Rollback Russian Expansionism

The only thing novel about the humiliation of Georgia is that the entity that carried it out is called "Russia" instead of the "Soviet Union".

It has happened many times before. In Czechoslovakia in 1948. In Berlin the same year. In Poland and East Germany in 1953. In Hungary in 1956. In Czechoslovakia again in 1968. In Afghanistan in 1979.

We have a lot of experience in dealing with this kind of outlaw behavior. We know what works and what does not. There is no mystery here, and no secrets. To learn how to deal with a newly belligerent Russia, we need only look at the Cold War.

It required several years for the West to get up to speed in dealing with Soviet aggression following WW II. FDR had given away the store at Yalta, allowing the Soviets a permanent and unchecked presence in Europe. He would have done more if allowed to -- he was willing to give the Italian navy to the USSR until it was pointed out that Italy in 1945 was an ally of the United States. Nevertheless, Stalin was already condemning his former "allies" before 1945 had ended. (Correcting the notion that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were "allies" in any real sense is long overdue. An "ally" shares at least some of the same war aims. The U.S. and UK were "allies". The Soviets were "co-belligerents", fighting alongside the U.S. without sharing any postwar goals.)

George Kennan's famous "long telegram", an accurate appraisal of the Soviet Union's plans and behavior (later published as an article in Foreign Affairs) sounded the original warning as early as February 1946.  But official response was offhand at best. Under the "Truman Doctrine", the U.S. took a few steps, taking over some of Britain's imperial responsibilities, providing support to Greece and Turkey, and instituting the Marshall Plan, but with little sense of necessary urgency. Then in 1948 the Czechoslovakian coup and the Berlin Blockade began to concentrate people's minds. This was followed by the success of Mao's communists in China and the explosion of the first Soviet A-bomb in the summer of 1949, five years before anyone in the West believed possible.

These setbacks were instrumental in bringing about the change in strategy exemplified by NSC-68, the national security paper written by Paul Nitze. Generally referred to as "containment", the new strategy involved full-scale rearmament by the U.S, the foundation of NATO, and the restoring of West German status as a military power. (Kennan had already begun turning against his early conclusions and was to remain a critic of a forward Cold War policy for the rest of his long life.)

Containment was to remain the basis of Western actions in the Cold War for decades. While it secured the future of a free Western Europe, the policy had a number of serious shortcomings. The Soviets were able to find methods of undercutting it through subversion and sponsorship of proxy wars of "national liberation", carried out in large part by local communist parties backed with Soviet financing and weaponry. By the late 1950s, much of Africa and Asia had been set ablaze. After 1960, Castro's regime in Cuba dedicated itself to the same mission in Latin America.

Containment also provided too much room for second thoughts in the West. In the early 70s, Henry Kissinger, operating as adviser and later secretary of state to Richard M. Nixon, attempted to create an international settlement modeled on the Congress of Vienna under the name "detente", in which the status quo would be frozen under guarantees from each side. It was a heroic vision, and might have worked, had Soviet ideological imperatives not immediately undermined it.  

Lesser figures such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter also played roles in wrecking containment. Johnson enmeshed the U.S. in an unwinnable war in Vietnam which allowed the Soviets to carry on as they wished elsewhere. He also oversaw the dismantlement of much of the American military machine (in order to finance his "Great Society" welfare state), enabling the Soviets to catch up and then surpass the U.S. in military capability. Carter attempted a policy of open appeasement, which got the response it always gets. By the late 1970s, the containment strategy was a hollow shell. The Soviets, well aware of this, acted without regard for the U.S. in dealing with the Solidarity movement in Poland and the outright invasion of Afghanistan

Containment's major flaw was that it was essentially a reactive policy, leaving the initiative to the Soviets. A more active policy appeared with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. 

Reagan loathed communism (American communists had actually threatened his family during Reagan's term as a union president in the late 40s), and was convinced that the West had been effectively propping up the bankrupt system for decades. He publicly predicted that communism was destined for "the dustbin of history". But not content to simply watch, on taking office he embarked on an aggressive strategy that has been termed "rollback".

By the early 1980s, the USSR was seriously overextended on a number of fronts, facing near-revolt in its European satellites, a draining guerilla war in Afghanistan, and the economic strain of supporting numerous client states. Reversing the USSR's own strategy, Reagan funded and armed opposition forces throughout the Soviet empire. In Poland, Solidarity was provided financial support through underground conduits. The Afghan Mujahideen were given intelligence and advanced weapons. At the same time, Reagan began a long-overdue rehabilitation of American military power, reinstating several weapons systems canceled by the Carter administration.

None of this comprised a direct challenge to which the USSR could openly respond. Instead the Soviets turned to large-scale propaganda campaigns and such efforts as the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s, with no great success.

