Cossacks salute during an unveiling ceremony for a bust of Russian President Vladimir Putin which depicts him as a Roman emperor, in Leningrad region, Russia, May 16, 2015.
Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

When Russian President Vladimir Putin banned European food imports last year in response to Western sanctions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, many believed he was violating a crucial social contract with the Russian people. In fact, limiting consumer freedoms boosted his popularity by tapping into deep-seated associations in the Russian psyche. He wasn’t just promising to restore his country’s former superpower status; evoking Soviet-era deprivation signaled he was actually delivering the real thing.

Now Putin has trained his sights on Syria. After decades of impotent fist-waving at U.S. military interventions, the Russians are putting on their own show in the Middle East. Viral videos of Russian cruise missiles soaring from warships in the Caspian Sea are more than just potent symbolism, however. Moscow’s first significant military offensive beyond the old borders of the Soviet Union has opened a new chapter in its post-communist era, one that poses a growing threat to global security

Some in the West have urged cooperation with a regime that sees its own power as inversely proportional to the influence of those it has designated as rivals. That’s just what Putin wants, following the zero-sum logic of Soviet subterfuge. Moscow’s offer of joint action under an anti-terrorism coalition is aimed at legitimizing its actions by trapping Western countries in a framework of its own devising. More than simply difficult to engage, the Kremlin sees foreign policy as a contest of deception and bluster in which negotiation and compromise represent weakness. But how closely does Putin’s new Cold War really mirror the last one? Can the twentieth century provide lessons for dealing with Russia today?

U.S. diplomat George Kennan, the architect of Washington’s decades-long policy of containment, believed that Moscow’s original cold warrior Joseph Stalin needed hostile capitalist encirclement in order to justify his totalitarian rule at home. In his seminal 1947 article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in the pages of Foreign Affairs, Kennan proposed containment as a measured, diplomatic alternative to military confrontation. Although he would later famously lament how his prescriptions were interpreted and implemented, Kennan’s predictions about the eventual softening and collapse of the Soviet Union proved right, and his nuanced wisdom about constraining Moscow remains relevant today. 

Putin’s regime can’t be compared to Stalin’s in degree of authoritarianism or violence. But Kennan’s incisive dissection of Stalinist foreign policy applies to Putin’s almost word for word. Based on the “long telegram” he drafted as deputy chief of mission in Moscow the previous year, the article authored by “X” characterized communism as “justification for the Soviet Union’s instinctive fear of the outside world, for the dictatorship without which they do not know how to rule… it is the fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability.” Kennan believed that the USSR would seek to expand wherever it could. Understanding only the logic of force, the Kremlin would not negotiate in good faith. However, he wrote, “if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them.”

An honor guard opens the door as Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) enters a hall to attend a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 1, 2015.
An honor guard opens the door as Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) enters a hall to attend a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 1, 2015.
Yuri Kochetkov / Reuters
Putin’s ad-hoc ideology is nationalism, peddled with a pastiche of communist and tsarist symbols to legitimize his corrupt authoritarian regime. His proud insistence that he never resigned from the Communist Party is not insignificant: In domestic as well as foreign policy, he is trying to negotiate a fine line retracing his Soviet predecessors’ footsteps without committing the mistakes that brought down the USSR. Russians may not be able to buy French brie, but anyone with means can still board a plane to Paris. The Kremlin is fighting proxy wars again, but this time, it calculates, it will not face the risk of entrenchment that laid low the Red Army in Afghanistan.

In other ways, Putin seriously differs from Stalin. Unlike the Soviet dictator, he is failing to modernize Russia or to build its infrastructure and intellectual capital. Instead he’s presiding over a massive brain drain. Weighed down by corruption and Kremlin control, the petro-economy is heading toward deep recession, unable to benefit from a weaker ruble and import ban. If Putin’s model is Stalin or Piotr Stolypin—a ruthless, reforming nineteenth-century prime minister to whom he has compared himself—his effect on Russia is approaching that of Leonid Brezhnev, the half-comatose Soviet leader who presided over the stagnation of the 1970s and 1980s. As ever, Putin’s overriding concern isn’t Russia’s real power or prosperity as much as the immediate imperatives of his own regime.

