Can the Russians Ever Be Trusted?

Russian-American relations over the past century have swung freely between outright hostility to reluctant, suspicious friendship. We were allies, briefly, in the First World War until the Bolsheviks seized the government. We were enemies in the ‘20s and ‘30s while the Soviet Union was promoting communism in America.

Allies in World War II.

Enemies in the Cold War.

By the 1960s, relations had thawed enough for the U.S. and Russia to engage in cultural exchanges of goodwill ambassadors. Many Americans hoped that communicating with the West might lead the Russians to adopt some measure of democratic rule. A 1965 editorial in the Post stated, “It is hard to see who benefits by our shrinking from any contact with the Soviets.”

Then came 1968, when Russia sent its tanks into Prague to crush Czechoslovakia’s new, liberal government. The invasion wasn’t as brutal as Russia’s subjugation of Hungary in 1956, but it outraged Americans. The Post editors now asked, “Can Russians Ever Be Trusted?”

The duplicity and brutality of the Soviets, the Post noted, wasn’t based in ideology.  After all, the Czech leader Alexander Dubcek  claimed he was a loyal communist before he was deposed by the Russians. Soviet deception probably arose from a tradition of Russian governance.

Whether run by a czar, a General Secretary of the Communist party, or an elected president, Russian governments appear to have been driven by a simultaneous desire to expand their borders and a fear for their national security — two factors that make honest communication difficult.

The Post editors believed “the best hope for progress, therefore, lies not in exchanging accusations but in trying coolly to keep these areas of presumed national security as limited as possible, and to be ready to negotiate in all the many areas that lie beyond.”

Can the Russians Ever Be Trusted?

Saturday Evening Post Editorial
October 5, 1968

[We recall] when Alexander Dubcek was mesmerizing the Russians with an incredible display of coolness, conviction and courage, when the Czech leader not only announced a program of unprecedented economic and political freedoms but persuaded the Russians not to interfere with Czech independence. Then, between August 3, when the Russians publicly agreed not to intervene, and August 21, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, something went terribly wrong. It may be a long time before we know for certain what that something was—some say the Czech experiment was having too great an effect on the rest of Eastern Europe; some say the Russians planned treachery from the beginning and simply needed a little time to carry it out. In any case, the freezing repression that our correspondent had reported in Moscow proved all too accurate an indication of what lay ahead for Dubcek and the Czechs. By their ruthless, lawless and completely immoral invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Soviets demonstrated once again that they cannot tolerate dissenting opinion, and they also demonstrated the dangerous frailty of all efforts to maintain a stable and peaceful relationship among nations.

It is easy for our more bloodthirsty hawks to see in the Soviet intervention a confirmation of the theory that no Communist can ever be trusted to keep his word, or even of the theory that the only good Communist is a dead Communist. But this would overlook the fact that Dubcek protested vehemently to the Russians that he was and is a loyal Communist, and that he had devoted much of his life to maintaining good relations between Czechoslovakia and Russia. Thus unless we accept the view that Communism is purely an ideological disguise for Soviet imperialism—a view that is still held by some conservatives—then it seems worth observing that the Russians acted more as Russians than as Communists.

To the Russians, Eastern Europe is above all else a buffer zone. It protects them from the feared and hated Germans, who, in their last encounter, inflicted on the Russians a toll of more than 20 million dead. From this strategic viewpoint, Czechoslovakia is a corridor that runs from the German frontier to the Russian frontier, and Russia must retain control of that corridor. And politically, if unrest in Czechoslovakia spreads to the rest of the buffer zone, then Russia’s national security is directly affected. It is surely significant that in the final settlement one of Moscow’s main conditions was the stationing of Soviet troops on Czechoslovakia’s German frontier.

There is little Communism in such reasoning, little ideology of any kind. It is simply the old-fashioned, might-makes-right reasoning by which the great powers have traditionally justified their application of military force. Simply because a nation is capable of enforcing its will on smaller neighbors, it comes to believe that it has an inalienable right to do so, and that it has a right to enlarge its territory indirectly by creating “buffer zones” and “spheres of influence.”

As a great military power, we naturally feel much the same way. The best analogy here is not our intervention in Vietnam, where, typically enough, the resistance of the Vietcong is eroding our original belief that we have a right to be there, but our intervention three years ago in the Dominican Republic. Confronted with a political crisis that we didn’t like, we simply marched in and imposed our own terms on the Dominicans— and publicly declared that we were completely within our rights. For that matter it probably never occurs to the average American that the Panama Canal is not “ours,” and that we occupy Guantanamo for very much the same reasons that Russia occupies its new outposts on the Czechs’ western frontier.

But the question is not whether the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia was somehow justifiable— it was not. Nor whether the Russians broke their word—they did. The question is whether the Czech crisis means that we should all return to the militaristic postures of the Cold War. The answer, we believe, is that the Russians will use both force and deceit—much as we ourselves will—when they fear a threat to their essential national security. In this area the only purpose of negotiation is to deceive, since all great powers consider security more important than truth or morality or international law. The best hope for progress, therefore, lies not in exchanging accusations but in trying coolly to keep these areas of presumed national security as limited as possible, and to be ready to negotiate in all the many areas that lie beyond.

Featured image: Photograph of a Soviet tank in Prague, 1968 (Wikimedia Commons / public domain).