How not to interfere in another country’s domestic politics

By Igor Istomin, Associate Professor at the Department of Applied International Political Analysis, MGIMO University


Foreign interference poses an increasing threat in the current tensions among major powers, given pervasive expectations regarding its strategic effects and low costs. Transborder operations seeking to undermine a government or reinforce it against opposition emerge as a safer alternative to forcible coercion. Such operations incorporate assistance to political groups and individuals within a target state aiming to reorient its foreign policy, weaken its capabilities or promote one’s ideology. However, this article exposes their deficiencies. It indicates the low chances of proxies to establish their rule, the difficulties in converting such accomplishments into benefits for an interfering state, and the emotional grievances from unfulfilled expectations. By delegating responsibilities, an interfering state loosens its operational control. The article strongly warns against targeting major powers as they are hard to subvert and supply proxies with opportunities to defect. The record of Soviet assistance to the Chinese Communists reveals the negative repercussions of the seemingly successful interference. It is a rare instance where interference targeting a major power produced a change in its government. For several years the People’s Republic of China remained a military ally and ideological disciple to Moscow, but these accomplishments were unsustainable. Soviet leverage dissipated as the Chinese Communists consolidated their rule, while disagreements over standing and past wrongs precipitated the breakdown of cooperation. Although the recent debates on interference emphasize anxiety over the technological transformations, this article focuses on fundamental political limitations, ensuring applicability of its lessons in spite of potential changes in means employed by interfering states.

Concerns over interference in domestic affairs are aggravating the rising tensions between major powers. US intelligence accused foreign governments of targeting the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns and issued warnings regarding future elections. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about efforts ‘to directly interfere in public and political affairs in Russia’. And Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi argued that ‘the United States has been willfully interfering in other countries’ internal affairs in the name of democracy and human rights’.

Hedley Bull claimed that to intervene, ‘the intervener should be superior in power to the object of the intervention’. Nevertheless, growing anxiety regarding interference focuses on its contribution to the rivalries among near-peers. Given the risks of military confrontation in the nuclear age and the bonds of economic interdependence, interference emerges as a preferable instrument of coercion among major powers. Apart from reduced escalation concerns, it tempts by offering high returns on low investments.

Although states rarely admit their own culpability, they warn against the role of such interference in empowering adversaries. Thus the Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu cautioned against the ‘coloured revolutions’ instigated from abroad as they ‘allow with minimum resources and limited use of one’s arms and armed forces to crush regional powers, advancing political and economic aims’. Similarly, US analysts expect Moscow to rely on subversion ‘because it could help achieve multiple Russian foreign policy interests at relatively low cost’.

If interference were as effective and cheap as these comments suggest, it could play a decisive role in competition between major powers. However, the historical record cautions against fascination with this instrument, pointing to its limited benefits and hidden costs. Interference targeting major powers represents an especially questionable gamble, given their resilience. As part of this special issue focusing on ‘how not to do international relations’, this article delves into challenges confronting interference in the politics of a major power.

Synthesizing the preceding literature on the subject, the article explains the appeal of interference as an instrument of national statecraft and reveals the deceptiveness of this attraction. It also points to the principal–agent dilemma, under-appreciated in previous studies, which further inhibits meddling in politics of major powers. Leaving the normative controversies aside, I claim that the strategic purpose of interference suffers from unreliable proxies and grievances that can poison future relations. Even relatively successful operations bring few short-term gains and lasting liabilities.

The article establishes the validity of this argument by exploring the record of Soviet assistance to the Chinese communists from the 1920s to the 1940s. This instance represents a counterintuitive case for claims against interference targeting major powers. In essence, the Soviet protégé succeeded in its struggle, defying pre-existing expectations. Such an outcome is rare, as most interference fails to produce regime change. And yet, although China obtained recognition as a major power, its political instability and economic backwardness made it an easier target than other states of similar stature. Moreover, the Chinese communists had long paid tutelage to Moscow as the headquarters of the world revolution, which should have guaranteed their obedience.

Accordingly, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China should have represented a strategic accomplishment for Moscow. Nevertheless, once the Chinese communists had consolidated their rule, they prioritized national goals, raising demands in an attempt to revise their unequal relations with the Soviet Union. Over time, they strove to reduce their dependence on Moscow, transforming China into a rival to the Soviet Union. Thus, the selected case illustrates that even under the best possible conditions, interference in the politics of a major power (even a potential one) is a questionable gamble.

