Moscow Musings on Brinksmanship from Stalin to Putin
Snow was falling on Moscow, turning into brownish sludge on the ground, as I walked down the Strastnoi Boulevard. It was an early winter evening, but the street was strangely soundless except for the clanking of the city’s famously shoddy pavement tiles below my feet. Moscow was tense in anticipation of something. A war, maybe? A war between Russia and Ukraine, which, according to Western assessments, was quite imminent, seemed as yet uncertain here, too awful to contemplate. But its hazy presence was felt in Moscow on that murky evening: enough of a presence to concentrate minds.
I spent my days in the archives, reading documents on Soviet foreign policy for my forthcoming book on the Cold War. But in the evenings, I met acquaintances to talk about a new cold war that Russia was now waging against the West — or was it the other way around? As a historian, I have spent countless hours poring over Soviet fears and Soviet ambitions. I study history for its own sake but also to understand the uncertain haze of the present. Well, then?
There was one persistent factor in Soviet foreign policy that helps to account for Moscow’s propensity for brinksmanship. They called it the “correlation of forces.” “It is widely known,” Joseph Stalin postulated on one grim winter evening in 1945, “that when you cannot attack — you should defend yourself, when you accumulate enough power — you should attack … In his time, Lenin did not even dream about such a correlation of forces, which we have achieved in this war.”
Stalin’s confidence played into a peculiar post-war vision that he attempted to sell to his wary allies at Yalta in February 1945. In that world of Stalin’s dreams, the Soviet Union would be allowed its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, while he would recognize the British and American spheres. This allied recognition was important to Stalin because he knew that brute force alone was never enough. Legitimacy was important, and legitimacy could only be obtained through Western recognition of his gains.
Within months, Stalin’s vision ran aground. If there was a turning point, it was the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. America now intimidated just by virtue of being there. The bomb was always an implied threat — but it was nevertheless a real threat, which Stalin chose to counter with obstinacy and bravado. By September 1945, the former allies were at loggerheads. Washington refused to recognize Soviet puppet governments in Romania and Bulgaria and denied Moscow a toehold in Libya. The Kremlin was also kept well away from the post-war management of Japan.
In a telling innuendo at the Conference of Foreign Ministers in London in 1945, Soviet Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov asked U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes whether he carried the atomic bomb in his side pocket. Byrnes warned, “If you don’t cut out all this stalling and let us get down to work, I am going to pull an atomic bomb out of my hip pocket and let you have it.” Molotov is recorded as having “laughed” at this blatant atomic blackmail. “The Allies are pressing on you to break your will and force you to make concessions,” Stalin coached him from Moscow. “It is clear that you must display complete obduracy.” Complete obduracy begat the Cold War — the not-so-unexpected consequence of each side’s conviction that any concessions it made would only embolden the other.
As I walked, I thought of George F. Kennan. He, too, trotted down these streets before firing off his “Long Telegram,” in which he explained the Kremlin’s motives to a receptive audience back in Washington. “Soviet power,” he famously wrote, “is neither schematic nor adventuristic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks.” Or does it?
When Kennan wrote these words there was talk of war. Following the deadlock in London, the Soviets began to play hardball in their neighborhood. They sponsored a separatist movement in northern Iran, where Stalin had stationed troops. They presented territorial demands to Turkey as part of an elaborate gambit to close the Black Sea to outside powers. In an infamous speech on Feb. 9, Stalin blamed capitalism for starting the world wars and praised Soviet military might, hinting at a coming confrontation with the West.
Kennan didn’t quite get it right. His depiction of Stalin as a rational actor who did not take “unnecessary risks” is readily contradicted by the weight of archival evidence. The problem was not with the rationality of Soviet decision-making — it was with the definition of “necessity.” Stalin provoked major crises with Iran and Turkey — was that an unnecessary risk? He instructed his reluctant foreign minister to take a tough line in diplomatic negotiations. “Come on, push!”, Molotov recalled him saying. “They won’t give in,” he would respond. “But you must demand!”
