Critical Issues Before the Democracy


Catherine Kelleher, 1985

Catherine Kelleher is Professor of Security Studies in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. Previously she has been a Professor at the National War College and a staff member of the National Security Council. Today she shares some of her central insights into the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Professor Kelleher, as you think about the Soviet experience in the years since the Russian revolution, what are the fundamental developments?

Kelleher: I think that in much of the discussion that’s taken place in the academic community, there’s a great deal of stress on the amount of tumultuous change that the Revolution brought in successive events that brought about really massive changes in Soviet society. There is, however, also an element of continuity, and to some extent I think this is reflected in the Soviets continuing concern with their geopolitical situation, the degree to which they still view themselves as a surrounded power, one which is threatened by enemies from all directions and in which, at any point, there is a possibility that its enemies may gather against it.

Whiteley: In making a geopolitical analysis of the situation in the Soviet Union, what are the central elements in such an analysis?

Kelleher: Well, I think that probably the strongest comparison might be with Imperial Germany. It is the same sense of not having fixed boundaries, boundaries that are inherently defensible, boundaries that define identity. I’m sure I hardly need to tell you of the kind of mix of nationalities and ethnic groups in the Soviet Union controlled by great Russians, those from a very small area of the total land mass. I think both in terms of the expansion that has taken place since the end of World War II, as a result of the forward movement of Soviet armies and the de facto solution of the war with Germany, you find that the Soviet Union really is in a position where it stands astride the European and Asian continents in a way that leaves it perhaps more vulnerable, even in a missile age, to a gathering of its enemies than has been true in the past.

Whiteley: That’s a strong statement. How are they more vulnerable to their enemies now than they were when they’d been invaded three times?

Kelleher: They would argue that, particularly at this point in history, and here we’re going very much on inference from Soviet documents rather than anything that the Soviet Union itself would allow to be published, they’re facing at least the possibility of large industrial powers in the West, capable of penetrating Soviet space at any time almost through any medium, and facing a China, which while not yet in the same industrial status or league as those in the West, coupled with a very determined political leadership and perhaps at least the toleration of Japanese allies, would constitute a very strong set of threats to the kind of political balance that the Soviets see as necessary for their continued existence, and for their continued exercise of political control over the territory that they feel they have won at such great price.

Whiteley: You refer to the de facto German result. What is that?

Kelleher: De facto German result is often spoken about as the Yalta decision, that which in effect recognizes what I think Helmut Sonnenfeldt once called ‘the organic relationship’ between the security of the Soviet Union and the physical and political control of the territories on its Western border. Those (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, certainly East Germany) represent in effect its return from the battle that it fought against Nazi Germany during World War II, and which guaranteed to the Soviet Union the kind of buffer relationship that has always wanted, both in Russian history and certainly since the period of Soviet control over Russia itself.

Whiteley: Two points: First, how reliable are their buffer states?

Kelleher: It’s very hard to know, and I think here probably the retreat of most Western critics is into construction of alternative scenarios. If in fact the Eastern European states were convinced that they faced perhaps a reunited or reuniting Germany that would once again attempt to exercise a kind of political control, whether implicit or even explicit, over their territories, it seems to me that the Eastern European regimes, now owing as much as they do to Soviet backing and support, would find themselves close allies of the Soviet Union, ready to in fact take up whatever cudgels were necessary to carry on the fight against that kind of political future. But when you say reliable, and if you’re talking about a nonconflict situation or one in which even the specter of a German threat is not present, the Soviet Union faces a real problem in insuring enough return to even their political allies, return in both the political and economic sense, to insure that they will in fact remain cooperative in any or all spheres in peacetime.

Whiteley: In a nuclear age is there such a thing as a buffer state?

Kelleher: Not really in the strictest sense. If one is talking about that other condition of the nuclear age, namely a set of transference, if you will, of war by other means, to reverse Clausowitz’ famous saying. The politics is now the area, political influence, economic influence is now the area where a great many of those contests that use to be carried on by force of arms now take place. And at this point the Soviet Union is in fact saying the political control over those states represent, at least I think that’s the basic interpretation of the Yalta decisions, represent the absolute precondition for a feeling of Soviet security, and in that sense it really does fit the traditional definition of a buffer state.