Before analysing the deficiencies of interference, I identify the variant most relevant to current anxieties. I then examine the record of interfering states, demonstrating their limited chances of success. I compare the upfront costs of meddling with the hidden and delayed effects of interference, explaining the false temptation to rely on it. A case-study of Soviet assistance to the Chinese communists reveals the negative repercussions of even apparently successful interference. In conclusion, I summarize key points of relevance for current rivalries, pointing to the lasting relevance of the historical lessons.

Domestic politics as an exploitable target

An analysis of interference has to confront the evasiveness of the term, which is both intuitively understood and overly broad. This section provides a working definition and specifies the activities that fall within the purview of the subsequent analysis. Furthermore, it explores the main rationales behind this policy. Such an examination establishes the foundations for assessment of successes and failures of interference in the following sections.

Interference is a generic term covering transborder operations by an external actor in violation of the sovereignty of a target state. The notion of sovereignty is itself controversial, given the difficulties in demarcation between the international and internal domains. Nevertheless, the international community, through the resolutions of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), has repeatedly asserted that ‘every state has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems’. Meanwhile, history exhibits numerous violations of this right, undertaken in multiple ways.

The rising cross-border flows of people and information as well as international standards of democratic accountability have amplified controversies over the boundaries of sovereignty. However, meddling by a foreign government in the procedures by which national rulers are defined continues to trigger political and legal pushback. It remains an intrusion into sovereign privileges that attracts more attention than penetration by transnational actors or attempts to sway policies in individual issue areas. Thus, the subsequent analysis here focuses on activities of states that target the structure of political authority in their peers. It deals with transborder operations short of military invasion that undermine an existing government or reinforce it against opposition.

Meddling without the use of force possesses particular characteristics that distinguish it from armed interventions. The latter impose political outcomes through the occupation of territory. Although physical presence in a target state does not guarantee the ability to steer its politics, it gives leverage unobtainable in other circumstances. However, major powers are largely immune from such interventions, given the risks associated with an armed struggle. Thus, concerns over military invasions remain marginal in tensions between China and the United States or Russia and the United States, amid anxiety regarding non-forcible interference.

Non-forcible interference provides an alternative to military clashes, instead using indirect influence. An interfering state affects the politics of its target by supporting local groups and personalities that act as its proxies. Its support can take multiple forms, including propaganda campaigns, provision of expertise or financing, and even limited armed harassment. Through such instruments, it attempts to manipulate domestic politics in a target state without the overt imposition of a government. However, the ultimate objectives of an interfering state are benefits for itself rather than fulfilling the objectives of its proxies. Potential gains fall into three main categories: reorientating the foreign policy intentions of a target state, weakening its capabilities or eliminating an ideological threat. The linkage between meddling and these consequences deserves additional clarification.

Primarily, interference pays off when it brings to power sympathizers in a target state eager to pursue a course favourable for the interfering state. Available evidence affirms that leadership changes become a significant basis for foreign policy reorientations. By these means, external actors acquire a stake in the composition of national governments, which can be significant where there is internal disagreement over foreign policy priorities. As the rise of proxies promises interstate cooperation, while the emergence of a hostile government threatens tensions, interference aspires to shape the intentions of a target in line with the preferences of its initiator.

Another strategic reason for violating a state’s sovereignty is to weaken its ability to compete in the international arena. Even if interference does not bring proxies to power, it can negatively affect the national strength of an adversary. By fomenting internal discord, it undermines the state’s ability to mobilize resources and distracts it from pursuing an assertive foreign policy. Even if it does not transform a target into a friend, interference makes it less dangerous as an opponent. Assistance to proxies also provides leverage in bargaining with a hostile government, enabling the interfering state to force concessions in exchange for its cessation.

Finally, meddling can serve the domestic rather than foreign policy interests of an interfering state, confronting the transnational proliferation of threatening political ideas. The authority of ruling elites in any political regime is based in part on ideological foundations, portraying the existing system of government as preferable. Rival ideologies adopted by other states threaten to subvert the population at home, undermining the legitimacy of the government. Interference offers the possibility of depriving these threatening alternatives of a source of inspiration and practical assistance in a target state. Therefore, ideological threats create an incentive for an interfering state to promote its own political model.