Reagan's hole card was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) a visionary program intended to lay the basis for a defensive system capable of "rendering nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete". Although SDI was derided and dismissed in the U.S., the Soviets were simply terrified. They had no doubt that American technology could accomplish exactly what Reagan had called for. And without nuclear weapons, the USSR, in Vladimir Bukovsky's words, would become the equivalent of Bulgaria.

The Cold War reached its climax in October 1986 at Reykjavik, where Soviet reform leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered Reagan any concession he desired as long as he would junk SDI. Against the advice of his cabinet, Reagan walked out. The concessions came in any case, the Soviets having little choice at that point. Three years later the Berlin Wall, the most blatant testimony to state brutality in modern history, came down, the Iron Curtain dissipated into air, with the USSR itself soon to follow.

The ailing Reagan lived to witness the full success of his foreign policy, the most effective since that of James K. Polk. No other president apart from these two can be said to have set distinct goals in international relations and accomplished all of them.

But the U.S. has a habit of throwing away its victories, and the Cold War is no exception. Under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, policy vis-avis Russia lost impetus and direction. It was assumed that Russia would muddle its way to democracy, but little effort was made to guide the post-Soviet government or support internal efforts. In the early 90s, the Democratic National Committee sent a small group to Moscow to offer advice (this in itself told me that trouble was coming), but that was the extent of Western assistance.

It wasn't long before reactionary elements, particularly those surrounding the KGB (There's no point in using the post-Soviet term. The organization has changed its name regularly since being established as the Cheka in December 1917. It remains the same outlaw group.), stepped in. No sooner had their picked candidate Vladimir Putin taken control than a low-key war against democratic and opposition elements began. Murders of political activists and reporters across the Russian Federation and even overseas became common practice. 

In 2005, Ukrainian presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin in an attempt to derail his presidential bid. A year later, regime critic and former Russian intelligence agent Aleksandr Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium 210 in London. To these attempts we can add relentless guerilla and intelligence activity against the former Soviet states, both democratic and otherwise.

The invasion of Georgia was simply the public formalization of all these efforts. As during the early years of the Cold War, hostilities have in fact been in progress for quite some time.

The Cold War and its aftermath present us with three methods of responding (overlooking Carter's policy of appeasement, which will find no supporters apart from the political fringes): containment, rollback, and drift. The policy of drift which marked the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations has been abandoned today under pressure of events, leaving us with a neat choice of two: containment and rollback.

The record reveals containment to be a clear failure. It was both expensive and complex. It locked the West into a rigid pattern of behavior easily manipulated by the USSR and its clients. It required a high degree of commitment over the long term, a commitment that not even its chief adherents were able to be maintain. Its sole advantage was that it relatively risk-free in the short term, although this benefit vanished after the Soviets learned to play the angles.

Rollback, on the other hand, was an astonishing success, so unexpected and unprecedented that many have still not come to terms with it. By the 1980s, it was accepted throughout the West, in political, academic, diplomatic, and business circles, that the USSR was a permanent fact of history, and would remain so into the foreseeable future. Only Reagan and a small circle of advisors believed otherwise. Reagan's immense success is a clear refutation of any thesis of impersonal "historical forces". Rollback appears to be the sole workable method of dealing with a belligerent autocracy of the type represented by Russia.

How can it be adapted to the present situation?  By taking the Reagan effort as a blueprint. Reagan applied relentless pressure -- military, financial, and political -- on Soviet weak points. No attempt was made to challenge the Soviets directly. At the same time, accepted means of support for the Soviet regime -- agricultural credits, industrial exchanges, technological and scientific collaboration -- were curtailed. There was no easing of pressure in the short term, nor were any negotiations offered. At the same time the Soviets were allowed a clear path of retreat. Rollback was a rational strategy, punishing bad behavior and rewarding rational decisions -- but only after these had been demonstrated in concrete. 

Consideration must be made of Russian fears, and each of those fears made a reality. If Russia fears encirclement, she should be encircled. If Russia fears military inferiority, that inferiority should be clearly established. If Russia fears American technology, that technology should be unleashed.

A serious defensive league of former Soviet states, including Central Europe, the Baltics, Ukraine, and the Caucasian and Central Asian states, should be formed under the quiet sponsorship of the U.S. The mutually defensive purpose of this pact should be emphasized, with the threat remaining unnamed. Low-key exercises and consultations between militaries should be carried out, with select officers sent to the U.S. for further training.

The fact that many of these countries are political and territorial rivals is scarcely relevant at this point. Such questions must be set aside in light of national survival. American diplomats should take the lead here.

