A Better Russian Strategy: Containment

By Sophie Boulter

In 1946, Foreign Service Officer George F. Kennan drafted an 8,000 word memo for the State Department. 

Warning of the aggressive and militaristic foreign policy emanating from Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, Kennan used his “long telegram” to call upon his compatriots to contain the Soviet threat to a narrow sphere of influence. 

It is time for the U.S. to modernize and apply the doctrine of containment to the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This will ensure that the U.S. can work with and protect its allies without exacerbating the war.

Dusting Off the Strategy of Containment

Things look a lot different now than they did during the Cold War, which makes the modernization of containment necessary. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine while placing his nuclear weapons on high alert. His actions put the risk of nuclear war at the highest level since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Putin is motivated by an ideology starkly different from communism. Though his rhetoric laments the end of the Soviet Union, it is a worldview mostly motivated by Russian imperialism and a cringing embarrassment of Russia’s lessened role in the current world. 

His partner in fighting Western hegemony, Chinese President Xi Jinping, wields much more power than Chinese leaders did in Kennan’s era. Xi leads a mostly united country, while the China of Kennan’s day was ripped apart by civil war

Rather than joining Russia in its aggression against Ukraine, China has stayed relatively neutral. Beijing abstained from a United Nations resolution condemning Russian aggression, calling for peace while blaming the U.S. for “escalat[ing] tensions.” 

Containing two powers in wartime would be quite difficult, but containing one (mostly regional) power is much more manageable. 

Financial markets are also more integrated than ever, potentially giving Russia more leverage than during its relative isolation during the Cold War. Financial integration, coupled with Russia’s cybersecurity capacities, has led some analysts to argue that President Biden may struggle to isolate Russia during this second era of containment. 

Pointing to Biden’s initial equivocation on expelling Russia from the international financial messaging system SWIFT, David Sanger questioned whether containment would work in the twenty-first century. 

However, the opposite of his predictions has occurred. Biden joined the European Union in expelling Russia from SWIFT and the U.S. Treasury prohibited transactions with Russia’s central bank. The U.S. has also banned Russian oil imports.

The Russian economy is already suffering the effects. The ruble has collapsed. It is worth less than one U.S. cent, indicating the Western world’s ability to contain Russia economically without putting boots on the ground.

Beyond financial isolation, the U.S. has also isolated Russia diplomatically. In his State of the Union address, Biden pointedly asserted that Russia’s actions have already led to “a more unified Europe [and] a more unified West.”

The European Union’s role in the crisis has indeed been decisive. The bloc has banned Russian state-owned media, shut its airspace to Russian planes, given military equipment to the Ukrainian military and joined the U.S. in sanctioning all oligarchs or other actors tied to Putin — including Putin himself. 

From diplomacy to economics, the U.S. and its allies have done much to contain Russia already. To continue this momentum, the U.S. must address the other missing piece of a modernized containment strategy: ideology. 

How to Contain Putin’s Ideology

Putin’s Russian imperialist ideology must be addressed and thwarted to protect the integrity of Ukrainian nationhood. Putin’s ideology sees Russians and Ukrainians as “a single people,” linked by a shared heritage, faith, and history. 

He accuses Ukrainian nationalists of having “taken Ukraine hostage” by asserting their separation from Russia. His belief in Russkiy mir (the “Russian world”) motivates his government to expand into Russian-speaking areas as a means of protecting all Russian speakers. 

This ideology directly contrasts with the Westphalian system, which is based on the belief that all nation-states have sovereignty over their own territory. His worldview justifies bulldozing over national borders and ignoring national autonomy.

This is where the U.S. comes in. It is on America, along with her allies, to expose the fallacies in Putin’s historic vision. World leaders need to be unequivocal in rebutting Putin’s flawed vision of Ukrainian national identity as illegitimate or something to be wiped from the map.

Rather than only focusing on Russian militarism and empty anti-Russian rhetoric, leaders need to be deliberate in highlighting the flawed version of history that Putin is employing to justify violence. History is not on Putin’s side.

Ukraine developed closely with the rest of Europe, with many influences upon its development that were distinct from Russia. Ukraine has its own poetry and literature, which are beautifully written in its own language. 

Even Putin admits that Vladimir Lenin formed the Soviet Union under the assumption that Ukraine was its own nation that deserved self-determination.

The West’s Next Steps

To encourage the preservation and affirmation of Ukrainian national identity, and to fulfill humanitarian obligations, the U.S. and its allies should welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms. More than two million refugees have fled Ukraine in what the UN describes as the “fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.”

The current policy of the Biden administration allows Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Ukrainian refugees already living in the U.S. This policy only applies to 75,000 people. The administration has not said how many Ukrainian refugees would be allowed to seek refugee status, but reserved 10,000 refugee visas for Europe in its annual target for refugees. The U.S. needs to radically increase the number of refugee visas offered to Ukraine. 

The U.S. should also increase its aid to Poland, the country to which most Ukrainian refugees are fleeing. By aiding Ukrainian refugees in Poland, the U.S. can fulfill its humanitarian duty to Ukraine while also underscoring Ukraine’s deep historic ties to Poland and the rest of Europe.

Combatting Putin’s ideology also requires the U.S. to thwart Russia’s cyberwarfare techniques. Russian hackers are hoping to wipe Ukraine off the map by deleting Ukrainian websites and government data. By doing this, hackers can aid and abet Putin’s ideological notion that Ukraine should not exist as a nation independent of Russia. 

Russian attacks are currently disorganized and relatively sparse, so the U.S. should be proactive in aiding Ukraine before cyberattacks multiply. The U.S.-Spain cybersecurity partnership announced this month was a promising first step, but is insufficient. 

A NATO-wide cybersecurity strategic policy is needed to deter and contain Russia. NATO countries should also streamline intelligence sharing with Ukraine, as the U.S. has started doing.

Additionally, cyberattacks against NATO states are violations of Article 5, the collective defense clause of NATO’s treaty that considers an attack against one NATO state to be an attack on all. Being proactive against Russia now may deter future attacks that could scale up the war.

None of this should be done without the full consultation and support of the Ukrainian government. As U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a recent op-ed, “there can be no new Yalta, decided over the heads of the people of Ukraine, by external powers.”

Instead, the U.S. should lead the way in forging a containment strategy that de-emphasizes military confrontation. Calm and measured policies that rely as much on “soft power” as much as other tools can confound Putin’s cultural imperialism — and, hopefully, move the world in a more peaceful direction.

Sophie Boulter majors in Philosophy and Political Science at Xavier University. She was also a 2019 Hansard Society Scholar at the London School of Economics. 







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