The multitude of potential gains broadens the attraction of interference (see Table 1), especially as they are not mutually exclusive. For example, states with similar political regimes tend to cooperate in the international arena. Thus advancement of one’s ideology also creates expectations of an alignment in foreign policy. Such complementarity increases the temptation for states to turn to interference. However, the utility of such operations depends on the actual ability of interfering states to impose expected effects on their targets, a point I will examine in the following section.

Table 1

Rationales behind interference

IntentionsCapabilitiesPolitical regime
Expected benefits Improved relations with a target state Exploitable weakness of a target state Political stability in an interfering state 
Effects on a targeted country Government with intentions favourable for an interfering state Diminishing national strength/distraction Establishment of a similar political regime 
Preferable proxies Foreign policy sympathizers Radical revolutionaries Like-minded ideologies 
Ascent of proxies to power Desirable Irrelevant Desirable 

Source: Author.Open in new tab

The false promise of interference

The empirical record demonstrates that major powers do not shy away from meddling in the domestic politics of other states. Throughout the 2010s, scholars produced datasets enabling broad comparisons of such instances. They portray a paradoxical picture of intense reliance on interference and limited payoffs from it. This section will examine the frequency of meddling before turning to its consequences for target and interfering states. The question of the price of interference will be addressed in the following section.

Exploration of historical evidence reveals that interference is a routine policy choice for major powers. Lindsey O’Rourke identified 64 US-backed covert attempts at regime change throughout the Cold War. Don Levin composed a dataset of electoral interference by the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States which includes 117 instances, covering 11.3 per cent of all competitive elections between 1946 and 2000. Other specialists applying a broader understanding of election intervention identified some form of influences in 65 per cent of cases in a sample covering the period 1945–2012.

The practice of interference did not start with the Cold War. Evidence goes back to classical Greece, where Athens and Sparta supported competing factions in other city-states. The historical record supports Hans Morgenthau’s claim that ‘intervention is as ancient and well-established an instrument of foreign policy as are diplomatic pressure, negotiations, and war’.

However, interference long remained on the margins of academic interest, and even the recent surge of studies focuses primarily on its role in asymmetric relations. Most instances in the existing datasets comprise interferences by major powers targeting small states. Nevertheless, they also cover a few cases of its application against major powers. For example, Levin identifies two Soviet attempts to influence American elections in 1948 and 1984, while O’Rourke lists six US covert operations against the Soviet Union from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s.

The same studies that uncover the prevalence of interference demonstrate its limited effect on target states. O’Rourke concluded that two-thirds of the US-led covert operations failed, and those that succeeded were mainly mounted against weak targets that were often American allies in the first place. The record of the Dominican Republic in the 1960s provides an illustrative example. Fearing another communist takeover after Cuba, Washington sought to replace the local dictator Rafael Trujillo. However, it experienced several failures and even had to conduct an overt intervention before imposing a favourable government on a small island in its backyard.

Meanwhile, US interference was not able to undermine the Eastern bloc, let alone the Soviet Union. Support for separatist movements in Ukraine and the Baltic states failed to produce noticeable insurrections against Moscow. The dissident movement remained essentially harmless for communist rule. Eventually, Washington recognized its inability to affect Soviet leadership through covert operations and, although it did not abandon interference, scaled it down, concentrating on weakening the ideological appeal of communism rather than on seeking popular uprisings.

The Soviet record remained similarly poor, which was especially evident in eastern Europe, given its structural power in this region. Although Moscow established communist regimes in 1947–8, its leverage decreased over time. Soviet efforts to replace inconvenient leaders such as Yugoslavia’s Josef Tito failed, despite the availability of willing proxies. Even the threat of armed force did not necessarily enable Moscow to get its way. Its interference in Poland in 1956, coinciding with military drills, did not arrest the removal of Soviet loyalists from the Polish leadership; indeed, the emergence of a nationally orientated government in Warsaw forced Soviet concessions in security and economic matters.

Levin claims that electoral interference produces stronger returns than other types of meddling. It increases the voting for proxies on average by 3 per cent, providing an edge in competitive campaigns. However, most interferences ended in electoral victory for the proxy when an interfering state supported existing rulers. The effects of support for the opposition are poorer (see Table 2 below). Moreover, Levin’s appraisal of election interference relies on instances targeting small states. In his dataset, two instances of Soviet meddling in US electoral campaigns did not produce electoral consequences; however, this sample is too small to support any generalizations.

