Russian Threat Perceptions Remain Unchanged
When Ronald Reagan became President, his fiery anticommunist rhetoric and his proud Evangelical Christian support had many Leftists worried that he was a mad nuclear bomber. Of course, this turned out to be a false perception. One reason this notion was believable, though, was the fact that Reagan never met with his Soviet counterpart in the first year or so of his presidency. When asked why Reagan had not met with the Soviet Premier, Reagan responded with his typical acerbic wit, he said that he would meet them, except for the fact that his Soviet counterparts “kept dying on him.” Indeed, in short order, the baton would pass from long-time Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, to hardliner Yuri Andropov (1982-83), to programmatic Communist Konstantin Chernenko (1983-84), until the “young” Mikhail Gorbachev arose and became the Soviet leader on a platform of reform (although he did not begin his reign under the peaceful Perestroika policy for which he is remembered today). This article will focus on Yuri Andropov, the octogenarian Soviet Premier who was one of the most stringent anti-American hardliners to ever rule the Soviet Union. And, while his reign over the USSR was short-lived, his impact was not. Indeed, Andropov’s worldview and perception of the West is an excellent snapshot into how current Russian strongman ruler, President Vladimir Putin views the U.S. and crafts Russia’s foreign policy.
The Hungarian Complex
Yuri Andropov began his service to the Soviet state like so many fellow Soviets did: as a young, enthusiastic member of the Communist Party. From the age of 21, he worked his way up through the KGB, becoming known for his ruthlessness and absolute commitment to the Soviet Union. In his early career, Andropov was present for the Hungarian Uprising that saw the Hungarians overthrow the local Communist rule and string up all of the Hungarian internal security officers they could find. In response to this legendary uprising, Andropov would lead the Soviet counterattack and fought the dissidents with such violence that he quickly became known as the “Butcher of Budapest.” Andropov’s experience in Hungary during these tumultuous times hardened his resolve and commitment to maintaining Russia’s supremacy over its Near-Abroad. Andropov would have similar experiences during anticommunist uprisings in Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia. In fact, from the Hungarian Uprising onward, Andropov became consumed with one simple mission: upholding and strengthening Russian domination. This is what Soviet expert Christopher Andrew has called the “Hungarian Complex,” in his bestselling 2000 work, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB In Europe and The West.
As I noted here, the Soviets long had a preemptive nuclear warfare doctrine. Having experienced the shock of Hitler’s Wehrmacht launching a surprise Spring invasion of Russia in 1942, the Soviet planners vowed to never allow such an event to recur–especially in the Nuclear Age. Thus, the Soviet military was conditioned to prepare to fight and win a nuclear war in which they launched the first blow. Of course, the metrics for launching such a strike were obviously more complex than just launching before the Americans could. Indeed, the Soviets had a very specific set of conditions to warrant their launching of such an attack. Those views differed also between the KGB and military hardliners compared to most of the Soviet political elites (though there was less daylight between these groups than most Western scholars realize). The important takeaway is that the U.S. leadership never quite understood what the Soviet metrics were.
Building off of his experiences fighting against anticommunist rebels in the Soviet domain, Andropov embraced not only the most hardline nuclear warfare doctrine but also believed that the only way to defeat anticommunism was with extreme, overt force. And, he was constantly afraid that the U.S. was planning to overthrow the Soviet Union. Indeed, Ronald Reagan was Yuri Andropov’s absolute worst nightmare. His rhetoric and recommitment to expanding America’s military capabilities was an affirmation of Andropov’s worst fears.
Cut to modern times. Andropov is long dead and the Soviet Union has been consigned to history’s ash heap. What remains is a pathetic shadow of the once-great Soviet empire. Yet, what the Russian Federation lacks in size, it more than makes up for with strategic leadership and a modernizing military force. It is led by Vladimir Putin a man, who, like Andropov before him, is from the inner most sanctum of the (former) KGB.
Having cut his teeth in the covert Cold War in the 1980’s, Putin is as much of a product of those dark days for Russian power as Andropov was during the Hungarian Uprising. Putin had begun his career in the KGB at the same time that the Soviet Union was dying. A strict believer in the overwhelming power that the KGB wielded, Putin had become mortified with the prospect of losing that power to the liberal West. Indeed, Vladimir Putin was possessed of the same fear that every Russian leader since Ivan the Terrible held: that Russia was going to be invaded from its periphery and broken up.
In much the same way that Andropov was obsessed with the Soviet Union losing power, Putin is the exact same way with the Russian Federation losing power. Andropov was a product of the Hungarian Uprising and Rose Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Putin was a product of the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the world began turning away from Communism in the 1980’s, Andropov became indignant and even more unrelenting on the issue of internal reform. When the colored revolutions began sweeping through the former Soviet space in places like Georgia and Ukraine in 2005, Putin immediately became concerned that the West about to reduce Russia yet again. And, this time, another loss of Russian territory would be the end of Russia itself.
Not only did Putin graduate from the Andropov Institute of the KGB training center, but when he assumed the presidency, Mr. Putin began an effort to rehabilitate Andropov’s public image. In fact, Putin initiated “a minor cult of Yuri Andropov.” The fact that Putin had risen in the KGB that Andropov had very much molded after himself is important also. In many respects, Putin is a younger version of Yuri Andropov. This is a disturbing fact since not only was Andropov a disaster for Russia, but his unflappable nature made him an intransigent foe of the West. Indeed, as you will soon see, Andropov’s extremism nearly led to an actual nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. In much the same way, Putin’s leadership and policies is going to lead to a confrontation between Russia and the West.
The War Scare
It was in the autumn of 1983 that things grew especially tense between Andropov’s Soviet Union and Reagan’s United States. It was at this point that Andropov’s skewed interpretation of Western intentions became the number one threat to international peace. At this time, NATO was conducting its largest exercise, Able Archer, in Europe in years. The controversy at that time was over the Reagan Administration’s decision to station Pershing-II Missiles in Europe. Also, during this time, President Reagan had refused to meet with Andropov. Though, to be fair, Andropov had also refused to meet with Reagan. He loathed Reagan and believed that Reagan’s most flagrant foreign policies (like the stationing of the Pershing missiles in Europe) would be rolled back by the rapidly growing Nuclear Freeze peace movements throughout the West. Yet, it was the Able Archer exercise–that stretched from Turkey to the Baltics–that put the greatest level of fear into the Soviet leadership.
Able Archer was a relatively routine NATO exercise that was designed to increase the efficiency and coordination of the partnered militaries in the event of a nuclear war. The key difference was the scope and size of the 1983 Able Archer exercise and the fact that the NATO planes involved would be carrying realistic-looking weapons. As the West would learn only after the Cold War, Andropov and his advisers were so worried about the Able Archer exercise that they placed their military on high alert and moved large elements of their air force along the East German border.
Indeed, in the run-up to this event, Andropov himself had become obsessed with the notion that Reagan was planning a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and that he had to be ready. During the 1982-83 period, the USSR had been assiduously transferring ever larger numbers of their nuclear stockpile from storage centers to aircraft and other launch vehicles throughout the country, preparing for Reagan’s impending surprise attack. The downing of a Korean airliner by the Soviet military sent tensions to an all-time high. Plus, Yuri Andropov was dying (something that undoubtedly affected his personality and judgment in these closing days of his life). Here was a man who was highly torqued and ready for a massive nuclear strike, at the drop of a hat.
All the meanwhile, NATO plodded along with their exercise. They further added to the confusion by upgrading their communications network, which only sent the Soviets into a greater flutter. Ultimately, the situation was defused only when the Able Archer exercise ended in November of that year. But the fact is that there was a very tense period in 1983 when the Soviets were geared to launch a surprise nuclear attack upon the West, if for only the fact that they had become convinced that the West was readying to do the same to them. Upon learning of the tenuous events on the Soviet side during the 1983 exercise later on, Reagan himself remarked:
“I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with the Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike; because of this, and perhaps because of a sense of insecurity and paranoia with roots reaching back to the invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Hitler, they had aimed a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons at us.”
