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Blaming America for Russian Aggression, Then and Now

During the Cold War, just as today, some commentators held the U.S. accountable for Russian belligerence in Eastern Europe.
March 16, 2022
Blaming America for Russian Aggression, Then and Now
(Composite by Hannah Yoest, Photos: Getty Images / Shutterstock)

The claim that American actions, especially pushing to enlarge NATO, precipitated Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been asserted not only by Kremlin officials but also by foreign policy realists, anti-establishment pundits, and “anti-imperialists” in the West. It persists despite eloquent rebuttals by Cathy Young, Chris Miller, Peter Dickinson, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and many others.

But this sort of one-sided portrayal of American policy as a major causal factor—or even the decisive factor—behind Russia’s aggression is nothing new. In fact, attempts to pin the hostilities on NATO enlargement are remarkably similar to the arguments of twentieth-century “New Left” intellectuals who held the United States primarily responsible for the onset of the Cold War. Washington’s failure to accommodate the Soviet Union’s “legitimate” and “defensive” security needs in Europe and Asia after World War II, the narrative went, forced Stalin to consolidate his hold on Eastern Europe through ruthless communization and Sovietization. This view was not just limited to anti-war activists of the Vietnam era—it was perpetuated by a sizable body of influential “revisionist” scholars.

Perhaps the most well-known of these works is historian William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959). According to Williams, American foreign policy was motivated primarily by a relentless pursuit of foreign markets to facilitate the expansion of the domestic economy. This insistence on maintaining an “open-door empire” of free trade was what ultimately crystallized the Cold War. Williams contends that Stalin wanted “minimum natural and desirable frontiers in eastern Europe” but that U.S. officials resisted such an arrangement and failed to consider “security and economic aid for the Soviet Union” that would lead to “a modus vivendi with the Russians”—not out of “fear that Russia was about to overwhelm Europe or the world in general” but out of a desire to penetrate European and Asian economies. The Soviets had legitimate concerns over Eastern European boundaries, German reparations, post-war recovery, and agreements in the Middle East and Asia, but selfish and expansion-minded American diplomats refused to listen. In trying to explain why Moscow refused Marshall Plan aid, Williams claims that Stalin rightly saw it as an attempt to interfere in his country’s internal affairs.

In Tragedy, Williams is also at pains to argue that the Soviet Union was not a dynamically expansionist state that posed a genuine threat to the West. Many within the Soviet political hierarchy, he alleged, believed in cooperation with the United States to achieve post-war recovery goals, and were even willing to temper their criticisms of capitalism and support for Communist groups in Europe to get on Washington’s good side. But U.S. public and private leaders, all too eager to exploit the then war-weakened Soviets, ignored these warm overtures from Moscow and instead peddled a “false analogy between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany,” and between Stalin and Hitler, to justify an anti-Soviet posturing. American and British hostility, in the form of Winston Churchill’s “extremely violent and unrestrained anti-Soviet ‘Iron Curtain’ speech” (delivered upon Harry Truman’s invitation) and the declaration of the Truman Doctrine, had the adverse effect of empowering the hardliners in Moscow. Thus, it was supposedly Washington’s intransigence that pushed the Soviets to abandon their “relatively restrained policies followed in eastern Europe after the Nazis were defeated” and crack down on opposition in the Soviet bloc “to establish a security perimeter.”

Following the publication of Tragedy, other scholars such as Walter LaFeber and Christopher Lasch released their own works building on Williams’s fundamental thesis that American economic expansionism was the primary factor behind the outbreak of the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, the arguments of these Cold War revisionists started to have a considerable effect on activists, policymakers, and public intellectuals in the West, particularly on the left. Even many of those who eschewed William’s neo-Marxist bent and rejected his claims about economic expansionism accepted his overall conclusion that American diplomacy was largely to blame for international tensions.