Table 2

Outcomes of electoral interference, 1946–2000

Result for the proxyAll electoral interferencesAssistance to incumbentsAssistance to challengers
 No. of cases % No. of cases % No. of cases % 
Electoral victory 67 58 40 80 25 38 
Electoral loss 48 42 10 20 40 61 
All cases 115  50  65  

Source: Constructed by author using data from Don H. Levin, Meddling in the ballot box: the causes and effects of partisan electoral interventions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).Open in new tab

While examining the effects of interference on targeted states, one should remember that in the calculations of an interfering state, they serve only as intermediate preconditions for acquiring benefits for itself. The empirical evidence on the latter is weak at best. The US record throughout the Cold War demonstrated that interference did not decrease the chances of militarized disputes, even with the successful overthrow of the incumbent regime in a target state; indeed, after failed covert operations the chances of militarized disputes were significantly increased. This result contradicts expectations that meddling helps improve bilateral relations. Similarly, the contribution of interference to promoting a political model favoured by the initiator does not find strong empirical backing. Studies of covert operations and interference in elections by democratic states demonstrate that, on average, they harmed rather than facilitated democratization in target states.

The Cold War record also fails to show a weakening impact of interference on major powers. Soviet meddling in American elections in 1948 or 1984 did not detract from the United States’ international stature. Furthermore, the most aggressive US covert operations against Moscow in the late 1940s and early 1950s took place in a period when Soviet capabilities were growing. It is notable that interference by the superpowers in each other’s politics did not figure in the most prominent narrations of Cold War history.

Thus the record of interference demonstrates its limited capacity to secure strategic benefits for an initiator. Considering the available evidence, its repeated use, especially against such hard targets as major powers, is puzzling. Why would states use a policy which does not produce the expected returns? An explanation for this paradox can lie in the domain of costs rather than benefits, as interference often poses a relatively cheap option considering the alternatives. I will assess this assertion in the following section.

The hidden price of meddling

States design policies with a view not only to their potential benefits, but also the costs, including costs relative to alternatives. Even if the chance of overthrowing an incumbent regime is slim, an incentive to meddle arises once that regime proves impossible to work with. The exhaustion of diplomatic arguments provides an incentive to prevent the hostile government from pursuing its policies. In such circumstances, interference poses a safer instrument than military intervention. However, its reliance on proxies creates hidden risks for an initiator. This section will seek to rectify common miscalculations by examining such risks. It will start from the less problematic costs arising from interference which turn even a successful operation into a liability.

An image of interference as a low-cost instrument arises from the redistribution of those costs to political groups and individuals in a target state. This effect is particularly evident in human losses, which constitute a major concern in military interventions. Even the most aggressive interference primarily exposes local people to such losses. For example, during the covert operations in Albania in 1949–54, the Albanian authorities executed between 200 and 1,000 captured paramilitaries, while their American and British handlers stayed out of harm’s way. The financial costs of interference are also trivial compared to those of military campaigns. For example, in 1963, the US invested US$70,000 in a coup against the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. In comparison, Washington spent US$111 billion dollars on its failed military intervention in Vietnam from 1965 to 1975.

Finally, interference causes minor risks of unintended escalation for its initiator. Even leaks exposing covert operations do not necessarily cause forceful pushback, as interference remains in a grey area below conventional understanding of aggression. States do not start wars in retaliation for meddling. Rather, an interfering state has greater incentives to escalate a switch to military intervention once its covert operations failed. The Soviet response to the Hungarian crisis in 1956 illustrates such dynamics. When political means proved futile, Moscow turned to armed force.

While diminishing traditional costs, interference creates risks of its own, introducing a principal–agent dilemma. By delegating responsibilities to local groups and individuals, an interfering state loosens its operational control over events. Also, it cannot be sure of the loyalties of these groups and individuals, given the imperfect information regarding the capacities and intentions of such proxies. The latter pursue their own goals, which do not necessarily fit neatly with the preferences of their sponsors. Some differences between an interfering state and its proxies are evident from the start but remain latent in the face of common opponents. Others emerge over time as intentions change with circumstances.

These differences restrict the allegiance of proxies to an interfering state and their eagerness to repay its assistance. Thus, gains by the former do not necessarily translate into benefits for the latter. The principal–agent dilemma intensifies if the proxies consolidate their rule in a target state, becoming less reliant on external help. Paradoxically, the more successful an interfering state is in assisting them, the less leverage it retains. Proxies obtain an incentive to renege on their loyalty to foreign sponsors in search of recognition from domestic audiences. Such dynamics mirror the desire of an interfering state to exploit them for its benefit. However, it adds insult to injury for the interfering state, running counter to expectations of gratitude for the assistance.

