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How to contain Russia without a new Cold War

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, December 18, 2014.

The debate over whether to arm Ukraine is obscuring a more fundamental strategic choice for the United States— how to deal with Putin’s Russia. The fracturing of the relationship between Russia and the west is about much more than control over provinces in eastern Ukraine. It has to do with a fundamental difference over how to constitute the European security order.

The United States and European Union built and support a regional order based on institutions, the rule of law, and alliances that is open to all countries that want to join. Russia sees this order as reducing and marginalizing its rightful role in Europe, which it believes is as a great power with a sphere of influence.

My colleague Jeremy Shapiro has written a typically thoughtful and bold post in which he argues that the choice for how the United States should now deal with Russia comes down to two options. The first is a 21st century “New Cold War” where the West contains Russia. The second is to accommodate Russia’s grievances by granting it a sphere of influence in its neighborhood and by giving it a greater voice in European security architecture.

Jeremy favors accommodation of Russia. Accommodation has a bad rap because of its failure in the 1930s but, to be fair, we should recognize that it was successfully employed on other occasions and not every rival is like Hitler.  Jeremy accepts that accommodation has a downside but judges it to be preferable to a New Cold War and a heightened risk of military conflict between the United States and Russia.

I disagree for reasons that my colleague Bob Kagan has already written about. But, Jeremy is right to say we must choose between flawed options that can only be judged relative to each other. In that spirit, I want to make the argument for how the United States can contain Russia without re-running the Cold War or repeating its excesses—including the nuclear arms race, nuclear brinksmanship, and unnecessary wars.

The Cold War was unique. Rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union was inevitable but the form it took was not. There are three ways in which the United States could refine containment so it avoids a New Cold War. 

First, modern containment would be regional instead of global. The threat posed by Russia is in Europe, not Asia, Latin America, or Africa. Many of the major mistakes the United States made in the Cold War—the Vietnam War and propping up dictators—resulted from conflating the Soviet threat to the west with Soviet influence in strategically irrelevant places. There is no reason to repeat this error. Moreover, the fact that Russia is much smaller than the Soviet Union means that it cannot credibly threaten to overturn the global order. After all, Russian gross domestic product (GDP) today is approximately 12.5 percent of U.S. GDP compared with a high of almost 60 percent in the 1970s (its share of global GDP is now only 3.4 percent).

Second, containment would be based on conventional power, not nuclear weapons. In the Cold War, NATO conventional forces were far inferior to Soviet forces so the United States had to credibly threaten to go nuclear first. There is no such requirement this time. Instead, the United States needs to bolster NATO’s defenses against hybrid war and push back against corruption and covert operations in Europe.

Third, containment would be directed against Putin’s Russia, not Russia itself. In the Cold War, containment was directed against the Soviet Union, not the Soviet leader. Thus, when Stalin died, the United States refused to countenance détente with the new Soviet leadership, even though Winston Churchill, then Britain’s Prime Minister, strongly supported exploring it. Churchill saw Stalin, not the USSR, as the problem and believed Eisenhower’s refusal to be a historic error that would prolong the Cold War. This time, the United States should make clear that it is open to détente with a Russia that remains authoritarian as long as it changes its foreign policy accordingly.

Thus, modern containment would distinguish itself from its predecessor in three ways—it would be regional, conventional, and based on Russian behavior. So, what would this regional containment mean in practice? The United States and its allies should start with the following.

Make Article V Rock Solid

The threat to NATO is an attack on territory in the Baltics or Eastern Europe followed by a threat to go nuclear if NATO responded. NATO must continue and intensify its efforts to deny Russia any prospect of achieving its goals by establishing a credible and persistent U.S. and NATO presence in Central Europe.  That may require some modest increases in defense spending.

Create COCOM (Coordinating Committee) II

As Daniel Drezner has proposed, the United States and its allies should institutionalize sanctions against Putin’s Russia by re-creating and re-imagining COCOM, which was the organization responsible for export controls on the Soviet Union. COCOM II would be responsible for economic containment, including sanctions. Some European nations will disagree but there is much that the United States and the major European powers can do on their own.

A Change of Focus in Ukraine

The fight against separatists in Donbas is one Kiev cannot win. The United States and its European allies should focus on defending the rest of Ukraine (everything Kiev controls under Minsk II). As Anne Applebaum has written “build a Berlin Wall around Donetsk in the form of a demilitarized zone and treat everything else like West Germany.” 

Counter Russian Influence in the European Union

Putin’s Russia is working to increase its influence in European politics, including through corruption, intelligence operations, financing of pro-Russian populist parties, and playing to nationalist grievances (for instance, in Serbia). The United States must assist its European allies in a protracted and wide-ranging effort to counter these actions.

This is what a modern version of containment should look like. It will be difficult but it pales in comparison to the cost of the Cold War and to the catastrophic consequences of returning to a spheres of influence order in Europe.