Putin’s Soviet Playbook

As I grow older, I realize that history is one of the surest guides to navigate the present. While many adhered to Francis Fukuyama’s theory that the demise of Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, represented the end of history, others lamented what they perceived as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

Old habits die hard and Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World is an excellent representation of that idiom. “”America is now the primary enemy,” said one of Marshal’s Zhukov’s general at the time of the capture of Berlin. “We have destroyed the base of Fascism. Now we must destroy the base of Capitalism – America.”” Things haven’t changed much in the last 77 years.

Two years earlier, at the Tehran conference between Stalin, FDR and Churchill, the Big Three had decided that the former capital city of the Third Reich would be divided in three sectors. But that did not mean that Moscow would play by the rules, quite the contrary. Behind the bland German communist chieftain Walter Ulbricht, Stalin’s puppets toiled to impose a simulacre of democracy in Berlin. To that end and with blatant disregard for civilians, they used manipulation, kidnappings and – surprise, surprise – fake news to advance their nefarious agenda. To the point where General Eisenhower’s Deputy, Lucius Clay realized that “[…] Russians were masters of geopolitical chess.” No matter how kind or appeasing British and Americans were with them, the only language the Soviets understood clearly was the one emanating from strength.

I always say that Giles Milton could write a wonderful book out of the most pedestrian subject. He has a knack for giving life to the protagonists who reside between the covers of his books. In that regard, my favorite anecdote in Checkmate in Berlin is about British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, a man who could not have been described as a natural pugilist, almost coming to the fists with Stalin’s Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov during the 1946 Peace Conference in Paris.

This said, the highlight of the book’s story comes on the evening of June 23, 1948, when Soviet authorities announced the imposition of a blockade in Berlin that was to take effect the following day. The goal was to starve the western sectors, chase their nemesis, and put the whole city under their thumb. It was to last 323 days and the mettle of the Allies was tested in an uncommon way. “‘Militarily we didn’t stand a chance”, said Frank Howley – one of the most riveting characters in the book – who was commanding Berlin’s American sector. “The Russians could have moved into the areas and liquidated us before you could say, “Politburo!”’” Against these odds, abandoning the city would be a terrible – perhaps even fatal – blow to freedom in Europe. It was time for military ingenuity, of which Americans were not lacking.

To that end, British and Americans forces were to exploit a major flaw in the blockade. Soviet forces didn’t control the skies and that’s where the Allies would come from to provide succor to the city through a treacherous airlift. A plane would be “[…] landing every ninety-six seconds at each of the two airports in the western sectors.” Ingenuity and risk-taking were the master qualities to overcome the ordeal. And who could resist the humanism of the famous Candy Bombers who brought a smile on Berlin’s kids? Crucially, the fighters were “willing to suffer and die for democracy.” Giles Milton’s amazing writing skills therefore offer the reader an opportunity to establish a parallel between the early Cold War in Berlin and the invasion of Ukraine where Kyiv residents and Ukrainians are offering an inspiring spectacle of resistance against an enemy that doesn’t respect any rules or principles, except its own.

At the end of the day, Stalin had to back down and the blockade ended on May 12, 1949. 12 years later, on August 13, 1961, another form of blockade would appear in the form of a wall that would scar the city for the next 28 years. The Iron Curtain was then complete. Behind it served a young KGB lieutenant-colonel who took good notes of how the West fought. A few decades later, Vladimir Putin would come back with a vengeance, using methods employed by his predecessors at the dawn of the Cold War. The master of the Kremlin has a deep grasp of Soviet/Russian history. Let’s hope the outcome in Ukraine will be similar to what happened in Berlin.

Checkmate in Berlin is one of the timeliest books one can read to draw parallels between the current situation and the past. It offers a cautionary tale about the attitude of the aggressor. At the very end of the book, Giles Milton writes that Colonel Frank Howley “[…] always believed that you could successfully shout down your opponent only if your words were backed up by military might.”  That’s assuredly what motivated him to bravely resist the siege. And that’s what should spine up Western leaders in the need to step up the support they should provide President Zelensky.

Permit me to quote Frank Howley again to conclude. He said: “You need to punch hard and low if you are going to win.” Vladimir Putin understands that. Do we? Let us therefore hope every Western statesmen and stateswomen will heed the prescient advice offered in this insightful book.


Giles Milton, Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World, London, John Murray, 416 pages.

I would like to express my gratitude to Ms. Yassine Belkacemi, Director of Publicity at John Murray Press for sending me a copy of the book.

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