Such grievances were vividly apparent in exchanges between Moscow and Belgrade in the late 1940s. Specifically, the Soviet leadership criticized Tito for neglecting Moscow’s contribution to its success, claiming that ‘when the people’s liberation movement was in deep crisis, the Soviet army came to help the Yugoslav nation, defeated the German invaders, freed Belgrade and, therefore, created necessary preconditions for the ascent of the [Yugoslav] Communist party to power’. Such appeals add a sense of betrayal to political disagreements, making them more acutely felt.

The temptation to abandon foreign sponsors increases with the size of a target. Small states often depend on external assistance, which preserves leverage for an interfering state after its proxies establish themselves in power. Major powers are more self-sufficient, which undermines prospects of long-term control over their governments. They not only represent hard targets for interference, but also provide the greatest challenge in terms of the reliability of proxies.

The analysis above demonstrates that interference entails underestimated disadvantages. Low material expenditures and a sense of escalation control can be misleading when they distract attention from the unreliability of proxies and the long-term mistrust created by meddling. This discrepancy between immediate and hidden costs helps explain the relative frequency of interferences despite their limited returns. Meddling in the politics of major powers becomes an especially dubious gamble owing to the lack of leverage over former proxies once they consolidate their rule. The following section turns to the Soviet record of supporting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), substantiating the drawbacks for an initiator even in seemingly successful cases of interference.

Soviet assistance to the CCP

The preceding sections have argued against interference, indicating the low chance of a proxy establishing itself in power, the difficulties in converting a proxy’s achievements into benefits for an interfering state, and the hidden costs of meddling. They have also warned strongly against targeting major powers, as they are hard to subvert and supply proxies that are prone to defect. Despite these challenges, meddling does work in some cases. The immediate outcomes can even exceed expectations. These occasional successes reinforce the seductiveness of interference. However, they mask serious disadvantages.

Soviet backing for the CCP falls in the category of unexpected success, transforming the country into a military ally and ideological disciple of Moscow. Nevertheless, the latter failed to overcome reliability concerns, while Soviet heavy-handedness caused resentment among Chinese communists. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Beijing’s quest for equality was at odds with Moscow’s presumptions of Chinese indebtedness. These differences contributed to the downfall of the short-lived Sino-Soviet alliance.

This case provides insights into interference that targets major powers, as the enormous potential of China was recognized even in times of national weakness. In the mid-1940s, Moscow placed China among the key players in the international system, along with the United States, Britain and itself. Meanwhile, the turmoil in China invited the most aggressive forms of interference, enabling a degree of foreign penetration unobtainable in other circumstances. Few other major powers confronted similar difficulties for so long.

In the following analysis, I will investigate the evolution of Soviet involvement in Chinese politics from the 1920s until the establishment of the PRC, tracing the evidence of interference. I will then assess the intentions behind it, looking at the transformation of Moscow’s preferences. This examination will contribute to the analysis of the success rate of Soviet policies. After that, I will examine the costs of interference. Finally, I will discuss the ambiguous outcomes for an interfering state, focusing on Moscow’s controversial relations with the CCP.

The fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 inaugurated a prolonged period of turmoil in China. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought the Bolsheviks to power. The newly created government in Russia promoted ties with several contenders in China. It primarily relied on the Kuomintang (KMT), but also encouraged Marxist study groups, which prepared the ground for the establishment of the CCP in 1921. For the next decade, the CCP relied on Soviet funding, and consequently followed Moscow’s guidelines, to its own detriment. Under Soviet direction, the Chinese communists cooperated with the KMT, which consolidated its rule. This policy backfired in 1926–7 when the KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek purged the CCP.

The rise of Mao Zedong as leader of the Chinese communists in the 1930s made them less subservient to Moscow. While refraining from directly challenging Soviet guidelines, he pursued increasing autonomy. Mao’s authority emerged from successes against the KMT obtained without foreign aid. During the CCP’s Long March in 1934–5, his communications with Moscow collapsed entirely. With the consolidation of communist positions in northern China, the Soviet leadership confined its liaison to CCP headquarters, but the paucity of assistance it provided diminished its leverage.

