A Tale of Two Insurgencies

What’s this? A comparison between Ronald Reagan and Vladimir Putin by a respected international expert on Harvard’s faculty! Prof. Stephen Walt does not say that the two men are moral equivalents or that Putin deserves our sympathy – in fact he says the opposite. But Walt does draw a surprising parallel between Reagan’s actions in Nicaragua in the 1980s and Putin’s in  Ukraine today. His paper in Foreign Policy is titled, “What Putin Learned From Reagan.” I encourage you to read the entire article, but I’ve excerpted some key passages below my signature line.

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Martin Hellman


What Putin Learned From Reagan
Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University

There was a great power that was worried about its longtime rival’s efforts to undermine it. Its leaders thought the rival power was stronger and trying to throw its weight around all over the world. In fact, this longtime rival was now interfering in places the declining state had long regarded as its own backyard. To protect this traditional sphere of influence, the worried great power had long maintained one-sided relationships with its neighbors, many of them led by corrupt and brutal oligarchs who stayed in power because they were subservient to the powerful neighbor’s whims.

But suddenly, a popular uprising toppled the corrupt leader of one of those client states, and he promptly fled the country. The leaders of the uprising seemed eager to align with the great power’s distant rival, in part because they admired the rival’s ideology and wanted to distance themselves from the neighbor that had long dominated their much-weaker country. In response, the tough-minded conservative leader of the now very worried great power ordered his government to arm rebel groups in the former client state, to prevent the new government from realigning and eventually to drive it from power.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, but the great power in this story isn’t Russia, the tough-minded leader isn’t Putin, and the troubled weak neighbor isn’t Ukraine. The great power in this story was the United States, the leader was Ronald Reagan, and unfortunate neighbor was Nicaragua. …

Reagan and the United States acted wrongly then [in arming the Contras in their attempts to overthrow the Sandinista Nicaraguan insurgents], and Putin and Russia are acting wrongly today. But the parallels between the two cases tell you something often forgotten when high-minded moralists start complaining about “foreign aggression.” However much we may dislike it, great powers are always sensitive to political conditions on their borders and are usually willing to play hardball to protect vital interests. The collective Western failure to understand this basic fact of life is a key reason why the Ukraine crisis erupted and why it has been so hard to resolve. …

If anything, Moscow has more to worry about today than the United States did back in the 1980s. Nicaragua is a tiny country, with a total population smaller than New York City’s. It had hardly any military capability of its own and its potential value as a possible Soviet base was miniscule. Yet U.S. leaders saw this small, poor, weak country as a serious strategic threat, with Reagan warning that failure to overthrow the Sandinistas would leave terrorists and subversives a mere “two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.” …

If the president of the mighty United States — which had the world’s largest economy and powerful military forces stationed all over the world — was sufficiently frightened by the ragtag Sandinistas that he was willing to organize and back an illegal civil war against them, is it just barely conceivable that Putin and Medvedev and many other Russians might be just a mite concerned that a country of some 45 million people right on their border might be getting ready to realign, and bring the world’s most powerful military alliance right up to their doorstep? …

Russia’s policy is objectionable and Vladimir Putin is not a misunderstood figure who deserves our sympathy. But his conduct is not that different from the actions of venerated leaders like Ronald Reagan, when they felt vital interests were at stake. Devising a lasting solution to the Ukraine muddle requires less moralizing and more strategizing, and the place to start is by understanding what is driving Moscow’s behavior. I have no sympathy for Putin, his policies, or his regime, but understanding that his actions aren’t really that unusual wouldn’t hurt our efforts at all.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website: https://anewmap.com.
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