Sergey Radchenko Profile picture
Historian of the Cold War and after.
Aviva Gabriel Profile picture Magdi Shalash Profile picture 2 added to My Authors
5 Aug
This is a rather strange article. You'd think that, at one level, Russian policy-makers should be quite pleased with it because Kupchan here endorses a strategy (that the Biden administration has in any case been following) of easing off on Russia to focus on China. But...
But the evidence is unconvincing, many of the historical examples furnished get the facts wrong, and the whole premise of the article - that Washington can somehow convince Russia of what its national interests should be - infantilises Russia to a degree.
Kupchan argues that the relationship between China & Russia is asymmetrical; thus, Russia should presumably see that it is not in its interest to align with Beijing. Yet he also claims that the relationship allows Russia to push above its weight on the international stage. ImageImage
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17 Jul
A pretty interesting article about Lavrov's recent adventures in Central Asia.…. Highlights:
1) Lavrov criticises the US for quitting Afghanistan. 🤯
2) However, he doesn't want the US to have any bases / training centres in Central Asia.
3) But Putin apparently proposed that the US make use of Russian bases to track the situation in Afghanistan. 🤯
4) US refusal is construed to mean that the real purpose of US interest in Central Asia is to contain Russia, China and Iran.
5) Meanwhile, Lavrov spoke up against the US plan of allowing tens of thousands of pro-government Afghan refugees to settle in Central Asia, which, he indicated, could radicalise these countries.
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16 Jul
Reading Archie Brown's The Human Factor, which, though it is highly complimentary towards Gorbachev (to the point of sometimes being uncritically so), contains fierce criticism of Yeltsin.…. 👇🏿
"His [Yeltsin's] prime aim," writes Brown, "was to remove Gorbachev from power and to take his place in the Kremlin. If that could have been done while preserving Soviet statehood, Yeltsin would have been more than happy to preside over the larger state."
"If his surest path to power involved the break-up of the union, it was one he was ready to follow." Brown quotes from the unpublished diary of former UK Ambassador Rodric Braithwaite, who wrote of Yeltsin in Sept 1990 that Yeltsin had "very little interest in policy matters."
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8 Jul
Archie Brown here discussing the reasons for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in his new book. As my comments here indicate, I don't agree with this take.
First of all, the Soviets realised almost as soon as they invaded that it was a huge mistake. It was not like they thought it was going great and then suddenly discovered in 1985 that it was a blunder.
In fact, as Brezhnev's conversations with Karmal make clear, he hoped (much as Gorby would with Karmal and then Najibullah) that the Afghans would fight the war on their own, and not rely on Soviet support.
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7 Jul
@DmitriTrenin has on op-ed on Russia's new national security strategy in Kommersant:…. Argues that historically Russia collapsed not because it was externally threatened but because the political elites lost the people's trust.
In other words, the key threat to Russia's national security is actually its own (low quality) political elite. Hard to disagree!
Trenin calls for a "meritocratic rotation" of the ruling elites to avoid this scenario. The problem is that it is difficult to have a meritocratic rotation in the absence of a democratic rotation. And you can't have a democratic rotation in the absence of democratic institutions.
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30 Jun
A thread about "Soviet democracy." Many people do not realise that the Soviet Union had "elections." Why, Stalin himself was "elected" to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. I was just reading today his "campaign speech," dated February 9, 1946 - it's a well-known speech. Image
It's well-known because it is seen as marking a turning point towards Cold War confrontation. In the speech Stalin rehabilitated the idea that capitalism inevitably leads to war, and advertised the might of the Red Army. It's a must-mention of any serious history of the Cold War.
But this thread is about something else. I learned while looking at the documents that Stalin personally wrote every word of this speech. The archives contain his hand-written original. What's funny is that at one point Stalin praises the Red Army for defeating Germany.
Read 6 tweets
28 Jun
One benefit of reading archival documents non-stop is you find stuff in places you did not expect. Consider the following document about Gao Gang (1905-1954), one of the most interesting characters in the CCP leadership in the late 1940s - early 1950s. 👇🏿
Here, Gao Gang recounts how he tried to deliver a special present "from the people of Manchuria" for Stalin's 70th birthday - a large cloth with Stalin's image - but how he was thwarted in his effort by the central Chinese government.