Soviet concerns over its unruly proxy increased in the late 1930s. In response to the Japanese threat, Moscow orchestrated a coalition between the CCP and the Chiang Kai-shek government. It expected their forces to bog down the Japanese army, preventing it from turning north. Such distraction became urgent after the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. However, the CCP abandoned the fight against Japan to preserve troops for future struggles with the KMT.

The resulting disaffection explains the Soviet transactional attitude to the Chinese communists when the situation changed in Moscow’s favour. After the triumph over Nazi Germany in May 1945, it committed itself to defeating the Japanese forces in China. Thereby, Moscow sought to secure its economic and security interests in Manchuria and Outer Mongolia. Its ties to the CCP gave it leverage in pressing the Chinese government to recognize these interests. Once Chiang Kai-shek accepted the Soviet terms, Moscow promised not to interfere in Chinese politics, effectively reneging on its support for Mao.

After the Soviet forces crushed the Japanese army on the continent in August 1945, Moscow abided by the deal. When the CCP cadres rushed to establish communist rule in Manchuria, they faced a cold reception. Soviet officials in the area pledged to transfer authority to the representatives of the KMT. Chiang Kai-shek even urged the prolongation of the Soviet military occupation of Manchuria beyond the time-frame initially negotiated. Meanwhile, Moscow pushed Mao into negotiations with the KMT.49

Nevertheless, relations between the Soviet and Chinese governments rapidly deteriorated. Moscow raised concerns after the landing of US Marines in China, while the Chinese leader maintained suspicions over Soviet connections to the CCP. The visit by Jiang Jingguo (the son of Chiang Kai-shek) to Moscow in December 1945 failed to resolve these differences. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin refused to acknowledge his patronage over the CCP, while the KMT showed reluctance to acknowledge Soviet interests in Manchuria.

Thereafter, Moscow increased its assistance to the Chinese communists. It transferred captured Japanese weapons to the CCP and facilitated its operations in occupied areas. Ethnic Chinese serving in the Soviet army joined the ranks of the CCP. Moscow also prevented the landing of government forces in Dalian and Lüshun, undermining their ability to defeat the communists. In early 1946, Soviet troops withdrew from Manchuria, leaving it largely to the CCP.

However, Chiang Kai-shek’s offensives in 1946 brought the communists to the brink of defeat, reaffirming Soviet beliefs in the supremacy of the KMT. Stalin encouraged the CCP to compromise with Chiang Kai-shek, to the irritation of Mao, who preferred that fighting should continue. The communist advance across Manchuria in 1947 shifted the course of the struggle. The CCP consolidated control over territories along the border, acquiring regular access to Soviet supplies, which enabled the Chinese communists to score successes beyond Manchuria.

In early 1948, Moscow sent to the CCP-controlled Manchuria a team of technical specialists under a former minister of transportation, Ivan Kovalev, who became a key adviser to Mao. In January 1949, Stalin delegated a member of the Soviet Politburo, Anastas Mikoyan, to the communist headquarters for secret talks. The high-level consultations continued in July–August 1949 with the arrival in Moscow of a CCP delegation led by Liu Shaoqi. They secured further Soviet assistance and prepared the inauguration of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949.55

By the end of the year, the CCP had established its rule over the mainland, forcing the KMT to Taiwan. This achievement came unexpectedly not only to its opponents, but also to Moscow. Soviet policy did not envisage communist victory until a very late stage. In line with the discussion in the preceding sections, Moscow sought to obtain gains even without it. Examination of the Soviet rationale for supporting the CCP is of critical importance for assessing the strategic outcomes from its perspective.

At various points, Moscow pursued each of the gains assigned to interference, including promotion of its ideology, weakening a target state and affecting its intentions. Its initial support of the CCP in the early 1920s reflected Bolshevik anxiety over the preservation of Soviet rule in Russia, which they associated with the advancement of world revolution. After the failed communist uprisings in Europe, Moscow hoped that the liberation of the peoples of the East would galvanize the revolutionary movement.

With the consolidation of Soviet rule at home, Moscow became less fearful of the absence of fellow communist states. By the mid-1920s, it required the CCP to support the Soviet Union regardless of the consequences for the Chinese revolution. After Soviet designs for a friendly coalition of the KMT and the communists collapsed, Moscow sought to weaken the threat to its interests in China. The crisis on the Chinese Eastern Road in 1929 bolstered this shift, as Moscow forced the Chinese communists to support Soviet rights in Manchuria despite negative public attitudes.

