Observations of an ex pat: Cold War Memory Lane

Cold War Memory Lane is being resurfaced with a fresh alphabet soup of nuclear weapons, treaty breaches, renewed bellicosity, cyber attacks and even assassination.

Putin’s Russia has been branded a “pariah state” by British defence Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Washington’s Permanent Representative to NATO has threatened to “take out” the latest generation of Russian intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

Of course, we are not back in 1945.Then a prostrate Western Europe was in danger of being overrun by a Soviet war machine whose authoritarian government made no secret of its aim of overthrowing capitalism and the democratic structures that supported it.

The political and economic collapse of the Soviet Union pushed the frontline between the West and Russia right up against the Russian border. Europe is now an economic powerhouse, although it remains a stunted midget in military terms.  It continues to need American protection as much as America needs European markets and political support which is why NATO remains relevant.

The initial American reaction to Soviet aggression in the Cold War was to deploy troops and nuclear capable aircraft in Western Europe as a counter to superior Soviet conventional forces. The message was clear: Attack Western Europe and you will be delayed by conventional forces long enough for atomic bombs to wipe out your cities a la Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Then the Soviets developed their own atomic/nuclear weapons and the starting pistol for the arms race was fired. In an atmosphere of mutual paranoia and distrust, both sides developed a frightening array of nuclear weapons that could be delivered by aircraft, fired from ships and submarines or mobile land launchers or fixed missile siloes.  Both sides refused to slow their pace until they came within sight of the finishing line and saw the terrifying prospect of a nuclear wasteland beyond.

The result was a series of first strategies and then negotiations. First was the Balance of Terror. This was followed by the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Then there was the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) which prevented either side from wiping out the other before they could respond (known as first-strike capability). This coincided with and was followed by negotiated limits on the strategic arsenals of the two super powers:  The 1972 SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation) Treaty and the 1979 SALT II Treaty. Then there was the 1987 INF (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty , and finally, as the Soviet Union imploded and collapsed, the 1993 CFE (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) Treaty and the 1993 CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) banning the manufacture of chemical weapons.

All of these treaties together were the carefully constructed diplomatic tapestry which helped to bring an end to the Cold War. Then it started to unravel in December 2001. As part of the response to 9/11, George W. Bush announced that the US was withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. He said they needed protection from possible rogue nuclear states.  Russia’s parlous economic and political condition dictated a muted response from Moscow. But Russian eyebrows were raised and the move was filed away in the paranoia cabinet, along with the American decision to move conventional forces into Poland and Romania—countries which Moscow has long considered to be their backyard as well as the military front door to the Russian steppes.

In response Putin, in 2008, started to breach the INF Treaty by starting to deploy a series of intermediate-range nuclear Missiles (SSC-8, R-500 and 9K 720 Iskander) with ranges of up to 3,100miles. Every European country was now threatened. When the Soviets employed the same tactics the US responded with the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles.  These were withdrawn under the terms of the 1987 INF Treaty, and the Russian intermediate range missiles were dismantled.

Communism is no longer the guiding light of the Kremlin.  But Russia remains an ideological threat. Marxist-Leninism has been replaced by an authoritarian Russian nationalism led by an oligarchical kleptocracy that needs to dominate Europe and decouple it from America in order to survive in its present form.  The deployment of the intermediate-range nuclear weapons along with cyber attacks and assassinations are all part and parcel of a strategy which mirrors that of the Cold War Soviet Union.


* Tom Arms is the Foreign Editor of Liberal Democratic Voice. His book “America Made in Britain” has recently been published by Amberley Books. He is also the author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War.”

