THE AIRSTRIKES that pummelled the Ukrainian military base near the town of Yavoriv early on March 13th were notable not just because they killed some 35 people, nor even because they expanded hostilities to the far west of Ukraine, a region previously largely unscathed by Russia’s invasion. Most important, the base, ironically named the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre, had been used until recently by America and other NATO countries to train Ukrainian troops (a session led by the Americans is pictured). It is a mere 18km from Poland, a NATO member, and has become a staging post for the weapons and other supplies that NATO countries are funnelling to Ukraine. For those who fear the war may expand beyond Ukraine’s borders, the attack was the most worrying evidence yet. For Western leaders, especially, it was a reminder of the difficulty of preventing their confrontation with Russia from escalating.
The West has long experience of keeping a hostile power in eastern Europe at bay without resorting to war. In 1947 George Kennan, a celebrated American diplomat, argued in an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs that Russia’s hostility was the product of its insecurity, yet its foreign policy would nonetheless respond to the “logic and rhetoric of power”. America should therefore adopt “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” This view became the foundation of America’s strategy against the Soviet Union during the cold war.
Kennan’s ideas about “containment” are being avidly reread in Washington as the West embarks on a new contest with Russia. “I am very fearful that we are looking at a very long-term conflict,” said Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, during a visit to Washington on March 10th. For Robert Gates, a former American defence secretary, the war “has ended Americans’ 30-year holiday from history”; the United States must confront not just Russia but China, too. “A new American strategy must recognise that we face a global struggle of indeterminate duration against two great powers that share authoritarianism at home and hostility to the United States,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
What form the contest takes will depend, in the first instance, on the outcome of the fighting in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has been denied a swift military victory, thanks to the stiff resistance of Ukraine’s forces. A coup in the Kremlin or a popular uprising that removes him cannot be counted upon. Speaking to Congress last week, Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, expected more bitter fighting. “I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now. He’s likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties.” Even if a mooted diplomatic deal can be reached soon, a prolonged period of rivalry between the West and Russia seems inevitable, at least for as long as Mr Putin remains in power.
If he can take control of Ukraine, a bloodied Mr Putin may be tempted to seek more conquests. In any case, he is likely to be faced with stubborn resistance, both armed and non-violent, from recalcitrant Ukrainians. If he faces a stalemate or, as some now dare to believe, begins to retreat, he may lash out at Ukraine’s Western supporters in the hope of changing his fortunes. Whatever happens, says Alina Polyakova of the Centre for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank in Washington, there will be no more “resets” with Russia of the kind Barack Obama attempted, or the pursuit of “stable, predictable relations” that Joe Biden advocated last year. “We are in here for the long haul, a kind of twilight struggle with Russia,” she says.
Ms Truss is adamant that Mr Putin must lose: “If we let Putin’s expansionism go unchallenged, it would send a dangerous message to would-be aggressors and authoritarians around the world.” Yet the means of achieving this are limited because of the danger of nuclear escalation. Mr Biden promises that America will defend “every inch” of NATO’s territory. But he is just as explicit in saying that American forces will not defend any inch of Ukrainian land, for fear of starting “World War III”. Hence the resort to a strategy that seeks to stop Russian imperial aggression but stops short of direct military intervention: an indirect contest that involves arming Ukrainian forces, exerting crippling economic pressure on Russia and treating it as a pariah. “We’re back to classic containment,” says Richard Fontaine of the Centre for a New America Security, a think-tank, “We are defaulting to a policy of preventing Russia’s expansion, weakening it and hoping for a change of political leadership in the long run.”
The long and the short of it
As Russia heads towards Stalin-era levels of internal repression and economic isolation, Kennan’s analysis of how to deal with the Soviet dictator offers a starting point for policymakers. His “long telegram” from Moscow in 1946 argued, “At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Russian rulers “have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own.” The result is a belief that Russia cannot live in peace with the West, and must disrupt if not destroy it. In his subsequent essay in Foreign Affairs, expanding on his cable, Kennan argued that the Soviet Union “bears within it the seeds of its own decay”, and that American pressure could hasten “either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Yet Kennan came to oppose the form of containment America adopted. He thought political and economic action—not military build-up and confrontation—should be the principal tools. He supported the Marshall plan of American aid to post-war Europe but disliked the creation of NATO. Years later, he thought the expansion of the alliance after the fall of the Berlin wall had been a “tragic mistake”.
Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University points out that Russia today is a much lesser foe than the Soviet Union had been. It is “a wounded empire” rather than a superpower with a global ideology. Its leadership is personal rather than collective (after Stalin); its economy lacks the imperial possessions and client states of the Soviet Union, which formed a near-autarkic system. “Russia is a much more fragile economy, and political and social order, than the Soviet Union,” he says. “It’s not held together by any ideology other than rabid nationalism, but chiefly by greed and corruption and fear.”
