The Buzz

Is it Time to Bring Containment Back?

Since Russian forces first moved into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in February, the United States’ approach has emphasized threatening Russia with diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. Due to a combination of disagreements with European allies and a desire within the Obama Administration to avoid provocation, these threats have borne limited fruit, as Russia continues arming the separatists and threatening military intervention, even as Ukraine’s military has recently succeeded in dislodging the rebels from Slavyansk and some of their other strongholds.

Not only has the threat of sanctions been undermined by a lack of follow-through, it was always a dubious proposition whether economic pressure alone could change Russian calculations about Ukraine. Instead of concentrating on sanctions whose imposition looks increasingly unlikely, Washington should also develop a strategic response to the crisis, one centered on preventing the expansion of Russian influence in its neighborhood by bolstering the political and economic resiliency of vulnerable states, and providing them the military resources they need to resist Russian intervention. In addition to Ukraine, the highest priorities are Moldova and Georgia, though with a commitment to greater political reform in the future, this approach could also be relevant to states like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, or even Uzbekistan that seek to bolster their sovereignty against Russia.

This approach, whose broad outlines are similar to the containment policy Washington pursued against the USSR for much of the Cold War, has the advantage of costing the U.S. comparatively little, and of avoiding the need to gain consensus among Washington’s European allies, who remain deeply divided on handling Russia.

The U.S., as well as its European allies, has already taken some steps to help these states address their political and economic vulnerability. Ukraine has received billions of dollars in aid, much conditioned on steps to tackle the corruption and market distortions at the source of its weakness. Similarly, the association agreements Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have negotiated with the EU provide for significant reforms to improve governance that will in the long run also strengthen the legitimacy of their governments.

Visiting Kyiv for the inauguration of new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in early June, Vice President Biden announced an additional $5 million of U.S. aid to Georgia and $8 million to Moldova, bringing U.S. assistance to the two countries up to $65 million and $31 million respectively. While this aid is helpful and signals Washington’s growing interest, it remains comparatively small in scale. It also lacks lethal military assistance, which would provide a much stronger signal of U.S. interest and would help these states deter and if needed defeat Russian-sponsored separatism, thereby significantly raising the cost to Moscow of Ukraine-style interventions.

Largely because of their aspirations for closer ties with the West, Georgia and Moldova have come under increasing pressure from Moscow in recent months, even as the Russian-supported insurgency in eastern Ukraine shows no signs of fading.

In addition to ramping up economic pressure, Russia continues funding and supporting separatist movements and political parties throughout the region, whose states Moscow does not accept as fully sovereign. Russian-backed separatists in Moldova’s Transnistria region have appealed for annexation by Moscow. Separatist forces have also conducted military exercises with Russian troops who remain illegally stationed in Transnistria. Similar machinations are underway in Moldova’s Turkic minority inhabited Gagauzia region.

Though Georgia has been comparatively calm, Russia continues efforts to “borderize” the frontier between Georgia proper and the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Moscow recognized as independent states following the August 2008 war. Not only do these efforts reduce the likelihood that Tbilisi will ever recover the disputed regions, the Georgians see a creeping annexation of additional territory as Moscow pushes these boundaries further into Georgia. Russian aircraft have also violated Georgian airspace in recent months, while Moscow is covertly funding a range of pro-Russian groups and parties in Georgia.

The United States has an interest in preventing the expansion of Russian influence in the region for both moral and strategic reasons. The spark for Russia’s current de-stabilization efforts was the Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Georgian peoples’ attempts to forge a closer relationship with the West and to create more decent governments at home. Despite Moscow’s threats, all three have pushed ahead with their EU association agreements, and all are pursuing political reform, even as Russia goes in the opposite direction.

Yet officials and analysts throughout the region speak of becoming warier about taking risks to support the U.S., as Georgia has done with support for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because they increasingly question Washington’s willingness to protect them in turn.