The U.S. will choose ‘containment’ strategy with Russia
Campaign rhetoric doesn’t always match action taken once in power, especially with policies rooted in geopolitical realities. A new U.S. president has been sworn into office, and with the change in leadership will come adjustments to Washington’s relationships with other countries — perhaps most of all Russia.
U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of increasing cooperation with Moscow, particularly on the Syrian battlefield. At the same time, he questioned the value of Washington’s commitment to its Eurasian allies, such as Ukraine and the Baltic states. Combined with Trump’s criticism of U.S. sanctions against Russia and his hesitation to blame the Kremlin for hacking Democratic National Committee email accounts, these positions could signal a shift in the White House’s stance toward Russia to come. Then again, campaign rhetoric doesn’t always match action taken once in power, especially when it comes to policies rooted in geopolitical realities.
The roots of containment
One of the United States’ greatest geopolitical imperatives is to prevent the rise of regional hegemons with the ability to challenge it. Russia’s historical dominance of Eurasia, the Soviet Union’s rise as a superpower after World War II and its resulting political, economic and military rivalry with the United States have long made it a target of Washington’s actions abroad. But the onset of the Cold War and the expansion of Soviet power — itself an outgrowth of Russia’s own strategic imperatives to buffer its heartland from invasion — gave rise to a U.S. strategy known as containment. The policy, championed by U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan and made public in 1947 in a then-anonymous article in Foreign Affairs magazine, essentially boiled down to blocking and countering the Soviet Union and its allies “whenever and wherever they posed a risk of gaining influence.” It applied to every corner of the globe and went on to serve as the principal U.S. strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991.
Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States continued to apply the idea of containment to the newly formed Russian Federation. Though Russia no longer adhered to a communist ideology or posed a global challenge to the United States, it still wielded considerable demographic, economic and military resources. Those, along with its location, positioned Russia to re-emerge as a formidable regional power. In part to try to prevent its resurgence, the United States supported the expansion of NATO and the European Union into the former Eastern Bloc in the 1990s and early 2000s, despite Russia’s weakness.
Yet by 2008, when NATO pledged to expand its membership into former Soviet republics abutting the Russian heartland such as Ukraine and Georgia, Russia had recovered much of its economic and military might. An economy buoyed by high oil prices and the consolidation of political power by President Vladimir Putin gave Russia the opportunity to take advantage of the West’s distraction by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to send the message that it had resumed its role as a regional power. With its invasion of Georgia in August 2008, Moscow demonstrated its willingness to intervene militarily in a NATO ally while simultaneously exposing the West’s lack of commitment not only to Georgian security but also to that of other territories on the Russian periphery.
When U.S. President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he was faced with the question of how to respond to an ascendant Russia while saddled with costly wars in the Middle East and an economy weakened by the 2008 global recession. One of his administration’s main foreign policy platforms was to scale back the United States’ military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to focus attention and resources on other areas of the world, including Eurasia. The United States launched a policy “reset” with Russia in hopes of improving diplomatic ties in the wake of the Russia-Georgia War.
At first the relationship did take a turn for the better: Both countries agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, and Washington pulled back on the ballistic missile defense plans promoted by Obama’s predecessor. Russia, however, continued its regional rise. In 2010, its burgeoning influence in Ukraine was made clear by the election of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich. Russia also launched a customs union that year with Belarus and Kazakhstan that became the core of the Eurasian Economic Union.
Meanwhile, U.S. support for Russian opposition groups helped foment mass anti-Kremlin protests in 2011 and 2012. By the end of Obama’s first term, the reset had all but failed as Russia not only challenged the West’s position in Eurasia but also inserted itself into other matters such as the Syrian civil war.
In February 2014, the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine marked a major turning point in U.S.-Russian relations. The United States was a primary backer of protests that led to the overthrow of Yanukovich’s government, a stinging strategic defeat for Moscow. In the West’s eyes, Russia had grown too strong, and Washington’s support for the uprising and the subsequent pro-West government in Kiev — which Moscow viewed as illegitimate — heralded a resurrection of its containment strategy. These events precipitated a major standoff between Moscow and the West and a post-Cold War nadir for U.S.-Russian relations.
The United States and the European Union imposed economic sanctions against Russia while stepping up support for Western integration efforts by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, each of which signed EU association agreements in June 2014. These measures indicated the United States’ incremental return to its policy of Russian containment, a shift that accelerated in the last years of the Obama administration as the United States ramped up military deployments to NATO states in Eastern Europe, increased its political and security backing of Ukraine, and stepped up its competition with Russia in Syria.
A new direction?
As Trump assumes the duties of the Oval Office, the dynamics of Washington’s relationship with Moscow could change. During his campaign, Trump highlighted the need for greater cooperation with Russia in the Syrian conflict. He also criticized the sanctions against Russia as ineffective and bad for business. Trump added that the United States should come to its NATO allies’ aid only if they “have fulfilled their obligations to us” with regard to defense spending. Moreover, he suggested that backing Ukraine should not be a top U.S. priority. On Jan. 15, Trump even hinted that a bargain between Washington and Moscow could be in the making, saying the United States might ease sanctions against Russia in exchange for a nuclear arms reduction deal.
But Trump’s words are not the only indicators of the shape U.S. foreign policy in Eurasia may take in the years ahead. There is also the composition of the incoming Cabinet, particularly the positions that pertain to foreign policy, to consider. In their congressional testimony, Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis espoused harder lines toward Russia than Trump himself has proposed. Tillerson, who has decades of experience in dealing with Russia as the former CEO of ExxonMobil XOM, +0.29% told senators that “our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia” and criticized the Obama administration for being too soft on Moscow. Mattis, meanwhile, said he supported a U.S. military presence in the Baltics and blasted Russia for trying to “break” NATO.
Though these statements may not necessarily reflect the new administration’s eventual policy direction, they do show that Trump could face pushback on any action perceived to be too conciliatory to Russia. Furthermore, congressional leaders have been much more critical of Russia than the president has been, underscoring the limits to accommodation in U.S. policy. Of course, Trump could use executive orders to lift many of the sanctions on Russia, but given the pressing domestic and trade-related issues on his agenda, he may not be eager to spend his political capital on such moves so early in his presidency.
Politics aside, broader geopolitical forces must also be taken into account in calculating the direction of U.S. foreign policy. No matter who is in the White House, Washington’s imperative to contain regional hegemons will continue to be a mainstay of its foreign policy. With Europe becoming increasingly divided since the Brexit referendum, Russia has another chance to recover from its strategic setbacks and regain influence in the Eurasian region in the coming year. In fact, there have already been signs of a Russian resurgence in recent months, and a more assertive Moscow will likely intensify its challenges to U.S. interests in Eurasia, the Middle East and elsewhere. So, for now, the fears held by some states in the European borderlands that a grand U.S.-Russia bargain is in the works appear to be overblown.
Ties between Washington and Moscow will certainly evolve under Trump. Some tactical shifts, possibly including adjustments in U.S. sanctions and measured cooperation in Syria, will doubtless take place. Washington’s policy of containment, however, is still very much in force, and it will continue to feature heavily in U.S. strategy well beyond the Trump administration.