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The Return of Containment

VENICE – “The main element of any US policy towards the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment,” the US diplomat George Kennan wrote in 1947 in a Foreign Affairs article, famously signed “X.” Replace “Soviet Union” with “Russia,” and Kennan’s “containment policy” makes perfect sense today. It is almost as if, in nearly 70 years, nothing has changed, even as everything has.

Of course, the Soviet Union has been, one might say, permanently contained. But Russia is showing the same “expansive tendencies” of which Kennan warned. In fact, today, the level of trust between Russia and the “West” is at its lowest point since at least the end of the Cold War. According to Vitaly I. Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, the current tensions “are probably the worst since 1973,” when the Yom Kippur War brought the United States and the Soviet Union closer to a nuclear confrontation than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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Such pessimism is warranted. This year alone, the sources of discord with Russia have multiplied and deepened. Russia has withdrawn from a number of nuclear agreements, and the Kremlin recently placed Iskander missiles, which can transport medium-range nuclear devices, in Kaliningrad, near the Polish border.

Moreover, the Ukrainian crisis is far from resolved: the Minsk ceasefire agreements are not respected, and armed conflict may escalate at any moment. And it seems likely that Russia has been intervening directly in the internal politics of Western democracies, using leaks of sensitive documents and financing right-wing populists, from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump, who would be supportive of the Kremlin.

Then there is Russia’s role in Syria. The ink was barely dry on a ceasefire agreement negotiated with the US when Russia, along with its ally, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, began to carry out massive bombings that decimated Aleppo. When the US expressed its anger, Russia shot back that the Americans were being hypocrites. After all, they are not protesting Saudi Arabia’s bombings of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, which is controlled by Iran-backed Houthis. (To engage in some macabre accounting, the difference is that hundreds of thousands have died in Syria, versus a few thousand in Yemen.)

It seems clear that the West needs to impose some limits on Russia. But how? It is a question that inspires deep divisions among European countries along geographic, historical, political and commercial lines. Even within countries, the question generates considerable tensions.

In Germany, which is preparing for a federal election next year, the Social Democrat Party (SPD) seems to be thinking in terms of détente, while Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union takes a tougher line. For the SPD – which seems to be nostalgic for the early 1970s, when the party was led by the charismatic Willy Brandt – this distinction might work well; public opinion polls show that Germans tend to be much closer to the SPD than to Merkel on Russia.

In France, both Le Pen’s far-right National Front and the far left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, support Russia. But, closer to the political center, the differences are significant. On the right, the difference between the moderate but firm line of Alain Juppé – the clear favorite to win next year’s presidential election – and the “understanding” advocated by Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon goes beyond nuance. On the left, President François Hollande’s stance – clear in content, but sometimes incoherent in approach – is far less positive toward Russia than that of, say, former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement.

All of this disagreement raises doubts about the capability of the West to define a “long term, patient but firm” strategy to contain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dangerous behavior. In fact, Putin himself seems convinced that the West has no such capacity. In his view, the West is far too weak, divided, and obsessed with national electoral calendars to offer anything more than harsh words and ineffective action.

Some in the West argue that the key to handling Putin is to capitalize on Russia’s economic weakness, just as Putin has capitalized on the West’s political weakness. It certainly sounds rational, especially compared to a more diplomatic approach of lifting some economic sanctions in exchange for, say, cooperation in Syria. Responding to Russia’s razing of Aleppo with carrots would amount to paying tribute to a cynical, criminal policy.

But the stick option – reinforcing the sanctions regime against Russia – may not do the trick, either. For Russia’s wealthy and powerful, sanctions have little impact. It is ordinary Russians who suffer – and the Kremlin has made it very clear that it does not care much about what happens to ordinary Russians. In any case, Europe and the US are nowhere close to a consensus on toughening sanctions.

If the West is to halt Russia’s dangerous rush into the unknown, it must find something to agree on. It should, at least, begin to respond to the Kremlin’s shrewd and highly professional disinformation strategy with far more clarity and candor. Such a policy should be relatively uncontroversial, at least as compared to more concrete foreign-policy moves.

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If it is to succeed, the West must recognize the advantages that Russia already wields – namely, Putin’s understanding of the Western psyche and political circumstances. On the international stage, Putin is tapping anti-American sentiment, which exists whether the US is strong or weak. Within countries, he is encouraging anti-elitist and anti-globalization movements.

Toward the end of the Soviet era, Russian leaders looked like the rearguard of a lost ideological cause. Today, by contrast, they can be perceived as the avant-garde of a movement toward isolationism, jingoism, and even hyper-nationalism. It is precisely because Western countries have now been swept up in this movement that it is so critical for rational leaders to stand up and advocate coherent strategies for containing Russia.