Whiteley: You’ve returned several times to the importance of Germany in the thinking of Russia and its post-war planning. What are the central elements in that?

Kelleher: I think that one has to separate out several different levels. The first is that the Great Patriotic Wars the Soviets call World War II was in many respects the greatest unifying experience of Soviet political history. It is the event which brought together, in a way that hadn’t been the case up until that time, something I think we forget in the West, the various peoples of the Soviet Union, that brought them together in a great struggle against a common enemy. It’s not unusual to go even to the smallest village in the Soviet Union and find a perpetual monument to the victims who fell to Nazi aggression. So it’s a constant symbol that even the present political leadership uses when they want to stress unity and integration, and it therefore means, at least at the symbolic level, that Germany, even a Germany that is divided, remains a historical threat about which the Soviets worry. I think they’re, however, on perhaps a more substantive level, that the Soviets view Germany, even their Germany (East Germany, the Germany Democratic Republic) as a potent economic force with which they really do not want to have to do battle. If one takes the two Germany’s together and even doesn’t pay attention to those territories that have been ceded either to Poland or to other areas as a result of this de facto solution of World War II, one is talking about joining the fifth and the eighth largest GNP powers in the world; that is those powers that rank fifth and eighth in the production of goods and services among all of the states of the world. Thinking of what a combined Germany, even a Germany that was only cooperative, might in fact bring about in the economic sphere an area where the Soviet Union finds itself increasingly under pressure, this domestic pressure, and under pressure from its allies, is I think a very real worry for the Soviets in terms of their thinking about what constitutes the present day interpretation of the German threat.

Whiteley: In terms of thinking about the present day image of the Soviet Union, there’s an ideological tradition of world Communist domination. Is the Soviet Union at this time a juggernaut prepared to roll?

Kelleher: I think you would find very few people who would say, at the present level, that the Soviet Union is a juggernaut ready to roll, except along one dimension, and that is the clear achievement of the Soviet Union in the post-war period of a massive militarization, large sections not only of its economy, but in terms of those parts of its population that it wishes to engage in the great political struggle. I think that you cannot ignore the fact that the Soviet Union, a traditional land power, has now put in an enormous amount of effort into achieving great capability, absolutely in competition, or at least in supposed competition, with the United States. And that while it may lag behind on economic dimensions in terms of across the board technology, there is almost nothing that it cannot do, should it choose to, in the area of military development.

Whiteley: What are the effects of that choice on their political and economic development?

Kelleher: I think that anyone who has visited the Soviet Union, or who has looked at Soviet statistics, even for the briefest period of time, recognizes that the so-called military economy, or the command economy, is in fact one which absorbs an enormous number of resources, and which means both qualitatively and quantitatively that the ability of the rest of the economy to produce, either to bring about future economic growth, or to bring about the satisfaction of individuals, is very definitely impaired. I think that there have been strides, but that there is no question that in an area when there are resource constraints, or perhaps even constraints on the ability to continue forms of organization, that the Soviet Union is at a disadvantage.

Whiteley: Following up on the economic circumstances of the Soviet Union, one aspect of their post-World War II behavior has been a heavy economic involvement in their client states. What have been the costs to them of that economic involvement? How do you see it developing?

Kelleher: Well, one of the things I think that came out of the attempt to maintain stability in Eastern Europe surrounding the Solidarity crisis in Poland, was the clear recognition among certainly interested circles of the party elite, but also a number of other observers, that the Soviets were supporting a lifestyle in Poland that they would not be able to maintain even in the great Russian parts of the Soviet Union. That whereby they were providing enough support so that the Poles could have meat on the table at least once a week, perhaps more so, was a way of kind of keeping the lid on popular discontent with the Polish system in which the party had collapsed. But at the very same time in areas outside of Moscow, but still within great Russia, Russian families were lucky to be able to have meat on the table twice during the month, perhaps even lower quality meat, lower quality vegetables. That’s not a total indicator of the amount of effort that was made. But surely in terms of the preferential prices on gas and oil supplies that were given to Poland, the forgiving of Polish responsibilities for delivery of other goods going goes to the Soviet Union and other client states, the Soviet Union took on an enormous additional economic burden beyond the very heavy one they already bear in terms of stabilizing and supporting the existing political military order in Eastern Europe.

Whiteley: How stable is the relationship between Russia and its client states?

Kelleher: It’s hard to imagine the particular set of events, other than something like a wildfire spread of Solidarity, or Solidarity-like thinking, it’s hard to imagine perhaps even the set of events that precipitated trouble in the past. The 1953 revolt in East Germany, or the 1956 revolt in Hungary, were really events that had to do with a kind of de facto stabilization, the interaction of party and military elites in those countries. But it seems to me that out of the last two crises, the Czech crisis in 1968, the Solidarity crisis that really still is going on in Poland, one’s really talking about the failure at least of the existing Soviet model to provide adequate expression and adequate room for the kinds of popular and economic impulses that have dominated, really in past history, the life of these two states.

Whiteley: You’ve broadened your analysis to cover Russia and the world, and in doing so indicated that the basic vision that President Nixon had of relating to both the Asian part of the Soviet Union and détente in the West, was a very fundamental way to think about containing Soviet influence in the world. What do you see the central parts of that analysis to be?

Kelleher: Well we’re almost brought back to an understanding again of the fact that the Soviet Union and the United States share a very interesting geopolitical fact, and that is that both the United States and the Soviet Union are concerned simultaneously with balances in the Atlantic world and in the Pacific world. And the Nixon, if you will Nixon-Kissinger, vision which saw a sort of broad geopolitical balancing in these two worlds between U.S. interests and Soviet interests, I think inadequately captured by the word, at least as we understand it now, ‘détente’, really was very central to an understanding of what is necessary for both states. We probably, more than any of the other states in the world, have this need to understand balance in a global perspective. To a number of those in the present administration in Washington, that represents a kind of great scorecard in which we have to keep track of how well we’re doing in terms of relationships in each area to some sort of grand total.

Whiteley: What do you see the central components of détente to be?

Kelleher: ` I think the classic statement, at least by President Nixon, really included a set of conditions which, if met, would lead to a further condition; that is the possibility of continued cooperation, ever widening cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States, one which was a cooperation based on mutuality of interest rather than any set of congruent values or goals.

Whiteley: Détente is something that has risen and declined, risen back and declined, over the years since World War II between the United States and the Soviet Union. What have been the central forces that have brought periods of good relations, and secondly, what have been the central forces that have deteriorated relations?

Kelleher: It’s very interesting in the sense that I’m not sure that anyone, certainly anyone outside of the Soviet Union, could give you a definitive answer as to what have been the wellsprings of Soviet conduct in pursuing détente. Certainly on our side it seems that we have alternated between cycles of putting more emphasis on cooperation, and more emphasis on confrontation with the Soviet Union. I think that certainly the period of the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s was as much conditioned for the United States by our involvement in Vietnam, our belief about the need for a set of stable conditions in which to secure both economic and political prosperity at home, as well as the need for a reliable, predictable framework in which to bring the Vietnam War to an end. I also think that there have been times when confrontation is as much in the eye of us as beholder, as it is some deliberate change or new change in Soviet behavior.

Whiteley: One area that you’ve analyzed is the Asian relationship. How does that affect the Soviet Union and the United States?

Kelleher: I think the Soviet Union is in some sense still captured by the nightmare of the two-front war, the nightmare that had so much to do in terms of determining Stalin’s move towards cooperation with the Western powers in the post-1941 period; the idea that he would be fighting simultaneously with Germany and with Japan, and with the possibility of this kind of gathering of the enemies that I spoke of earlier would take place. And in this case the Soviet Union truly believes that it would be possible for its enemies to gather, and that the enemies would depend on difficulty on the Chinese border, perhaps stimulated by a West intriguing with Chinese politicians, some of whom have seen this as an interesting way of carrying on their particular domestic revolution, and with those in the West that would in fact see an undermining of the balance in Eastern Europe as a way of challenging Soviet political control. I think, like all nightmares, that this has a basis in reality, but a very tenuous one. But it is one which, when one talks with Soviets, and one talks particularly with those who are outside of the political elite, one finds a recurring symbol of the kind of anxiety, and even a deep-seated fear that their weakness or inferiority would be exposed, particularly in terms of what they see as their second class membership in what might be called the Western Industrial Club in the 20th Century.

