Isaac Deutscher 1955

The Voice of Moscow Grows Harsh Again

Source: The Reporter, 13 January 1955. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

As 1954 ended, Soviet foreign policy was undergoing a phase of change and fluctuation. Moscow’s attention has been centred on two international developments: the passage of the Paris and London agreements in the parliaments of Western Europe and the discussion in NATO countries on whether the Supreme Commander of NATO or the North Atlantic governments should decide on the use of certain atomic weapons in case of war. The course of Soviet policy will be dictated in part by the way these issues are resolved. In the meantime Soviet diplomacy, subjected to increasing domestic pressures, is preparing to adopt a new ‘tough’ line in dealing with the West.

Stalin’s successors, as they weigh the effects of Foreign Minister Molotov’s diplomacy, can hardly find much ground for satisfaction. The long and sustained drive for ‘peaceful coexistence’, started at the beginning of last year on the eve of the Berlin Conference, has yielded few substantial results. True enough, Molotov had his moments of triumph. At the Geneva Conference the conclusion of the armistice in Indo-China seemed to promise a genuine relaxation of tension; then the French Assembly rejected EDC. [1] Moreover, public opinion in the West, listening to reassuring reports that numerous Western delegations brought back from visits to the countries of the Soviet bloc, relaxed somewhat from its suspicion of Russia. But Molotov’s brief triumphs and the less hostile attitude of Western opinion were outweighed in Moscow’s estimate by such adverse facts as West Germany’s virtual inclusion in the North Atlantic alliance, British and American commitments to keep forces in Europe for a long time to come and NATO’s apparent inclination to resort to atomic warfare in any conflict with the Soviet bloc.

The Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not abandoned the hope that a last-minute hitch, whether in the French Assembly or in the Bundestag of West Germany, would prevent ratification of the London and Paris agreements. The decision of the Moscow conference of the Ministers of the Soviet bloc and Molotov’s threat to cancel the Franco-Soviet alliance of 1944 had been calculated to strengthen opposition to ratification in both Germany and France. But the threats were kept in suspense, to be carried into effect only when the London and Paris agreements were ratified.

Playing from Strength: How will Moscow react to France’s ratification? Molotov so firmly and publicly committed himself and his government on this point that it can hardly fail to carry out his threats. It should be remarked that his recent behaviour contrasted strikingly with the diplomatic technique to which he adhered when he conducted Soviet diplomacy under Stalin’s supervision. Stalin always avoided dramatic threats and warnings; he never gave the outside world advance notice of any intention to increase armaments, preferring to take his opponents by surprise.

Nor was it Stalin’s custom to burn bridges and make declarations comparable to Molotov’s statement that the inclusion of West Germany in NATO would render all negotiations over Germany pointless. The more any negotiations were useless in Stalin’s eyes, usually the more tenaciously and seriously did he drag them out. This remarkable change from his methods of diplomacy certainly reflects the role of the personal element in the conduct of Soviet affairs. Bluff and concealment were inherent in Stalin’s temperament. But the new diplomatic manner also reflected a more fundamental change in Russia’s power position. Stalin’s successors are playing from strength more confidently than Stalin could ever play and that is why they attach less importance to concealment and surprise, the weapons of the weak.

Moscow is undoubtedly preparing to meet the new situation in the West with a whole series of concerted moves designed to heighten the state of alertness in the Soviet bloc. Of these moves, the new arms drive will be the most important. Inevitably it will have grave repercussions in Russia’s domestic situation. It will slow down the present drive for an improvement in Soviet living standards and this must cause a setback to the liberalising trend of the post-Stalin era and a return to harsher discipline. The formation of an Eastern counterpart to SHAPE [2] will be a gesture designed to improve morale, but it will not materially alter existing military arrangements. The least substantial of Molotov’s warnings and threats is that of rearming East Germany. The Soviet command has no illusions about the reliability of the East Germans as Soviet allies. If it had had any such illusions, the results of the recent elections in West Berlin, at which the Communist Party failed to obtain a single seat, should have had a sobering effect.

Apart from the moves advertised in advance, other lines of action are open to Moscow. The Iron Curtain between East and West Germany, more than half lifted in the last year, will probably descend again and new tension may develop in Berlin. However, there are signs that the Soviet bloc will take the initiative in Asia rather than in Europe. Moscow has openly abandoned the reserve with which it was treating Peking’s campaign over Formosa and a general intensification of the Cold War could well lead to the breakdown of the armistice in Indo-China. By means of that armistice Molotov had sought to regain French friendship and to stiffen French resistance to German rearmament. With France reconciled to the rearmament of West Germany, Moscow’s interest in the Indo-China armistice will be diminished, although both Moscow and Peking may still be reluctant to frighten Prime Minister Nehru and antagonise other neutral Asian governments by a further advance of Communism in South-East Asia.

The Atom Discussion: Moscow has watched public discussion in the West on the prerogatives of the Supreme Commander of NATO. The fact that NATO commanders have argued publicly for the use of atomic weapons in war and for SHAPE’s responsibility for that use is interpreted in Moscow as a sinister symptom. Moscow does not believe that even in democracies officers like General Gruenther and Field Marshal Montgomery are allowed to thrash out in public such vital and delicate issues, unless the purpose is to prepare public opinion for offensive atomic warfare. The fact that Germany’s inclusion in NATO coincided in time with the public statements on atomic warfare was not seen in Moscow as a mere coincidence.

These developments are already having an impact on the internal Soviet alignments. They seem to weaken the hands of those members of the ruling group who have been associated with the more conciliatory attitudes of post-Stalinist diplomacy and to strengthen the position of their opponents inclined to see ‘appeasement’ in any conciliatory move.

Some of the army leaders have been among the critics of ‘soft’ diplomacy; thus Marshal A Vasilevsky, former Chief of Staff and Defence Minister and present Deputy Minister, has at times seemed to act as the Leader of the Opposition. His recent emergence into the limelight to give the official reply to Field Marshal Montgomery’s statements about atomic warfare is significant in this connection. (Curiously enough, Vasilevsky’s reply contained an enigmatic hint that Soviet military intelligence had been informed about the discussions inside SHAPE on the use of atomic weapons even before Montgomery had brought the issue to the public’s attention.)

The effect of Vasilevsky’s reply to Montgomery has been strengthened by Marshal Zhukov’s comments on British ‘treachery’ in 1945. Russia’s two most eminent soldiers are not used for minor propaganda jobs as a rule. Their statements were designed to place on record, obliquely, the critical attitude of the army leaders towards ‘appeasement’. Ostensibly Vasilevsky argued only against the ‘reckless’ British Field Marshal; but his words suggested to the Soviet public an interpretation of the international situation tending to discredit ‘soft’ diplomacy and to prepare the ground for a policy of ‘firmness’. Vasilevsky’s reply contained threats much graver and more explicit than any that can be found in statements by civilian Soviet leaders. Vasilevsky ‘reminded’ Montgomery that ‘small, overcrowded’ Britain may be all too vulnerable a target for Soviet atomic and hydrogen weapons.

The warnings that the Soviet Foreign Minister formulated in his recent notes and statements sound almost like mild echoes of Vasilevsky’s threats. Molotov still seems to be trying to steer a middle course between ‘appeasement’ and ‘toughness’, but the pressure for toughness is apparently growing. Without abandoning pleas for ‘peaceful coexistence’ Moscow is now addressing the West in the old harsh voice.


1. EDC – European Defence Community, a proposed military alliance comprising France, West Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, Belgium and the Netherlands; it was announced in 1952 but was abandoned after it failed to be supported by the French Parliament – MIA.

2. SHAPE – Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the headquarters of NATO, at this point based at Rocquencourt, near Versailles in France – MIA.