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  • A very interesting piece. I would like to add a few things from my personal perspective. I was born during the second war so no doubt a lot that I think I remember have been added to over the years. At the end of the war there was real concern about the power of Germany, and fear it would rise again. In fact when I studies science subjects in the sixth form what was referred to as scientific German was part of the curriculum. At University we were urged to study German as an optional extra. Russia was even more obsessed. Lenin and colleagues had of course a soft spot for Germany. In fact the Germans gave Lenin safe passage through Germany. As far as I can now see Russia wanted to have a neutral Germany as there had been agreed a neutral Austria. The three western powers kept their forces in the west and Russia did in the East. There was little appetite to have German unification. In the west America inevitably took the lead, and the Marshall plan developed. It might be said that opposition to German rearmament was good for Germany. It meant that they did not spend the huge amounts of money that the victorious western allies spent on their armed forces. They did not have to spend money on rear guard actions that the U.K. and France did – to be followed by the US trauma in Vietnam. The USSR was not able to match the investment in Germany that in particular the US had produced. Most of the pre 1945 industrial areas, Silesia for example, were now in Poland. Millions of Germans died or ended up in the new Germany.
    I think it is important to look at the reality on the ground of how we got to our present position. If we move to the present day we see the success of western banks lawyers and accountancy firms, often and probably mainly in exporting the sort of business model which has lead in our country to half built hospitals in Liverpool and Birmingham. And of course they have advised on how to spirit away billions through tax havens in London and so on. Money has looked for a safe haven. Pushing up house prices in London is one result.
    What price an ethical foreign policy?

  • nigel hunter 5th Oct '18 - 10:35am

    Like all Nationalists they fear loss of there power base They wish to have strong borders thus will try to secure via de-stabalising ..ie Poland ,Romania, Ukraine, the neighbour’s and any who may threaten their position, including secret agents who jump ship. This can also be seen in cyber attacks. Yes, we need the US and Trump needs Europe. The nuclear Cold War is unthinkable The cyber one is not.

  • innocent Bystander 5th Oct '18 - 11:11am

    In 1945 Western Europe was not in the slightest danger of being overrun by the Red Army.
    Pu-239 from the Hanford reactors and U-235 from the Oak Ridge isotopic enrichment plant would have stopped them in a flash. So to speak.

  • John Marriott 5th Oct '18 - 11:59am

    I’m just trying to figure out what part of my anatomy has to do with the problem ( “a ‘prostate’ Western Europe”?). Seriously though, as someone whose formative years were spent under the threat of nuclear annihilation, I still can’t believe that Berlin Wall coming down, as I really thought that the Soviet Union had such a hold on its people that MAD would remain a fact of life for many years to come.

    There’s no doubting the power of the human spirit. I still remember the words of JFK at what the East Germans had named ‘the great anti fascist Wall’ back in the early 1960s, which went something like; “We know democracy isn’t perfect; but we don’t need a wall to keep our people in “. So what did we in the West do when capitalism beat communism? We rubbed their noses in it in that we sat back as far as Russia was concerned and allowed chaos to reign. Out of this economic chaos emerged the oligarchs and their front man, who is currently putting up two fingers to the West. Mind you, you do have to ask yourself if he is really pulling all of the strings anymore.

    As far as retaliation, it might be difficult if he really does have some ‘kompromat ‘ on Trump. He certainly has a lever over Eastern Europe, and Germany in particular, with his gas pipeline. Nigel Hunter is right about the “cyber war”. We need to wise up. If Russia continues to ride roughshod and exploit the kind of open society that Hitler managed to exploit in the 1930s, then we need to hit him where it hurts, namely in the pocket.

  • If ever there was a recipe for second tier powers not understanding one another we must be following it. Sometimes we need to remember that the UK works with but one model of capitalism (not the healthiest) and Putin’s Russia has its own model of authoritarian rule which seems to have lost a lot of the better elements of the old USSR and kept many of the worst bits. At least during the Cold War it felt as if we had a Foreign Office which honed the tools for learning how the “other side” ticked. Since then we have decimated a well trained and disciplined Civil Service (including the diplomatic service). Commercial pressures appear to regularly trump political priorities. It was distressing this week to hear a junior Foreign Office minister offering a much more measured approach to Russian mischief than the posturings of his boss. It would be good to think that the nuclear threat has receded but the chaotic state of international relations leaves plenty of scope for unintended consequences.

  • Steve Trevethan 5th Oct '18 - 5:02pm

    Perhaps both Russia and “The West” could do better?
    Since 1945 USSR/ Russia has been involved in 24 conflicts and the USA, with and without NATO etc, has been involved in 28. (Wikipedia)
    This includes an invasion of Russia, 1918-1920.
    Might unreserved criticism or approbation of either be dangerously misleading?

  • John Marriott 5th Oct '18 - 6:15pm

    Glad to see that the ‘typo’ has been corrected. You can never have enough ‘r’s’, can you? Here’s something else to consider. A once mighty world power, now considerably reduced in terms of GDP and size, still acts as if nothing has changed. In the immortal words of St Theresa across the dispatch box; “Sounds familiar?”