Whiteley: What about the Third World? The Third World has been a focus for obvious competition between ideologies of the West and the ideologies of the Soviet Union. What form has that taken?

Kelleher: I think that on the ideological level the contest and competition will go on, and perhaps has less to do with the actual efforts of the Soviet Union and more to do with the continuing fascination of newly revolutionary peoples with the ideas of Karl Marx, and the idea of a solution which will lead to redistributive justice, particularly one that will be favorable to political control and growth. I think though that ideological fascination shouldn’t be overplayed, and behind every attempt to talk about socialism in a particular country, to see the direct adventurism of the Soviet Union. Soviet efforts in the Third World have been episodic, not always continuous, and remarkably unsuccessful in some of the places where they have placed the largest amount of economic aid and military aid.

Whiteley: What are some examples?

Kelleher: Well I think that here you can look both in terms of the Soviet weariness with their great coup, that is Cuba, with supporting a regime which is costing them an enormous amount of money, and which despite all Soviet efforts and efforts both economic, political, and technical seems not to be able to lessen its dependence to the rate of $7 million a day on Soviet support. Not to say the Cubans haven’t been useful, haven’t been a very interesting cat’s paw, a sort of proxy instrument for the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of certain African adventures. But it clearly has been a revelation to many of the Soviet experts who thought they understood what they were doing, that in fact the Cuban revolution remains, in 1985, as dependent as it was in 1965 on continued Soviet economic support.

Whiteley: How does one country influence another; in particular, what can the United States do to influence the policies of the Soviet Union?

Kelleher: I think perhaps the thing which, if one were to give only one piece of advice, the suggestion that we have perhaps in the past engaged in a great deal of wishful thinking about how much we can change the Soviet Union and change its basic outlook on life. Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger, I think, really at some points in their retrospective interpretation of their various roles, have thought that they were in fact providing the Soviet Union with new incentives to be interested in arms control, new ways of thinking about military power and its usefulness. I think this really is a certain degree of wishful thinking. The Soviet Union remains a very conservative power, a power that is I think tied to some very traditional Russian interests. But having said that, I would also urge forward the idea of great continuity in the American approach to the Soviet Union. Far too often American administrations come into power believing that without a fresh approach, whether it’s Mr. Carter’s proposal for deep cuts in March of 1977, or Mr. Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union of hard realistic bargaining, that these changes, these rapid changes will in fact affect Soviet calculations in ways that will be favorable to the United States.

Whiteley: Herbert York has pointed out that we’re a problem for both our friends and our enemies in the sense that we will negotiate treaties and then not ratify them, as we have done three times, or we will have one approach under one Administration, change Presidents and administrations and have another approach. How does that affect the Soviet Union?

Kelleher: Well, a Soviet commentator once said to me that the greatest American secret weapon was uncertainty as to what was going to happen next. He meant it really in terms of the role of Congress, but I think in some sense it would be, at least from a Soviet perspective, applicable to what they hear as a large chorus of not always very congruent voices which issue from various parts of Washington, even official Washington. And whether it is the difference between those who are interested in promoting trade and commerce with the Soviet Union, and those who are most concerned about the transfer of military technology to the Soviet Union, or militarily applicable technology to the Soviet Union, to mention only two rather contrasting voices in the last several years. But one finds that it is not always possible for what is really a conservative power elite to, in fact, make the kinds of calculations that they find important to make about American behavior. There are those who believe that we should stay with our great weapon - uncertainty - but I think I, with Herbert York, would argue that in a nuclear age, where much of the calculation remains to be done that is basic for the continued survival of both states and for this planet, that we really can’t say that uncertainty, and the necessary anxiety that uncertainty provokes, is necessarily always an instrument that will play in the direction of the favor of the United States.

Whiteley: Thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the nature of the Soviet Union and its relationship to the problem of achieving peace in the world.