For a few dedicated academics, the Cold War isn’t dead. While recent archival research tends to uphold existing interpretations of the superpower confrontation, scholars have made a few exciting finds.
Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies Program and senior fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, discussed some recent discoveries during an early April seminar at George Washington University.
In work that has relevance to the present day, Kramer said that documents recently reviewed in Soviet archives shed light on the Kremlin’s decade-long war effort in Afghanistan. The archives make clear that most Soviet military commanders “were opposed to getting involved” in Afghanistan since they wanted to fight wars in Europe, or against China and “not get bogged down in peripheral areas.” But the KGB and other power ministries eventually forced a reluctant Politburo to act in late 1979. The Red Army remained in Afghanistan until 1989.
The archives also showed “how the Soviet Union managed to get out of a conflict that it probably should not have gotten involved in.” Kramer says it would be a mistake to consider the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan a total failure—the military made some “costly early mistakes,” but then turned things around and waged a reasonably effective counter-insurgency campaign.
An overlooked aspect of the Soviet occupation is the skill with which the Red Army’s withdrawal was executed. In addition, the Afghan government under Najibullah that Moscow left behind managed to survive for three years on its own, and fell only after the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. Kramer remarked that current Afghan President Hamid Karzai would be lucky to survive so long without NATO combat forces in the country propping up his administration. Still, “if the Soviet leaders had heeded their original instincts they probably would have been better off,” Kramer said.
Kramer went on to highlight the work of a colleague, Jamil Hasanli, whose research focuses on Stalin’s efforts to seize Iranian Azerbaijan immediately after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Hasanli’s recently published book, At the Dawn of the Cold War: The Soviet-American Crisis over Iranian Azerbaijan, draws on formerly top-secret materials in the Soviet and Azerbaijani archives, as well as documents from American, British, and Iranian sources. It focuses on the rise and collapse of the national government of the autonomous republic of Iranian Azerbaijan in 1945–46.
Hasanli’s study also examines triangular relationships involving politicians in Baku, Tabriz, and Moscow, illustrating the influence of local actors and personalities on great power politics. The lessons of that post-World War II episode remain pertinent today. “It still would be politically a very questionable proposition to somehow try to unify [those] regions, or encourage insurgencies,” Kramer said.
Among the other interesting tidbits of Kramer’s April 4 presentation, Stalin’s death in 1953 may have averted a US-Soviet conflict. “In the final two years of Stalin’s life (1951-53),” Kramer noted, “preparations for war on the part of the Soviet Union were far more extensive than previously realized” by either scholars or US policy makers.
Conventional wisdom in the United States had long held that the vigorous American response to the North Korean invasion of the South had “dissuaded” further Soviet aggression. But documentation in East European archives show that the Soviet bloc experienced a “war scare” in January 1951, when Stalin ordered a crash military buildup. According to Kramer, the Soviet armed forces doubled in size over the next two years.
Stalin’s mood appears to have taken “a much more pessimistic turn at the end of his life,” Kramer said. Immediately after Stalin’s death, the war scare ended and Soviet bloc governments halted their expensive buildup.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.