Monday, 29 September 2014

The cold war never ended


“Rationally Russia cannot be understood, one has to believe in it.” Fyodor Tiutchev (1803-1873)
What is clear is that the cold war never ended - it simply went underground. This review by Oleg Gordievsky, once KGB station chief in London, of Edward Lucas's prescient book, The New Cold War, makes this point. The Kremlin even under Yeltsin kept its arms directed at NATO and prepared for an invasion from the West, which is where every invasion came from after those of the Mongols. In 2009 Russian war games simulated an attack on Poland using nuclear weapons. 

For its part, NATO prepared for conflict with Russia. By accepting former Warsaw pact countries and the Baltic States as members, NATO implicitly did so to protect them from a future revanchist Russia. The USA helped inspire a series of colour revolutions across the former USSR aimed at removing pro-Kremlin governments, including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine which toppled Viktor Yanukovych for the first time, in 2004.

Spies tend to be cynical, alarmist and expect the worst because this is what they are trained to do. This goes not just for Gordievsky but for his former colleagues who now run Russia, including Vladimir Putin, whose KGB career was stymied because he was thought to have too little sense of danger. But just because they are paranoid does not necessarily mean that they are not right and Gordievsky understands Russia and the KGB better than anyone who has not served in the KGB. Gordievsky is certainly right when he says that Russia is the first country ruled by its secret service. Another spy chief who defected, Ion Mihai Pacepa, who ran the Romanian secret service (and allegedly worked for the KGB) before defecting to the USA, has said the same thing. Under the Czars and the Communists the secret service were subordinated to the government - now it seems to be the other way around, a big difference. 

What is remarkable is the number of ways in which Soviet Union had characteristics in common with Czarist Russia. They included considering that people who did not think Russia the most advanced society in the world had psychological problems and committing them to institutions - Nicholas I's Russia did this as well as Brezhnev's Russia. Do not minimise the extent to which Russians who grew up under Brezhnev or Khrushchev thought Russia more advanced than the West. Another is the intense strain of paranoia about the west and about foreigners that has always informed Russian thinking about the outside world and Russian foreign policy. Stalin really did believe in Leninism but he behaved in foreign policy very much like a Czar. Putin is not a Leninist but he continues a foreign policy similar to Stalin's and the Czars', born of fear of the West and desire for great power status, laced with a sense of Russia's messianic mission. This is the light in which Putin likes to see Russia as the protector of Christians against Sunni extremists and homosexual activists.

Russians, of course, are an intensely spiritual people - only a very spiritual people could have embraced atheism as an official policy. It is obvious now, in the age of ISIS and Al Qaeda, that Marxism, especially in its Leninist version, was always a religion, thankfully one that is dwindling away.


  1. Absolutely! When I wrote my book on South African clandestine warfare "Kalahari" - fictional history - I pointed out that the "Third Force" in Southern Africa during that time was definitely the Russian centered part of the old Soviet Union - still pulling strings and making the world a miserable place by constantly stirring up troubles. Mr. Putin cut his teeth in that era and on activities with the KGB long before the cold war went underground. He knows exactly how to face down the opposition and manipulate world opinion as well as take over countries.

    Rick McBee

  2. I think Putin came to power because the western-led economic reforms (or rather the West's efforts to take over Russian economy and integrate it under it's own leadership and decisionmaking) brought ruin to the average Russian. Putin has again and again underlined that Russia will have the final say when it comes to Russian matters. It is clear that he saw in the Yeltsin area that West tried to make Russia a subordinate vassal and take over it's economy.

  3. I agree that the Cold War never really ended but I'm not sure that those fighting it today really understand why. It just became a habit. Putin and his cronies are not easy characters to get on with and Russian business still doesn't understand the concept of win. However, until we stop seeing everything as an investment opportunity and nothing more, there will always be problems.