Long after U.S. President Barack Obama’s laudable Russia reset policy failed, the growing risk of military confrontation—along with instability in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere—demands a new overarching strategy to limit Putin’s influence in a measured way. It should be modeled on what Kennan proposed almost seven decades ago. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin exercises in a gym at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, August 30, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin exercises in a gym at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, August 30, 2015. 
Michael Klimentyev / Reuters

Explaining the hostile actions of a former wartime ally at the start of the Cold War, Kennan wrote that the Soviet challenge to free Western institutions could be contained by “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force 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 of existence.” He favored economic and political means over military ones, believing containment to be not an ultimate goal, but a necessary step toward negotiation from a position of strength. Later, he bitterly complained about Washington’s failure to bargain with Moscow over Eastern Europe and nuclear arms reduction. Nevertheless, Kennan’s thinking helped pave the way for rescuing war-ravaged Western Europe before the Soviet Union eventually collapsed under the weight of its economic, political, and social rot.

Containment 2.0 would be informed by the understanding that the Kremlin does not want to be Washington’s ally. Putin’s malevolent regime is not seeking to build prosperous and open societies, but rather wants to shore itself up at the expense of others by exporting corruption, instability, and violence. Russian airplanes are risking confrontations with NATO jets over Syria and Russian hackers pose a growing threat to Western infrastructure. In the current atmosphere, taking a page from Kennan would represent neither hawkishness nor a return to the kind of hardline positions that fanned the Vietnam War, backing for murderous right-wing regimes and other disastrous U.S. policies. Instead, careful parsing of Kennan’s advice would lead to a sensible defense of Western values and interests.

Implementing Containment 2.0 would not require a radical new approach as much as a more systematic framework to replace the current improvised responses that play into Putin’s tactics. NATO members are already taking symbolic steps on the military front—stepping up exercises and deploying more personnel in Eastern and Central Europe this month—but more must be done. Ukraine should be provided defensive weapons as part of an effort to make very clear that further Russian action there, in Moldova or elsewhere, would bring serious costs. NATO must also work more closely with former Soviet allies and provide a concrete path for those that want to join the alliance.

In public diplomacy, the effects of propaganda on Russian society must be taken more seriously. Radio Free Europe and other international broadcasters must do a better job providing Russians with free information by making a more comprehensive effort to develop the fundamentals of journalistic storytelling and deliver them with innovative digital platforms aimed at tech-savvy Russians.

If Putin wants Soviet glory, the West should try to associate him with the USSR’s less desirable attributes of isolation and backwardness
Economic policy must do more to reflect common Western geostrategic needs. The global network of offshore companies, banks, and real estate markets in London, New York, and other cities laundering of billions of Russian dollars must be made to stop enriching the Putin regime and its financial enablers. Lobbying by German energy companies making lucrative deals with Russian oil and gas suppliers should not be allowed to weaken European energy security. The assets of Putin’s inner circle should be frozen and banning Russia from the SWIFT financial system seriously considered.

Although such decisive action would discourage Putin from his policy of pushing boundaries, any such effort can succeed only over the long term. Whether it takes years or more, Western countries must be prepared to stick to their policies even if they show no immediate results or Putin’s tactics provide him short-term gains. Ultimately, the West’s goal should be to enable people to live in free societies and determine their own future—in Ukraine and anywhere else.

Such a strategy would also depend on Western unity, which is problematic when Europe’s migrant crisis and ongoing economic turmoil are shaking the European Union. Earlier this month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker went so far as to say that Europe had no option but to work to improve relations with Moscow. That’s why meeting Putin’s challenge requires U.S. leadership.

Unlike rigid Cold War anti-communism, containment should follow Kennan’s prescription to remain flexible. It must include an ongoing effort to engage Russians by making the benefits of open societies and genuine cooperation clear. Washington should also be open to negotiations with Putin, even if it also careful about not enabling the Kremlin to exploit them.

In the meantime, if Putin wants Soviet glory, the West should try to associate him with the USSR’s less desirable attributes of isolation and backwardness. Any talk about ending sanctions against Russia must cease until Moscow reverses its policy in Syria as well as Ukraine. More important will be to take Kennan’s main advice about shoring up Western institutions. A quarter-century after the fall of communism, Western countries must also deliver more financial support for Ukraine, Moldova, and other Eastern European countries, a long-term investment of enlightened self-interest like the Marshall Plan that rescued Western Europe in Kennan’s day.

Soviet leaders depended on enforced suffering and privation in order to pursue their grandiose schemes. Putin, on the other hand, has relied on a decade of windfall oil profits to finance his. With oil prices set to remain low for the foreseeable future, that source of money will no longer be enough. And as it now appears, his increasingly coercive rule is no more sustainable than the Soviet Union’s. Nevertheless, Putin’s threat will only grow as he becomes more desperate. It’s time the United States oversees a clear strategy to stop him from sowing conflict in Syria, Ukraine, and everywhere else he sees opportunities.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now