Revocation of easements and allowances given the Russians -- such as the use of the Sebastopol navy base -- should be brought to the table. The Ukraine has already placed limitations on the use of the base (and been answered with Russian threats). This is a good start that needs to be taken further. Sebastopol is not a Guantanamo or Gibraltar situation, a base in a remote area easily isolated from contact with the host nation. Sebastopol is a major Ukrainian city. Methods of making life unpleasant for the Russians are myriad, and include strikes, shutting down utilities for "repair" or "maintenance", and other forms of harassment. Sebastopol is a Russian weak point, and they need to be made aware of this quickly and repeatedly. (A friendly visit by U.S. 6th Fleet units to our Ukrainian friends should also be put on the calendar, perhaps combined with Black Sea exercises with Ukrainian naval forces. Such a visit has already occurred in Georgia.)

Russian "peacekeepers" are illegal occupiers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and life ought to be made hot for them. There is technically no difference between the invasion and occupation of portions of Georgia and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Particular attention should be paid to the Ossetian and Abkhazian "irregulars" who followed Russian troops into Georgia. It was they who carried out the majority of executions, rapes, and looting. Georgia was treated with almost the same level of brutality as Nazi Germany during the Soviet advance of 1945. The Russian "irregulars" are war criminals, and ought to be dealt with as such.

The final factor in Reagan's winning strategy, the Strategic Defense Initiative, has its equivalent in the National Missile Defense system now being extended to cover Europe. This system, which is a lineal descendant of SDI, drives the Russians to distraction for the simple reason that they can't duplicate it. The proposed placement of missiles in Poland is a evidently a major source of Russian belligerence. (The Poles, who had been dawdling over negotiations, signed an agreement immediately upon the invasion of Georgia. So much for Putin's strategic "brilliance".) Much can be done with this system. The Ukrainians have offered use of two radar sites. They should be taken up on it, and discussions concerning the potential support roles of other post-Soviet states should be opened.

The Russians truly believe that American technology is a magic box that when tapped, pours forth all sorts of miracles. Playing on this fear paid dividends during the 80s. There is no reason why it won't work again. (One element that should not be overlooked is the fact that the Navy's Aegis system has been upgraded to fill the anti-ballistic missile role. Perhaps those ships visiting Sebastopol could be Aegis destroyers?)

That's what rollback would look like in the 21st century. No aggression, no revanchism, simply unending and consistent pressure intended to modify Russian behavior to match international norms. The more Russia misbehaves, the more trouble she will see.

Russia is nowhere near as powerful as the Soviet Union. It's reported that Putin had to transfer an entire army from Central Russia to do the job in Georgia -- the forces in the Caucasus simply weren't up to it. Similarly, post-invasion bluster about the Russian navy acquiring a half-dozen aircraft carriers is completely empty. Such a naval program would challenge even the U.S., with all its resources. And it happens that the sole shipyard capable of such a project is located... in the Ukraine.

This is the reason -- and the only reason -- why the Russians are rattling nuclear weapons (and at Poland, no less).  Their hand is weak, and they know it. The current Russian elite is comprised not of ideologues but hustlers, who very much want to live to enjoy power and riches. Actual use of nuclear weapons is the last thing on their minds.

Nor is Russia is anywhere near as economically robust as it seems. Recent reports indicate that the country's oil wealth is based on redrilling already exploited sites. Little in the way of new exploration has been carried out and is not likely to happen without outside investment. Russia's oil bubble may be ready to burst. (This brings up a related aspect of the rollback strategy: yet another reason for the U.S. to begin offshore drilling and building nuclear plants. Russia is flexing its muscles thanks in large part to funding gained from recent oil hikes. Cut the income, and we'll at the same time cut the impulse to shake up the international system.)

The long-term goal of any rollback strategy would be the same as that of the original Reagan effort: to bring about the establishment of a free and democratic Russia. The collapse of Russia into renewed autocracy would be a tragedy of historical dimensions, particularly when so much was possible. We were told to avoid triumphalism, not to encourage a legal cleansing of the former Soviet state, to allow party members and KGB officers to go about their business. So there was no lustration, no exposure of the regime's crimes as in the central European states. We -- and the people of Georgia -- are paying the price for that now.  Like 18th-century Prussia, "an army with a state", Russia today has become a secret police with a state.

The KGB must be considered a criminal organization and targeted as such. We can start by identifying its officers and agents worldwide, along with their activities, contacts, and so on. The KGB is as much a terror group as Al-Queda, and deserve no better treatment. 

The rollback strategy worked in the 1980s. There is no reason why it can't work today. Ignorance of history may guarantee repetition, but how much worse when we overlook what we know?

And oh, no more looking into people's souls. That just causes trouble. 

J.R. Dunn is conulting editor of American Thinker.