  • Steve Trevethan 5th Oct '18 - 6:28pm

    The number for USSR/Russia conflicts does NOT include “The West’s” invasion of Russia.

  • Russia sprawls across the top of Eurasia, by far the largest country on Earth and many of us grew up in the shadow of the Soviet threat. But we should keep things in proportion.

    Russia may be large in square miles (of tundra) but its economy is tiny, about the size of New York State or a fraction of the UK’s. So, any idea that Putin is set on global domination is pure fantasy, fed by the propaganda mills of, ahem, the West.

    These are deep and murky waters but note this: it was not Russia that invaded Iraq on a lie about WMD, nor Afghanistan seeking Bin Ladin (who the Afghans were prepared to handover) nor Syria. One of Trump’s first acts as President was to increase the US military budget by almost as much as Russia’s total military spend which Putin subsequently cut.

    That’s hardly the action of a deranged warmonger.

    Then there’s the disturbing threat from Kay Bailey Hutchinson (para 2 of the article). That would be a pre-emptive first strike in a nuclear war. Is she really authorised to say that? Why does she still have a job?

    Obama was the first President where the country was a war throughout his term; Trump looks set to become the second. Since (arguable) Korea in the 1950s America hasn’t won a war – that is if you define ‘won’ in the conventional sense. But if you’re a major US defence contractor then you have indeed won big. So, yes, Russia is plagued by oligarchs. But then so is the US and the UK is not immune. Pot meet kettle.

  • Andrew McCaig 5th Oct '18 - 11:18pm

    I am not sure where you are getting your figures to say that the Russian economy is “tiny”. In traditional GDP terms Russia was 11th in world in 2018, at $1.719 billion. The UK was 5th with $2.936 billion. On PPP terms (purchasing power), Russia was 6th and the UK was 9th. This is why Russian people are not unhappy in the way some portray. Even though there is massive inequality in terms of the richest, most people are getting along ok in a low wage, low price economy, as all the reports from world cup visitors testify.

    The big advantage Russia has over us and most western countries is debt level. See here: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/this-is-how-much-debt-your-country-has-per-person/ Ours is over 100% of GDP, while Russia’s is about 20%. This is presumably why they are able to build a bridge to Crimea in 3 years while every infrastructure project we attempt seems to be beset with spiralling costs and incompetent contractors…

    Sanctions have pushed Russia into a major drive towards self-sufficiency, so (for example) good quality Russian made clothes are now available when 5 years ago everything was Chinese rubbish (in the words of a Russian colleague). The economy is back in surplus after the recession of 2015/16. There is big investment in universities and other infrastructure, which looks like a Keynesian expansion (easy when you debt level is so low). Hence a good picture for women in science, for example https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39579321 (my colleague is a woman in science and tends to notice such things)

    Russia also of course maintains the 4th largest military expenditure in the world and gets far more “bangs for its buck” than we do with our high cost economy and insistence on being ripped off by the USA.. They are also not wasting most of their money on new aircraft carriers with no discernible purpose. If we are going to enter into cyber warfare with them we will almost certainly lose – the average educated Russian is far more competent in computer science than the average educated Brit.

  • Andrew McCaig 5th Oct '18 - 11:19pm

    Putin is popular mostly because he has delivered much better times for Russian people than his predecessors (and Russians are genuinely worried at the prospect of him retiring). The popular idea that Russia is a country on the brink of collapse with a population groaning under the weight of repression is rubbish. What Russia is however is a country very conscious of its former position as a superpower and fiercely proud of its culture and achievements in literature, music and science. And an increasingly paranoid country with a popular culture that sees NATO threats everywhere, and a world view, rightly or wrongly, that is very different from ours, and does not value our Liberal Ideals in the way we do. I don’t know what the correct foreign policy position vs Russia should be, but we should certainly not be underestimating them, and ramping up our language of criticism to suit the domestic audience, combined with diplomatic expulsions and very selective sanctions (designed not to hurt BP, etc) is entirely counterproductive..

  • Andrew McCaig 5th Oct '18 - 11:22pm


    I do agree with you about the pot and the kettle BTW. Remember “Operation Flavius”?

  • Gordon,

    that’s a rather selective account of history. It was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (and the US support of the opposing mujahideen) that gave birth to Al Qaeda in the form of bin-laden and created the conditions for the Taliban’s takeover of the country. The first Iraq war in 1991, in response to Iraqs invasion and annexation of Kuwait brought together a United Nations coalition of 35 countries. The aftermath of that war saw an escalation of Islamist terrorism in the 1990’s particularly in the form of Al Qaeda. The 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the pentagon was the catalyst for the deployment of US forces in Afghanistan and ultimately for what was seen as unfinished business from the first gulf war.

    Where we are with Afghanistan and the middle-east today all started with that ill-fated Russian invasion in 1979 and by all accounts Russia have recently begun arming the Taliban just as the US armed the mujahideen when this all started back in 1979.

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Oct '18 - 1:50am

    “all started with that ill-fated Russian invasion in 1979” – why start there? Afghanistan was already in the midst of civil war: the Soviet invasion was in support of one side, but both the USSR and USA had already been intervening in Afghan politics for decades. We’re where we are for long and complicated reasons, to do with the global struggle of the two superpowers for domination and especially for control of Middle East oil. But singling out one action, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as if it were an out-of-the-blue act of aggression, is another re-writing of history. (Incidentally, let’s not forget that Afghanistan had a border with the USSR – it’s hardly surprising the Soviets felt they had a legitimate interest in intervening in a civil war on their doorstep.)

  • Malcolm,

    “let’s not forget that Afghanistan had a border with the USSR – it’s hardly surprising the Soviets felt they had a legitimate interest in intervening in a civil war on their doorstep”.

    Would this be the same justification for the interventions in Georgia and Ukraine and the annexations of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and the Crimea? Where next – the Baltic states?

    Tom Arms is right to say “Russia remains an ideological threat. Marxist-Leninism has been replaced by an authoritarian Russian nationalism led by an oligarchical kleptocracy that needs to dominate Europe and decouple it from America in order to survive in its present form.”

    We need to find a way to engage directly with Russia that avoids an escalation of military tensions but doesn’t shirk from maintaining strong defences.

  • John Marriott 6th Oct '18 - 9:00am

    I bow to ‘Gordon’ and co when it comes to a knowledge of Russian history (recent and not so recent); but Joe Bourke’s final paragraph sums it up for me. To paraphrase that Noel Coward song after WW2, if we had not been “beastly to the Russians” after the fall of communism we might not be where we are today. Hubris has got in the way of modus vivendi.

  • Joe Bourke 6th Oct ’18 – 3:57am………Would this be the same justification for the interventions in Georgia and Ukraine and the annexations of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and the Crimea? Where next – the Baltic states?..

    A very singular view of history. On interventions, the west, led by the US, has intervened (both militarily and ‘covertly’) in dozens of countries over many years.

    As for Ukraine, specifically, have you so quickly forgotten the USA efforts of McCain and Nuland in removing a democratically pro-Russian regime (on Russia’s border). One can only imagine the outcome had the countries involved been Russia and Mexico.

  • John Marriott 6th Oct '18 - 10:11am

    In my haste to press the ‘Send’ button I meant to add in the final sentence “on BOTH sides”. As far as the current ‘debate’ on this thread is concerned, isn’t Jesus quoted as once saying something about “let he who is without guilt cast the first stone”?

  • Expats,

    if it is a singular view of history it is one espoused by scholars down the ages. Political Realism sees international relations mainly as a struggle of self-interested, sovereign states that are involved in a game of power-politics within a permanent state of anarchy. Stemming from this view on human nature, the only way to achieve security in the international system, according to political realism, is by creating a Balance of Power among the most powerful states of the system e,g. the Nato alliance.

    In the writings of Thucydides, many of these core realist assumptions can be found. Pointing towards the concept of power politics, in History of the Peloponnesian War one of his main arguments is, that the strong should rule the weak, as they have the power to do so. Thomas Hobbes, especially in his Leviathan, explores the idea about the ‘State of Nature’ incorporating much of the same thinking.

    The post-war International settlement is designed to contain these impulses not least through the framework of the United Nations and the security council. It was the concept and acceptance of sphere of influences that was in large part responsible for the world wars of the 20th century. It is not a good argument to revive in the 21st century.

