The "Stumbles" Doctrine: Containing and Confronting Russia

July 4, 2014 Topic: Security Region: RussiaUnited States

The "Stumbles" Doctrine: Containing and Confronting Russia

America stumbles into a bad policy choice.


It is unfortunate that the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington makes the assessment of U.S. foreign policy success and failure so difficult. Advocates are less interested in an honest accounting and more focused on generating a preferred narrative. While this is an understandable campaign tactic to rally one's political base for action, it is less useful in trying to cope with policy setbacks.

Because the Ukraine crisis remains an ongoing affair—with fighting likely to again accelerate after the termination of the ceasefire unilaterally declared last week by the government of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and with the question of whether a third round of far more damaging "sectoral sanctions" will be levied by the United States and the European Union against Russia—there has been little appetite for introspection in Washington. It is easier to believe that the crisis was a black-swan event that no one could have predicted.


It is very true that there was little expectation that U.S.-Russian relations would plunge to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War—surpassing even the chill that descended after the August 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. Yes, following the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency, there was no longer a strong, personal relationship between the Russian and American presidents, which had marked the Barack Obama-Dmitry Medvedev era. Obama also eschewed attending the Sochi Winter Olympics, in part over disquiet over the domestic policies pursued by Putin. Yet there was room for cautious optimism that a workable relationship could be preserved. In 2013, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that he believed he could work closely with incoming Secretary of State John Kerry and that they could forge a strong and effective diplomatic channel. Similarly, the lines of communication between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu seemed to be open and functioning. On three critical geopolitical issues—removing chemical weapons from Syria, steering the negotiations designed to end the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, and stabilizing Afghanistan—cooperation was continuing apace.

Moreover, the administration was taking no steps to prepare in advance for a possible rupture in relations with Russia. None of the measures that might be expected—pushing harder for a settlement over Cyprus to end disputes over hydrocarbon resources, starting the legislative agenda needed to clear the way for exports of domestically produced natural gas overseas, or pivoting military forces back to Europe to reassure allies—were in play prior to the last-minute decision of then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to decline signing the association agreement with the European Union, which sparked the Maidan-protest movement. This suggests that there was little expectation in Washington that a major deterioration was expected or even desired.

Once the protests began, however, and it became clear that Ukraine was again returning to its position of being a geopolitically contested space between Russia and the West, was its importance, not simply in its own right as a major country in Eastern Europe, but also vis-a-vis the U.S.-Russian relationship, adequately assessed? Was there an appreciation that the reset, even in its diminished form, absolutely depended on restarting a competition between Russia and the United States for influence in Ukraine? And if not, did the administration make a conscious decision, after weighing the costs and benefits for U.S. national interests, to move ahead with the current course of action?

There are two particular concerns. The first is that Putin has made no secret over the last decade that the fate of Ukraine is a particular red line for Moscow. On several occasions, he has warned that any concerted Western effort to pull Ukraine completely out of Russia's orbit would lead to a harsh response, and that, as noted in the current July/August issue, "Russia might be forced to take steps to detach Crimea and eastern Ukraine from Kiev’s control." Yet it appears that Washington had been caught by surprise by Putin's hardball tactics—the separation of Crimea, the sponsorship of separatist movements in the east, and the cutoff of natural gas shipments. Why was this the case? What was the source of the assessment that Putin would not take forceful action—and that Putin would be willing to risk economic sanctions to secure his position in Ukraine?

The second is whether U.S. policy inertia played a role. I am fond of my colleague Andrew Stilger's maxim that "Inertia is often a governing force.” Pulling Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic world had been stated U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War. Although the 2009 "reset" was predicated, in part, on an unspoken assumption that the United States would pull back from its earlier efforts to bring countries like Ukraine and Georgia into the West as full members, there was no formal policy shift. Given that Obama, as a U.S. senator, had voted for legislation, including the 2007 NATO Freedom Consolidation Act, which commits the United States to seeking NATO membership for Ukraine, there was certainly no feeling in lower echelons of the U.S. government that the president would be opposed to taking advantage of changes in the political setup in Ukraine should the opportunity present itself. Given that Ukraine was not, particularly in the first weeks of the crisis, being handled at the highest levels of the U.S. government, and was not necessarily one of the President's top issues, the next layers of the U.S. government would default to existing policy objectives.

The problem, in the end, is that the United States appears to be stumbling into a policy of confronting and containing Putin's Russia without the necessary commitments or frame. If this was a deliberate choice—and over the past several months, the Obama administration seems to have embarked on an ambitious program of "triple containment" (Iran, China and Russia)—then it does not seem to have made adequate preparations. If, on the other hand, this is an unexpected and unwelcome development, then it does not seem to be doing all that it could to indeed provide Russia with the "exit ramp" from the crisis. Without knowing how we got into this imbroglio, it may prove all the more difficult to find a way out.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College and a contributing editor at The National Interest.

Image: Kremlin photo