Revisiting Containment

Hanna Samir Kassab on how the Cold War strategy used against the Soviet Union could be utilized again against Russia today.
By: /
March 27, 2014

History demonstrates that states cannot be friends forever, yet we are naïve enough to believe they can. With the end of the Cold War, many scholars and analysts thought that the world would change for the better. Given the end of history, war would no longer be a possibility as democracy and American-led capitalism prevailed. According to this logic, enemies would now be socialized into friends. But they were wrong. Power is, and forever will be, the ultimate arbiter of world politics.

Russia today is far more powerful than the Russia of 1991. Back then, Russia was a weak state, losing territory as nationalists took advantage of the opportunity to become independent. Economically, it suffered from an identity crisis following the fall of communism. The state was simply uncompetitive; dependent solely on its gas and oil. It was vulnerable to systemic economic shocks culminating in the economic collapse of 1997. And because, it is easy to be friends with someone weaker than yourself as the person (or state) is non-threatening and pitiable, many thought that Russia’s earlier attempts at democratization and liberalization, perestroika and glasnost, would usher Russia into the 21st century. Indeed, it might have if Russia had received the right signals and had supportive partners. They needed Europe and the United States to help create a new Russia.

But what did the West do? Did they provide proper assistance? No. Political economists, most notably Jeffrey Sachs,suggested that Russia needed USD$15 billon and potentially more in assistance to stabilize its economy. However, serious aid packages and loans of this magnitude were never actualized. Instead, the United States, along with its European allies, expanded NATO, the defense force created to curtail the expansion of the Soviet Union. Members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact switched colours, from red to blue. This signaled aggression to Russia, in effect kicking them when they were down.

Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia on a quest to recapture this perceived Russian “greatness.” Putin’s geopolitical strategy abandoned capitalism and relied on state owned oil and gas companies to fuel, not economic development and diversification, but state power. This strategy helped Russia grow from its annual GDP from a low of USD$195.9 billion in 1999 to today’s USD$2.02 trillion.

The relatively weak, vulnerable states surrounding Russia play an important role in reestablishing Russian greatness. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union sought the surrounding states, including independent states like Poland, as a buffer zone to defend the motherland from the forces of the West. Today, the excuse for Russian expansion is to protect Russian minorities in neighbouring countries. This explains Russian intervention in Ukraine, in particular, as Ukraine is an economically weak state relative to its looming neighbour. It also has a large Russian population. By the logic of re-establishing Russian “greatness,” it was only a matter of time until Russia acted against pro-European parties in Kyiv.  

Moreover, it is increasingly likely that nationalism will play an increasingly important role in the foreign affairs of Russia going forward. The countries of the Baltic (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Belarus, Romania, Moldova (with Transnistria), and some of the Central Asian Republics, like Kazakhstan, have sizable Russian minorities. Given the situation in the Ukraine, they too can expect attention from Moscow.

The blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty has been compared to the interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the 1950s and 1960s and Georgia in 2008. However, it resembles the former era more than the latter. The invasion of Georgia is explained on the pretext of a Georgian military operation to regain its breakaway provinces. To protect Russians within the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia invaded sovereign Georgian territory. By way of contrast, in Hungary and Czechoslovakia citizens were shifting their political and economic interests by demonstrating a preference to move closer to the capitalist West than the Soviet Union resulting in a crackdown by Soviet troops. The current Ukrainian occupation of the Crimea closely resembles the described Soviet action primarily because citizens were practicing their right to protest against a pro-Russian government policy and the potential Ukrainian participation in the Eurasian Union.

The Eurasian Union is a sure way to defend, protect, and project Russian interests in the region and internationally. It provides Russia the playground in which to lead economically and politically, countering the ever-expanding European Union and NATO. By attempting to force the hand of Ukraine, Russia is attempting to shepherd surrounding states into a pro-Russian domain. By doing so, Russia can gain the veneration, esteem, and attention it appears to so desperately crave following the shame of the 1990’s.

Simply put: Russia desires to be recognized as a great power. Hence, it wants one thing from other powers: respect. Like all great powers, Russia wishes to protect its interests, exert its influence, and project its power to ensure a place of prominence in the international system. In its mind, the United States cannot (or should not) dictate foreign policy to Russia. Fortunately for Moscow, the United States is in no position to do so. With the U.S. pivot toward East Asia, its continuing economic fragility, cyber-defense technological immaturity, the still relevant threat of terrorism, and prospects of a nuclear North Korea and Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy toward a Russia seeking greatness in a zero-sum world.

So what can the United States and its allies do? I would argue that “containment,” a strategy first detailed by Mr. X – George Kennan – in Foreign Affairs on July 1947, remains a viable strategy today. There are three fundamental features to the strategy of containment. The first is the recognition of prestige:

In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies… For these reasons, it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.

At this juncture, the United States must acknowledge the limits of its own power and recognize the power of others. Russia should be able to demonstrate its power on its borders despite the potentially tragic consequences. With that said, Russia cannot be allowed to go beyond a certain point without the threat of retaliation. Poland, for example, ought to be protected by collective security arrangements. Indeed, Russia has no legitimacy, whether real or imagined, in Poland given the lack of ethnic Russians in the country. These “red-lines” must be drawn, adhered to, and communicated to Russian leadership through diplomatic channels.

