The Sources of Russian Conduct: The New Case for Containment

An onlooker waves a Russian flag during a military parade in Belgrade to mark 70 years since the city's liberation by Russia.
An onlooker waves a Russian flag during a military parade in Belgrade to mark 70 years since the city's liberation by the Red Army, October 16, 2014. (Djordje Kojadinovic / Courtesy Reuters)

As the West searches for an adequate policy response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, American and European policymakers would do well to reread George F. Kennan’s famous “X” article, published in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. Compelling then, Kennan’s case for containing Russia makes just as much sense now.

Kennan’s central claim was that “the political personality of Soviet power as we know it today is the product of ideology and circumstances.” On the one hand, there was messianic Marxism, which rested on a Manichean view of the world and promised victory over capitalism to the socialist proletariat. On the other hand, there was a genuine belief that the rest of the world was hostile—antagonism that justified Russia’s pursuit of absolute power at home.

The policy consequences of “ideology and circumstances” were twofold. First, Soviet Russia would have to expand, as its ideology dictated. But, second, it was under no compulsion to expand immediately and unconditionally. Quite the contrary, Kennan emphasized. He wrote, “Its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them.”

In his article, Kennan drew the logical consequences of Soviet behavior for the West. For one thing, Western policies should be “no less steady in their purpose, and no less variegated and resourceful in their application, than those of the Soviet Union itself.” In particular, “the Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.”

Indeed, containment, Kennan emphasized, was not only about “counterforce.” What we would today call soft power also mattered: the United States, he wrote, should “create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.”

Ultimately, Kennan concluded, a combination of internal Soviet weaknesses and containment would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power. For no mystical, messianic movement—and particularly not that of the Kremlin—can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.”

Although Kennan’s article puported to address the sources of Soviet conduct, it’s clear from the text that he equated the Soviet Union with Russia, Soviet leaders with Russian leaders, and Soviet conduct with Russian conduct. And that is why, unsurprisingly perhaps, his analysis holds up remarkably well when applied to Putin’s Russia.

To be sure, the ideology is different today. No one in Putin’s regime believes in Marxism. But the superiority of Russia and Russian civilization are still closely held values, as is the belief that the West is hostile and that the country needs a strong leader, Putin, to assert Russia’s greatness and combat Western influence.

The quest for absolute power at home is also familiar. Ever since he first appeared on the Russian political stage in 1999, Putin has been assiduously constructing a highly centralized authoritarian regime with himself at the center. Putin’s cult of personality emphasizes his hyper-masculinity and his control over a worshipful public. Putin’s is no longer a simple authoritarian regime run by a non-charismatic ruler with little sex appeal and no overarching ideology. In its structure and, increasingly, tone, Russia’s current regime resembles those of the fascists of yore.

Like the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia fosters antagonism to the West, and, like the Soviet Union, it feels impelled to expand, but not “immediately and unconditionally” or against “unassailable barriers.” It is under no real threat: NATO has been in decline, Europe has been cutting its defense budget, and the United States has been distracted by the Middle East and domestic priorities. Instead, Putin’s neoimperial ideology and his standing as Russia’s all-powerful leader require him to gather former imperial territories.

The implications for the West of Kennan’s analysis are no less relevant today. For starters, the United States and Europe must understand that “there can never be on Moscow’s side any sincere assumption of a community of aims between the Soviet Union and powers which are regarded as capitalist.” Second, Putin’s Russia “can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only by intelligent long-range policies on the part of Russia's adversaries.” It’s high time, in other words, for the West to abandon its illusions about Putin and his regime and develop a serious, steady, long-term policy response to Russian expansionism.

And that, of course, means containment. In today’s terms, the front lines of containment are the non-Russian states in the potential path of Russian expansion. Seen in this light, a divided Ukraine occupies the same role in today’s containment strategy as a divided Germany did in yesterday’s. Ukraine should therefore be the recipient of similar financial, political, and military assistance. Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova—as well as, possibly, Belarus and Kazakhstan—must also figure as points where counterforce, in the form of enhanced military assistance, will have to be applied. The goal in all these cases is not to roll back Russian power but to stop its penetration of the non-Russian post-Soviet states.

Central to today’s containment policy is constraining Russia’s ability to use energy as a weapon. Halting the building of the South Stream pipeline, reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, and helping Ukraine reform its energy sector will be key. Last but not least, sanctions—as forms of minimizing Russia’s economic power—must be maintained and possibly intensified.

