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Aug 23, 2015 | 13:07 GMT

9 mins read

Why the U.S. Feels It Must Contain Russia

Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
Eugene Chausovsky
Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
U.S. diplomat and historian George F. Kennan (1904 - 2005, left) is sworn in as ambassador to the Soviet Union by Raymond Muir, as Kennan's wife and daughter look on.
(HULTON ARCHIVE/Getty Images)

At the outset of the Cold War, in 1946, U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan sent what became popularly known as the "long telegram" from the embassy in Moscow outlining a policy of containment in dealing with the Soviet Union. The policy was made public in 1947 in an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs. It would go on to serve as the principal U.S. strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union until the eventual Soviet collapse in 1991. At its heart, the policy of containment was about blocking and countering the Soviet Union and its communist allies "whenever and wherever they posed a risk of gaining influence."

Many things have changed since Kennan outlined his containment policy nearly 70 years ago. The Soviet Union is no more, the global competition between the capitalist and communist superpowers is over and Russia no longer adheres to communist ideology. Then again, some things have not changed. The United States and Russia are once again in a tense diplomatic standoff over the European borderlands and beyond. Both countries are once again leading rival military blocs that are becoming increasingly active in security exercises and weapons buildups. The question, "Are we in a new Cold War?" has been asked repeatedly.

The containment policy never really ended. Washington gave it a rest during the 1990s and early 2000s, when Russia was too weak to necessitate active and overt containment. But the geopolitical imperative behind the policy — preventing the rise of regional hegemons with the potential to challenge the United States — never disappeared, as the continued expansion of NATO and the European Union illustrated. Now, with Russia having re-emerged as a regional power over the past decade, Washington appears to be brushing off the dust that accumulated on the long telegram. A close examination of the current crisis in Ukraine and the ripple effects it has had throughout Russia's periphery reveals that crucial aspects of Kennan's containment policy are still very much alive.

Containment Strategy in Europe

Ukraine is the obvious place to start when looking at the United States' current containment strategy for Russia. The euromaidan revolution of February 2014, in which then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown and replaced with a pro-West government, originated from concerns that Russia was becoming too powerful in Ukraine. These concerns emerged not only among some segments of the Ukrainian public but also among Western powers, including the United States.

In November 2013, Yanukovich's last-minute decision to suspend free-trade talks with the European Union and move closer with Russia sparked demonstrations in Kiev that, three months later, led to a violent uprising against Yanukovich's government. Although the euromaidan protests involved a great deal of grassroots participation, U.S. backing and influence were a notable force in shaping the demonstrations. U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, visited the demonstrations and supported the protest leaders, and U.S. nongovernmental organizations actively supported the demonstrations, just as they did during the Orange Revolution nearly a decade earlier.

Russia made no secret of its frustration with the United States and Europe over euromaidan, calling the uprising a Western-backed and illegitimate coup. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and supporting a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, saying that the rebellion was no different from the protests in Kiev. These actions spurred the United States to more aggressively contain Russia, starting with the passage of sanctions against the country. As Moscow made clear that it would not back down in either Crimea or eastern Ukraine, the United States approved more sanctions against Russia while increasing economic support for the Ukrainian government and military assistance for Ukraine's security forces. Therefore, what started as the United States containing Russia politically in Ukraine by supporting the overthrow of a pro-Russia government in favor of a pro-West one has expanded to entail economic and security components of containment.

The former Soviet Union today is divided among countries that have maintained close relations with Russia, those that have forged deeper ties with the West and those that have remained neutral.

Of course, in keeping with the principles of containment (acting "whenever and wherever" the target could gain influence), the United States has applied the strategy outside of Ukraine as well. In Central and Eastern Europe, the United States has spearheaded NATO efforts to increase troop levels and the frequency of military exercises in Poland, Romania and the Baltic states to deter Russia from considering any further military action in the European borderlands. Moreover, the Pentagon has increased its "semi-permanent" rotation of forces in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These states are particularly concerned about Russian aggression given their small size, close proximity to Russia and large ethnic Russian populations.

The United States has had a more subtle containment strategy in Ukraine's two neighboring states of Moldova and Belarus. In Moldova, Washington has supported the government's Western integration efforts. Chisinau, like Kiev, has attempted to increase political and economic ties with the European Union. However, Moldova's political system is deeply divided between pro-West and pro-Russia parties, and this split has made Chisinau more difficult to work with than Kiev. Nevertheless, the United States has increased cooperation with Moldova via joint military exercises and has boosted political backing for the fragile EU-oriented government in a bid to keep Russia from holding a dominant position in the country.