This approach survived into the 1930s and 1940s, creating a gap with the CCP, which gave priority to its domestic struggle. As Moscow did not expect the communists to gain victory over the KMT, it focused on restoring the former Russian presence in Manchuria. Despite a shaky record of relations with Chiang Kai-shek, Stalin hoped to secure his cooperation after the Second World War given the shared threat of Japanese revisionism. Moscow’s calculations unravelled as the Chinese government proved uncompromising and increasingly inclined to the United States.

From this point, Stalin relied on the CCP’s advances in Manchuria in the hope that it would establish a territorial buffer for the Soviet Union or make the KMT more amenable to concessions. Assistance to the Chinese communists was still aimed at weakening an opponent rather than drastically transforming its intentions. The subsequent CCP victories overturned these plans. Instead of forcing the existing authorities to cooperate, Moscow could now expect the future Mao government to deliver a better deal. By 1948, its objective had changed from weakening the target state to affecting its intentions.

However, with the Chinese communists, Moscow retained the same strategic interests as before, seeking a buffer along its Far Eastern territories and an ally against military threats in Asia, which now included the United States. The ideological affinity of the CCP represented a side-benefit. Nevertheless, with the creation of the PRC, Moscow faced calls from Beijing to rectify the unequal agreements concluded earlier. The differences between the sides became evident during Mao’s visit to Moscow in late 1949 and early 1950. Fearing potential Chinese defection to the United States, Stalin agreed to give up the Soviet presence in Dalian and Lüshun by 1952 and to curtail the rights over the Manchurian railroad. He also extended economic and military assistance to the PRC.

Moscow’s concessions revealed concerns regarding Mao’s loyalty. The Chinese leader established a reputation for not always following Soviet instructions. Moreover, Stalin viewed Mao as a nationalist rather than a true communist. His concerns were not groundless. By the mid-1940s, the Soviet sympathizers (such as the north-eastern chief Gao Gan) constituted a minority in the CCP politburo. Mao’s eagerness to promote ties with Moscow hinged on the Russian contribution to CCP rule over China.

Nevertheless, for Moscow the communist government remained preferable to the KMT alternative. The CCP’s advances expedited the withdrawal of US troops from China. Mao promulgated a policy of ‘leaning on one side’, prioritizing cooperation with the Soviet Union. In 1950, the PRC proved a valuable ally with the deployment of the Chinese volunteers in the Korean War. This contribution reflected Mao’s own security considerations, as North Korea constituted a bulwark against potential US intervention into China. However, one can argue that the KMT government would have been less preoccupied with such a buffer, as it relied on assistance from Washington itself.

Soviet assistance to the CCP produced an immediate success, bringing Chinese policies into line with Moscow’s preferences. Despite concessions on Manchuria, the outcome exceeded the expectations of interference against a major power described in the preceding section. Moreover, such benefits came at a limited material price. The primary Soviet contribution comprised the Japanese military and industrial potential handed to the CCP in Manchuria. The Chinese communists also relied on Moscow for help consolidating their authority. During his visit to Moscow, Liu Shaoqi secured a low-interest loan of US$300 million and the delegation of 600 Soviet managerial and technical specialists.

Moreover, Moscow managed to conceal its ties to the CCP, retaining diplomatic relations with the Chiang Kai-shek government. The Soviet Embassy even joined the KMT flight from Nanjing on the eve of its takeover. Stalin repeatedly declined Mao’s requests to visit Moscow until the announcement of the PRC, fearing greater US involvement in China. These efforts worked, as Soviet assistance avoided major pushback from Washington. In comparison, earlier Soviet armed intervention in Iran confronted a forceful western response.

However, the benefits of interference proved unsustainable. The CCP victory established the prerequisites of an increase in China’s strength. As Nikita Khrushchev realized throughout the 1950s, the Soviet Union could maintain the loyalty of the PRC only by making repeated concessions, which in turn ignited further Chinese ambitions. These postponed but did not prevent the eventual breakdown of cooperation. Soviet leverage dissipated as the CCP consolidated its rule, while disagreements over the relative standing of Moscow and Beijing, and grievances over past wrongs, accumulated.

After Stalin’s death, Mao levelled accusations against the deceased Soviet leader, complaining of heavy-handed pressure and a lack of appreciation of the Chinese communists. In contrast with previous requests for guidelines from Moscow, he called now for parity in Sino-Soviet relations. Mao grew sensitive about matters of national sovereignty, protesting against Moscow’s suggestions to construct a long-wave naval radio station at Hainan Island and place Soviet submarines in Chinese ports. Meanwhile, Moscow expressed discontent with Chinese ingratitude for its significant assistance.