    Lloyd George returning from Germany in 1936 had this to say of Hitler:
    “Germany,” he said, “does not want war, but she is afraid of an attack by Russia, and is suspicious of the Franco-Russian Pact. I have never seen a happier people than the Germans, and Hitler is one of the greatest of the many great men I have met.”

    “I am fully convinced that the German people today earnestly desire peace. Undoubtedly, Germany fears an attack by Russia, and in the same way Russia fears an attack by Germany, and I believe that the fear in each case is quite genuine.”

    “How do you reconcile Russia’s professed desire for peace with her years of attack upon Germany? The fact is they have been abusing one another like pickpockets for years.It has been a sort of slanging match but I think that today people are rather apt to overlook what is said over the Soviet radio, and to pay attention only to German attacks upon Russia.”

    “Germany does not want war. Hitler does not want war. He is a most remarkable personality, one of the greatest I have ever met in the whole of my life, and I have met some very great men.”

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Oct '18 - 12:33pm

    Joe B
    I think you’re being selective again! You’re ignoring the context of an already existing civil war in Afghanistan – it wasn’t all peaceful and lovely until the Soviet tanks rolled in. Rather different from the Baltic states today, and even Ukraine.

    And in any case I didn’t say it justified it – only that they have an understandable interest in the matter. It certainly doesn’t justify armed intervention, any more than the US were justified in their constant interventions in Central and South America throughout the Cold War. (I hoped I didn’t need to spell out that comparison – perhaps if I had said “in the Soviets’ back yard” rather than “on their doorstep”, it would have been more obvious.)

    That those US interventions have not had the same lasting effect on world politics as you claim for the Soviet invasion is, I think, attributable to three reasons: the fact that the USSR lost the Cold War; the rise of militant Islam; and of course (and above all), oil.

    None of this means that I’m some sort of apologist for the Soviet Union, much less the modern Russian state; nor was I ever one of those naive leftists who believed that the USA was in every way as bad as their enemy. But to say that “it all started with that ill-fated Russian invasion [of Afghanistan] in 1979” was a very one-eyed view even in the 1980s and is quite unjustifiable now. I took particular exception to it in a post that began by accusing someone else of “a rather selective account of history””

  • Andrew,
    In saying the Russian economy is small I meant in comparison with the combined economies of NATO countries as conventionally measured.
    I fully agree with your summary of the Russian economy, especially the progress its made in the last few years. In addition to the clothing point you make, Russia has become the worlds largest wheat exporter and, yes, they do get far, far more for their military spend than we do.
    In short, their economy has a lot of muscle, ours is largely flim-flam, bubbles piled on bubbles. In general, I am deeply sceptical of our quoted GDP – it could all evaporate very quickly but as long as the government pretends to believe it they deserve to get it quoted back to them.

  • Andrew,
    I agree with you about the Russian economy. It much more solid than ours which is largely flim- flam, bubbles piled on bubbles. It is however much, much smaller than NATO.
    What does annoy me is the pervasive demonisation of Russia, leveraging cold war memories of the Soviet Union to justify war, war, war – all of which is rank hypocrisy. Goebbels would be proud of the propaganda being shoved down our throats. Too few see through it.

  • Peter Hirst 6th Oct '18 - 3:20pm

    Russia will eventually learn that trade is more important to its people than military and undercover operations, probably under a new leader. China probably has a role in tempering its activities though whether it will use its influence remains to be seen. In the meantime, increasing sanctions will hopefully make that day earlier.

  • I have no idea what Russia will learn. However there is substantial evidence that the Russian elite learned a great deal about finance from the U.K. and in particular from companies involved in the financial services industry. U.K. companies have helped to move out billions from Russia, and the buying of houes in London has helped to push up house prices. Which helps to explain the lack of real action against Russia on recent attempts by the elite to settle scores.
    It is logical to assume that part of the motivation of leaders of the campaign to leave the European Union is to remove regulation. To remove protection for employees. To encourage the creative accountancy that we do so well. Oh and of course to move a lot of money offshore as a nest egg for the future.

  • Andrew McCaig 6th Oct '18 - 7:02pm

    When you ask for a new leader in Russia, be careful what you ask for!

    Actually the big danger for the world is Russia and China in alliance. They can certainly take on NATO.
    Regarding China and their belt and road, I am reminded of the British East India company. It does rather surprise me that people see them as a restraining influence. Their control over their people reaches far deeper than anything in Russia

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