Understanding Russian aspirations, like its desire for a Eurasian Union, is absolutely necessary. While many Ukrainians may reject this notion, Kyiv must understand that it is a necessary to engage their eastern neighbour peacefully and productively. Other states – including those in the Baltic – must also be prepared to engage Russia on this basis to ensure their own peace and security. The United States and the European Union must not only respect, but embrace such action. Indeed, the Eurasian Union may very well be an important way to placate the Russians. In this light, the United States must learn to accept the ambition of Russia and respect Russian interests.

The second is the realization of the short-term, unrealistic, and unsustainable nature of the new Russian strategy given the international political and economic environment. From Kennan:

But the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.

Within the new Russian policy, I observe the seeds of its own destruction. In the 21st century, the unseen diplomat of the international economy demands its own respect and recognition. The Monday after Russia’s adventure in the Crimea, March 3rd 2014, the Russian Ruble suffered a dramatic yet unsurprising drop against the US Dollar; the Russian stock market also suffered. Investors of the world are simply not comfortable with bellicose politics. Thankfully, because of this, countries on the border of Russia (especially those with sizable Russian minorities) can breathe easier.

Speaking of breathing easy, the move toward cleaner energy will not only improve the environment but reduce Russia’s global influence as states dependent on Russian resources (like the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and Germany) gently diversify their energy use. Indeed, many states are attempting to reduce their use of oil and increase their energy independence. As one of the largest consumers of oil, analysts predict a drop in the price of oil and that can only serve to damage Russian mercantilism. Consequently, Russia’s economic over-reliance on oil and gas will serve to be its downfall.

The third is related to internal, soft power matters. The aggressive behaviour of Mr. Putin was met with divisive opposition at home. Again, from Kennan:

The quest for absolute power, pursued now for nearly three decades with a ruthlessness unparalleled (in scope at least) in modern times, has again produced internally, as it did externally, its own reaction. The excesses of the police apparatus have fanned the potential opposition to the regime into something far greater and more dangerous than it could have been before those excesses began.

Russian action is viewed the world over as both aggressive and morally wrong. It will inevitably produce a negative reaction that will attempt to remove Putin in the next election. The United States must continue to foster and signal to the Russian people that governments should represent the will of the people. This ultimately requires the United States discontinues its practice of intervention in the domestic affairs of other states. Especially because Putin has justified his own action in Ukraine by arguing that he is simply doing what the United States has done throughout its existence. Let states plot their own destinies, fight their own fights, and decide their own fate; do not give the Russians needed evidence and validation to act confrontationally.

As we look toward the future, it is important to note that Ukraine is not an innocent bystander in the tragedy that has struck Kyiv and Crimea. The state has long lacked democratic infrastructure since independence. According to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in 2011, Ukrainians continued to be pessimistic about their country’s democratic performance; many worried about ensuing political instability. In 2013, Transparency Internationalranked Ukraine as the 29th most corrupt country in the world, equal to that of Bangladesh, a country infamous for corrupt governance.

This facilitated the intervention (or invasion) as Putin, seeking to protect ethnic Russians from Ukrainian despotism, annexed Crimea. Addressing the world on March 18th, Putin argued: “They [Ukrainians] have had enough of the authorities in power during the years of Ukraine’s independence…They [government officials] milked the country, fought among themselves for power, assets and cash flows and did not care much about the ordinary people.” He further defended Russian policy saying that the coup, and hence the current government, were illegal; that “those who opposed the coup were immediately threatened with repression. Naturally, the first in line here was Crimea, the Russian-speaking Crimea. In view of this, the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights...” In Putin’s mind, due to widespread corruption and electoral fraud, Russia acted to save Ukraine and its Russian minority.

Moving forward, Ukraine must deal with its endemic corruption. Beyond Ukraine, states cannot give Russia the green light to invade them by disenfranchising or persecuting minorities. Further, states that border Russia may consider diplomatic overtures from both European and Eurasian Unions for the purposes of garnering the fruits of both systems. Why not choose both? Adopting the Armenian foreign policy of complementarity, conducting economic relations with both the West and Russia might be the key to solve underdevelopment. Ukraine must celebrate its geopolitical precariousness by conducting itself in a sophisticated manner, realizing that much more can be gained by sending positive signals to all prospective partners.

From this analysis, we must embrace the lessons of history. We cannot for a second believe that the United States can handle a long, drawn out conflict with no concrete goals. Given the geopolitical concerns facing the United States, containment represents the pragmatic strategy for curtailing Russian expansionary foreign policy. Since the proposed containment strategy is a direct admission of a Russian sphere of influence, it will be acceptable to Russia. Like the dreaded word appeasement, containment acknowledges Russian “greatness” by allowing them space to exercise power while simultaneously maintaining United States’ spheres of influence. The policy creates a stable world and avoids “hot” war in the long-term. Such a strategy, more importantly,  buys the United States time until the Russian economy again stagnates.