To Run the World: Moscow’s quest for power and parity with the United States

When Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine in February 2022, he included a complaint about America’s self-esteem. “Where does this insolent way of speaking from the position of his own exceptionalism, infallibility and omnipermissiveness come from?” the Russian president asked.

There was nothing new in Putin’s protest. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets craved recognition from the Americans and were hypersensitive to perceived slights. Putin infamously described the dissolution of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” By this he was referring to the end of the Russian empire, not Soviet communism. If the United States could not freely provide the respect Russia so craved, it would have to earn it by force of arms.

As Sergey Radchenko shows in To rule the worldIn his masterful new history of the Cold War, Putin’s psychology is very much in line with that of his Soviet predecessors. This psychology includes wounded pride and an insatiable sense of insecurity.

Ironically, it was Putin’s decision to open the Soviet archives over the past decade – an act of radical transparency that reflected Putin’s obsession with Russian history – that allowed Radchenko to reach these conclusions. His move made available a “huge avalanche” of Soviet documents and personal papers after years in which historians had to make do with a trickle. This gave him access to a stream of consciousness of the USSR’s highest officials spanning the period from Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev.

The result is a revisionist history of the Cold War that downplays ideology as Moscow’s guiding motive. This marks a big departure from most Cold War histories, which pay more attention to that than to national character. “Marxism-Leninism alone does not take us very far in understanding Soviet behavior,” Radchenko writes. “It was an ill-fitting fabric that never adequately covered the incongruous contours of Moscow’s ambitions.”

What were (and are) those ambitions? The simplest answer would be to secure Western recognition of Russia’s great power status. In 1944, Stalin gained Winston Churchill’s acquiescence regarding Moscow’s sphere of influence when they scribbled country-by-country percentages for central and eastern Europe on a napkin. Hungary and Yugoslavia were each split 50:50, while Greece was biased 90:10 towards Britain and Romania 90:10 towards the Soviets.

Their cynical agreement was formalized at the famous Yalta Conference of 1945. The near-fatal decision by Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, to station Soviet intermediate nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 was motivated less by war plans than by a desire for parity with United States, which placed missiles in several bases near the border of the USSR. John F. Kennedy defused the crisis by quietly removing American missiles from Türkiye. In addition to equal status, Moscow had wanted to put “our hedgehog in the pants of the Americans,” in the words of one Soviet official.

Despite the Vietnam War, the 15 years after that near miss in Cuba were the height of détente between east and west. This was the closest Moscow has come in history to achieving the respect it believes it deserves. Humanity had entered a bipolar world in which the USSR was one of the poles. However, this period was too fleeting.

Khrushchev, whose antics had become an embarrassment, was ousted in a Politburo coup in 1964. After a series of Kremlin machinations, primarily involving the sidelining of his Politburo rival Aleksei Kosygin, Leonid Brezhnev emerged as the first between equals. Détente survived the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 mainly because Washington wanted Moscow to help it out of its Vietnam quagmire. The Soviets never did. Détente also survived Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, which took great advantage of Brezhnev’s paranoia about the threat from the East. In fact, Nixon’s move in China only redoubled Brezhnev’s efforts to pacify the western flank of the USSR by consolidating détente.

Fascinatingly, Radchenko reveals that Brezhnev even had a racial motivation for this policy, believing that the European races should remain united. “As President Nixon once said,” Brezhnev recounted, “you can destroy us seven times and we can destroy you seven times. I replied that after this happens, the whites will disappear, only the blacks and yellows will remain.”

However, the golden age of détente never lived up to Moscow’s dreams. Although Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s acrobatic national security adviser, mulled a joint “condominium” between the United States and the Soviet Union and the superpowers promised not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, the USSR dared not abandon its credentials. revolutionary. Soviet adventurism in Angola, the Horn of Africa, Portugal, and finally Afghanistan, which it invaded in December 1979, swung American public opinion against détente.

Radchenko skillfully and vividly describes a gerontocratic Politburo that wanted nuclear stability without giving up its freedom to choose client states in what was then often called the “third world” (the Soviet bloc was the “second world”). Once again, this was as much a question of Russian self-esteem as it was of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Since the United States had client states around the world, the Soviets should have them too. But they turned out to be very expensive. As Radchenko points out, Moscow’s backing of Vietnam’s communists nearly broke the bank. Hanoi never paid its debts.

If I have one objection to Radchenko’s otherwise indispensable book, it is that it minimizes the effects of US President Jimmy Carter’s weaponization of human rights behind the Iron Curtain. (To be more revealing, I am writing a biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser and Kissinger’s great rival.) Kissinger saw the USSR as a permanent fixture in the picture. Brzezinski saw the nationalities of the USSR and the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact as his Achilles’ heel. The latter turned out to be correct.

As Radchenko points out, the demise of the USSR in 1991 came with a whimper, not a bang, in the figure of its final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the last general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985.

As a Russian émigré academic, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and Cardiff University, Radchenko is well placed to describe what has happened since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. He vividly represents the “ clean-shaven gorillas at Adidas.” pants” that made a fortune in the wild west of Moscow in the 1990s.

A black and white photograph shows several men in suits, one of them playing the saxophone.
US President Bill Clinton plays the saxophone in early 1994, watched by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. © Alamy

This was also the era of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. As one of Radchenko’s colleagues, Mary Elise Sarotte, memorably observed, Yeltsin’s fondness for vodka was considered a price worth paying: “Drunk Yeltsin was better for America than most other sober Russian leaders.” But then came Putin. The rest is current.

Radchenko’s conclusion is bleak because it is persuasive. Under Putin, he argues, Russia believes it has another chance through the rubric of multipolarity to destroy the world the United States has created: “With the right combination of chutzpah and good luck, Russia could one day regain its illusory greatness and its insatiable, self-destructive ambition to rule the world.” Putin is risking the future of his country – and the safety of other people – in a quest that can never be satisfied.

To rule the world: the Kremlin’s bid for global power during the Cold War by Sergei Radchenko Cambridge University Press £30, 768 pages

Edward Luce is the US national editor of the Financial Times.

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