The past few years have been witness to allegations of Russian interference, whether in the 2016 US presidential election or Brexit or elsewhere: yet this charge is nothing new. From the October Revolution of 1917 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, accusing the USSR of foreign interference had been a consistent trope in American politics. An underlying theme was the supposed threat of ‘World Revolution’, as expressed by Leon Trotsky, and the alleged omnipresence of communists, as claimed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. However, while it is true that the Soviet Union, like all great powers, sought to enlarge their influence abroad, the narrative in the popular imagination surrounding the global role of the Kremlin is fundamentally flawed. In particular, with the notable exception of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union did not principally seek to interfere in the internal affairs of foreign states.
An obvious place to begin in examining Moscow’s international presence during the Cold War would be in the establishment of other communist states. Whereas the Eastern Bloc states found themselves mostly already under Soviet occupation as a result of the latter’s counteroffensive during the Second World War, the others experienced a more organic communist take-over. For example, Fidel Castro and his comrades were not recipients of Soviet arms until after the ousting of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Likewise, a quarter of a century later, the group of army officers that deposed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie had no prior ties to the USSR; to the contrary, many of them had received training in the United States. In neither case was the seizure of power intended to be communistic (with Castro even telling an American journalist “I am not a communist”). Rather, the establishment of Marxist governments was a response to American alienation, such as the imposition of trade barriers, as was the case for Cuba, or unwillingness to continue arms sales, as was the case for Ethiopia.
Even in states with a Moscow connection since before their founding, the interference in internal affairs was oftentimes minimal. The leader of the Vietnamese nationalist and communist struggle, Ho Chi Minh, had lived and studied in the Soviet Union yet he did not take direct orders from the Kremlin. After his death, with the Vietnam War still raging, the Soviet Union continued to offer aid largely unconditionally even though their suggestion to Hanoi to reach a negotiated settlement with the United States and South Vietnam was rebuffed. Similarly, in Korea, the Soviet Union largely limited itself to offering materiel (with some air support as well) rather than troops, which pales in comparison to the over one million soldiers the Chinese had sent in support of the North Koreans. Even in the case of the aforementioned Ethiopians, who were busy fighting a civil war against largely communist rebels, the Soviet Union (and East Germany) merely suggested a political solution but did not force one on the ruling junta.
What is perhaps most striking about the Soviet Union’s conduct abroad was its seeming willingness to comply with expulsion orders without retaliating. Following the Yom Kippur War, where the Egyptian army initially made significant advances due to critical Soviet military support, the government of Anwar Sadat ultimately kicked out Soviet advisors as part of its rapprochement with the United States. This was despite the fact that the Soviet Union was vital in forcing back foreign troops during the Suez Crisis, provided massive economic and infrastructure support as well as military hardware all the while the Egyptian government was still imprisoning communists. At the same time, Soviet advisors were expelled from Somalia when Moscow scaled back its support to Mogadishu due to the latter waging an illegal and irredentist war of aggression against a fellow socialist state. Nevertheless, regime change was not a Soviet policy aim in either country.
Consistent with this attitude were the repeated scenarios whereby the Soviet Union pursued the non-establishment of communist governments. A commonly forgotten fact is that Austria, like Germany, was once divided into four occupation zones (and a divided capital) with one being a Soviet sector. However, within a relatively short timespan, the Soviet Union voluntarily withdrew its forces on the condition that Austria remain a neutral and non-aligned state. While this may appear as an aberration, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin also attempted to find a comparable solution for Germany when he offered the possibility of reunification in 1952: to the country that had twice in the span of a generation laid waste to the Slavic giant. At times, Soviet insistence on not establishing communist states caused rifts within the Eastern bloc. While Truman launched his famous Truman Doctrine during the Greek Civil War, he failed to mention that the Greek communists were being backed by Yugoslavia and not the Soviet Union (which opposed the move) and that the decision to do so resulted in the Tito-Stalin Split.
The part of the world where Soviet domination was most secured was undoubtedly Eastern Europe. However, even in this regard, there were limitations. Though these limits were on occasion (violently) broken, such as in Budapest in 1956, they were far more durable than commonly imagined. In addition to Yugoslavia, Soviet influence diminished elsewhere as well, such as Albania, which withdrew from the Soviet-led military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact, and Romania, which refused to participate in the intervention in Prague in 1968. Unlike Czechoslovakia under reformist leader Alexander Dubček, the reduced power of the Soviet Union over Tirana and Bucharest was not a result of them moving away from communism; rather, it was the exact opposite: their strict adherence to Marxist-Leninist dogma. Interestingly enough, it was the United States that sought to protect Romania from increased Soviet influence, such as when President Lyndon Johnson warned General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev against launching an invasion against the Stalinist state (plans for which did not exist).
Rejecting the notion of Moscow as acting as a master puppeteer over nations seemingly without agency is important in order to understand the development of socialist and communist movements the world over. Limited resources combined with willingness to ally with non-communist third world movements and governments are integral to understanding Soviet non-interference as well as the spectrum upon which any interference can be accurately placed. Whether in Angola or Cambodia, Nicaragua or Benin, a true comprehension cannot be attained if a simplistic and all-encompassing explanation is given. At the same time, by understanding the limits of Soviet influence abroad, a better grasp of Soviet capacity is gained. Let us dispense with the false overblown fear that defines Cold War propaganda.
Naman Habtom-Desta is currently pursuing an MPhil in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge and is the Senior Vice President of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum.