Containing Russia and Restoring American Power


Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine are ringing alarm bells in Europe and United States. For the first time since World War II, European national boundaries are being changed by force, and, in an eerie echo of 1938, by an authoritarian leader who claims the right of intervention on behalf of ethnic kin in other countries.

Is this a temporary setback in relations that can be smoothed over by diplomacy? Or is this the beginning of Cold War II, a reprise of the old days that will be with us as long as Russia continues its bellicosity?

While the returns are still coming in, it’s increasingly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to set Russia on a long-term course to restore Russian greatness and its influence over the states that used to fall within the Soviet empire.  His speech of March 19 deserves careful reading. Although the former Soviet Union based its legitimacy and its right to empire on an ideology, Putin’s new Russia is based on his view of former Soviet glory, strident Russian nationalism and opposition to the West. Whether that view will survive him – whether there will be a similarly motivated line of succession as there was from Stalin to Malenkov to Khrushchev and so forth – is unknown. But Putin is a serious man, and his intentions should be taken seriously.

By now it should be clear that the “American moment” at the end of the Cold War – or, more precisely, of Cold War I – is over, and our security policies must be realigned. During the decade that coincided with the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton and the incompetent incumbency of Boris Yeltsin, the post-Cold War era appeared to be the age of democracy, led by a prosperous and militarily untouchable United States. Those days are long gone. From an explosion of post-Cold War optimism, the number of democratic states in the world is declining from its high water mark in the 1990s, and authoritarianism of the “one man, one vote, one time” type is spreading.

In the United States, the age of terrorism, two protracted wars, runaway budget deficits, a financial crisis that teetered on the brink of ruin and a bitterly divided Congress have sapped America’s energy and damaged its reputation. In Russia, eight years of neglect, drift and near-economic collapse under Yeltsin led to the rise of Putin who, even during the Medvedev presidency, has steadily and successfully centralized power, revived and stabilized the Russian economy, and restored Russian pride. Europe, however disturbed it is by Russian aggression, has strong economic ties to the Federation. European leaders are unlikely to lead a response to Russian aggression, and any common security policy must also address European commercial interests. But Europeans must also understand that if the U.S. taxpayer is expected to come to their aid – again – they will have to bear an appropriate share of the burden, both fiscally and in the field.

Clearly, things are different than they were in 1947, when George Kennan wrote his famous “X Article” advocating “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” The world has changed, in some cases radically. But containment still remains preferable to confrontation and conflict, particularly since Russia remains a nuclear superpower. Since a version of 21st century “containment” of Putin’s newly aggressive Russia is probably the West’s only viable strategy, what might that strategy consist of from an American perspective?

First, the leadership of the United States is indisputably necessary for any concerted Western containment strategy, and we Americans must relearn what two ruinous 20th century wars taught us – that the peace and security of the United States is tied forever to the peace and security of central Europe. Like the mule that had to be whacked between the ears to get its attention, the Crimea episode has refocused America’s national leadership on the centrality of NATO, the European Union, and Europe – since 1991, an enlarged Europe. This is not to imply that other parts of the world are not just as deserving of U.S. attention and support, but it does mean that Europe should be a first-tier focus of our diplomacy and security strategy for the long term. And like Kennan wrote of the Soviet Union’s containment, American policy must be patient, long-term and serious. Please, no more mood swings – no more “reset” buttons, “pivots” to one region or another – and especially, no more invasions of countries not central to America’s most vital interests.

Leadership abroad must also mean leadership at home. The American people, whose taxes will pay for an enlarged American security policy and whose sons and daughters fill the ranks, must be partners in a re-expanded strategy.  For the United States in 2014 and 2015, this will be a tough sell, though not as hard as FDR’s cautious polices prior to 1941.  The American polity today has a much more internationalist outlook than in 1940 or even 1980; the Internet has opened the world to the average citizen on the street.  Still, though, he or she expects our government to make sound decisions and bring them to the voters for approval. While no one can expect partisan battles to end – any more than FDR expected them to in 1938 – responsible legislators from both parties can join in a broad national security agenda that extends from this Administration to the next and beyond.  It was this kind of bipartisan consensus about defense that gave the U.S. the great legislators of the 1970s and 1980s, whose absence is sorely felt today.

For American leadership to be taken seriously abroad, the government of the United States must take itself seriously – seriously enough to pass budgets on time, to legislate, and to face up to the expense of world leadership.  At the national level, budgets are the unmistakable indicator of where strategic priorities really lie. The United States is just now recovering from an era in which taxes were cut, two wars were fought “off budget” and other huge expenses were incurred without a corresponding increase in revenue.  We must bury, for as long as we hope to play a leading role in the world, the idea that our leadership can be taken seriously while cutting taxes and “starving government,” as one ideologue put it.  The budget-slashing ghosts of Jesse Helms and others like him have long hobbled American diplomacy; the armed services today are reeling from sequestration cuts that even its proponents admit are unwise. We have to pay if we want to play.

A revived national security strategy for the 21st century will be far more complex than those in the Cold War, when WWII-style tank armies faced one another at the Fulda Gap and elsewhere.  An effective present-day security strategy that focuses on containing or deterring Russia begins with rethinking our nuclear strategy so that the ultimate deterrent remains viable and the keystone of our defense planning.  We should seek, at the earliest moment, opportunities to thoroughly understand Russian nuclear doctrines and capabilities, now and as they evolve. Misunderstandings during the Cold War almost turned deadly several times; we cannot risk misunderstandings again, especially with one-man rule in Russia.

“Whole of government” agencies that are vital to long-term commitment must be supported with adequate budgets and direction.  These are diplomatic posts, aid programs and other elements of public diplomacy, but also public and private defense against cyber-attacks, a Russian operational weapon of choice. Our embattled intelligence agencies must continue to be funded, as well as police and security agencies that will respond to fifth-column attacks and acts of terrorism at home and among our allies. The Soviet Union was a major sponsor of international terrorism, and KGB Colonel Putin is unlikely to neglect covert capabilities.

Finally, the decline in the United States’ armed forces must be reversed if the U.S. is to realistically contain Russian expansionism. The Army – which will be the service most likely to be deployed as a guarantor of allied security – is facing cuts that will dramatically reduce its ability to play an effective role in containing an impatient Russia.  The slide in the Service’s end strength should be arrested and reveresed; three of its independent brigades should be stationed, on a long-term basis with supporting arms, in Europe along routes of approach from Russia into Poland and the Baltic states.  Comparable Air Force basing should be done – bases, not temporary “lily pads” that have no deterrent effect.  The Navy’s decline must be arrested, at a speed consistent with an expanded shipbuilding program, to a fleet that can, with allies, dominate the seas around Europe and the Eurasian littoral, including the Mediterranean.   Space assets must be protected, and so on.

None of this will be easy, and none of it will be fast – regaining budgetary sanity in the Congress, rebuilding our capability for public diplomacy, a re-examined nuclear strategy, an expanded shipbuilding program – but we are facing a new era.  On the occasion of the attacks of September 11, 2001, a U.S. president famously told the aroused U.S. public to go shopping.   Putin’s invasion of Crimea is another historic moment, and this time we must not ignore the challenge.


Colonel (USA ret) Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  Prior to his retirement from active duty he served for thirty years in a variety of Special Forces, infantry and staff duties.



Image: World Economic Forum, Remy Steinegger, CC