In May, 1947 President Harry S. Truman proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, an American policy designed to contain the spread of Communism.
The immediate cause for this dramatic gesture from a country that, for all intents and purposes, gave the appearance of retreating back to the North American fortress after its involvement in the Second World War was Soviet intervention in Greece and Turkey.
By 1947 in the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) it appeared that the Greek Communists, backed by the Balkan Soviet satellites, were poised to take over the country. This development, combined with Soviet pressure on Turkey to revise the Montreaux agreement.
Convention, and open the Straits to Russian warships, meant that if Ankara succumbed to Moscow’s bullying the geopolitical architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East would change in favor of the USSR.
Effectively these were the opening scenes of the Cold War – a period of nuclear stand off and one that revolved around construct that the world was neatly divided into two entities: between the West and its military wing NATO and the Soviet Union backed by the Warsaw Pact powers.
Yet in recent years revisionist historians are arguing that the reaction of the United States and its allies was based on a false reading of Moscow’s strategy and short-term policies. With respect to the Greek Civil War, it is now clear that Stalin did not believe in the viability of a Communist Greek state.
He believed that as long as the United States maintained a naval predominance in the Mediterranean the Soviet Union, lacking a substantial battle fleet, could not hope to challenge American influence in Greece.
The same thinking applied to Turkey, in which the Soviets bullied Turkey on the Straits just in case they could gain some small advantage. The Soviets also pulled out of Iran in 1947 because once again they did not have the resources to confront the Anglo-Americans in that region.
Nevertheless, the perception of the Soviet Union in Washington of an all-powerful and aggressive state bent on world domination. In response to the perceived Soviet threat, the Americans committed billions of dollars in containing Communism.
America, in theory, was backing democracies but, more often than not, instead supported vicious dictatorships in South America, Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe. Even a cruel and heartless Franco, dictator of Spain, held on to power because Washington was more afraid of Communism than the continued reign of the Spanish fascist.
The reality of that era was that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian empire that relied on oppression and fear to impose its rule on its satellites. But it was also an empire without a grand strategy – rather it was opportunistic and wherever the Soviets saw an opportunity to extend their influence, such as in Egypt and Syria, they spent billions they could ill afford.
Present-day Russia is less interested in establishing a new empire, but more focused on recreating a regional sphere of influence. Partly is in response to an aggressive US policy in the period after the collapse of the Soviet system that took advantage of Russian weakness to establish NATO bases in Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania – effectively forcing Russia to accept a very narrow and regional sphere of influence.
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has become more assertive in its foreign policy. Russia, first in Georgia and now in the Crimea and Ukraine, is trying to break the US stranglehold on Eastern Europe and the Black Sea.
Putin has already secured Russia’s Asian interests by establishing a strong alliance with China – a country that equally resents American encroachments on its south-eastern frontiers after the US established a chain of alliances, beginning with Vietnam, with countries in Southeast Asia.
Despite the aggressive posturing that accompanied these actions, Putin’s challenge to American hegemony in Europe is based on limited tactical gains such as taking the Crimean. Russia is not in a position to challenge both the United States and the EU in an economic-style “cold war.” Putin has been successful in restoring Russian pride with territorial gains, but the Russian leader has not reorganized Russia’s economy to compete with these powers.
Effectively, Russia’s economic strength and political clout is dependent on hydrocarbons. Germany, for example, receives 40 percent of its oil and gas from Russia, while the rest of the EU countries rely on it for twenty-five percent of their petroleum supplies.
This gives Putin considerable clout with respect to the EU, but it is a short-term advantage. One result of the recent crisis, undoubtedly, will be the Europeans looking to lessen their reliance on Russian petroleum products.
Russia will, no doubt, be able to shift its exports to China, which has a growing demand for hydrocarbons. Russia, however, by relying almost exclusively on a hydrocarbon-based economy is facing future economic crises in response to the rise and fall of petroleum.
Perhaps, Putin should have used the petro-dollars to diversify Russia’s economy and only afterwards attempt to take on the United States and the Europeans. Under the present circumstances, the Russian leader will score some tactical successes, but eventually economic reality with force him to pull back and, in so doing, he will lose face.
But there is also the unknown factor. It may be that Putin’s henchmen stirred up the passions that are sweeping Eastern Ukraine, but now they may not be able to place the genie back in the bottle. What will Putin do if the Ukrainian separatists face annihilation by Ukrainian forces? Will he then be forced to invade or stand by helplessly? Equally significant what will the United States do if the Russians invaded the Ukraine?
Andre Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver