Stalin’s approach to the Cold War alternated between the ideological and the pragmatic, but veered mainly towards the latter. In ideological terms Stalin was committed to the Marxist-Leninist worldview that conflict between the capitalist and communist powers was inevitable and that the latter would ultimately triumph.
On the other hand, Stalin often displayed considerable pragmatism in how he conducted relations with the West during the early years of the Cold War. A notable example of this is his policy in relation to the Korean War. Initially, Stalin was lukewarm to the idea of North Korea invading the South. He was concerned above all to maintain a balance of power in the Far East and didn’t unduly want to antagonize the United States or give the impression that the USSR was reneging on its commitments to the United Nations.
However, once he became convinced that the United States wouldn’t intervene to help South Korea in the event of an invasion, Stalin went along with Kim Il-Sung’s proposals. Yet even here, Stalin was motivated primarily by opportunism rather than revolutionary zeal. And the subsequent low-key involvement of Soviet men and materiel indicates that Stalin was unwilling to take unnecessary risks, while at the same time remaining perfectly happy to reap the benefits of his allies’ recklessness. Indeed, it was this cynical exercise in realpolitik that angered the much more ideologically driven Chinese, souring Sino-Soviet relations for decades to come.
A similar dynamic can be observed in Stalin’s policy towards Europe. On the face of it, he showed a commitment to the establishment of communist governments in those countries already occupied by Soviet troops. But the main reason for doing so was the defense of the Soviet Union rather than any notion of spreading the communist revolution worldwide. At the same time, an element of political ideology was at play here. Stalin wanted to create a large buffer zone of communist states which he could control and which would be used as a means of defending the USSR in the event of an insurgency by the West as part of the final confrontation between the capitalist and communist powers that he thought both inevitable and desirable.