Despite its influence and popularity, the revisionist narrative was not without its challengers. In addition to rebutting the revisionist overemphasis on economic interests to U.S. foreign policy, more recent scholarship on the Cold War has also scrutinized the New Left accounts of the origins of the conflict. An emerging coalition of “post-revisionist” historians, such as John Lewis Gaddis and William Taubman, significantly pushed back on the works of Williams and his counterparts. Though many of these intellectuals have rejected the “who started it” paradigm altogether, viewing a Cold War between two ideologically opposed superpowers as essentially inevitable, their work still sheds light on Soviet hegemonic aspirations in Europe and the developing world—a glaring omission in revisionist works. Not only have the post-revisionists convincingly refuted the New Left argument that the Sovietization of Eastern Europe was “not predetermined,” but they also illustrate that Stalin and other Soviet leaders expected a “crisis of capitalism” in Western Europe to eventually trigger Communist revolutions and opportunities for Soviet subversion in the American sphere of influence (though they felt that assisting such revolutions could wait until after the USSR had fully recovered from the war). Even if some of Stalin’s rationales may have been partly “defensive,” it is unclear why the full Stalinization of Eastern Europe was necessary for such a “buffer zone.” As was the case with Hitler, Stalin’s fixation with absolute security was more of a manifestation of his megalomania, paranoia, and psychopathy than a rational response to the credible threat of a U.S.-led attack.

Post-revisionists have also challenged the extent to which Washington was truly “hostile” to the Soviet Union. The numerous concessions that Roosevelt, Truman, and Churchill made to Stalin with respect to Eastern Europe at the Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences, as well as Roosevelt’s inclusion of the USSR in the United Nations, suggest a wariness of antagonizing Moscow as the world war was coming to its end. Some agreements, such as those regarding new borders for Germany, zones of occupation, and demilitarization, were largely on terms favorable to the Soviets. If anything, it was Stalin’s brutality and the Red Army’s horrifying conduct in Eastern Europe that hardened the American and British approach toward the Russians—both Truman’s shift in attitude towards Moscow and Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech were direct responses to Stalin’s failure to honor his promise to grant Poland democracy and free elections. Stalin’s unwarranted and unprovoked blockade of Berlin, which led to the creation of NATO in the first place, and controversial policies in Iran and Turkey are just some of the Kremlin’s other actions that eventually backfired. Indeed, full cooperation with Moscow would have meant making unacceptable concessions, like a reunification of Germany under Communist rule, or not rehabilitating Western Europe via the Marshall Plan (which Stalin regarded as a threat to potential revolutions in the West). Though post-revisionist intellectuals acknowledge that U.S. diplomats could have taken steps to mitigate the intensity of the Cold War, they ultimately recognize that Marxism-Leninism’s inherent hostility to global capitalism and the internationalist nature of Communist ideology were significantly more important in influencing the Soviet Union’s anti-Western sentiment and expansionist behavior.

Although it was made largely obsolete by the post-revisionists, the revisionist school persists—and traces of the revisionist train of thought can easily be found in much of the commentary surrounding Russia’s recent conduct. For instance, the statement from the Democratic Socialists of America that NATO’s “imperialist expansionism” led to the Ukraine-Russia war is directly in line with Williams’s thesis that “free trade imperialism” instigated tensions with the Soviets. The foreign-policy realists who hold the West accountable for Putin’s aggression, to their credit, have not gone as far as the “anti-imperialists” in their criticisms. Nonetheless, there are some striking parallels between their depiction of U.S. policy toward Russia and the account of the Cold War revisionists.

First, just as the revisionists downplayed the extent of Soviet ambitions, the critics of NATO enlargement inflate the “defensive” security dimension of Moscow’s foreign policy while neglecting other ideological and geopolitical motives. One of Putin’s longstanding goals has been to restore Russia’s status as a great world power. Even though he apparently regards piecing together the entire former Soviet Union as infeasible, Putin seems to be inspired by, as Waller R. Newell puts it, “a national tribalism extending to all Slavic peoples including Ukraine, Poland, and the Balkans, who must be gathered back into the Russian fold.” Moreover, in the context of Moscow’s search for allies in Latin America and Southeast Asia, its extensive role in the Syrian civil war, and its eagerness to capitalize on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine looks to be part of a broader plan to bolster Russia’s global influence rather than a desperate attempt to ward off an impending NATO attack. In a Journal of Democracy article, Robert Person and Michael McFaul also highlight Putin’s goal of precluding democratic transitions in his sphere of influence. Whereas NATO expansion has been a variable concern to the Kremlin, the prospect of democratization on Moscow’s doorstep has been consistently viewed as an existential threat to Russian leaders.

