The 73-year-old memo that tells us how to handle Putin
PUBLISHED: 16:00 24 March 2018 | UPDATED: 12:25 26 March 2018
As relations with Russia become ever chillier, PAUL KNOTT unearths a document from the 1940s with advice on dealing with Moscow which seems remarkably relevant today.
Vladimir Putin might seem intent on returning us to the Cold War, but fortunately for Western leaders a blueprint already exists for dealing with this situation. Written in 1946, George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ from Moscow, where he was serving as a US diplomat, became the West’s founding text for handling the Soviet Union, and his analysis of the Kremlin’s methods and motivations remains remarkably relevant today.
In the 5,500-word document, sent to Washington to outline a new strategy for diplomatic relations with Moscow, Kennan said the USSR saw itself as living “in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence” and believed “two centres of world significance” would “battle… for command of the world”.
Russia may now be governed according to its own warped brand of crony capitalism rather than communism, but this assessment still captures Putin’s zero-sum viewpoint.
Russian foreign policy dismisses the concept of mutual benefit. Its mindset is that for Russia to succeed, other countries must lose and suffer. Hence, the prospect of having a stable, democratic and prosperous Ukraine or Georgia next door is seen as a threat, not an opportunity.
Kennan highlighted Stalin’s belief that the world’s democracies “inevitably generate wars”, including interventions against Russia, that “must be forestalled at all costs”. Putin finds it similarly inconceivable that a country’s citizens might have their own reasons for overthrowing a vicious, corrupt dictatorship. Revolts against Russian-backed regimes like Syria’s can only be the product of Western plots.
The notion that the West might intervene in nuclear-armed Russia is preposterous. But Putin is still terrified by such uprisings elsewhere and sees crushing them as a personal, existential necessity.
Russia still uses the subtler means of subversion identified by Kennan too. Putin has inherited Stalin’s view of the democratic world as a threat. But he also, as Kennan said, realises it includes “elements whose reactions, aspirations and activities happen to be ‘objectively’ favourable to the interests of (Russia). These must be encouraged and utilised…”.
Nowadays, the extremist movements Russia funds to fulfil this disruptive role are more often on the far-right, such as France’s Front National, than the left. Contemporary ‘useful idiots’ are encouraged, such as Donald Trump, ex-German Chancellor (and now manager of Russia’s Gazprom Nord Stream gas pipeline company) Gerhard Schroder and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Kennan saw how the Soviets guided their friends abroad “towards deepening and exploiting conflicts between the major (western) powers” and “to undermine the(ir) general political and strategic potential. Efforts will be made to disrupt national self-confidence, to hamstring measures of national defence… and to stimulate all forms of disunity”. That is a strikingly accurate description of what organisations and individuals are doing today in Europe and the USA.
Kennan went on to describe the “great skill and persistence” of the Soviets’ “official propaganda machine”. “The premises on which its party line are based are for the most part simply not true” and “the disrespect of the Russians for objective truth – indeed their disbelief in its existence – leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for the furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another”. The Putin regime uses modern media technology, such as the RT television channel, in a strikingly similar way to undermine democratic debate in the West.
Modern Russian propaganda is perhaps even more pernicious than its Soviet predecessor. Unlike the Soviet variety, it makes little effort to convince or cover-up its untruths. Rather, it seeks to discredit reputable, genuinely independent news organisations by suggesting they are just as unreliable as RT and directed by equally deceitful governments. The corrosive implication is that there are no objective facts, just different views from which to choose.
Overt propaganda is backed up by subversive tools such as the Kremlin’s notorious army of social media trolls.
Now, as then, the “inner-Russian necessities” Kennan refers to as driving this propaganda onslaught are the need to deceive the Russian people about the outside world, in order to stay in power. This is borne of the “insecurity which afflicts Russian rulers rather than the Russian people”, because they “have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with the political systems of Western countries”.
This fear still explains the “Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs”. It is why Putin launched a war to impede neighbouring Ukraine’s development of clean, democratic governance. A successful Ukraine would offer an example to ordinary Russians that is unacceptably dangerous for the Putin regime.
As Kennan wrote, the “Russians will participate in international organisations where they see an opportunity of extending (their) power or inhibiting the power of others. Moscow sees in the UN not the mechanism for a permanent and stable world society founded on mutual interest but an arena in which its aims can be favourably pursued”.
This perfectly describes the Putin regime’s use of Russia’s prominent position in international organisations to preserve its grip on power. Russia regularly uses its permanent seat on the UN Security Council to block measures against other murderous dictatorships. It does so to prevent precedents from being set that may later limit Russia’s scope to cow its citizens and bully its neighbours.
Kennan judged that “in general, all Soviet efforts on an unofficial international plane will be negative and destructive, designed to tear down sources of strength beyond reach of Soviet control. This is in line with the basic Soviet instinct that there can be no compromise with a rival power... The Soviet regime is a police regime par excellence… accustomed to think primarily in terms of police power”.
Seven decades later, it remains difficult to better that as a description of a regime run by KGB men like Putin.
Despite the bleak picture painted by Kennan in ‘The Long Telegram’, he was able to conclude it with advice on successfully handling Stalin’s Soviet Union.
This advice is still astoundingly relevant for handling its contemporary offspring, Putin’s Russia, and worth quoting at length:
“But I would like to record my conviction that the problem is within our power to solve.
“Soviet power…is impervious to the logic of reason and highly sensitive to the logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw – and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so.
“Gauged against the Western world as a whole, the Soviets are still by far the weaker force. Thus, their success will really depend on the degree of cohesion, firmness and vigour which the Western World can muster.
“All Soviet propaganda… is basically negative and destructive. It should therefore be relatively easy to combat it by any intelligent and really constructive programme.
“For these reasons I think we may approach calmly and with good heart the problem of how to deal with Russia.
“Our first step must be to recognise the nature of the movement with which we are dealing. We must study it with the same courage, detachment, objectivity, and the same determination not to be provoked or unseated by it, with which a doctor studies an unruly and unreasonable individual.
“We must see that our public is educated to the realities of the Russian situation. There is nothing as dangerous or as terrifying as the unknown.
“Much depends on the health and vigour of our own society… This is the point at which domestic and foreign policies meets. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society… is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic communiqués.
“We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of the sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in the past.
“Finally, we must have the courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem…is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping”.
Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ is essential reading for current political leaders dealing with Putin’s Russia. Not only is his advice still valid, we also know that history proved him to be right. Kennan will be proved right again too, if our contemporary leaders are wise enough to follow his counsel.
Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat