Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | US needs Russia rethink to avert a new Cold War

The Asian Age.  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

The long hand of the Central Intelligence Agency reached into some unlikely places during the Cold War. It may be doing so again.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AFP)

Given the whispers of Russian and Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, suggestions of an American hand in the attempted mutiny by the swashbuckling Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former hot dog seller who is now boss of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, need not be dismissed as far-fetched. The long hand of the Central Intelligence Agency reached into some unlikely places when the Cold War was at its most freezing. It may be doing so again.

George Kennan, the remarkably prescient American diplomatist who is regarded as the father of containment -- wrongly because he advocated not military pressure but peaceful competition -- would not have been surprised at this fulfilment of his predictions. Foreseeing the Soviet Union’s collapse as long ago as 1948, he warned when he was the state department’s first director of planning that no Russian government would ever accept Ukrainian independence. Kennan was especially adamant that the American media’s need for an enemy and US militarism, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s eastward expansion, would be the trigger that could destroy liberal trends in Russia, plunge the world in a new Cold War and invite the peril of escalation into nuclear conflict.

After months of stalemate in the fighting, the abortive Wagner coup provided a spurt of excitement and the possibility of a winner emerging. While a weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin choreographed some brave public events to broadcast that he is still on top, Ukraine’s jubilant President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared “a happy day” and claimed that his forces had fanned out “in all directions” to reclaim lost territory. Nevertheless, lingering questions remain about the rebellion, about the future interaction of the countries that constituted the former Soviet Union, European stability, and the future world order, especially the American role in it. Senior Russian officials admit they were surprised by the scale of the rebellion unleashed by Mr Prigozhin, who seized the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, and vowed to march 20,000 fighters to Moscow to topple Mr Putin’s government. Why did he not? Was it the US again?

We don’t know. What we do know is that anticipating a deadlocked struggle between Moscow and Kyiv, Kennan made detailed suggestions about how the US should respond to such a confrontation. Returning to the subject half a century later, he argued in the 1990s that Nato’s expansion would have a destructive impact on Russia’s nascent democracy and start another Cold War. Never having believed that the US could or should try to run the planet, Kennan would not have shared the jubilation that inspired Richard Nixon’s exultant “we have a historic opportunity to change the world” when the Soviet Union collapsed. On the contrary, Kennan, who had also opposed the Vietnam war, saw it as reason for exercising extra caution, resisting temptation, and extending a helping hand to the potential new recruits to Western-style liberalism.

He condemned Nato’s expansion in the New York Times in February 1997 as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era” that could lead to a series of disasters. The White House ignored his warning and its own promises even after the Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991, not only over Nato, but also many other international controversies like invading Iraq in 1990.

Kennan was not alone in his criticisms. Several prominent Cold Warriors from his generation followed up his condemnation of Nato’s expansion which they called “neither necessary nor desirable” and “a policy error of historic proportions” that would “decrease allied security”. These luminaries, including Robert McNamara, former CIA director Stansfield Turner, former secretary of the Army Stanley Reeser, and a clutch of senators concluded with the statement: “This ill-conceived policy can and should be put on hold.” Ironically, the signatories included Kennan’s successor Paul Nitze, who interpreted containment in military terms under President Harry S. Truman.

The neo-con belief that the United States could effectively “transform” other nations -- and enjoyed (as the leaked 1992 Pentagon draft policy proposal underlined) a “preeminent responsibility” to “prevent the re-emergence of a New Rival” -- was anathema to Kennan. He was appalled to read that the US would continue to “preserve Nato... as the channel for US influence and participation in European security affairs”. Interviewed by the New York Times in 1998 after the US Senate ratified the Nato expansion, Kennan said it was “the beginning of a new Cold War”. Now the Cold War is turning into a hot one, albeit still on a limited scale.

Although often called America’s grand strategist par excellence, Kennan did not see the US as the world’s policeman. According to James Peck, a US scholar and adjunct professor of history at New York University, in a Global Times interview: “Being the pivot in every region, ‘managing’ the rules of the game, expanding Nato to Russia’s borders, insisting on US values as universal” -- all this was a flight from the limits of power which Kennan spoke of throughout his life.

Coherent strategic thinking, he repeatedly said, “had become almost impossible given the US refusal to confront the need to both limit US power and become open to pressing globally threatening problems”.

His ideas, whose misinterpretation became the basis of the Truman administration’s foreign policy, first came to public attention in 1947 in the famously anonymous article by “X” in Foreign Affairs. “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” Kennan wrote, “must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” To that end, he called for countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” through the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy”.  Considering the Soviet threat to be primarily political, he advocated above all else economic assistance (such as the Marshall Plan) and “psychological warfare” (overt propaganda and covert operations) to counter the spread of Soviet influence. But not military pressure.

That was the doing of Nitze and Truman. Kennan argued for a compassionate response to Russia’s problems: “Let us wish them all well, and be helpful where we can. But let us not make ourselves part of the problem”, he advised. That could still save both Russia and Ukraine, and spare the world the agony of another Cold War.