Seventy seven years ago, George Kennan, then US ambassador to Moscow and America’s premier authority on Russia and the USSR, sent the Secretary of State what is now known as the Long Telegram. Its 5000 words contained deep analyses supporting his recommendation for a US strategy of Soviet containment. It became the foundation of American policy towards USSR/Russia for decades. Today, Kennan, who died in 2005 at the age of 101, is considered one of America’s foremost diplomats.
At the time, the Soviets were occupying Central and Eastern Europe, including half of Germany and its prewar capital, Berlin. Western Europe was in ruins, its economies wrecked and America was the sole intact global superpower left standing. But, then the Soviets got nukes.
A confounding question has puzzled minds in Washington and other world capitals since February 24, 2022: why did Putin, absent any provocation, invade Ukraine? And closely related, why did he believe victory would be his in 5-6 days? The next 12 months dramatically demonstrated, at great human, political and economic cost, how wrong he was.
However, despite the battlefield failures and the very public and nationally embarrassing performance of Russian forces, he presses on. The West, under US leadership, has galvanized NATO and the EU to oppose the invasion and to provide very substantial military and financial support to Kiev and its impressive President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Putin’s reversion to 18th Century empire building, has also energized two long-time European neutrals, Finland and Sweden, to apply for NATO membership.
Kennan’s deeply informed comments on Russia, Stalin and their attitudes towards themselves and the West could help us understand, what in hell Putin is doing and why.
The most important date during these intervening 33 years is 12/26/1991: the day the Soviet Union collapsed from endemic corruption and institutional disintegration. It had a profound and lasting impact on Putin and others of his generation and contributed to his 2/24/22 decision. He has also repeatedly shared his opinion that: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.”
And for him, it probably was. Within months, he went from being a feared KGB Lt. Col., in Soviet occupied East Germany, to driving a taxi in St. Petersburg. But, not for long.
He has served as Russia’s prime minister or president since 1999. And since assuming power, he has set about pursuing one goal openly and another not so much.
Early on, Putin toured western European capitals assuring his hosts he was a practical man, who simply wanted to rebuild his country and maintain the post WWII peace. He was quite successful to the point that while addressing the German Bundestag (parliament), he was interrupted frequently with standing ovations.
His second, quieter, but more honest goal, was to reassemble the Soviet Union, by force if necessary: Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and now Ukraine. If successful in the latter, likely future re-conquest targets could include some former Soviet Satellites. However, a number have become NATO members, which might dissuade him from military aggression, but not from the traditional Soviet practice of political meddling and active subversion.
Various US and European “modernizing” impulses pursued different visions of the 145 million Russians: (1) paying customers and (2) future voters in a democratic Russia. Dozens of American Government representatives and others from mega corporations, international organizations, think-tanks, major law firms, high-end retailers, consultants of all sorts, eagerly took up residence in Russia to begin their work.
But, capitalism only truly arrived when thousands of young Russians lined up in Moscow for their first Big Mac.
By 2009, urban Russians could buy in local stores, virtually any item available in the West. The advent of digital communication and advertising spread this global market beyond the large Russian cities, and acquired millions of new users/buyers, particularly those who were 18 and under on 12/26/91. Snapchat and Telegram and Facebook and Twitter spread global lives across all 11 time zones.
Despite all the apparent westernization, optimism and excited Western assumptions about the new Russia, Putin and friends were privately taking care of business. Many of his old KGB colleagues and others, all well equipped with useful contacts, knowledge, great confidence and forceful ambitions, pursued wealth and luxury by “acquiring” control over previously state owned natural resources and major industries. Among all these oligarchs and newly rich sycophants, Putin has emerged as the wealthiest of them all. A model kleptocratic government.
Putin’s razor sharp KGB instincts continued to function efficiently and he soon perceived that the new glitterati could threaten his rule. Believing they needed to be sternly reminded who the new czar was, he found the perfect exemplar-target: the richest man in the new Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Unfortunately, the latter’s $15 Billion fortune had dulled his sensitivities to current reality: the old top-down Soviet power architecture may have new labels, but hadn’t changed. Then, he made a fatal error: he founded a reform minded civil society organization.
Khodorkovsky’s enormous petroleum firm suddenly lost its value and then he himself was arrested, as he exited his private jet. He remained in prison until German intervention convinced Putin to pardon him in 2013. He and his family now live in exile in London (on only $500 million).
Political opponents or potentials are dead or in jail. Others have been poisoned, died or survived and are serving long terms in prison (Alexei Navalny). Senior business leaders whose loyalty Putin doubts, have fallen out of hospital windows. These tactics resemble Stalin’s, although he and earlier czars, preferred the feared , but more convenient, Lubyanka Prison and its torture chambers.
Excerpts from the Long Telegram:
Inbred fear of the West:
- “USSR (Russia) still lives in antagonistic capitalist encirclement with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence.
- Everything must be done to advance relative strength of USSR (Russia) as factor in international society. Conversely, no opportunity most be missed to reduce strength and influence, collectively as well as individually, of capitalist powers.
- At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plains in a neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples.
- To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted Russian rulers rather than Russian people.”
- “And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.
Tactics/Strategy towards the West
- Undermine general political and strategic potential of major western powers. Efforts will be made in such countries to disrupt national self confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity.
- All persons with grievances, whether economic or racial, will be urged to seek redress not in mediation and compromise, but in defiant violent struggle for destruction of other elements of society. Here poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents, etc.
Tactics/Strategy towards the US
- Soviets (Russians) are a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi.
- It is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of US society be disrupted, and their traditional way of life destroyed, the international authority of the US be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure. “
To grasp Kennan’s current relevance in 2023, 77 years after enormous changes in Russia and the world, two facts are essential: Putin’s mindset never left the USSR or the KGB and is still affected by Russia’s imperial past. (2) Nor did his 65+ generation of males move on after the demise of the Soviet Union, particularly those who had served in its military and intelligence services.
And those younger Kremlin acolytes learned the Khodorkovsky Lesson well. They owe their powerful positions and wealth (and lives) to him, as did their predecessors to Stalin and Nicholas II.
Kennan’s total Immersion in Russia is Unique
Kennan’s credibility on Russia, Russians and the Soviet Union was enormous in 1946 and still is, because he had submerged himself for many years in all things Russian to gain a very deep grasp of the Russian people, their history, their rulers and the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and Communism. For Kennan, Stalin represented a less elegant continuation of the absolute, harsh rule of the czars. And Putin must have seemed a similar, familiar figure to Kennan.
Kennan spoke bilingual Russian and could pass as a native. He traveled throughout the Soviet Union, early on, not as a foreign diplomat, but as another Russian. In short, he was intensely fascinated with Russia and acquired a depth of knowledge few non-Russians had or have.
What Kennan’s Long Telegram does for us, is to remove the necessity of trying to make sense of Putin’s actions, because we can’t. Kennan, however, drew on his amazing database, formed from decades of Russian experiences and Soviet interactions and provides us the motivations and underlying emotions that make sense to Putin and more broadly, to the older Russian men who share his nostalgia for an imaginary past.
The potential existential challenge Putin faces lies with those Russian men under 50, who liked 21st Century Russia and don’t want to be dragooned to die in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of these men and women have left Russia and are now living and working from Bali to Bratislava. They formed the foundation for a future modern Russia. They are entrepreneurs, highly educated, doctors, nurses, business owners and high tech specialist, particularly in AI. And few have any intention of returning to a reactionary, repressive Homeland.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.
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