“Impervious to logic of reason,” Kennan wrote, Soviet power “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.” Again, Kennan was onto something, but he overlooked the obvious: Stalin too thought that the West was impervious to reason and that it only understood the language of force. That’s why he pushed hard in diplomacy while keeping the military option on the table. It was a risky game but in Stalin’s view the risks were worth taking.
For all his boasting about Soviet military might, Stalin understood that the Soviet Union was not prepared for war. The country was still in ruins. Millions of people eked out a precarious living just above the point of starvation. Moreover, Moscow faced a nuclear-armed adversary who only months earlier had showed the ability and willingness to obliterate whole cities. Stalin made an all-out effort to build the bomb after Hiroshima, but the Soviet bomb was still an uncertain dream.
Just days before Kennan sent his famous telegram, Stalin told the scientific head of the Soviet atomic project, Igor Kurchatov, to “conduct work quickly, in crude basic form.” Stalin’s comments were in reaction to views of the prominent nuclear scientist Petr Kapitsa, who had called for less reliance on U.S. intelligence (the Manhattan project was riddled with Soviet spies) so that Russia could build its own road to the bomb. Stalin did not care for such sentiments. What he wanted was a basic deterrent, something to show to the Americans as proof that he could not be bullied into giving up on his regional ambitions.
In March 1946, the Soviet Union built up its forces in Iran, with a probable intention to move imminently on Tehran. This was what the American diplomats on the ground were reporting back to Washington. Having reviewed the intelligence, Byrnes noted that “it now seemed clear the USSR was adding military invasion to political subversion in Iran,” adding, as he slammed a fist into his hand, “now we’ll give it to them with both barrels.” There followed a stern letter to Moscow to desist. Surprisingly, Stalin backed off, withdrawing Soviet forces. In return, he secured a promise of an oil concession, which Tehran later reneged on. Soon Stalin also reduced pressure on Turkey, having failed to achieve any of his objectives. It was a net loss for the Soviets and perhaps an early vindication of Kennan’s idea of containment: If the threat was credible enough, the Soviets would not risk a war.
But what makes a threat credible if not a combination of perceived capabilities and perceived intentions? Underestimating the adversary’s resolve can lead to dangerous miscalculations, as the late Bob Jervis theorized in 1976 and as Stalin himself discovered in 1950, when he foolishly backed Kim Il Sung’s bid to reunify Korea by force of arms. He had never intended to do it, telling Kim repeatedly that he was against such an adventure, until U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson implied South Korea was outside of the American “defensive perimeter.” Stalin was also privy to intelligence information suggesting that the United States would not fight for South Korea. It was a fruit ripe for the picking. He could not have been more wrong.
For all his obduracy, Stalin was a cautious man. Korea was a result of miscalculation, not a deliberate effort to test America’s resolve. Stalin’s successors were more reckless, especially Nikita Khrushchev, who so loved the sense of power that nuclear weapons afforded that he repeatedly engaged in brinksmanship: in the Middle East in late 1950s, where he threatened Britain and France with nuclear destruction if they did not desist from their invasion of Suez, and in trying to squeeze the West out of Berlin. He called Berlin the “testicles of the West,” to be squeezed so as to make America squeal. As he told Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi on July 5, 1961, “We cannot cajole our enemies to give up anything. We can only take it by force.” But what if the West refused to give in?
Khrushchev discovered the limits of brinksmanship when he attempted to secretly install nuclear missiles in Cuba. He claimed that this audacious move was needed to save Cuba from U.S. intervention. More than that, perhaps, it was needed to address Khrushchev’s sense of fairness. Why, he wondered, did Washington feel entitled to install nuclear-tipped missiles on bases in Italy and Turkey but the Soviets weren’t entitled to do something similar? He wanted, he said, “to give the Americans a little of their own medicine.” That was how the world nearly came to an end.
Earlier that evening, I had discussed President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy with an analyst at one of Moscow’s top policy think tanks. We drank sea buckthorn tea in an Uzbek restaurant atop a large shopping mall amid sparkling luxury that would have made Khrushchev think that a Communist paradise had finally arrived. My companion raised the prospect of Moscow increasing its presence in Latin America by sending troops to Venezuela or Cuba to put pressure on President Joe Biden ahead of the midterms. “This is crazy,” I said. He just shrugged his shoulders.