The breakdown of relations after 1958 undermined Soviet efforts to ensure security for its Far Eastern territories and positioned Beijing as a competitor to Moscow. It cancelled the benefits achieved through Soviet assistance to the CCP during the Chinese civil war and consolidation of the PRC. Furthermore, the aid previously provided transformed Beijing into a more potent rival for the Soviet Union than China under Chiang Kai-shek. Thus initial gains turned into liabilities.

The case illustrates that even apparently successful interference targeting a major power is a questionable gamble. It reveals the severity of the principal–agent dilemma as well as the poisonous effect of accompanying grievances. The low upfront costs and initial benefits foreshadowed subsequent losses for the interfering state. Shared ideological roots and their country’s economic backwardness did not discourage Chinese communists from seeking autonomy from Moscow. Once Mao had consolidated his rule, he recollected earlier abuses by Stalin; and, as described in the previous section, in less than a decade the relationship between Beijing and Moscow turned from one of obedience to one of hostility.


This article has sought to expose the strategic deficiencies of foreign interference in domestic affairs. Leaving aside moral controversies, it has examined the widespread expectations regarding the benefits of this instrument for an interfering state. The empirical record reveals that interference is a bad option, especially when it targets a major power. It demonstrates that the assistance to proxies mostly fails to produce regime change, while conversion of the target state’s accomplishments into benefits for an interfering state is even more problematic. Although interference positions itself as a low-cost option, it contains hidden flaws arising from dependence on unreliable proxies and the creation of lasting grievances. Even successful interference produces limited short-term benefits along with long-term liabilities.

The case of Soviet assistance to the Chinese communists substantiates these findings. It is a rare instance of interference targeting a major power producing a change in its government. However, this case corroborates the dilemma of proxies. For a few years the PRC remained a military ally and ideological disciple to Moscow. However, such loyalty was unsustainable, as Mao cherished ambitions which differed from Soviet designs. Diverging preferences enhanced mutual suspi cions that transformed into disagreements, fuelled by perceptions of ingratitude on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

This analysis produces generalizable lessons on interference. First, there is a trade-off between the degree of control exercised by an interfering state and the chances of its proxies succeeding. The capable ones are unreliable, and the reliable ones are often inconsequential. In the case analysed above, when the CCP was loyal to Moscow, it stayed politically marginal. Once it acquired a more capable leader, he was increasingly disobedient.

Second, interference nurtures a contradictory world-view, combining cynical effort to exploit political divisions within a target state with expectations of gratitude from local beneficiaries. This incoherence adds an emotional dimension to the political disagreements, producing entrenched tensions. In the Soviet case, Moscow’s suspicions of disloyalty on the part of the Chinese communists ignored the fact that Stalin’s transactional approach to the CCP did not cultivate fertile ground for sincere attachment.

The recent debates on interference reveal anxiety over the rise of innovative technologies. Proliferation of cyber operations and influence through social media have sown doubts about the relevance of the historical record for future meddling, as emerging tools seemingly diminish costs and complicate the exposure of an interfering state. The explosive growth of non-governmental organizations and activists fosters similar concerns, providing deniable brokers between an interfering state and local politicians in a target state, acting as ultimate proxies for the former.

However, the historical record demonstrates that neither immediate costs nor concerns over potential escalation have previously created substantial barriers to interference. Consequently, the lessons from this article remain relevant in the context of currently predominant technologies, as they focus on the downsides of interference rooted in its political nature. Ambiguous relations with proxies and psychological inconsistencies are intrinsic to indirect efforts to influence a target, regardless of the specific means adopted. Therefore, the findings of this article should remain valid for future cases despite ongoing changes in technology.

One can even claim that concerns relating to interference through cyber operations or non-governmental activists confront even greater reliability issues than previous practices. They depend on chains of agents aimed at concealing the ultimate benefactor. However, each additional layer weakens the principal’s control over outcomes. If the extensive Soviet apparatus proved unable to dominate their fellow communists in China, it is even less realistic to expect to maintain the loyalty of proxies involved in more recent instances. Therefore, interference targeting major powers today appears no more strategically promising than it was historically.

This piece is republished from International Affairs.

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