Belarus is even more challenging for the U.S. containment strategy, given that Minsk is closely aligned with Moscow economically and militarily as a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the United States has been taking part in a low-level economic courtship of Belarus. At the same time, it has been supporting pro-West opposition groups in the country to pressure longtime President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Lukashenko's fear of suffering the same fate as Yanukovich is clear, and Minsk has taken on a key mediating role in negotiations over the Ukraine crisis. Lukashenko wants to show that his government can be a useful bridge between Russia and the West rather than a blindly loyal ally of Moscow.

The Strategy at Work Throughout Russia's Periphery

The U.S. containment strategy is not limited to Russia's western flank in Europe; it extends to the south and the east in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well. Georgia is a key component of the strategy and has been even more aggressive than Ukraine and Moldova in pursuing integration with the West. Georgia has made EU and NATO accession its foreign policy priorities, and though membership in these blocs is a distant prospect for Tbilisi, Georgia has moved forward with an EU association agreement, and a NATO training center will open in Georgia before the end of August. The United States has worked to increase its support for Georgia since the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, which — after a quick Russian military victory and a muted response from NATO — was in many ways the defining moment of Russia's resurgence.

Azerbaijan is another focal point of the U.S. containment strategy, largely because of the country's sizable energy resources and strategic location in the Southern Corridor energy route. U.S. energy companies were key in launching the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline projects to send Azerbaijani oil and natural gas westward, and Europe is once again courting Azerbaijan as an alternative energy supplier for projects like the Trans-Caspian pipeline. Making inroads into Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base and recently joined the Eurasian Economic Union, has been challenging for the United States. However, Washington has pushed for advancements in long-standing negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has become increasingly assertive in challenging the way Armenia and Russia are managing the conflict, and Washington has become more diplomatically involved in the negotiation process.

Azerbaijan is another focal point of the U.S. containment strategy, largely because of the country's sizable energy resources and strategic location in the Southern Corridor energy route.

In Central Asia, the U.S. containment strategy is more difficult, because there are no overtly pro-West countries in the region and several Central Asian states host a Russian military presence. However, the United States frequently holds joint counternarcotics and counterterrorism training and exercises in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, giving it a useful security presence in the region. The United States has also been lobbying for the traditionally isolationist Turkmenistan to participate in the Trans-Caspian natural gas project, which could significantly help Europe diversify away from Russian energy supplies. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have also been considered as potential participants in such energy projects.

The Future of the Containment Strategy

Although the U.S. containment strategy differs widely in each country and sub-region of the former Soviet Union, the underlying principle is the same: to limit Russia's political, economic and military influence throughout its periphery. The intensity of the containment policy also differs based on how powerful or assertive Russia is at the time, as the relative lull in the early post-Cold War period showed. Right now, the United States is very actively applying the containment strategy.

This is useful to consider in looking ahead at the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet periphery. There are currently no signs of a de-escalation to the standoff. In fact, there have even been indications that Russia is considering intensifying the conflict in Ukraine or perhaps in other areas in the near future. In the event that Russia does risk an escalation, the United States can choose from a wide range of economic and military options in line with its containment strategy.

One would be an increase of support to the most sensitive theater of the Russia-West standoff: Ukraine. The United States has publicly floated the possibility of providing lethal weapons to the Ukrainian security forces but has so far held off. The threat alone has been a part of the containment policy and a major factor in dissuading Russia from an overt military incursion into Ukraine, but a Russian escalation could turn the threat into a reality.

Another option would be increasing the size and intensity of military exercises in areas such as the Baltic states or Georgia — both vulnerable points abutting the Russian heartland. Greater political and economic backing for Southern Corridor energy projects like the Trans-Caspian would also serve as a potential threat to Russia's economic and political position. The United States has already used sanctions to contain Russia's actions in its near abroad, and there is still room to inflict much more pain on an already weakened Russian economy.

Of course, the United States is no longer preoccupied with stopping the spread of communism or containing Russia's power and political influence on a global scale. But the geopolitical imperative that gave birth to the U.S. containment policy — to limit Russia's ability to project power beyond its borders — is still relevant and will remain so long into the future. 

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