- - Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Russian experts, politicians and television’s talking heads are constantly wondering whether Vladimir Putin’s Russia is trying to reconstruct the old Soviet Union with its extended empire and aspirations, asking why else the country that gave up communism would invade Ukraine, threaten the Baltic states, interfere in Syria and even try to sabotage an American election.

George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram,” written more than 70 years ago, addressed this question in ways that may help us understand what’s going on in Russia today. On Feb. 22, 1946, just 11 days before Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Mo., the American Embassy’s young Soviet expert sent 5,000 words to Washington explaining why our World War II ally was turning hostile. Two months later, Kennan expanded his analysis with a seminal article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” He argued the need to “contain” the Soviet Union, which indeed became U.S. policy right up to the day the Soviet Union collapsed.

Both merit re-reading as we try to make sense of today’s Russia. The “Long Telegram” emphasized the traditional hostility of Russian policymakers toward the West. The Foreign Affairs article addressed the impact of communist ideology on that hostility. Today’s Russian leaders may no longer be communists, but they are still Russians.

Here is the core of the “Long Telegram”:

“At the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on (a) vast exposed plain in a neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with (the) economically advanced west, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies … But this latter type of insecurity afflicted rather Russia rulers rather than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed their rule was archaic in form, fragile, artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of western countries they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned the truth the about world within. And they have learned to seek security only in a patient but deadly struggle for the total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.”

Does Russia and its modern-day czar suffer from the same psychology that Kennan described 70 years ago, or have conditions changed enough to alter the way Russia relates to the West, and especially the U.S.? The first word that jumps out from the “Long Telegram” is “insecurity.” How many times have we heard that Mr. Putin and his people feel threatened and insecure?

Kennan reminds us that there is a historic basis for this feeling. Russia was historically invaded by French, Polish, German and other armies. Americans tend to forget and perhaps even forgive past transgression, but this is not true of most of the world’s peoples and certainly not of most Russians. The question today is whether this history has been or can be overcome to allow relations between Moscow and the West to take a more amicable path. The idea of an aggressive Germany or Poland seems absurd to us, but for a country that suffered 20 million casualties in World War II, that fear might still have credence.

Kennan also stressed the historic Russian fear of an economically superior West. Decades later, the Soviet Empire collapsed because it simply couldn’t keep up with the economic and technological superiority of its adversaries. Even today, in spite of abandoning communism, the Russian economy has more in common with Third World economies totally dependent on oil and other natural resources than with the freer industrialized nations of Western Europe. It is, to quote Arizona Sen. John McCain, “a gas station with nuclear weapons.”

Kennan warned that the Kremlin then feared direct contact with the West or “foreign penetration.” Little has changed since, especially since like the Soviet leaders of yore, Mr. Putin and his advisers realize they are leading a less-than-satisfied citizenry. North Korea may be able to isolate its citizens from the outside world, but Mr. Putin can’t do that. The Russian public today is not the isolated peasantry of Stalin’s era.

Finally, Kennan says Russians have always sought security through a “patient but deadly struggle for destruction of rival power, never in compacts or compromises with it.” Is this warning still valid? Patient, deadly and destruction are Cold War words: “We will bury you.” Many concluded that any future threat from Moscow ended with the Cold War. They would benefit from rereading the “Long Telegram.”

The Soviet Union may be gone, but it’s perhaps possible that the Russian bear still roams in the woods.

• Thomas Mason is a lawyer specializing in international law.

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