Isaac Deutscher 1950

What Russia Is After

Source: The Reporter, 21 November 1950. This article was published in the wake of the passing of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 377 on 3 November 1950, which enabled the UN General Assembly to authorise armed action should the action be vetoed at the UN Security Council. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

When Andrei Y Vyshinsky addressed the United Nations Political and Security Committee, pleading for the full retention of the veto, the Kremlin had already suffered one defeat in Korea and was preparing for another at Flushing. Both mark the end of a chapter in international relations.

In Korea, for the first time in post-war history, an agreed line of demarcation between the Soviet and the American zones of influence has been obliterated. Somebody in the Politburo may be arguing now that this would not have happened if that august body had not been misinformed about American intentions; and somebody may be looking for a scapegoat. Whatever the miscalculations and whoever the scapegoat, the fact remains that in Korea one of the important decisions of Yalta and Potsdam was rendered null and void. Not only did the Western powers react, arms in hand, against an attempt to widen the Soviet sphere of influence; they reduced that zone appreciably. Communism has not merely been ‘contained’ in the Far East – it has been thrown back.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s plan for the United Nations – his New Charter – has achieved a similar result in Flushing Meadow. Here, too, the Russians have for the first time been thrown back from an agreed line – the line of the veto. One of the pillars of the agreements worked out by the Big Three during the war has been hollowed out, if not destroyed. Hitherto no member of the United Nations had dared defy the veto. Now it is possible to ignore it.

Both in Korea and in the United Nations the world has witnessed a startling collapse of Stalin’s defences.

Kim Il Sung’s regime broke down in a moral as well as a military sense. The North Korean troops realised that neither the Russians nor the Chinese were prepared to come to their aid at the decisive time. Stalin’s noncommittal answer to Kim Il Sung’s message of loyalty must have had a shattering effect on the morale of the North Korean Communists. The bulk of their army went into captivity. Kim Il Sung’s appeal for a ‘scorched-earth’ retreat evoked no response.

In Flushing Meadow, Vyshinsky has not even tried to dramatise the Soviet retreat by a threat of diplomatic ‘scorched earth’. He fought a verbal delaying action against the virtual abolition of the veto; he recalled Stalin’s 1936 disavowal of any export of revolution; and he repeatedly emphasised the ‘lofty aims’ (peace and the security of nations) that inspire all members of the United Nations. He and his superiors in Moscow can hardly have great illusions about the effectiveness of all this. The legal arguments must have left the man in the street cold, stupefied by Vyshinsky’s maze of paragraphs and provisions.

Similarly, Stalin’s disavowal of the export of revolution sounds less convincing than ever in Western ears. Finally, the words about ‘the lofty aims by which we all are united’ can hardly serve any purpose of Soviet propaganda. For, if they make any impression at all, they tend to invalidate the usual assertions of Soviet propaganda, at a time when unguarded American talk about preventive war was investing them with some plausibility and causing anxiety in Western Europe. If all members of the United Nations cherish the same ‘lofty aims’, where, then, are the ‘warmongers'?

More important still, the Soviet Foreign Minister has not given even the slightest intimation, as he might have been expected to do, that his government will consider Secretary Acheson’s New Charter illegal. He has not rejected the Acheson proposals. He has contented himself with proposing amendments to them, thereby implicitly acknowledging their legality.

How does Moscow hope to extricate itself from the two major defeats?

In Korea, the answer may be simple. It probably consists in writing off a loss, unless, of course, the Communists decide to wage a protracted border war to siphon off American strength, as appears possible at this writing. Stalin knows how to take his losses without batting an eye. True, MacArthur’s forces will now be within striking distance of Vladivostok and Manchuria. True, all Asian nations have now seen that Soviet friendship may be a broken reed. But the loss of face can be made up for, at least in part. Soviet propagandists will now argue that Moscow has let down its Korean protégés from sheer devotion to peace; that Soviet troops are not anxious to reoccupy a country once they have evacuated it. This line of argument may not prove altogether unconvincing, in Asia and elsewhere. For the rest, the Kremlin may wait and see how the United States and the United Nations are going to handle the Korean pack of post-war trouble.