Another revisionist mistake that lingers is to understate Russia’s capabilities vis-à-vis the West. The New Left authors may have been correct that the Soviets were weakened after World War II, but they gloss over their advantages—the Russians not only outnumbered the West in terms of conventional military forces in Europe (and eventually ended the U.S. nuclear monopoly), but also enjoyed significant recognition throughout Europe and the rest of the world for communism’s role in defeating fascism. Of course, Moscow today neither controls half of Europe nor professes an ideology with widespread international prestige (which is likely why former Cold Warriors like George Kennan criticized NATO’s incorporation of former Soviet satellites). Nonetheless, there are still good reasons to be skeptical when the Kremlin plays the “encirclement” card. As Chris Miller points out, given that the actual balance of power in Europe started to shift towards Russia in the 2000s in terms of military resources, conventional forces, and nuclear weapons, Putin’s actual frustration with potential Ukrainian membership in NATO is that “the West has made it more costly for Russia to march on its neighbors.”

Much as the New Left historians exaggerated Washington’s “hostility” towards the Soviets, apologists for Putin’s militarism today give a less than nuanced view of the breakdown of U.S.-Russian relations since the 1990s. Cathy Young gives several examples of conciliatory gestures between NATO and Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s, including the Partnership for Peace Program in 1994, NATO-Russia Summit of 2002, and the relatively warm relationship between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Even after the 1999 round of NATO enlargement, Putin flirted with the idea of Russian membership in NATO in 2000 and expressed ambivalence at the idea of Ukraine joining the partnership in a 2002 statement. Though Western policymakers could have done more to integrate Russia into NATO during this period, Moscow’s own reluctance often precluded such collaboration. More to the point, as McFaul has articulated ad nauseam, nothing about Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO has changed in the past year. NATO has not outright abandoned its Open Door policy, but both the United States and the EU have made it clear to Kyiv that they will not be extending membership to them, much to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s dismay.

Undoubtedly the most conspicuous error of pinning the blame for Russia’s invasion on the West is that it strips the Eastern Europeans and Russians of their agency and inflates America’s role in international developments. In Tragedy, Williams fails to consider the extent to which American hegemony in Western Europe was overwhelmingly accepted by leaders who had their own reasons to fear Soviet subversion. Likewise, those who accuse Washington of instigating the current war often overlook how the Eastern Europeans themselves eagerly pursued membership in NATO and in the EU, both to receive Western guarantees of military protection (one can hardly blame them) and to promote their own freedom and prosperity. This is also true for Ukraine, whose pro-Western orientation increased greatly after Putin forced the country to renege on a proposal to join the EU in 2013 and subsequently invaded in 2014.

Moreover, American influence on the Russian psyche should not be overstated. Just as Soviet ambitions in Eastern Europe were for the most part independent of Western actions, Putin’s worldview seems to indicate that his invasion of Ukraine would have occurred regardless of NATO’s policies. Similarly, it would be a mistake to downplay the impact of Moscow’s behavior on Washington. Much as Stalin’s violation of the Yalta agreements alienated Truman and Churchill, one could argue (as Chris Miller and Cathy Young convincingly do) that Russian aggression in many cases triggered a harsh response from the West rather than vice versa.

Of course, none of this is to say that Putin is Stalin, or that Russia is in a comparable position to that of the Soviet empire. But that doesn’t mean that the international community shouldn’t be concerned over Moscow’s recent escalations. Among the many lessons of the Cold War is that Russia’s “defensive security perimeter” could prove to be much larger than expected.

Niranjan Shankar

Niranjan Shankar is a writer based in New Jersey. Twitter: @NiranjanShan13.