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 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

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