Russia’s Back-to-the-80s Foreign Policy

Moscow has reprised Cold War tactics against the United States. It’s worth remembering that they didn’t work out well for the Soviet Union last time.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The latest round of Russian-American embassy staff hits—Russia cut hundreds of U.S. Embassy employees in an escalatory response to U.S. expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats last December—recall the big Soviet-American embassy staff expulsions of 1986. Few recall the details of these Reagan-era fights. But many remember that the 1980s ended badly for the Soviet Union.

And that is the point: Moscow now, like then, has been going down a dark road of confrontation with the United States and aggression elsewhere.

As with the Soviets and reactionary tsars, external confrontation coincides with, and may be compensation for, stagnation at home. Putin’s tactics, like the demonization of the United States in Russian official media, appear recycled from the Cold War.

Russian cyber hacking and disinformation recall Soviet “active measures” of the 1980s. Russia’s low-grade war in Ukraine is different from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (for one thing, the Ukrainians are fighting for a European future), but both aggressions triggered resistance on the ground and from the West.

Russia’s leaders can try to convince their people, and themselves, that their ability to bully neighbors, repress dissenters, and shake their fists at the United States, is a sign of strength. But, just like in the mid-1980s, this won’t work.

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