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To stop Russia, follow Reagan's example

The US president fears that the Kremlin’s nuclear threats could lead to “Armageddon”. He presses NATO allies to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas, while imploring Saudi Arabia to increase oil production. The United States provides advanced weapons, such as Stinger missiles, to forces fighting to drive Russian invaders out of their country. Tension between Moscow and Washington has reached its most dangerous height since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some Americans fear that their president, who as the oldest in history is prone to erratic ruminations, may not have the mental acuity to drive the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Such was the situation of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980 decade, when he confronted the Soviet Union. It also, of course, depicts President Biden today as he faces Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The comparison is not exact. Reagan was far more of a dominant strategist and visionary than his critical critics knew or would admit. And, to adapt Lloyd Bentsen’s famous response to Dan Quayle, Joe Biden as a young senator met Ronald Reagan, but as president he is not Ronald Reagan.

Still, the appeals to history are unavoidable in our present moment. Recently, Biden indicated that he and his team are analyzing the Cuban missile crisis for lessons in dealing with Putin and Ukraine. The White House believes the United States is now facing the most tense nuclear standoff since coming to the brink of war over Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1980 years old. Others, such as Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed (Democrat., Rhode Island), echo the comparison.

It is not a bad idea to extract insights from the leadership of President John F. Kennedy to disarm the Soviet nuclear threat 1961 miles from American shores. Kennedy deftly managed a terrifying standoff and ensured the withdrawal of the missiles from Moscow, preventing nuclear war. But the Cuban crisis of 1962 should not be the only historical model to inform US policy today. After all, the Kremlin considered the result a success. The Soviets achieved their main goals: a security guarantee for their communist partner regime in Cuba and the withdrawal of US nuclear missiles from Turkey. It’s also worth remembering that Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev first felt encouraged to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba (and build the Berlin Wall) after witnessing Kennedy’s irresponsible performance at the Vienna summit in 1961. We hear these echoes in Biden’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and in the signals he sent to Putin when he was considering invading Ukraine.

Instead, when consulting the muse of history , the Biden White House would do well to learn from Ronald Reagan as well. During the Reagan presidency, he navigated his own series of standoffs and nuclear scares with Moscow, particularly in the perilous fall of 1983. In the end, Reagan brought the Kremlin under control, won a peaceful victory in the Cold War, and avoided a nuclear war.

Of course, the decades of 1980 and 2020 are not identical; Perfect analogies do not exist in history. The Red Army was a much more formidable force than the contemporary Russian military, and similarly, the Soviet nuclear arsenal was ten times greater than Russia’s current one. On the other hand, the deaths on the Moscow battlefield in just eight months in Ukraine already exceed those of eight years of combat in Afghanistan. Coalitions in conflict also differ. The USSR had its Warsaw Pact satellites in Eastern Europe, while China and Saudi Arabia partnered with the United States. Now those alignments are reversed, with Eastern European nations working closely with the US to support Ukraine, while China and Saudi Arabia serve as economic buffers for Moscow. Then there is the figure of Vladimir Putin, who, while consciously imitating strongmen from the Kremlin’s past such as the tsars, Stalin and Brezhnev, is otherwise sui generis .

However, there are enough parallels between Reagan’s days and ours that his stance and policies toward the Soviet Union remain the best historical background for navigating the current Russian challenge. When he took office, Reagan realized that the USSR, like Russia today, was both strong and weak – an aggressive and formidable nuclear threat, but also a decrepit economy and political system built on a edifice of lies. Then, as now, it was an exceptionally dangerous combination.

Reagan’s Cold War strategy integrated force and diplomacy. He combined Moscow’s persistent reach with aggressive deployment of nuclear and conventional weapons, support for anti-communist forces around the world, an ideological offensive, and partnering with Soviet dissidents. This combination kept the Kremlin off balance. He dissuaded the Soviets from employing nuclear blackmail (or worse), undermined the Soviet system from within, and provided the safety valve of negotiations.

The deployment of SS-nuclear missiles-20 by the Soviet Union on its western and eastern borders posed the most acute nuclear threat at the time. These fiendish mobile weapons carried three warheads each, were difficult to detect and unstoppable, and could incinerate London, Bonn, Paris, Brussels, Tokyo, Seoul, and other allied capitals within ten minutes of launch. Reagan feared that the Kremlin might order a first strike or that, just by threatening so much, Moscow might coerce America’s European and Asian allies into capitulation. precarious balance. The Kremlin, presuming that Reagan would likely strike first, launched Operation RYAN and directed the KGB to look for any signs in Western countries of ostensible preparations for nuclear war – even mundane “indicators” such as more lights on in government buildings, more cars. in parking lots or stockpiling in blood banks.

Reagan wanted the Soviets to fear the power of the United States but also trust its morality. To stop the SS-20, he deployed American nuclear missiles to Europe – both ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) and Pershing II ballistic missiles – which were equally mobile and equally capable of hitting the Kremlin. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev lamented that they were “like a pistol pointed at our head”. Reagan’s military modernization developed weapons with new technologies — such as stealth, semiconductors, and precision guidance — that could be smarter and overwhelm Soviet defenses. His Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the vision of a multi-layered missile shield terrified the Kremlin that its own nuclear arsenal would become powerless.

