A Fresh Order of Domino Theory


Domino (1)a US foreign policy, domino theory argued that the fall of a nation to communism would trigger and fuel the spread of communism to neighboring nations. The Soviet Empire wished death upon American principles, liberties, and ideals, with a communist backbone rivaling that of Hitler’s fascism. If left unchecked, the Soviet Union could spread across the globe—a string of “falling dominos”— until it isolated its final opposition and unleashed its nuclear might upon them. Ultimately, this result would politically and ideologically isolate the United States. Domino theory became used as an illustrative tool of US foreign policy and helped to justify US intervention in Korea and Vietnam through a policy of containment. In the West, the premise of domino theory was never proven and its consequences were never felt. However, I argue that the premise and consequences of domino theory were in fact realized, not in the West, but in the East. This article aims to better analyze the symmetrical affects of domino theory as they correspond to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, its foreign policy objectives, and national security strategy. This article also aims to address the historical significance and consequences of policy misinterpretations within Western-Russian relations. Recent events have amplified international focus on Russian influence in the “near abroad”—the group of non-Russian states formed out of the former Soviet Union. However, overly critical analyses of Russia, in the name of domestic or global security, will almost always generate exaggerated, heavy-handed results. To remain unbiased and objective, this analysis will rely on historical events, patterns, and trends.

Domino Theory – Obsolete or Obscured? 

To take a page from Adam Przeworski’s Democracy and the Market, “Henry Kissinger’s domino theory triumphed; all he missed was the direction in which the dominoes would fall.” While factual, Przeworski’s observation is significantly understated. The direction that the dominos fall only reverses national security concerns from one party to the other. Domino theory was not annulled because communism failed: It was deemed obsolete because the West had overcome the fear of communism. In other words, if the United States found political and ideological isolation to be a dire concern, why should Russia not hold the same fears? Is the threat of international isolation only a viable concern for Western powers? Is domino theory still viable despite not being part of the Western foreign policy discourse for some time now? The inherent symmetrical applications of domino theory are largely unconsidered in modern day relations between the West and Russia.

In preparing to analyze the symmetrical effects of domino theory, it is important to distinguish several control elements. First, the simplicity of the theory holds three main outcomes:

1. Containment—Halting the falling process,

2. Success/Completion—All dominos down (global unification)

3. Reversal—The falling process is inverted.

Success and reversal outcomes will always yield two results: global unification in one direction and global isolation in the other direction. The containment outcome yields a stalemate.

Second, I also incorporate the final value of “duration” and “pace” of the “falling process.” Duration and pace focus on the length of time and speed at which nations align themselves with other nations. This value will help contextualize the actions and reactions of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia over time. Once overlaid with historical events and conflicts, these control elements of domino theory symmetry will depict a contemporary Russian foreign policy almost identical to US policies of Cold War containment.

The Vietnam False Positive and Afghanistan False Negative 

In the 1960s, the communist uprising in Vietnam prompted US-led military intervention, and shortly after, Soviet weaponry and financial aid was provided to the North Vietnamese communist regime. Subsequently, the 1980s saw a stark role reversal, as the Soviet military began combating a threat to communist rule in Afghanistan. The communist opposition in Afghanistan was then met with US weaponry and financial aid. When looked through the domino theory prism, these events can be seen as paradigmatic episodes of “containment.” The United States viewed Vietnam as another threat enabling the spread of communism. Equivalently, the Soviet Union viewed the Afghan rebellion as a threat to communist integrity in the region. Both attempts to contain the uprisings failed and both resulted in regime change within Vietnam and Afghanistan.

However, long-term results of the Vietnam War did not substantiate the proposed consequences of domino theory. Even though the United States did not succeed in Vietnam, communist expansion did not spread exponentially. Conversely, within three years of Russian defeat in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Communism began to crumble throughout the Eastern Bloc, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was already picking up the pieces.

Russian defeat in Afghanistan was not, necessarily, the sole cause for Soviet dissolution; however, it was a manifestation of domino theory that influenced Russian containment policy. Often referred to as “The Soviet Union’s Vietnam,” the Soviet failure in Afghanistan amounted to far more than just a military and ideological loss. It lends great credibility (especially in the Russian perspective) to the realism of domino theory. Thus, the West escaped the Cold War relatively unscathed by the isolating consequences of domino theory. No lessons were learned and no repercussions were felt. As it was no longer a relevant (or authenticated) foreign policy, domino theory disapeared from the Western policy dialogue. However, unbeknownst to the West, domino theory endured.

I consider the Soviet-Afghan war to be the initial transition of domino theory, from a US foreign policy to a Russian one. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited the same concerns of international isolation that had plagued the United States since the 1950s. If Russia was to retain its superpower status, it could not afford to be isolated. Domino theory had now become more applicable to Russia than it ever had been to the United States. To restore its former grandeur, Russian foreign policy needed to regain its regional relevance and international clout. However, Russian attempts to do so have only reinforced a Russian domino theory mindset via its misinterpretations of Western initiatives.

Generally, Western misinterpretations of Russian foreign policy view Putin’s Russia as attempting to “re-Sovietize” Central Asia. Russia’s coercive tactics in Ukraine, Moldova, and other neighboring countries continue to suggest a Russian lust for power. However, when domino theory symmetry is applied, Russian foreign policy is a modified strategy of containment. Its actions towards re-Sovietization are actually reactions against Western encroachment. Its decisions and actions are highly reflective of and dependent on Western initiatives. That being said, domino theory symmetry could prove to be an efficient tool in predicting Russian foreign policy. Its future use could also help to reduce Western-Russian tensions in the near abroad.

“Expansionism” or “aggression” must not be conflated with “sustainment.” The 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary exemplifies this point. Tasked with ousting a rising revolution, the Soviet military committed numerous atrocities against the Hungarian population. Western communities largely condemned this act as Soviet expansionism, analogous with that of Nazi Germany. Conversely, Russian aggression “was aggression to maintain a position previously achieved and in an area that the Kremlin considers its most important core of interest.” If the Soviet invasion of Hungary is to be labeled as aggression or expansionism, then Western involvement in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghan Wars must also be labeled as such. Furthermore, whereas the Warsaw Pact substantiated a Soviet response, the West had no such concrete legal justification for its interventions.

To be clear, I am not defending the atrocities that occurred in Hungary. I am identifying factors contributing to a Russian foreign policy, guided by historically justified paranoia of the West and by past lessons learned. Whether through extending EU/NATO membership or providing financial/military aid to Central Asia, good-natured intent by the West has sustained domino theory concerns in Russia for decades. These misinterpretations of intent are found in both the West and Russia and further complicate international cooperation.

Domino (2)Western-Russian relations have long been plagued with critical misinterpretations of each other’s policies. The most general of these misinterpretations is the ill-defined “intent” of Western or Russian actions. Highlighted in the above case of Hungary, American perception of Russian ‘intent’ was concentrated on Soviet expansionism. Conversely, actual Russian ‘intent’ was more focused on preservation of the Warsaw Pact. Such misinterpretations of international intent continue to confuse Western-Russian relations and increase paranoia. Like the past Western misinterpretation of Soviet “expansionism” in Hungry, there are present-day Russian misinterpretations of Western “expansionism” in the Eastern Bloc. To identify the significance of these misinterpretations, I use the aforementioned “control element of duration.” I find that Western-Russian relations degrade in tandem with an increase in Western interventions abroad.

Russian Foreign Policy – Western Oversight or Eastern Overthrow?

A synopsis of Western-Russian relations over the past decade depicts a steady turn from Western-Russian international consensus and cooperation to increasing Russian isolation and containment of Western influence. Beginning with the Bosnian War in 1992- 95 and notwithstanding a few minor glitches in diplomacy, a relatively weak Russia in transition was able to sustain its international significance. The Bosnian War arguably saw Western-Russian consensus at its highest since the Second World War. However, six years later, the Kosovo War would sour relations. To put it simply, “When NATO began its 1999 air campaign in Kosovo without UN Security Council approval, Russians perceived this as part of NATO’s drive for unilateral security in Europe.” NATO’s circumvention of Security Council and Russian approval before beginning its campaign in Kosovo had detrimental consequences. Kosovo was the last straw since it united many of the most feared military and political threat. NATO intervention completely revamped Russian paranoia of the West. Russian Defense Ministry spokesmen even admitted that the Kosovo War directly led to revisions of Russian national security and defense strategy.

Once again, the intent of NATO to end conflict in Kosovo was severely misinterpreted by Russia. Where NATO saw the promotion of peace, Russia saw promotion of Western influence and expansionism. Russia found itself cornered in an unstable region. It was surrounded by a slew of nations who were eager for democracy and prosperity but were too weak to transition on their own. With economic and political instability bubbling, the main question in the Kremlin was (and likely still is), why is NATO still a functioning body and what do they seek to accomplish?

NATO – To Be or Not To Be? 

When the Soviet Union fell, so did the raison d’etre of NATO. Founded largely in response to concerns of Soviet expansionism, NATO’s continued existence and involvement abroad drives Russian consternation. Political and economic ideology aside, what differentiates NATO from the former USSR? As NYU law professor Stephen Holmes explains, “Important schools, at least, within Soviet studies, were purveyors or victims of the same fallacy that afflicts much contemporary social science: They confused analogy with causality. Their thesis was, put crudely, that the world is the way it is because it reminds us of the way it used to be.” Just as past American interpretations viewed the Soviet Union as another Third Reich, present-day Russian misinterpretation of Western expansionism is widely viewed as Cold War resurgence. Putin sees no route other than bellicosity to preserve the international relevance and regional significance of Russia. If Central Asian states will not side with him willingly, he must coerce them.

As mentioned above, during the Cold War, US foreign policy generally assessed Russian intent to be expansionism, which held severe national security consequences. Therefore, the cause of NATO’s formation was to militarily protect and unite Western society. In the present day, Russian foreign policy has assessed Western intent to be expansionism into the Eastern Bloc, with the intent of isolating Russia. If we consider Western-Russian military capabilities as a stalemate, then removing any regional influence of Russia is a castration of Russia’s legitimacy as a superpower. This loss of its superpower status underpins the final consequence of domino theory: isolation. Russia simply cannot afford any more dominos to fall. The causality behind this Russian perception is the Russian understanding that their economic, political, and sovereign status rest in their “national interests.” These “national interests,” as defined by “Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020,” extend into former Soviet Republics and other areas with Russian citizenry. So far, the degree to which Russia has pursued these national interests has been highly reflective of Western involvement in the region. In response, Russia has shown many attempts, via soft power, to contain Western influence. However, Russia is also attempting to curtail Western influence in key dominos like Ukraine and Moldova. With a Russian military presence in both countries, Putin has shown hard power determination in disallowing their Western unification.

Cold War Defrost 

While NATO and EU membership expansion has temporarily subsided, the paranoia of the Kremlin has not. Moscow remains locked in an unending bidding war for nations of the near abroad to join Russia-led coalitions. Russia now faces a foreign policy of containment far more complex than that of Cold War containment. It must rely on economic appeal to a host of nations it has repressed for decades. Through Russian eyes, Western intent continues to knock down dominos within the Eastern Bloc. If Russia continues to lose nations to which it is most culturally and historically connected, international isolation seems inevitable. Ironically, the use of hard power to contain falling dominos may only lead to further Western involvement in the Eastern Bloc in a sort of positive feedback loop.

North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Syria are a few examples of nations that defied international consensus on various topics, and were all met with equal international condemnation. Via increasing levels of hostility, self-induced ideological isolation, and lack of regional support, these nations had no choice but to succumb to international sanctions and defamation of their national legitimacy. If the West continues to think and act without considering the concept of domino theory symmetry, the consequences could be grave. If Russia perceives the loss of its regional authority to mean international isolation, it may pursue a more destructive means to reach a unified end.

The reasons, causation, and underlying motives of Russia’s provocative posturing are numerous. With ethnic conflict, territorial disputes, and economic concerns, Putin’s Russia has become ripe with paranoia. The most important concept to grasp is not what Putin’s Russia is most concerned with, but why Putin’s Russia has these concerns. As simplistic as the concept of symmetry is, it should not be completely overlooked. The haunting resemblance of containment in Russian foreign policy must be acknowledged in future Western initiatives before the Central Asian house of dominos falls.

Ukraine as Domino 

The unfolding of recent events in Ukraine has the world—and academia— buzzing. Political scientists, economists, and others continue to peddle their theories advocating adequate international reprimanding and fiscal consequences for Russian actions in Crimea. While the conflict in to Ukraine is severe, their explanation would detract from the overarching issue of Russian paranoia and its expanding inferiority complex. This central issue is not that Ukraine requires stabilization; it is from whom that stabilization should come.

Putin’s Russia has not been presented with such a prime opportunity to center-stage its “national security interest” since the Georgian War in 2008. By asserting that “the defense of Russian citizens abroad” is key to Russian “national security” their profits are twofold. First, Russia can depict the expansiveness of its ethnic empire. With so many people claiming to be ethnic Russians (for which there is yet to be a hard definition), Russia may assert its role as the only logical caretaker for certain Central Asian states. Secondly, by labeling its citizens and certain institutions abroad as “national security interests”, Russia can better homogenize Central Asia as a Russian responsibility and priority. It is no coincidence that a Russian occupation of Crimea comes on the heels of increased Ukrainian discourse with the West. Destabilization and conflict in Ukraine only provided the legal foothold Russia needed to gain a physical presence in Ukraine and attain an international spotlight to better express its regional relevance.

As mentioned earlier, significant use of Russian hard power would be met with further Western intervention in Ukraine. Thus negating Putin’s drive to secure a, reinvigorated, regional responsibility for Russia. Ukraine holds a close historical and cultural relationship to Russia, and preserving the Ukrainian domino ranks above all others in Central Asia. This allows us to better understand the Russian reaction to Western involvement and the paranoid Russian misinterpretation of Western intent. Above all, Russia’s reaction helps substantiate my above-mentioned claim that, “If Russia perceives the loss of its regional authority to mean international isolation, it may pursue a more destructive means to reach a unified end”.


Frank Pellegrino GS `15, is working towards a B.A. in Political Science, specializing in International Relations. He was born and raised in Miami, Florida before serving as an intelligence analyst in the United States Marine Corps. When he is not attempting to diagnose the onset of Vladimir Putin’s apparent vestiphobia, he enjoys billiards, paintball, and classic car restoration projects. He can be reached at: fjp2119@columbia.edu