Containing Russia

Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko at a rally in Kiev, February 22, 2014. Vasily Fedosenko / Courtesy Reuters


Sixty-one years ago, a telegram arrived at the State Department from the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Its purpose was to examine the sources of the conduct of the men who ruled in the Kremlin. Its impact was immediate. The "Long Telegram," penned by a young diplomat named George Kennan, became the basis for U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union for the next half century.

Although the Soviet Union is long gone, the West is once again groping to understand what motivates the leaders in the Kremlin. Many believe that the principles behind Kennan's policy of "containment" are still applicable today -- and see a new Cold War, this time against Vladimir Putin's resurgent Russia, in the offing.

I do not believe that a new Cold War is under way or likely. Nevertheless, because Russia has indeed transformed itself since Putin became president in 2000, the problem of fitting Russia into the world's diplomatic and economic structures (particularly when it comes to markets for energy) raises profound questions. Those questions are all the more vexing because Russia is usually judged on the basis of speculation about its intentions rather than on the basis of its actions.

In the aftermath of communism's collapse, it was assumed that Russia's imperial ambitions had vanished -- and that foreign policy toward Russia could be conducted as if former diplomatic considerations did not apply. Yet they must apply, for Russia straddles the world's geopolitical heartland and is heir to a remorseless imperial tradition. Encouraging economic and political reform -- the West's preferred means of engaging Russia since communism's end -- is of course an important foreign policy tool. But it cannot substitute for a serious effort to counter Russia's long-standing expansionism and its present desire to recapture its great-power status at the expense of its neighbors.


Thanks to high energy prices, the chaotic conditions that prevailed across Russia in the early 1990s have given way to several years

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