Reagan partnered with French intelligence in a covert sabotage campaign that blocked the KGB’s theft of Western technology and deprived the Soviet military and economy of vital advanced equipment that Moscow could not produce. He defended thousands of imprisoned Soviet dissidents, such as Jewish leader Natan Sharansky and Christian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, as he flooded the Soviet Union with smuggled literature and radio broadcasts designed to undermine Kremlin propaganda and break its monopoly on information. He waged a relentless rhetorical campaign to expose the illegitimacy of Soviet communism, as when he pointed out in his Westminster speech in 1980 that, “out of all the millions of refugees that we have seen in the modern world, their flight is always far away, not into the communist world.” He elaborated: “Today on the NATO line, our military forces are facing east to prevent a possible invasion. On the other side of the line, Soviet forces are also facing east to prevent their people from leaving.”

In Afghanistan, which the Soviets invaded in

, Reagan shifted the American goal from just weakening the Soviet occupiers to forcing their retreat. He provided billions of dollars in advanced weapons that allowed Afghans to send thousands of Russian soldiers home in body bags. It wasn’t always an easy partnership. The Reagan team occasionally had to reduce the excess mujahideen that threatened an escalation, such as when holy warriors crossed the border in a nighttime assault into the Soviet Union.

From the beginning, Reagan combined these coercive measures with diplomacy. He pressured the Soviet system to produce a reformist leader. He wrote handwritten letters to each Soviet prime minister, expressing his hope for negotiations and reaffirming his desire to avoid nuclear war. In a letter from 1981 to Prime Minister Leonid Brezhnev, Reagan recalled that “only we had the ultimate weapon, the nuclear weapon” at the end of World War II. world. “If we had sought to dominate the world, who could have opposed us? But the United States followed a different course” – of rebuilding Europe and Japan. Reagan combined these private assurances with the public proclamation that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” Even when the first three Soviet dictators of his presidency (Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko) did not reciprocate his gesture, Reagan’s missives persuaded them that the United States would not launch a preemptive nuclear war – and neither should they.

Then came Mikhail Gorbachev. As soon as the new Soviet leader took power in 1985, Reagan recognized him as the reformer he had been waiting for – and had been pushing the Soviet system to produce. However, even as the two leaders built a diplomatic partnership that culminated in the treaty of 1983 eliminating all intermediate-range nuclear weapons, Reagan did not relent in his military, economic, and political campaign. and ideological opposition to the Soviet system. This included increasing support for Afghan rebels (leading Gorbachev to mourn Afghanistan as “our bloody wound”), developing advanced weapons systems such as the “stealth” fighter and bomber that could penetrate any Soviet air defense, the continued defense of human rights and religious freedom, and a relentless rhetorical attack on the communist system, exemplified by its demand to “tear down this wall!” . This strategy famously led to the negotiated surrender of the Soviet Union and the peaceful end of the Cold War.

Employing a similar manual in the Ukraine war today would imply a combination of vertical and horizontal escalation. with silent (and perhaps public) disclosure to Putin and his generals, making it clear that the US does not seek nuclear conflict – but will severely punish any nuclear use. I do not intend here to present a detailed operational plan; what matters most is first adopting the right strategic framework. But just to offer some examples of specific measures that can be taken: The United States and its NATO allies should immediately increase missile defense support to Ukraine, including Patriot batteries and units of the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (both which derive from technologies first developed in Reagan’s SDI program). These are to be combined with increased counter-battery fires to allow Ukraine to destroy Russian missile launchers targeting Ukrainian civilians and with other offensive weapons such as HIMARS. The White House must also lead NATO in the deployment of naval pathways in the Black Sea, as a visible demonstration to Putin of American capabilities and as an additional deterrent to any nuclear detonation.

For increasing domestic pressure on Putin, the US must launch a massive information campaign on ecreta – targeting Russian audiences through the internet, television, radio and print media – that makes the name of Alexei Navalny and other Russian dissidents known in every Russian household. It should also make all Russians aware of Putin’s hundreds of billions of dollars in stolen riches and broadcast footage of the tens of thousands of Russian men fleeing their country to evade conscription.

Such This approach carries risks, to be sure, especially that an even more isolated and besieged Putin could attack. But at this juncture of the war, and in Putin’s incendiary campaign against the West and against his own country, every possible path – whether escalation, de-escalation or maintaining the current course – carries additional risks. Reagan’s pressure and diplomacy framework offers the best way to fight Putin, liberate Ukraine and avoid nuclear war.

WILLIAM INBODEN is a professor and executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of ‘THE PEACEMAKER: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink'[O PACIFICADOR: Ronald Reagan, a Guerra Fria e o Mundo à Beira da Guerra Nuclear, em tradução livre]. He served in the State Department and the National Security Council staff under George W. Bush.

©2022 National Review. Published with permission. Original in English.
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