The United States and Europe must also work on their soft-power appeal. If they claim to stand for democracy, human rights, and “European values,” then they should actively promote them—especially in those places into which Russia seeks to expand. It is there that Western values can be made to mean something essential to their very existence—or, if inconsistently applied, can be revealed to be utterly hollow.

Last but not least, the West should always be ready to provide Putin with a face-saving exit from his aggressive behavior: “it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia,” Kennan wrote, “that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.” In sum, counterforce plus soft power plus a willingness to compromise make for the best form of containment, whether in 1947 or in 2014.

The West’s face-saving measures could range from welcoming Putin as an equal interlocutor in international negotiations to seeking Russian cooperation in conflicts such as the one in Iraq and Syria to agreeing to possible limits on NATO enlargement. Naturally, the West could harbor no illusions about “any sincere assumption of a community of aims” and would have to insist on verifiable quid pro quos in return for its olive branches. That may be a challenge. In light of Putin’s violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, his contradictory explanations of the annexation of Crimea, and his continued denial of a Russian troop presence in eastern Ukraine, the West will have to insist that only measurable changes in behavior will warrant Western consideration of Russia’s desires. 

Kennan’s optimism about the future can also be applied today. Thanks to Western sanctions and the general Russian economic stagnation, Putin’s Russia is rapidly approaching irreparable decay. The fascistic regime Putin built suffers from the pathologies of all such states: vast corruption, overcentralization, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and bureaucratic empire-building. With containment, such decline—or, as Kennan suggested, genuine reform—could be accelerated.

Putin’s inevitably waning cult (after all, aging leaders cannot sustain hyper-masculine charisma) will set in motion, as Kennan also predicted, a power struggle: “It is always possible that another transfer of preeminent power may take place quietly and inconspicuously, with no repercussions anywhere. But again, it is possible that the questions involved may … shake Soviet power to its foundations.” A wise, sustained, steady policy of containment redux could ensure that, when Putin’s regime is shaken to its foundations, the outcome will be favorable for Russians, their aggrieved neighbors, and the world.


Print this post

Do you like this post?

Showing 4 reactions

commented 2014-11-24 16:58:31 -0500 · Flag
As Wolf Biermann, East Germany´s expelled pop-musician of the 1980´s said on the Gunter Jauch Show, Sunday, the 23rd of November 2014, “The greatest threat to the Russian people, is not NATO, it´s Vladimir Putin!”
commented 2014-11-24 16:29:43 -0500 · Flag
Chris writes:

these are the fruits of 50+ years of marshall plan largesse. sanctimonious fantasists like this. every point he writes fails to rise to even a sophomoric level of miscomprehension about history and cold war realpolitik. the only points in which his reflex west-loathing (read: US) has a hint of credibility is:
  • #9 (there is something terribly amiss about the narrative force-fed us by the US government, the DHS, and the rest of the orwellian apparatus that has formalized its choke-hold suppression in the aftermath of sept. 11. i do not allow myself to believe — yet — that this was a fully-fledged domestic ‘false flag’ operation, but i am convinced, from what i’ve read and what congressmen who have read the evidently defining, fully-redacted 28 pages of DoD and state dept. files have stated in barely veiled tones, that senior-most saudi government officials knew beforehand and perhaps helped fund this act of war against us, obviously as a high-impact provocation to compel us to act against saudi regional adversaries. official saudi complicity, beyond the nationality of 15 of the 19 perpetrators, is for me beyond doubt in 9/11. US false-flag…? saudi flag…yes.)
  • #12 (records were leaked documenting some ass-clown senior state dept. functionary plotting the support of pro-western agitation before the events that sparked Ukraine’s civil war and russian invasion/annexation of crimea. the magic o wants to pretend that his predictable US foreign policy incompetence wasn’t a significant accelerant to the fire engulfing the Ukraine today. obviously wrong. i don’t know how much of the ukraine sincerely wants to become formally west-allied, my understanding is it’s sizable [via an EU integration roadmap…questions regarding the imbecility of wanting to join a manifestly bankrupt and undemocratic alliance of statis and failure like the EU are subject matter for another post/debate]. but the facts are, the ukraine was one of the more egregiously kleptocratic and mismanaged ex-soviet satellites, from the post-berlin wall outset. and the ukraine has long had the makings of a plug-and-play civil war, with majorities in western ukraine wanting to be european while majorities in eastern ukraine feeling ethnically russian. i am no putin apologist… he is a destable petro-cleptocrat cossack thug playing out a delusional dream of recreating a czarist legacy for himself, and the russian populace, seemingly insatiable in its thirst for a strong-man authoritarian to put them back in their psychic comfort zone of depredation, deprivation and degradation, serve as willing nationalist serfs. all that said, obama has been check-mated >>again<< by the kgb lieutenant, his junior high school level realpolitik hastening the annexation of crimea, hastening as well the perception around the globe that the US is a spent, duplicitous, imploding and increasingly impotent force. the ukraine might well have blown on its own, but US ‘obamacraft’ fingerprints are all over this fiasco, no doubt.)
    returning to the matter of the sock-puppet who penned that editorial, i would be very intrigued to know his nationality and background. he sounds like a barely refurbished east-german trotsky-ite.
commented 2014-11-22 15:09:27 -0500 · Flag
A.A. writes:

@smessew: You, sir, are a delusional imbecile…a cretinous, hallucinating cypher. You have exposed your idiocy immediately in the first part of your pathetic rant by stating that the West “chose to interpret, in bad faith, the end of the cold war as a defeat of Russia by western power rather than a free decision of their own to end the 70 year old communist experiment.” A FREE DECISION OF THEIR OWN???!!! In what bowels of a flea-pit nation were you indoctrinated to spew this fatuous fiction? The USSR was defeated and humiliated in the Cold War. You and your brethren hung on to the dream of the USSR as a hegemony until the filthy, decrepit, rotten bear claws that you had been suffocating Eastern Europe with for decades fell off from degradation and stasis…brought upon by being spent into the ground by a resurgent West led by Reagan’s America. Educate yourself before you utter any more inanities, you fool.
commented 2014-11-22 14:36:47 -0500 · Flag
smessew writes:

“Give a man power and he will display his character” said Sophocles. What character did the West show when it was given nearly absolute global power after the collapse of the USSR? The Russians themselves had denounced the communist ideology and they were embracing principles of human rights. The Russians made far-reaching democratic reforms bringing an end to communist dictatorship. Humanity was validly hoping for a new era of global peace. How did the West respond?
1. They chose to interpret, in bad faith, the end of the cold war as a defeat of Russia by western power rather than a free decision of their own to end the 70 year old communist experiment. First they encouraged Gorbachev to make the changes, and once Russia was destabilized and weakened, they embarked on a vicious drive for global hegemony.
2. Nato was not dissolved as was the case with the Warsaw Pact, an action which would have given a clear message that humanity was turning a new page of peace and prosperity.
3. Nato aggressively expanded eastwards near the Russian border despite assurances to the opposite.
4. Nato waged war against Iraq allegedly to free Kuwait even though the Iraqis were ready to withdraw, before the ground attack, in accordance with an initiative by Gorbachev.
5. Nato waged war against Yugoslavia to help secessionists Croats and Muslims, and in order to destroy Yugoslavia, a Russian ally.
6. Nato waged war against Serbia, a Russian ally, in order to help secessionist Kosovo Albanians.
7. The West covertly supported the Chechen separatists militarily in order to bring Russia to its knees.
8. Nato waged war against Iraq on a ludicrous pretext regarding weapons of mass destruction, and invaded Iraq!
9. Nato waged war and invaded Afghanistan, after the self inflicted 9/11 bombings, which were a false flagging operation.
10. Nato waged war against Libya after instigating a civil war.
11. The West instigated a civil war in Syria and was on the verge of attacking Syria had it not been stopped by Russian diplomacy and military deterrence.
12. The West helped destabilize Ukraine twice in order to prevent pro-Russian Yanukovich from being in power.
Generally, it is clear for someone who is honest, with an average IQ, and who is not brain-washed by western media, that the West is trying to encircle and destroy Russia. The West is the aggressor and Russia is defending its status as a world power.
All of this aggression by the West amounts to millions of dead people (including children), misery, poverty and chaos. It is clear that what we are seeing by the West is a full return, with the help of western propaganda, to the fascist (and of western origin) ideology of “might makes right” aiming to achieve full global control at any cost, in accordance with the western and equally fascist doctrine of “the end justifies the means”. Russia is an obstacle to this barbarity.
For the sake of all humanity and civilization, I hope Christian Orthodox Russia is victorious.