None of Moscow’s think-tankers are wired to Putin’s murky conscience. They are bemused, like the rest of us, pondering their president’s intricate and sometimes bizarre game. But they channel sentiments, none more pressing than that of injured pride: Should not the Americans be given a little of their own medicine? Weakened by deepening domestic cleavages, shamed by Afghanistan, and preoccupied with China, the United States makes for a good target for poking, if for no other reason than to test its credibility and commitments.
This rather cynical view — shared by many insiders in Moscow — is underpinned by an understanding of Russia’s own weaknesses, which, however, could be mitigated by quick, unexpected moves. And, yes, this strategy requires brinksmanship, just as it did for Stalin and Khrushchev. They do not take unnecessary risks, rang Kennan’s words in my head. Of course they do. This is the nature of the game.
Part of the game is exploiting contradictions between the United States and its allies. It’s not a new strategy — it’s the most persistent feature of Moscow’s foreign policy. Even Stalin’s Yalta vision was premised in large part on the hope that London and Washington would quarrel after the war. It didn’t happen. Instead, Soviet aggressiveness facilitated allied solidarity. Khrushchev tried the same thing, telling his party comrades that “the demise of NATO … is what we want. This is our ardent dream.” But his propensity for brinksmanship only helped to strengthen NATO. His brutal invasion of Hungary in 1956 reminded Europeans why NATO existed in the first place.
The effort to divide the West was continued by Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, when he pursued rapprochement with France and West Germany. After meeting Charles de Gaulle in 1966, Brezhnev reported in a December speech to the Central Committee that “the so-called Atlantic solidarity … is showing cracks.” He proclaimed, “Many facts demonstrate that our work was not in vain and that NATO is becoming increasingly obsolete.” Brezhnev also developed a productive relationship with the West German Social Democrat Willy Brandt. He tried to play Bonn against Paris, and both capitals against Washington.
Brezhnev was willing to pursue détente with the West because he felt secure in his own “sphere” in Eastern Europe. In August 1968, the Soviet Union ruthlessly crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia as the United States and its allies looked on with impotence and resignation. Having thus consolidated the “socialist camp,” the Soviet leader could engage in a dialogue on his terms.
In 1972, Brezhnev explained to the Central Committee that “force is the language the American imperialists understand best.” Yet he gradually warmed up to Richard Nixon. The two presided over a significant improvement in Soviet-American relations. Underlying this warmth was Brezhnev’s hope that Soviet nuclear weapons might would finally allow him to gain acceptance as America’s equal. As Kissinger later summed up for Nixon’s benefit, during a meeting in May 1973 Brezhnev had put it in the following simple and brutal terms: “Look, I want to talk to you privately — nobody else, no notes … Look, you will be our partners, you and we are going to run the world.”
Putin has no such pretensions. Instead, he likes to talk about the “democratization” of international relations, by which he means a greater role for Russia in a world increasingly defined by the epochal rivalry between China and the United States. Putin’s goal is to make sure that while these two decide among themselves who is better suited to running the world, he’ll claw back at least some of the geopolitical space in Eastern Europe that Soviet leaders had always taken for granted. He is certainly not prepared to go as far as Prague, but he may have decided that Ukraine offers a suitable pressure point — so he is squeezing, expecting the West to squeal.
Brezhnev failed in his bid for a condominium with Washington. U.S.-Soviet relations worsened rapidly in the late 1970s, partly because of Moscow’s exploits in the Africa and Southeast Asia, and partly because of a perception in Washington that the Moscow was getting ahead in the nuclear arms race. The Kremlin’s crackdown on human rights also did not help. Détente that briefly flourished under Brezhnev and Nixon was as good as dead by the late 1970s. The realization that they had little to lose in relations with the West played into the fateful Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in December 1979, a poorly-thought-through effort to push back against what Brezhnev and his comrades imagined was a growing U.S. influence in the country. The war in Afghanistan was a horrendous miscalculation. It lasted ten years and cost the Soviets nearly 15,000 dead. The last Soviet troops left in February 1989, on Mikhail Gorbachev’s watch.
Gorbachev also presided over Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe. He looked for a reasonable accommodation with the West on the basis of what he called a “balance of interests.” But his dream of a common European home that would include the Soviet Union proved hollow: There were no takers, even among Soviet allies in Eastern Europe. He called for rival blocs to be dismantled. His own fell apart without prodding while NATO stayed robust. By May 1990, Gorbachev was desperate enough to plead with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker for Soviet admittance to the alliance. He was politely ignored. As President George H. W. Bush observed, why should he have allowed the Soviets to “clutch a victory from the jaws of defeat”?
Gorbachev liked to cite a line attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “everything flows, everything changes.” Putin, who believes Gorbachev was taken for a ride his Western partners, has a worldview closer to that of the Greek historian Thucydides: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
I reached the Pushkin Square, where the Strastnoi Boulevard intersects Tverskaya, a wide avenue that runs all the way to the Kremlin. It was here that, in August 2019, I took part in a most remarkable demonstration against electoral fraud. Along with thousands of Muscovites, I walked down the boulevard in a peaceful protest. Scores were arrested — people were pulled down by the police in riot gear, beaten with batons, and thrown into police vans to shouts of “Shame! Shame!”
Now, Pushkin Square is quiet. The opposition — such as it was — has been crushed, chased out of Russia, or cowed into silence. There are observers in the West who imagine that Putin is afraid of democracy. Otherwise, why would he keep Aleksei Navalny in jail? Why? Because he can — that’s why. Because Navalny is a reminder to the rest of us that anyone at any minute could exchange the fleeting comforts of a cosmopolitan life in well-to-do Moscow for a hard bed in a prison cell. It’s a potent reminder. Putin will never need to become a Stalin, but the potential is always there, like the hard broken tiles under the thin layer of brownish sludge.
I walked by a bronze statue of Alexander Pushkin standing upon his pedestal in the center of the square, unperturbed. The inscription below the poet reads: “I glorified Freedom in our violent age. And called for mercy for the fallen.”
The poet’s short life overlapped with the reign of Emperor Alexander I, on whose watch the Russians defeated Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1814, the emperor rode triumphantly into Paris, and in the subsequent months played a pivotal role in the establishment of a new great-power order in Europe. His proved more lasting than Stalin’s effort at Yalta or Brezhnev’s hopes for a Soviet-American condominium. The problem for Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev was that their foreign policies were underpinned by utopian ideals: They weren’t just trying to increase Moscow’s standing in the global hierarchy. In the long term they hoped to upend the hierarchy itself in favor of a brave new world.
There is little left of that brave new world now. The golden arches of Moscow’s first McDonald’s, opened in the Pushkin Square in 1990, remind passers-by of how the Cold War ended. Kennan predicted this. He knew that the vigor of the West would trump the drab reality of the Soviet project. But there was something that he failed to predict: Even after it shed socialism, Moscow would remain preoccupied with its position in the global pecking order and never tire of seeking to improve it by cynical resort to the language of force.
Brinksmanship is an art. Soviet and Russian leaders had all practiced it, with varying degrees of success. In this sense, at least, Putin is well-versed in a tradition established by his predecessors. Like his Soviet predecessors, Putin is willing to use overwhelming brute force in pursuit of clearly imperialistic goals. But he is an incremental imperialist, taking a bite at a time, feeling for weakness in the West’s resolve, ready to back off if he encounters too much resistance. Kennan would have recognized the type.
I turned left and quickly walked towards the Kremlin in a deepening haze. Red Square had been turned into a skating rink. Kids were sliding in circles to the blare of happy tunes. “We are ruled not by our emotions, but by our reason, analysis and calculations,” Stalin had postulated in 1945. The wily tyrant’s ashes were now lodged firmly in the Kremlin Wall. Behind that wall, his successors, still as impervious as ever to the logic of reason, were planning their moves.
Sergey Radchenko is the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.