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USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US


The USSR 101 articles intend to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the history of the USSR during the XIX century. The fundamental purpose of this series is to rebuild, from a historical point of view, the steps that have led to the creation of one of the main international actors during the 1900s, its relations with other countries and the factors that have determined its collapse.

USSR 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

7. USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US

8. USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR

USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US

Following Nikita Khrushchev's expulsion, the new party secretary was Leonid Brezhnev, who restored the USSR's position of dominance against the West and the USA. Brezhnev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party at the 23rd Party Congress in March-April 1966, a position Stalin held in 1934. Khrushchev's limits on party officials' mandates were lifted.

Figure 1. Soviet propaganda manifest of renewal of economic system [Image] - Red Avantgarde
Figure 1. Eliseev K. S. (1929). Soviet propaganda manifest of renewal of economic system [Image]. Red Avantgarde

Brezhnev was an ideological trailblazer. Khrushchev started the Communist era at the 22nd Party Congress in 1961, pledging that the foundations of communism would be laid by 1980. Brezhnev was forced to confront reality and invent a "developed socialism"(Suny, 1998). This meant that the path to communism would be more difficult than anticipated. The USSR was expected to be transformed by technological-scientific revolutions and information technology. In the short run, the social distinction would increase since the state would have to prioritize individuals who learned these talents (Ibidem). However, it was claimed that everyone would benefit in the long term. In the early 1970s, there was hope among the elite and the general public, but it quickly faded. The USSR attained its pinnacle of international power and prestige during Brezhnev's first half-term. The early 1970s détente was accompanied by the United States' recognition of nuclear equality (Ibidem).

Brezhnev's leadership sought to strengthen relations with the outside world by demonstrating that the Soviet Union was a rational and predictable state. Relations with China, on the other hand, deteriorated precipitously, resulting in military conflict along the Ussuri River in March 1969 and along the Soviet-Sinkiang border in August (Kenez, 1999). The two sides agreed to settle their issues through negotiations, but the Soviets increased their military posture along the Chinese border. In an effort to resist Chinese dominance, they also provided military assistance to India, Pakistan, and North Vietnam. On August 20–21, 1968, the Warsaw Pact states (excluding Romania and East Germany), led by the Soviet Union, intervened in Czechoslovakia. This was to put an end to the "socialism with a human face," a policy connected with Czechoslovak party chairman Alexander Dubek who sought to make socialism more democratic and humanistic. Since it would have allowed debate over socialist aims, it would have weakened the Communist Party's leadership role: this potential, in turn, was viewed as a threat to regional stability, and eventually to the U.S.S.R. itself (Ibidem).

Figure 2. Prague Spring in 1968 [Image] - Culture
Figure 2. Unknown (1968) Prague Spring [Photo]. Culture

The unfortunate sequence of events was caused by a great deal of misunderstanding. In January 1968, Brezhnev approved Dubek as the new leader of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, and Dubek and the reform communists were confident that they were not acting against Moscow's interests. Brezhnev and his colleagues were split on involvement, which resulted in a disastrous lack of clarity in the Soviet strategy (Sakwa, 1999). The entire catastrophe could have been avoided if Moscow had informed Dubek explicitly in early summer that it would act militarily if it believed socialism was under threat (Ibidem). This became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, and it stayed in existence until 1989: Moscow decided when socialism was in danger. As the United States acknowledged that the Soviet Union was acting inside its own security zone, the Czechoslovak tragedy did not endanger world peace. Romania was the outlier, having persuaded Moscow to withdraw its soldiers from the country. It grew overtly nationalist under Nicolae Ceauşescu's leadership. It shifted its foreign commerce away from the Soviet bloc, signed a trade treaty with the United States in 1964, and increased connections with the West. It pretended to deceive. Romania thus became Eastern Europe's most Stalinist state (Chamberlin, 1999).

In 1967, the Soviet Union lost prestige in the Arab world by failing to come to the Arabs' rescue during the Arab-Israeli War. However, it then began rearming its customers, particularly Egypt, and its influence grew. It aimed to reduce American influence while strengthening its own position. The USSR courted France in Western Europe, as the country had withdrawn its soldiers from NATO. Trade with the region grew. Germany's policy raised some eyebrows: East Germany asserted itself more and launched a new economic policy. Brezhnev began to suspect that East German leader Ulbricht would sell out to the West Germans. This was ludicrous, but it highlighted the communist leaders' lack of faith. In 1971, Ulbricht was deposed and replaced by the unimaginative Eric Honecker (Ibidem).

In January 1967, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom signed the Outer Space Treaty, which barred the placement of nuclear weapons in orbit. The Arab-Israeli War heightened tensions once more, but both Moscow and Washington attempted to stop the conflict before it escalated into a direct Soviet-American clash (Kenez, 1999). Brezhnev announced this policy in 1969, and it became known as détente. Although armed struggle was to be prohibited under this doctrine, ideological or class struggle was to continue. Willy Brandt, the new West German chancellor, declared his readiness to strengthen relations with East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union upon his election in 1969. West Germany signed treaties with Poland and the USSR in 1970 that acknowledged the inviolability of existing borders (Chamberlin, 1999).

Figure 3. Nixon and Breznev during the negotiations for the SALT Treaty [Photo] - Independent
Figure 3. Unknown (1972) Nixon and Breznev during the negotiations for the SALT Treaty [Photo]. Independent

On May 26, 1972, US President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the first SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) agreement in Moscow, recognising that nuclear war was no longer a viable option. The two signed a second agreement to avoid nuclear war the next year in Washington, D.C. The heads of 33 European governments, as well as those of the United States and Canada, met in Helsinki on August 1, 1975, to sign the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe: the Helsinki Accords declared Europe's postwar borders to be inviolable. In exchange, the Soviet Union and its socialist allies were forced to admit that human rights in each European state were the legitimate concern of all states. This was used by numerous dissident groups in the USSR, particularly in Russia and Ukraine, who set up Helsinki monitoring groups (Sony, 1998). The security police relentlessly pursued these and effectively shut them down by the early 1980s. Human rights became a point of contention between the superpowers, and the US took every chance to exert pressure on Moscow.

The new Soviet constitution, passed by the USSR Supreme Soviet on October 7, 1977, reaffirmed the liberties entrenched in the 1936 Stalin constitution but, importantly, shifted the definition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, defining in detail the functions of the central government and the federated republics, and providing the people, the most powerful representative of all the working classes, with a central role (Ibidem). The mid-1970s were a period of significant foreign policy success. North Vietnam secured its victory over South Vietnam in 1975, forcing the humiliating retreat of the United States. Cambodia and Laos had now joined the communist camp. Angola, Mozambique, and other former Portuguese possessions were taken over by pro-Soviet administrations (Ibidem). Moscow switched sides in the Horn of Africa, abandoning Somalia in favour of Ethiopia. South Yemen, which boasted the key port of Aden, became a staunch Soviet supporter. A deadly coup in Afghanistan resulted in a government that signed a treaty of friendship with Moscow. All of this concerned Washington: the Soviet military force seemed to be ceaselessly extending over the world. As a result, US President Jimmy Carter signed the SALT II deal in Vienna in June 1979 (Sakwa, 1999).

Figure 4. Brezhnev and Carter signing the Helsinki Agreement [Photo] - Historyned
Figure 4. Unknown (1975) Brezhnev and Carter signing the Helsinki Agreement [Photo]. Historyned

In December 1979, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, anticipating that an anti-Soviet administration might assume power. The Soviets overestimated Muslim resistance and grossly miscalculated American reaction. President Carter did not submit SALT II for ratification to the United States Senate and imposed a food embargo. The election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in November 1980 was the final nail in Brezhnev's coffin (Ibidem). Reagan was resolved to dramatically raise US defence spending, not only to bolster US security but also to compel Moscow to do the same. He was warned that a significant increase in the Soviet defence budget would have disastrous effects on the Soviet economy. This turned out to be correct. NATO planned to deploy cruise and Pershing II ballistic missiles beginning in December 1983 in response to the Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles aimed at Western Europe in 1979. START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) negotiations with the Soviets to decrease or remove deployment began in Geneva in June 1982 (Ibidem).

In retrospect, Soviet foreign and security policy from the mid-1970s onward was a colossal failure. The spread of communist regimes in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa prompted the West to overreact, believing that the communist wave had to be stemmed. Vietnam was an obstinate ally, while Yemen and the African regimes were often embroiled in brutal internal turmoil. Moscow suffered dearly for its blunder in Afghanistan. Their gross miscalculation of Western determination over the deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles demonstrated how out-of-touch Moscow decision-makers had become, dominated by the Soviet military. The extended line of failures eroded Soviet military confidence to the point where they believed the West was plotting a nuclear assault on the USSR.


Bibliographical references

Chamberlin, W. H. (1999). Russia’s Role in the Postwar World. The Russian Review, 2(2), 3–9.

Kenez, P. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge University Press; 2° edition

Sakwa, R. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917-1991. Routledge.

Suny, R. G. (1998). The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states. New York: University Press

Image references

Figure 1. Eliseev K. S. (1929) Soviet propaganda manifest of renewal of economic system [Image]. Red Avantgarde.

Figure 2. Unknown (1968) Prague Spring [Photo]. Culture.

Figure 3. Unknown (1972) Nixon and Breznev during the negotiations for the SALT Treaty [Photo]. Independent.

Figure 4. Unknown (1975) Brezhnev and Carter signing the Helsinki Agreement [Photo]. Historyned.


Author Photo

Federica Panico

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