Kennan’s Revenge

LONDON – Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that gas giant Gazprom would start demanding payment a month in advance for the supplies that it sells to Ukraine. The British newspaper The Observer published, in response, a striking cartoon showing Putin sitting on a throne of outward-pointing daggers, turning off the Ukraine gas tap while saying, “Winter is coming.” The background was bright red, and a hammer and sickle and a skull were planted on Putin’s breast. For some, at least, the Cold War is back.

But, before we drift into Cold War II, we would do well to recall why we had the first one. The end of Communism removed one important reason: the Soviet Union’s expansionist thrust and the Western democracies’ determination to resist it. But other reasons remain.

American diplomat George F. Kennan identified them as neurotic insecurity and Oriental secretiveness on the Russian side, and legalism and moralism on the Western side. The middle ground of cool calculation of interests, possibilities, and risks remains elusive to this day.

Kennan is reckoned to have laid the Cold War’s intellectual foundation – at least in the West – with his “long telegram” from Moscow in February 1946, which he followed with his famous Foreign Affairs article, signed “X,” in July 1947. Kennan argued that long-term peace between the capitalist West and communist Russia was impossible, owing to the mixture of traditional Russian insecurity, Stalin’s need for an external enemy, and communist messianism.