He proposes three objectives for a new containment strategy: the military liberation of Ukraine by providing it with any and all weapons it needs (short of chemical, biological or nuclear arms); the weakening of Russia through crippling sanctions so that it can no longer pose a threat; and the re-armament and revitalisation of the West to confront not only Russia but also China. The Biden administration is more cautious. Militarily, it does not want America to become a “co-combatant”. Russia has given warning that convoys supplying weapons to Ukraine are legitimate targets; the attack on the base in Yavoriv may have been intended to ram that point home. Thus far America has provided Ukraine with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, but has rejected the notion of being the intermediary for the delivery of Polish MiG-29 jets to Ukraine, deeming that “escalatory”. It will not provide Patriot anti-aircraft batteries, because these would require Americans to operate them. By the same token, it has repeatedly refused to try to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
How far a country can support a proxy war against a nuclear power is uncertain, but history suggests the boundaries are wide. Chinese “volunteer” forces fought against American troops in the Korean war of 1950-53. Russians manned anti-aircraft batteries and, perhaps, flew missions against American aircraft in the Vietnam war of 1955-75. During the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-89, America provided resistance fighters with anti-aircraft missiles and much else besides. “The United States and the Soviet Union were at daggers drawn but usually did not stab each other directly,” explains Mr Fontaine.
If Russian forces keep grinding forward—capturing Kyiv, say—pressure will grow for the West to do more to help Ukraine. One priority will be to preserve the rump of the Ukrainian government in the west of the country. As Dr Polyakova argues, a government-in-exile quickly becomes irrelevant in its country’s domestic politics. The Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington, DC, asked a panel of experts to assess 11 options for Western assistance to Ukraine, rating them according to military effectiveness and risk of escalation. The best ones included providing combat drones; electronic-warfare equipment; “counter-fire” systems to find and destroy Russian artillery; and air-defence systems to destroy aircraft, rockets and missiles, including the Close-in Weapon System (often used on ships) and Israel’s Iron Dome.
The Biden administration has continued to ratchet up economic sanctions on Russia but here, too, there are limits. Not all Russian banks are cut off from the SWIFT system of financial messages, for instance. European countries continue to buy large quantities of Russian oil and gas. Russian gas even continues to flow across the front lines of the war in Ukraine. Yuriy Vitrenko, the boss of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-owned oil-and-gas company, thinks that a good way to squeeze Russia further would be for European countries to make payments for Russian energy into an escrow account, to be released to Russia when its forces leave Ukraine. That would both deny Russia money to pursue its war and create an incentive to end it, says Mr Vitrenko.
Don’t rattle too hard
Such are the pressures on Russia that some worry about “catastrophic success”: a military or economic collapse in Russia that pushes Mr Putin to take greater risks. The biggest worry is that he might resort to nuclear weapons, which he has not been shy about threatening. “We have to be mindful that Putin, if he feels cornered, could be dangerous,” says a senior American defence source. But, he adds, there is no sign of Russia changing the readiness of its nuclear forces. Mr Putin’s threats, he thinks, are a warning to NATO not to attack Russia’s exposed flanks as he sends most of his ground and air forces into Ukraine. That is one reason why America has been cautious in reinforcing NATO’s military presence on its eastern front. “We don’t want to signal to Putin that somehow NATO intends to take offensive action, because that could make him quite nervous,” says the source.
For Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council, the contest with Russia may come to resemble the early years of the cold war, ”a messy, confrontational, and uneasy period when Americans for almost 20 years feared nuclear war.” Even as America seeks to contain Russia, he argues, it should keep talking to Mr Putin about arms control. Michael Green, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, another think-tank, says the emerging containment strategy needs two more elements. One is a sharp increase in America’s defence spending if it is to contain both Russia and China. “The US defence budget is just about the lowest it has been as a percentage of GDP in the post-war era,” he notes. A second requirement is strengthening the “economic underpinning” for America’s alliances, particularly in Asia, through further integration and trade liberalisation. Right now, he says, Team Biden has “zero plan”.
The ever closer partnership between Russia and China is yet another reminder of the early cold war, except that these days it is China, rather than Russia, that is the biggest rival to America. Some China hawks say America risks being drawn too deeply into Europe’s crisis and should instead focus on the Indo-Pacific. Biden administration officials retort that the weakening of Russia and the strengthening of European allies will ultimately “pay dividends” in Asia. One notes that America’s military commitment in Europe mostly concerns ground forces, whereas defending Taiwan and containing China in the Indo-Pacific is mainly a task for the navy and air force. Arne Westad of Yale University sees America reviving a cold-war tactic to split Russia and China: “Inflict major pain on the weaker partner, then China and now Russia, and have a higher level of interaction with the stronger partner, to get them to rethink their strategic positions and test the cohesion of their relationship,” he explains. “That was part of the reason the Sino-Soviet alliance broke up.”
As America and its allies in Europe and Asia take on Russia, many see the hope for a revival of the West. Among the most optimistic is Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University, who coined the notion of the “end of history” after the fall of the Soviet Union. Writing in American Purpose, an online magazine, he predicts that Ukraine will not only stop Russian forces but inflict “outright defeat” on them. This will make possible a “new birth of freedom” and re-energise global democracy, he writes: “The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.”■
Our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here.