From 1944 until 1946, George Kennan served as the U.S. deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He authored what came to be known as “The Long Telegram” in 1946 to explain the Marxist-Leninist ideology that drove Joseph Stalin’s regime to its authoritarian behavior at home and aggressive, expansionist behavior abroad. In setting out that brilliant understanding of the Soviet Union’s core ideology, motivation, and intent, Kennan helped shape a realistic policy for the United States, NATO, and the West for the rest of the Cold War.
Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone like that today. We don’t have a senior diplomatic or national security leadership capable of understanding that while the Soviet Union collapsed geographically in 1991, the Marxist-Leninist ideology that drove it and the KGB that enforced and spread it internationally never did. There is no George Kennan today. And so, there’s no “Long Telegram” or even a Reaganesque policy to stand up to what remains of the “evil empire.”
Today’s ruler in the Kremlin is Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer whose greatest regret in life was the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. His lifelong mission has been to restore that empire—or the Russian empire itself—to its former extent and glory. We know this because he has given speech after public speech, declaring his intent to overturn the U.S.-led post-Cold War world order, or even that of the 1848 Treaty of Westphalia, which established the sovereign nation state with secure borders as the global ideal.
Putin sees himself as a modern-day czar, the ruler of a sprawling Slavic empire that forcibly again erases borders, conquers, and subjugates at will any and all peoples once or ever part of a Russian empire of old.
Putin has pointed out more than once that the very name “Ukraine” literally means “the farthest outpost” or “the farthest border”—of the Russian empire. Indeed, Kyiv was the cradle of the Russian empire, not Moscow or St. Petersburg. But in the centuries since, despite repeated invasions and conquests, Ukraine and the Ukrainian people have forged their own national identity, westward-looking, separate and distinct from that of Russia. Today, a full year since the savage invasion of their lands by Russia, and once again they are forging that national identity in blood.
The post-Cold War world order of sovereign nation states led by the United States is not to the liking of neo-empirical regimes in China, Iran, or Russia. The global balance of power is not in Moscow’s favor and it is less so every day. Russia feels itself losing by every measure. Its birth rate is in a demographic death spiral, its centralized command economy is flailing, its military has nukes but not much else, and its political power and influence on the world stage are slipping away. Too many of its people live impoverished lives, crushed by a totalitarian regime. Even China, formerly its communist protégé, now sees Russia as a soon-to-be vassal state. Perhaps a “gas station with nukes” as the pundits would have it.
So, Putin is making a last effort to stop it all from slipping away. His target is not the Muslim lands of Central Asia, but the Slavic people of Eastern Europe, whom he sees as rightfully Russia’s to dominate—and perhaps as replenishment for his own declining Slavic population. Perceptions of weakness in Washington, D.C., inevitably embolden aggressors. In 2008, Putin snatched Abkhazia from Georgia to mostly yawns from the West. In 2014, with an Obama Administration widely seen as willing to appease, Putin grabbed Crimea and invaded the Donbas. He didn’t dare make a move during Donald Trump’s tenure, but with the Biden Administration’s flight from Afghanistan in August 2021, Putin saw his chance once again.
Perhaps ill-advised by his own military, in February 2022, Putin sent 160,000 Russian troops into a full-on invasion of Ukraine. He likely expected a quick and easy victory—thinking the United States was retreating globally and seeing Western Europe and NATO as divided, defensively weak, and dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.
Now, a year on, Ukrainians have proven courageous and resourceful in defense of their land, their nation, and their people. NATO, led by the United States, has proven surprisingly unified in pouring support into Ukraine. As Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council put it in a recent interview with Center for Secure Free Society’s Joseph Humire, Europeans see the “bear at the door” a lot closer than we do.
Retired General Jack Keane’s Institute for the Study of War recently published an interactive map showing that Russia has lost at least half of the territory it gained in its initial invasion of Ukraine. The combined casualties toll for Russia and Ukraine is measured in the hundreds of thousands. The Russian economy has proven resilient but is slowly being ground down by international sanctions and isolation. Diplomatically, Russia has become a pariah state. On February 23, the United Nations General Assembly voted 141-7 to approve a resolution calling for ending the war in Ukraine and demanding Russia’s immediate withdrawal from the country plus international investigation of its war crimes.
On Friday February 24, China called for a cease-fire and peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in a 12-point proposal. Since the Russian invasion began a year ago, the CCP has publicly declared a neutral stance, but its bias towards Russia has been obvious for all to see with its “no limits friendship” and refusal to criticize Moscow’s invasion. Xi Jinping has been observing events of the last year but remains cautious about openly providing Putin with lethal military assistance (although that may be under consideration now).
Seeing how Western, even global, support for Ukraine has enabled that country not only to remain standing, but to have seriously degraded the invading Russian army and pushed it back to territory it already occupied in the Donbas region as of February 2022, China is now has reason to reconsider the extent of its support to Russia, but also and importantly, its own calculations about Taiwan.
Despite Democratic Party hysteria during the Trump years about Kremlin operations, now that it’s the Democrats who champion Ukraine’s defense, Russian disinformation campaigns have convinced too many otherwise level-headed conservative figures that Ukraine doesn’t deserve our help—perhaps because of corruption, or perhaps because Kremlin leaders are supposedly Christian. The unavoidable corollary that corruption ought to justify wholesale invasion and slaughter seems not to occur to them.
Hybrid 5G warfare and modern media technology have enabled a wild proliferation of online bot accounts and websites spreading Russian disinformation. Perhaps because in hybrid warfare there is no longer a recognized bright line between war and peace, U.S. national security leadership has had a difficult time adjusting its thinking to understand “unconditional warfare,” where the most important battlefield may be the information battle space.
Memes and narratives spreading fear of World War III and nuclear Armageddon have had the desired effect of demoralizing and dividing the West. Other narratives about how Putin was raised in Orthodox Christianity and abhors the moral degradation so evident in the United States and elsewhere are aimed with some success in depicting Western-style liberal democracy as inadequate to maintaining societal discipline and order.
To return to George Kennan and his clear-eyed understanding of Russia’s identity as an aggressive, expansionist Marxist-Leninist empire built on the corpses of millions of conquered people, we of the free world, we Americans must prioritize the formulation of a new national security response to the threat from globalist, would-be emperors that include China, Iran, and Russia. We must learn again how to do what we did during the Cold War using Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and the U.S. Information Agency to leverage public diplomacy and targeted messaging to champion the free market capitalist, liberal democratic-style principles of governance that we value.
There is a skeptical global audience out there in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East that is not entirely on board with the notion of a free-wheeling, sometimes chaotic democratic system that offers more opportunity for more people. Obviously, however, millions around that world do understand such things perfectly because they’re crashing our borders daily.
But America will need a change of administrations, a change at the top levels of our government, and a new leader in the White House to make this happen. But happen it must if we or anyone else is to remain free and secure in a world full of neo-emperors and warlords.
Clare M. Lopez is the founder and president of Lopez Liberty LLC.