The Dangers of a New Containment

"There are good reasons for skepticism that the United States can contain Russia as effectively today as it once did the Soviet Union." 

Editor’s Note: The following is the second of a series of articles from the Center for the National Interest’s new report: Costs of a New Cold War: The U.S.-Russia Confrontation over Ukraine. You can read the full report here.

The Ukraine crisis has ushered in a new era in U.S.-Russian relations. To be sure, relations had been deteriorating for some time—at least since fall 2011, when Putin announced his decision to return to the Kremlin. Stark differences between both countries over Syria and broader developments in the Arab world, Moscow's offer of asylum to NSA-leaker Edward Snowden, and Putin’s vehement accusations of U.S. interference in Russia's domestic affairs—thereby justifying a crackdown on internal dissent—have all stressed U.S.-Russian relations to the breaking point. The glimmer of hope offered by the agreement to work together to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons was quickly extinguished last fall by fundamental differences over the situation in the Ukraine.

But it was Moscow's reaction to the ouster of President Yanukovych in Ukraine—its annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of southeastern Ukraine, done with a combination of audacity and skill—that finally jolted the American political establishment into viewing Russia as a significant threat. That Russia was prepared to flout the rules of Europe's post–Cold War order to assert its interests was not particularly surprising. After all, it had already done that in the Georgian War in 2008.  But no one had anticipated that Russia would act in Crimea with such exquisite skill and leave the United States appearing flat-footed, lacking an adequate response. That set Ukraine apart from Georgia.

Obama's reset is now dead. Previous failed resets were followed in short order by new attempts. Indeed, U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War have been marked by a recurring cycle of great expectations followed by deep disappointments. But this time is different. Today's estrangement runs deeper than it has during any time since the Gorbachev years. No influential forces in either Washington or Moscow are calling for improved relations; rather, political leaders and the media in both countries are actively vilifying the other side. Most bilateral contacts have been totally severed. Looking forward, both sides increasingly see each other as long-term adversaries. Unlike in the past, no new reset is just over the horizon simply awaiting a new American president.

In the absence of significant hope for constructive relations, the American political establishment has reached back to the recent past, to the Cold War era, for guidance. The talk is of an updated containment policy.[1] At the beginning of the crisis in early March, President Obama warned the Russians that if they did not move to deescalate the situation in Ukraine, the United States was "examining a whole series of steps—economic, diplomatic—that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its status in the world."[2] As the crisis worsened, the administration began to make good on that threat by sharply reducing bilateral contacts with Russia, levying targeted sanctions against individuals and entities considered either responsible for Russia's actions in Ukraine or to be financially close to Putin, and trying to rally European allies behind its policy. At the end of May, Obama claimed success.

Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions; Europe and the G7 joined us to impose sanctions; NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies; the IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy; OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine.[3]

With those and similar remarks, Obama may not have explicitly adopted a policy of containment, but the logic of his administration's actions points in that direction. The administration continues to threaten Russia with further sanctions should Moscow not act to deescalate the crisis, but it provides no clear indication of what Russia must do for the sanctions to be lifted. It speaks as if it intends to treat Russia as a long-term adversary (or for at least as long as Putin remains in power), while limiting cooperation—as in the Cold War—to those areas it judges critical to American security and which necessitate working with Russia (e.g., implementation of the new START treaty and retaining access to the International Space Station). Moreover, its tendency to look at Russia and the Ukraine crisis solely through the prism of security in Europe—the Cold War's central battlefield—lends its Russia policy a Cold-War aura, even if Obama insists we are not witnessing a return to that era.[4]