Had the exercise lasted longer, who knows what would have happened? If there was any belief that a nuclear exchange was averted because of deeper understanding of both sides from the respective U.S. and Soviet leadership, the Reagan quote should disabuse you of that notion. Andropov was a hardliner of epic proportions. He was prepared to launch. He had little belief that the West did not intend to attack. 1983 saw a series of what he viewed as provocations.
In much the same way, Vladimir Putin believes that the West is provoking him. Like Andropov he has little understanding of the reality that the U.S. and the West are utterly feckless. He simply believes that their intentions are aggressive and, therefore, he must preempt their aggressive tendencies. Plus, Putin is wedded to Neo-Eurasianism which is dedicated to upending the NATO and EU order of Europe and reestablishing Russia as a great world power. For both Andropov and Putin, the preservation and expansion of Russian state power was primary. Nothing else mattered. The U.S. has been engaged in a fifteen year-long War on Terror. There is no part of the Mideast that has been left untouched by American military action. Yet, Mr. Putin has deemed Syria as being an integral element to Russian foreign policy in much the same way that Andropov viewed Afghanistan as an integral element of Soviet foreign policy. Putin has insisted upon preserving his client, Bashar al-Assad as leader of Syria. He will brook no compromise on this issue. He will give no ground to those calling for regime change in Syria. This puts him squarely at odds with the United States and its partners.
September 17, 2016 saw a dangerous incident which could be one of many “provocations” as Mr. Putin sees it. On that day in Syria, the U.S. conducted airstrikes against suspected Islamic State militants. Instead, the U.S. accidentally bombed Syrian Army forces who were being supported by Russia. The Russians took umbrage and responded later by attacking a United Nations convoy that was delivering humanitarian aid in Syria. Elsewhere, many inside Russia are speculating that Putin is going to try and take more of Ukraine sometime in the beginning of next year.
These actions are not happening within a vacuum. They are happening because the Russians are perceiving American and Western moves as more menacing than they are. In much the same way that a routine NATO exercise nearly precipitated a nuclear world war in 1983, American attempts to stabilize Syria may very well end in Putin moving rapidly to fulfill what he views as his foreign policy objectives. Putin is engaged in a terrifying over-amplification of the purported American threat to Russia. American leaders are not helping in the matter, either. After all, does anyone really think that the Obama Administration will war with nuclear Russia over Syria? But this is where we are. Putin does believe that the United States will war with him, indeed, he thinks that the U.S. wants to destroy him. Like Andropov, he looks at what’s happened over the last twenty years and sees not a series of unfortunate events for Russia, but rather, a concerted effort to degrade Russian power and destroy Russia itself.
Toward An Insensate Wargasm
There will be conflict with Russia, unless the next American president can defuse the situation. We must hold the line on Ukraine, but there is no reason why we should not try to stabilize Syria. We have neither the will nor capabilities at this time to implement our will fully over Syria. Therefore, we should focus on stopping the Islamic State and leaving the rest to Russia. Of course, the real problem is that we have commitments to actors on the ground who expect more from us. All of these situations, taken together, are providing the pretext for the perfect storm. We know how Andropov responded to the Able Archer exercise. We know how he would have likely responded if the exercise lasted any longer than it did. I do not think that we will be able to avert a war with Russia, given Putin’s perception of things. It is clear that Putin does not believe war is avoidable any longer. Understanding Putin should not be as great of a mystery for many of our policymakers as it seems to be today. To understand him, just look at his KGB mentor, former Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov. That’s why we should be concerned and that’s why we need to seriously reassess our position on Syria and refocus our energies on supporting Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Like Andropov, Putin will not be deterred. The longer this runs on, the more dangerous for the U.S. Serious changes in policy must be implemented.