As some observers have recently pointed out, the Putin government’s new strategy concerning Europe, the U.S. and the West in general bears some similarities to the tactics that were employed by the fledgling Bolshevik government in the decade that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. While the parallels are still very approximate, I think they do help us to understand where Russia is going at present, and what the future may hold.
When in the initial years of the new regime the hopes of a pan-European revolution failed to materialize, and the attempt to spread Communism by force of arms fairly quickly lost impetus, Soviet Russia fell back on a policy of “peaceful coexistence” with Western capitalism. This did not mean that the Bolsheviks abandoned their goal of world revolution – on the contrary, their aim now was to play off the capitalist nations of the West against one another: to unite with Germany against Poland, to support Britain against France, to befriend nationalist Turkey and to oppose and overcome the growing anti-Bolshevism of the United States.
By the summer of 1920 it was clear that the period of coexistence was likely to be prolonged: this was underlined in particular by the Soviet defeat in the Battle of Warsaw, which crippled the Red Army; by the failure of Western left-wing movements to follow the Bolshevik example, and by the parlous state of the Soviet economy. This situation led to an appraisal of future strategy which had three basic strands: 1) an acknowledgement of the Soviet Union’s weakness, which required an extended period of social and military calm, in which the Soviet government would need to advocate international peace and establish friendly relations with capitalist states; 2) an exploitation of the greed of Western capitalists, and an effort to promote and aggravate rivalry between capitalist groups and nations; and 3) a prolonged and far-reaching campaign of propaganda and subversion aimed at encouraging and inspiring revolutionary activity everywhere, both in the developed West and in the colonial and semi-colonial countries of the world. As Lenin put it: “We do not for a moment believe in lasting trade relations with the imperialist powers; what we shall obtain will be simply a breathing space [peredyshka].”
Some of the early effects of the new Soviet policy could be seen in movements like the Britain’s “Hand Off Russia” movement, which questioned the wisdom of conducting what left-wing circles portrayed as an undeclared war on Russia. As early as February 1920 Britain’s Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, gave a speech to Parliament in which he asserted that the best way to restore order in Russia was by means of trade, not military force, and that the key to Western success was “to fight anarchy with abundance”.
Today, there are differences – for example, instead of the context of a European war, there are the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But’s not hard to detect echoes of the 1920s. There are the same attitudes taken by Western governments – their wait-and-see policies that put the interests of trade and commerce before any confrontation, even of a diplomatic kind, over issues of human rights and political repression. In place of the Western leftist revolutionary movements there are the campaigns by left-wing and libertarian groups conducting information-based attacks that are designed to cause maximum damage to Western military, security and economic interests, and the undisguised links of such campaigns with Russia itself, viz. the defection to Moscow of the spy Edward Snowden. And there are the activities of Western business interests and multinational corporations, which see in Russia a market of almost unlimited potential, and are determined not to let political or humanitarian issues stand in their way.
Ultimately, of course, the relative calm of the “breathing-space” period of the New Economic Policy was overtaken by events – the death of Lenin in 1924 and the intense power struggle that followed, with the ascension of Stalin and his rationalization of Leninist thinking and practice, exemplified in the massive reorganization and expansion of intelligence and secret police to cover almost every aspect of life. The conflicts and contradictions of the West’s interaction with Russia – the growth of the perception of the Soviet monolith as an unmistakable, dangerous and unambiguous enemy, and the blindness of Western opinion-leaders and observers who allowed themselves to be duped about the monolith’s real nature – became increasingly pronounced as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s. An open military confrontation with the West might have occurred at any point, but for the special circumstances of European politics, which in the aftermath of 1914-18 were dominated by League of Nations pacifism and the sudden emergence of a National Socialist government in Germany.
What shouldn’t be lost sight of, perhaps, is the long-term approach of Russia’s political, military and security strategy. Its modern history has now extended for nearly a century, and is dominated by the interests of a powerful police and intelligence elite that has endured and shows no sign of weakening in its avowed purpose of defeating the West’s global hegemony.