Learn from 1983 and be careful with the rhetoric about Moscow
This is the latest in a series of regular columns by Robbin Laird, where he will address current defense issues through the lens of more than 45 years of defense expertise in the United States and abroad. The purpose of these chronicles: to revisit how issues and perspectives from the past should inform decisions made today.
No one could accuse President Ronald Reagan of being soft on the Russians. Yet during his presidency, at one of the most tense moments of the Cold War, he learned to tone down his rhetoric about Russia so as not to start a nuclear war. This is something the Biden administration should bear in mind: messages designed for home consumption also have a global impact, and being deaf to what your opponent hears can only go wrong.
Recent comments from the Biden administration are reminiscent of the bad old days. First, there were President Joe Biden’s comments in late March that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin “cannot stay in power” after invading Ukraine. Although the White House quickly backtracked on the idea that Biden was calling for regime change in Moscow, the statement dominated several days of media coverage. More recently, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States wants a “weakened” Russia when the Ukraine conflict ends.
You can be sure that these comments are causing great alarm within the Kremlin, at a time when Russia’s failures in Ukraine are already raising fears that Putin may resort to the use of nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise, in an attempt to regain an advantage in Europe. . And we have historical reason to believe that the message Putin will take from all of this is to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
The initial Reagan administration was made up of a wide range of hardliners and anti-Communists whose rhetoric, in my view, had a longer reach than their sense of political realism. Reagan quickly gained a reputation for speaking harshly to Moscow. This was especially true before George Schultz, one of the great statesmen of the 20th century, joined the administration in mid-1982.
The unfortunate side of this was that the leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, interpreted this rhetoric as Reagan legitimizing nuclear war against the Soviet Union. This is not speculation: thanks to two unique spy chains, which would later be known as the Gordievsky affair in the British case and the Farewell affair in the French case, Andropov’s thought is well documented. We also know that the thought was communicated by both Reagan’s closest political ally abroad, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and French President Francois Mitterrand – the latter someone for whom the The Reagan administration had little time due to the inclusion of communists in its cabinet.
I have written about these two cases in detail in my book co-authored with Murielle Delaporte entitled “The return of direct defense in Europe: meeting the challenge of authoritarian powers in the 21st century”. As we concluded of the two spy contributions: “These two key spy stories from the 1980s could only have the impact they would have on Western politics if there was a capacity of governments to work together effectively and have a unity of will to deal with the Soviet threat.President Reagan fashioned an administration that could find ways to work with Western allies, even those whose politics and worldviews were quite different from his.
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The problem is that the lines of communication, as I’ve written before, are actually more frayed now than during the near-nuclear crisis of 1983. Which means it’s more important than ever that 1) the White House monitor its rhetoric, and 2) that allies and partners can act as intermediaries.
In addition to the direct contributions Thatcher and Mitterrand provided to Reagan, there was a network of Russian and Warsaw Pact officers who interacted with American and allied military and intelligence officers who had a very significant impact in bringing about their superiors to understand how controlling the exchanges between Reagan and Andropov were becoming. If readers want to better understand these issues, I highly recommend my colleague Brian Morra’s new novel “The Able Archers”, which provides significant insight into how military and intelligence officers on the American and Allied side worked with their counterparts on the Soviet side to shape their top leadership’s understanding of how close we were to a nuclear war.
And to be clear, shaping Western unity in the face of nuclear threats is never a given. The Euromissile crisis in Europe in the early 1980s was deeply divisive and there is no doubt that today the presence of a nuclear threat unit lasts as long as you are not the target of a nuclear threat .
We avoided nuclear war in 1983 because the president learned from his allies and his administration listened to experienced military and intelligence officers. Hopefully we will be as lucky this time in the Ukrainian crisis.