In the document, Gao Gang trashes other Communist Party leaders incl. Li Fuchun & Liu Shaoqi. But he asks the Soviet diplomat (who reported his words to Moscow) to smuggle the present to the Soviet Union anyway - only without letting Beijing know or "his head would be cut off". Image
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28 Jun
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov publishes an extended article, which contains passages bordering on moronic:….
For example, in one place he claims that Russia has greater regard for law because the Russian word for law (pravo) has the same root as the Russian word for rules (pravila), whereas in "Western" languages, rule and law have different roots. I kid you not.
The gist of the article, though, is that the West is trying to impose its own rules on Russia, whereas there exist these "instruments of international law, which everyone has signed". At one point, he complains about the UN Charter and the OSCE not being mentioned often enough. Image
Read 6 tweets
23 Jun
I am generally in favour of engagement with Russia. Always have been. But there are important issues to consider:

1) Terms
2) Timing
Terms. Engagement that appears to reward aggressive behaviour, legitimises authoritarian practices and leaves some EU member states in the lurch is a wrong kind of engagement. It should be said that no one ever engaged successfully by appearing weak, helpless, and divided.
Timing is key. There should be engagement with Russia when Moscow for its part seeks engagement and integration with Europe. There were plenty of missed opportunities in this respect in the last 30 years or so. Missed by Europe and the US - as well as Russia.
Read 5 tweets
10 Jun
People are surprised as to why I seem to be advocating against the Biden-Putin summit despite the importance of having open channels of communication for strategic stability. Let me explain: 👇🏿
Summits are not an end in themselves. They are a means to an end. You don't just meet to talk for talk's sake. You meet to solve problems. Sometimes you also meet to get a sense of your partner: what sort of person are they?
Both sides agree that there are no problems this summit can resolve. No new treaties to be signed. Neither side has shown willingness to compromise. The players are well known to one another. It's not like Biden will learn something about Putin by looking at him at close range.
Read 10 tweets
8 Jun
An interesting cable from Stalin to Molotov about Soviet forces in Mongolia (in Nov. 1946). Undercuts the (rather simplistic) narrative of Mongolia being a mere Soviet colony and a satellite (which is popular in the contemporary Mongolian historiography). Image
Stalin points out that there are 24K Soviet troops in Mongolia but that he wanted to reduce this number to just one regiment despite Mongolian government's request to leave them there. The reason he wanted them out was the financial burden of keeping an army in a foreign country.
What I find most interesting here is the Mongolian government's insistence on keeping Soviet troops in the country (they had many reasons for this - not, as Stalin claims, merely financial benefits). The key reason, I think, was their fear of China.
Read 4 tweets
8 Jun
One of the most interesting documents I've seen so far reflecting a shift in Soviet grand strategy post-war. Here (in Nov. 1946) Stalin is instructing Molotov to take an active role in the discussion of UN trusteeship (mainly, the fate of German, Japanese & Italian colonies). Image
Here, Stalin argues that the Soviet Union must not pretend like "it does not exist" in relation to these discussions. Instead, it should adopt an active role and trade its concessions on trusteeships for Western concessions in other areas.
What Stalin meant by that was that he was not averse to selling out various independence movements (who he said are in any case led by people who are more interested in their own privileges than in the fate of their national movements). Image
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6 Jun
Two answers to this, which I think will help us understand this question. 1) Unlike in the 1950s (when China was the junior partner), today's relationship between China and Russia is not an alliance, and neither side is keen on making it such.
This allows both sides significant flexibility and scope for policy divergence, which was not there in the 1950s, when there was a (misplaced) expectation in Moscow that Beijing would align its policy to whatever it was that the Kremlin preferred.
2) China has not so far sought to exploit its advantage as the more powerful partner to bring Russia to heel, and has instead tried to address Russia's concerns (e.g. in Central Asia). It certainly has not forced Russia to pick sides whenever it quarrels with India, for instance.
Read 5 tweets
2 Jun
Spent several days reading piles and piles of documents and analysis on Able Archer - that moment in Nov. 1983 when the Soviets and the Americans nearly ended in an accidental nuclear war (or not?).
There was a lot of discussion of the episode earlier this year because of the release of the relevant FRUS volume, which included a testimony by Leonard H. Perroots. Here's the document:…. Makes a pretty good reading by itself but...
Check out also this oped by @FOIANate and @thedeadhandbook:… and also this rebuttal by Simon Miles:….
Read 9 tweets
2 Jun
Came across some curious documents on the nuclear arms race in the early 1980s that I just have to share. Quite a mini-story that shows how policy-making in the Soviet Union worked at that stage.
The dramatis personae are... Brezhnev, his foreign policy aide Aleksandrov-Agentov, KGB head Andropov, Defense Minister Dmitrii Ustinov, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and... George Kennan.
The story starts on May 18, 1981 when George Kennan, on receiving the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, called for cutting superpower nuclear arsenals by 50%. Here's the NYT story about it:
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17 May
Rereading Patrick Tyler's A Great Wall this morning reminded me of just how much historians' assessments are influenced by events she or he has experienced. Check out Tyler's unsparing criticism of Reagan's China policy. He argues Reagan never understood Beijing's point of view.
Tyler's book was published in 2000, which was close to the high point of China optimism in the US. Tiananmen was already a long time ago, and China seemed to be on its way... somewhere good. I still remember debates in the academic literature about its gradual democratisation.
Hong Kong got off to a good start, and there was reason to hope, perhaps, that a "diplomatic solution" for Taiwan could be found. In general, China appeared to be more of a benign actor than before or since.But fast forward twenty years; lines above could not've been written now.
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15 May
This is an interesting case. At one level, you might argue that the rift between Russia and Ukraine is clear (damning!) evidence of the failure of Russian foreign policy. At another level, one might also ask about the purpose of Russian foreign policy. 👇🏿
If the purpose is to maximise Russia's influence in its immediate neighbourhood, promote Russia's economic interests and project soft power, then the record is utter and complete failure.
On the other hand, if the purpose is to legitimise Putin's otherwise illegitimate regime by promulgating the narrative of confrontation with the West and Ukraine, then one might argue the policy has succeeded very well.
Read 6 tweets
15 May
A first-rate piece here by Igor Gretskiy who contradicts arguments put forward by me and also my St. Petersburg colleague Ivan Kurilla concerning the viability of Russia's integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions in the early 1990s. 👇🏿
I would broadly agree with Igor's critique to the effect that we need to understand Yeltsin's actions as motivated primarily by the imperative of maintaining political power. The legitimation discourse of "confronting the West" can be said to have contributed to this purpose.
An open question is why that narrative of confrontation was the one that ultimately prevailed. Was it because, as Igor argues, the Russians were not open to 'non-imperial' narratives or was it because door to the West was closed, making the imperial narrative the default option.
Read 8 tweets
5 Apr
A good laugh here from my friend @LorenzLuthi, which reminds me of an episode from my youth. 👇🏿
Once, a ship from socialist Vietnam docked in my hometown in Sakhalin, bringing tons of bananas! For whatever reason, these bananas could not clear customs, so they did not actually appear on the empty shelves. They started going bad, and were dumped in boxes right in the port.
The port was a high-security facility but unbeknownst to the authorities there was a hole in the fence. So along with other kids I went on a banana-hunting expedition. We scoured through rotting boxes, making away with whole sacks of slimy but still perfectly eatable bananas.
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1 Apr
A fairly common-place take on the late Cold War that is somewhat off both in terms of the broader picture and the particulars. As far as the Soviets were concerned, detente began to fall apart almost immediately after it was inaugurated with the 1972/73 Brezhnev-Nixon summits.
Brezhnev's hopes for economic engagement with the US ran aground, partly because of Ford's weakness, and the passing the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Decline in the Soviet positions in the Middle East post-1973 pointed to limits of condominium Brezhnev hoped to achieve with the US.
So disappointed were the Soviets with Ford that they welcomed Carter's election in 1976 but he annoyed Moscow with his human rights agenda that (to the Soviets) smacked of arrogance unacceptable in relations between "equal" superpowers.
Read 14 tweets
1 Mar
Reading Michael Morgan's The Final Act,… - an account of the Helsinki process. A great read by the way - highly recommend. But here's my difficulty.
Following Jeremi Suri, Morgan argues that the Helsinki process was legitimating for both the East and the West in so far as both systems were losing legitimacy for different albeit overlapping reasons. In the Soviet case, it was the loss of faith in the Communist project.
Yet, if we take a longer view of Soviet / Russian foreign policy, we'll see that the striving for recognition by the West as a great power (i.e. legitimation via Western recognition) preceded Brezhnev and certainly survived Brezhnev.
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