Skip to main content
Blog post

The Kremlin’s Flawed Cold War Mindset in Today’s World

Maxim Trudolyubov
Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon talks in 1973
Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader's visit to the U.S.

Vladimir Putin’s political logic in international relations becomes more transparent when viewed through the prism of the Cold War. He often draws on historical precedents, and the Soviet leaders’ interactions with friends and foes are no exception. 


One important difference between then and now is that Putin’s Soviet predecessors, in their idiosyncratic way, respected the capitalist West as a “significant other.” In contrast, today’s Russian leader seems to be attempting to force similar recognition from the West by playing a full-scale antagonist and in a completely different historical context.


The Cold War as a Struggle for Supremacy


The Cold War was an ideologically driven confrontation between two nuclear superpowers that provided a coordinate system for the entire historical period. At the two opposing poles stood flags, around which rallied those nations that were forced to or chose to be associated with the capitalist West or the socialist East.


The United States and the Soviet Union leaders had different ideas of what the Cold War was about. The American side emphasized the ideological clash between capitalism and socialism, while the Soviets viewed it as a geopolitical struggle for supremacy in the global hierarchy, Sergey Radchenko demonstrates in his new book, To Run the World: The Kremlin’s Cold War Bid for Global Power.


Ideology was significant to the Soviet regime’s identity, but the struggle for relevance as a superpower stood out as the primary motive. In fact, Soviet leaders acknowledged the United States’ informal “jurisdiction” in according top status to its communist “other.”


This perspective is supported by hundreds of quotes from the Soviet rulers’ conversations, meeting minutes, and transcripts of exchanges with foreign guests, which Radchenko draws on in his book. This attitude was particularly characteristic of Leonid Brezhnev, who led the USSR from 1964 to 1982. 


Dominate the World—Together


The book title’s “to run the world” reflects how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger interpreted Brezhnev’s words during their 1973 conversation at Zavidovo, a hunting estate north of Moscow. At the time, the United States and the USSR were on a collision course in the Middle East. 


On October 6, 1973, a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria took advantage of Yom Kippur and launched a coordinated attack on Israel. After initial successes by the Egyptian army, Israel turned the tide and went on the offensive. Brezhnev and Kissinger agreed to a ceasefire, but Israel continued fighting and the situation quickly escalated, resembling the tensions of the Cuban missile crisis. 


The Soviet leadership considered sending troops to aid their failing client, Egypt’s president Anwar el-Sadat. In late October, Brezhnev wrote to the U.S. president Richard Nixon: “If you find it impossible to act jointly with us in this matter we should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider the question of taking appropriate steps unilaterally.” 


Ultimately, the conflict never escalated to the level of the Cuban missile crisis, thanks in large part to the skilled aides of both the American and Soviet leaders. The head of the KGB at the time, Yuri Andropov, wrote to Brezhnev that the crafty Americans and treacherous Egyptians were seeking to “keep us focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, creating overstrain for all, and especially for you.”


Kissinger, in his turn, using a combination of threats aimed at Moscow and some tough persuasion aimed at Israel managed to de-escalate the conflict from the Western side. Neither party really intended to continue the confrontation, this was the era of détente after all. 


Seeking Recognition by Force


“Act jointly with us in this matter,” Brezhnev implored Nixon, and the Soviet’s leader’s choice of language was not accidental. Speaking with Kissinger in Zavidovo, Brezhnev, while shooting wild boars from a hunting booth, suggested to the U.S. secretary of state that the Soviet Union and the United States needed to run the world together, in a superpower harmony of sorts. 


Brezhnev sought a power-sharing agreement with the United States along the lines of the Yalta Conference scenario. In 1945, at Yalta, leaders of the United States, Britain, and the USSR worked out the terms of a postwar world order in which all sides would recognize each other’s sphere of domination. Brezhnev respected Nixon and believed he would succeed in hammering out a similar mutual recognition of interests and would be able to “run the world” on equal footing with the United States.


In his piece for the expert platform Re:Russia, Radchenko suggests that Putin may have sought American recognition of his sphere of influence similar to the understanding during the Cold War. Putin may have believed that such recognition of his claims on Ukraine was already in place, based on the West’s subdued reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.


Perhaps Putin anticipated a reaction akin to the West’s response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968—noisy but not overly confrontational. It was after that “special military operation” (Putin’s term for his war against Ukraine), which consolidated Soviet dominance in Eastern and Central Europe, that Brezhnev went on to hatch the idea of détente. 


“I do not rule out that Putin might have reasoned in a similar way,” writes Radchenko. “He might have thought that the Americans would eventually recognize his ‘right’ to Ukraine and Russia would then be able to reach a new level of understanding with the United States. I think he still thinks that he will be able to force himself on Ukraine and get recognition from Washington.” That is why he seeks to raise Russia’s weight in Europe and the world at large by force. The weakening of the United States and the West more broadly contributes to these hopes.


Putin’s attempts to secure recognition from the West mirror the Cold War dynamics but fail to acknowledge the vastly different historical and geopolitical context of today. Unlike the approach of the Soviet leaders, who, despite their confrontational stance, operated within a framework of mutual recognition with the West, Putin’s approach appears unilateral and increasingly forceful. 


As the distance between Russia’s ambitions and its actual capabilities is greater than what obtained during the days of the USSR, Putin's strategies may lead to further isolation rather than the desired acknowledgment.  

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.


About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more