The diplomatic defeat in Flushing Meadow is of immeasurably greater consequence, and the Soviet government apparently does not see how to get over it. Nor can it gauge at present all the implications of this defeat. What Moscow sees is the scrapping of the wartime compacts and agreements. But how far will the Western powers, and especially the United States, go? What role will the United Nations play? Stalin must be reckoning with the most dramatic possibilities: a situation may arise in which the General Assembly, obviating the Soviet veto on the Security Council, will ‘recommend’ that United Nations troops cross into East Germany, eastern Berlin, eastern Austria, Czechoslovakia, or Albania. What then?

These possibilities may seem remote. But the Kremlin cannot forget the Korean precedent, and it believes that it was with an eye to these remoter possibilities that Acheson and John Foster Dulles set out to reduce the Security Council to a shadow, and to invest great powers in the General Assembly. To be sure, the Korean precedent would not have been set if the Kremlin had not induced the North Korean Communists to cross the thirty-eighth parallel. Stalin is therefore not going to repeat a similar mistake elsewhere, especially in Germany. But he must, anyhow, anticipate increased Western pressure on the positions he holds.

He may, of course, try to console himself by asking: how many divisions has the United Nations? Not more than those which the North Atlantic Alliance can command. To this extent Acheson’s proposals have changed nothing in the balance of power. But Stalin is not so obtuse as to miss the moral advantages which accrue to the North Atlantic powers when they act or fight under the UN flag.

Seen from Moscow, Secretary Acheson’s New Charter looks like a diplomatic trap sprung upon the Soviets. It is as difficult for the Soviets to break out of it as it is to stay in it. It is as difficult for them to denounce the illegality of the New Charter as to accept its legality. The dilemma is not quite new. After the First World War, Lenin decided to boycott the League of Nations, calling it a ‘robbers’ den’, where victorious imperialist powers were united in guarding the Versailles settlement. At Yalta, Stalin decided that it would be clever to join the new ‘robbers’ den’ and to guard with other victors the super-Versailles that was to follow the Second World War. He hoped that the condominium of the Big Three, that dream of a new Holy Alliance, would take on flesh and blood and last well into the peace; that at least it would leave its mark on the peace settlement. The untrammelled veto in the Security Council was to safeguard Soviet freedom of movement within the condominium and within the United Nations.

In the post-war struggle between East and West this dream has faded. The wartime alliance has been incapable of producing a peace settlement. More than once Lenin’s words about the ‘robbers’ den’ must have since occurred to Stalin and to other members of the Politburo. Was it wise, after all, to join the United Nations and be exposed to constant criticism?

Acheson’s New Charter, so it might seem, has given the Russians a fair opportunity to leave, with the not implausible argument that the Charter, on the basis of which they had agreed to join after prolonged and arduous negotiations, has been torn to pieces. If so momentous a revision of the status of the General Assembly had been undertaken a year or two ago, the Russians might indeed have banged the door. Their absence from the United Nations in the first half of this year reflected the Politburo’s vacillation. Incapable of solving the dilemma – to leave or not to leave? – Stalin temporarily decided on the half measure of boycott, only to call it off when the UN intervened in Korea.

After the Korean débâcle Stalin does not dare to defy the United Nations openly, let alone boycott or leave it, in spite of Acheson’s ‘provocation’. From the Russian viewpoint, the most alarming result of the Korean campaign is not what has been going on in Korea but what has happened in the United States; not the collapse of Kim Il Sung’s regime, not even the fact that MacArthur’s forces have approached the Siberian frontier, but American rearmament and the disquieting growth of the anti-Russian mood in the States. The Politburo knows pretty well that it has itself to thank, at least in part. And it is well aware that Russia’s departure from the United Nations would now bring the tension almost to the breaking point.

And so the Soviet representatives in the United Nations have been instructed to strive strenuously for a slackening of tension. Vyshinsky has switched from his accustomed role of prosecutor to that of defence counsel, displaying thereby all his jejune gentility and charm. His argument against Acheson and even against Dulles lacked the bitterness of the political fight. Most of it was couched in terms of a learned disputation between the gentlemen of the long robe. The legal arguments were duly mixed with agreeable recollections of the old times ‘when we were all together’ and with declarations of sympathy and friendship. ‘Gentlemen, I must return to Moscow with an out-of-court settlement’, Vyshinsky seemed to say.

To underline Russia’s desire to lessen tension, Vyshinsky once again urged the Western powers to sign a peace pact and reduce armaments by one-third. These proposals were rejected last year, and Moscow could hardly hope that they would be accepted now. But this time Vyshinsky placed more emphasis on Russia’s readiness to accept international atomic inspection, believing that if the United States goes on demanding international management and ownership, neutral opinion will blame the United States rather than Russia.

Another Russian gesture of ‘good will’ is the announced readiness to talk about a Japanese peace treaty. Until recently Moscow obstructed preliminary work on this on the grounds that the main provisions of the treaty should be agreed upon by the great powers before they are submitted to all the member states of the Far-Eastern Commission. This objection, highly unpopular with the small nations, has now apparently been dropped. Resuming talks on the Japanese peace, Moscow will champion the right of Mao’s China to have its say. If the United States goes on boycotting the Peking government – such is Moscow’s calculation – it will be the United States, not Russia, that will appear to obstruct a Far-Eastern settlement.

To be again on speaking terms with the West is Moscow’s immediate purpose in the new situation. That is why Vyshinsky responded with greater eagerness than was shown by his American, British and French colleagues to the Syrian-Iraqi proposal for a Big Five conference. Here again Moscow thinks that if China’s representation proves the stumbling block, it will be American, not Russian, good will that will suffer.

But, assuming that the Chinese issue is solved, with what may Russia come to the great-power conference? The Politburo is aware that it must produce some scheme of peace settlement and some compromise proposals. It knows that sooner or later it must, in Vyshinsky’s words, ‘go half-way’ to meet the West. But it does not know just how far that ‘half-way’ goes. What is obvious is that the longer the present tension lasts, the greater the momentum of the American rearmament drive. To slow down its momentum is a vital Russian interest.

If and when a great-power conference meets, its agenda is likely to be dominated by other issues than those which agitated the General Assembly this fall. The Korean problem will have lost its urgency, even if the North Koreans continue guerrilla warfare. On control of atomic energy, no government headed by Stalin can possibly go further than the limit indicated by Vyshinsky – endorsing international inspection but not international management – and in all likelihood it will not go that far. Agreement on an Austrian treaty is almost complete, but Moscow looks upon this as a mere appendix to peace with Germany, and sees no reason for signing an appendix as long as the main text has not even begun to take shape. If no new conflicts intervene meantime, Germany should claim the most attention at the conference.

It was no matter of chance that while Vyshinsky argued defensively at Flushing Meadow, Molotov assembled the Communist Foreign Ministers in Prague to make a pronouncement on Germany. On the face of things, the Prague conference produced nothing new. It repeated proposals first made at a 1948 conference in Warsaw. Mere passage of time has not made these proposals more acceptable to the West. Yet the Prague proposals do contain a hint of a new approach. For the first time Moscow has put forward in specific form its ideas on the merger of the Eastern and Western German administrations.

The basis of the proposed merger – parity between the two Germanies – was absurd. But the novelty of the project lies in this: Moscow has now told Pieck and Ulbricht that they may have to accept as partners Adenauer and his followers, whom they have been denouncing as traitors and quislings. It remains to be seen whether this is going to be the starting point of a new ‘line’, and whether, in the course of time, Moscow is going to climb down and gradually interpret ‘parity’ as meaning something like proportional representation, which might be a face-saving formula allowing for the actual subordination of Eastern Germany to Bonn.

So far the Politburo has certainly not reconciled itself to so unpleasant and startling a prospect. Perhaps it may never do so. What the performances of both Vyshinsky and Molotov have revealed is the confusion in the Politburo and its uneasiness about the new Damoclean sword over its head.