Can Russia Be Contained?

by Mark Adomanis April 21, 2014

Joe Biden (left) and Barack Obama. Photo: whitehouse.gov

It now seems like it was a lifetime ago that the Obama administration came to office with a determination to “reset” relations with Russia. Obama and his advisers thought (with a great deal of reason!) that the bilateral relationship had been poisoned through the aggressiveness and hardheadedness of the Bush administration and that a more adeptly conceived and executed policy would be more successful. Wherever Bush had been excitable, ideological, and shrill in his dealings with Russia, Obama was determined to be pragmatic, flexible, and calm.

To some on the right (particularly those of a neoconservative bent) this change in policy towards an obviously evil Vladimir Putin appeared the very height of naiveté. From the very beginning of his campaign Obama was attacked as “Jimmy Carter 2.0,” and once he was in office he was frequently berated for conducting an “apology tour.” To others on the left, particularly those who disdain the “corporatism” and “centrism” of the modern Democratic Party, Obama often appeared as if he was embracing a form of non-interventionism and amoral realpolitik most commonly associated with Richard Nixon. Among people espousing this line of thought, although Barack Obama might appear as if he was genuinely committed to human rights and democracy in reality he was a representative of the same old broken power structure.

The reality was always a lot more complicated than either of these caricatures. Barack Obama, a man who has close personal and professional relationships with noted liberal interventionists like Susan Rice and Samantha Power and whose primary Russia adviser was a famous scholar of democracy promotion, was always a highly unlikely paragon of Henry Kissinger-style realpolitik. From the very beginning the creators of the reset insisted that they would be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, that the United States could work with Russia on nuclear disarmament and anti-terrorism while criticizing it for limiting press freedoms and unfairly marginalizing political opponents.

Barack Obama has also always been someone who is capable of eloquently describing both his belief in America’s ability to act as a force for good in the world and his belief in the attractiveness and broad applicability of its political system. Obama’s liberal interventionist credentials were demonstrated perhaps most famously in his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech: anyone who finds his support of drone strikes “surprising” would be well advised to read it since it is as well-crafted and unapologetic a defense of American military supremacy as you are very likely to read.

While the reset has been teetering on the edge for awhile now, in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis Obama has rapidly moved away from any residual focus on engagement and cooperation with Russia towards a “containment” policy that is primarily focused on its isolation and exclusion. Minimal cooperation in a few select spheres (nuclear security and space are two of the few) will continue, but there will no longer be even a rhetorical pretense that Washington and Moscow are on the same side of the fence. Given the political realities in Washington (where Moscow is now less popular than at any time since Gorbachev came to power) a containment-focused approach is the minimally aggressive policy that is on offer. Large and powerful constituencies in Washington favor a “rollback” approach, a strategy that is predicated not simply on sidelining Russia but on directly confronting and defeating it wherever possible. Obama won’t adopt such a policy while he is still in office, but it’s entirely possible that his successor will.

While I’m quite realist in my leanings, and am generally content to adopt a live and let live policy towards other countries, I understand and sympathize with the Obama administration’s sudden push for containment. Russia’s recent actions are objectionable precisely because they concern another country. Before it started to crudely imitate NATO’s rhetoric about Kosovo, the Russian foreign ministry used to produce some very excellent descriptions of the importance of sovereignty and why it was so crucial that international borders remain inviolable. The Russians were right when they said that borders should not be changed through force of arms and that countries must be allowed to work out domestic issues on their own. They made a truly terrible error by so blatantly interfering in the internal politics of another country.

Actually containing Russia, though, will prove much more difficult than containing it in theory. In fact, I think it will prove to be impossible. During the Cold War, containment was an achievable goal not simply for political but for very deep economic reasons. The Eastern and Western blocs didn’t have many economic connections, didn’t trade much with one another, and pursued starkly different development strategies. The United States and its allies didn’t even have to try to isolate the Soviet economy from the world market: the Soviets did it of their own accord! That is to say that the Soviets made the most difficult and contentious part of containment (economic isolation) a matter of official state policy. It’s rare indeed for an adversary to cooperate to such an extent.

The Russian Federation in 2014 does not pursue a policy of economic autarky and is a far more integrated part of the world economy than the Soviet Union ever was. The Russians have been slow in these efforts at integration (recall the comically long timeline for WTO accession) but they most certainly are not going to deliberately cut themselves off from global trade. The only way that Russia can be truly economically isolated is if the United States can convince a host of other countries not to have mutually beneficial economic relations with it. Perhaps during the “hyperpower” days of the 1990s the US might have possessed such leverage, but in the increasingly globalized and BRIC-driven world in which we live it simply does not. There is no way in which America will be able to offer enough carrots to convince everyone that they shouldn’t have anything to do with Russia, and so while Russian companies might have much more difficulty doing business in Western Europe they will be just as welcome as they have always been in India, China, Brazil, Vietnam, and other swiftly developing countries.

Obama will likely succeed in making life more difficult for the Russian elite and will be able to plausibly argue that he caused Russia to “pay a price” for its actions in Ukraine. But the pursuit of containment, however understandable the impulse, won’t be able to undo the past two decades worth of Russian economic reform and integration. Russia’s a part of the world economy now, and no amount of huffing and puffing in Washington DC is going to change that.