they had more power. Those are two very different things.
Robert R. Reilly:
Yeah, my only point Paul is that of course that sense of grievance existed in in Weimar Germany. It was shared widely, but what Hitler had was a Nazi ideology based on a race theory of history versus as it was. It too had its adherence and generated a kind of fanaticism. There were many Germans who felt the grievance and the loss but who were entirely against Hitler’s program. That is all. I mean I know that is true in Russia, however the seems to be a harder problem. You could read Mein Kampf and if you took it seriously, know what was going to happen. What would you read about Russia today that would give you a similar grasp on its motivations?
Well, I think I would start with something I mentioned, which is Putin’s speech in Munich in 2008. That is probably the Rosetta Stone as far as understanding Vladimir Putin’s conception of the world. and of Russia’s place in it, and of his desire to inflict damage on others so that Russia will benefit. If you find yourself having lost, there are at least two possible strategies you might adopt. One is to work very, very hard to develop your country so that it would be a great success. There were many people who thought that Russia with all of its economic possibilities – I mean it is the only country on earth that has all known minerals in commercially exploitable amount – that country ought to be doing very well. It has not. If that you would had had a Russian government in 1992 that said we have to change ourselves because the Soviet system did not work, but we can build a country where we have a vibrant economy, where people are making good incomes, where they have hope for the future, where their children will live better than they do, that is one way to proceed. Okay?
When you are up against countries that are already way ahead of you economically and politically, the other way to proceed, and unfortunately this is what Vladimir Putin has chosen, is to try to bring the other people down. In other words to weaken. I would argue that there is not a single Putin doctrine, there is not a single Putin vision that is attractive to almost anybody helps to explain why he does what he does, which is to try to undermine and destroy successful countries. And I think he has had more success with that than he deserves.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, you pointed to the need for education and understanding the nature of the threat that Putin presents and how important it is for the United States to rebuild alliances. Let us take for instance NATO. Today, as you know, Germany is not shy about saying that it will not meet its minimum commitment to building its military forces in terms of the two percent of its budget that would be required of its GDP that would be required to do that. Now, at the same time Angela Merkel is full steam ahead so to speak on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will make Germany even more dependent on Soviet gas supplies. Do you point to that?
It is just a clever strategy by Putin to exploit weaknesses in that alliance. He certainly would love to play that to weaken the alliance. I would make just three points of many that could be made, but three on that. The first is we should remember that NATO was not was an American institution. We paid vastly higher percentage than our share throughout its history and we did so for a reason, because we were beneficiaries of building up a defense in depth in Europe rather than having to fight them in New Jersey.
Now, that does not mean that we should not be working to promote that now that the Europeans are doing better economically, that they should not be paying their fair share, but a hardline two percent figure I do not think is the best way to get there. I think we should be urging an equitable payment of that, but I think that the announcement of the two percent goal as such ignored the history of the alliance and our own interests to be honest. The United States benefits more than anyone else from the existence of NATO and it is not wrong that we have been paying more of it. It is wrong that we should always be paying more of it given the changing economies.
The second point I would make is Vladimir Putin has made a bet, which to be blunt is not a very good bet. He is betting that for the next fifty years or one hundred years hydrocarbons are still going to be the driving force of the economic system in the world. My guess is that one thing the pandemic has certainly shown is that the West’s reliance on oil and gas is going to be less ten years from now than it is today. The ability of Putin to play Western Europe against the United States with oil and gas is going to be a whole lot less than Vladimir Putin imagines because oil and gas are going to be much less important and they are going to be much less important to the Europeans than they are going to be to the Russians or the Americans.
The third point is this: I am not confident that the Russian gas export program is going to be as successful for as long in terms of its ability to deliver. One of the things that people forget is that almost all of Russian gas, and oil too but gas in the first instance, passes through permafrost zones in the Russian Federation. The permafrost in Russia is melting very, very rapidly. One of the consequences of that is pipelines are cracking because the Russians did not build them properly. They did not build them the way the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) is. Each of the supports for the pipeline have a freezer element in it to keep the ground frozen so it does not shift. That is an extraordinarily expensive thing to do, but it is the only thing you can do if you want to move lots of gas and oil across a melting permafrost area. The Russians have not done that.
I think we are going to see disruptions of Russian gas and oil deliveries to the West that are going to make it a lot less attractive. Do I think that Vladimir Putin is trying to play this game? Yes, but I think that if we often make the mistake of ignoring what Putin is doing, we often sometimes make the mistake of assuming he is in better charge of the situation than other factors are going to are going to be make possible.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I could close with – just we only have two minutes left, but what about disruptions inside Russia? Of course, Navalny is back in jail, but there were some significant demonstrations in cities across the entire breadth and length of Russia. What about Putin’s vulnerabilities, domestically in that respect?
My own guess is that Mr. Putin is going to find himself less and less in control of the situation. That does not mean I expect to see him getting on an airplane and flying to Switzerland or someplace as you know, an exile, or to be killed by a crowd running over the Kremlin wall. I do not think that is likely. I think that he has enough coercive resources still to prevent that from happening.
On the other hand, we have seen actions again and again that show how insecure he really is. It was not just the Navalny demonstrations which brought out 300,000 people in 150 cities and led to 12,000 arrests, the largest mass arrest in Russia since the death of Stalin. It is the fact that there are demonstrations going on in the North Caucasus, in Ingushetia, in Kalmykia, in Tatarstan, and in Bashkortostan in the middle Volga, and not unimportantly in Vladivostok in Siberia, where the dismissal of a popular governor has caused people to be in the streets every day for more than two hundred days at this point, so we are not talking about a man who has got absolute support.
But something happened last week, which I think should have been on page one of American newspapers because it will tell you just how frightened Putin is of losing the support of the police. Last week the Kremlin proposed that children of policemen be advanced to the head of a line for admission to Russian universities. If you want to keep the police on your side and they are your last line of defense and you really cannot pay them more money because you do not have more money to pay them, giving them a benefit like that tells you that you felt you had to, and when you feel you have to make a benefit, a payment like that, you are you are announcing to the world that you are not nearly as strong as your supporters in Russia and the West would have us believe.
Robert R. Reilly:
Paul, thank you very much. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for joining us for another in our series of lectures at the Westminster Institute. Please go to our website and you will see other lectures on a variety of subjects that we have provided that are accessible there. Thank you for joining us and see you soon again.