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.

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 Russia has withdrawn from a number of nuclear agreements, and the Kremlin recently placed Iskander missiles, which can transport medium-range nuclear devices, in Kaliningrad, near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.