Between the late 1940s and the early 1950s there was an acrimonious debate in Washington around the question of political warfare or psychological warfare against the Soviet Bloc which is documented in great detail in Gregory Mitrovich’s Undermining the Kremlin. The key issue was how far can we push Stalin through support for anti-Communist guerillas, incitement of political resistance, support for dissidence in the Bloc before we create an unacceptable risk of a major war? The estimate of this distance was rapidly reduced by the development of Soviet nuclear forces. By the end of the Truman Administration some of the hawks in this debate were jumping ship to join Eisenhower’s campaign for the presidency only for them to be disappointed when Ike reached even more cautious conclusions. Whatever the public rhetoric of rollback or liberation these ideas were dead in the NSC by the end of 1953 or early 1954 at the latest. Rollback was dead long before Hungary. I’m not saying that we’re in the same situation as Truman and Eisenhower were but there’s something quite important that can be learned from this debate.
This debate was asking about how far can we pursue our political objectives before we get a forceful pushback from Moscow. It’s was strategy – weighing ends, means, risks and what the other side is likely to do. In Ukraine and in East generally the EU has essentially set out to erode the Russian sphere of influence without thinking through these connections between ends, means or reactions. Of course the EU line (and that of the West more broadly) ‘is this is the 21st century there’s no such thing as spheres of interest’. This is basically the argument about harmony of interests that EH Carr or Bruno Latour have argued against: we pretend politics doesn’t exist and then get surprised when people get upset.
When we look to the East and talk about ‘modernization’, ‘civil society’ etc we are talking about the overthrow of the political systems as they exist. Randomly pledging support for whoever waves an EU flag is not going to do the job. As a starting point what is needed is a comprehensive political roadmap that either reached some understanding with Russia on the balance of interests or was backed up by sufficient power compel agreement. Indeed even if there was such a comprehensive plan I would have grave doubts about the capacity of the EU or the West to implement it. Given that states can’t coordinate themselves the EU isn’t going to be able to.
A final point. I’m pretty sure that in most Western capitals there is a hope that Putin and his cronies will disappear one day. I suspect they will but whoever replaces them will still be a Russian leader and will not suddenly see the world through the lens of Brussels.