U.S. v Russia: Searching for Kennan

By Nina Khrushcheva
April 28, 2014

No matter how counterintuitive it may seem, Washington needs to stop lecturing Russian President Vladimir Putin if it wants to resolve problems with him.

In George Kennan’s celebrated 1946 “long telegram,” the diplomat and scholar explained why Russia’s conduct was so often duplicitous. Kennan might well have been writing about Putin when he laid out the West’s problems with the Kremlin leaders’ behavior. Being annoyed with them wouldn’t help, Kennan advised, since their conduct was based on a fierce Russian nationalism complicated by a serious streak of insecurity about Moscow’s position in the world, evident whenever Joseph Stalin felt the Soviet Union was not receiving the respect he believed it was due.

We see this pattern in Putin’s conduct today. He insists that the United States “treats Russia like the uninvited guest at a party,” freely interfering in his country’s affairs, which he won’t tolerate — no matter the cost. Confronted with his outright hostility, the West seems at a loss as to how to deal with the bellicose Kremlin.

The United States is incensed that Putin is lying to achieve his goals. The most recent example, and a masterful exercise of ad hoc logic, is Putin’s claim that Russia’s annexation of Crimea last month has been justified by Ukraine’s renewed military actions against the pro-Russian militants in the its eastern regions.

The Crimeans, Putin said, “otherwise would have witnessed the same events as eastern Ukraine and surely even worse… If Russia had not rendered real support…, it would have been impossible to organize a civilized process of the expression of people’s will there.”

Pro-Russian masked militias running around with guns and taking over buildings is a civilized process! Move over another George Orwell. But understanding that Russia is a propaganda state is not to going to solve the crisis. The United States still seems to think that shaming Putin will somehow make him suddenly change his mind. President Barack Obama, speaking from Japan during his trip to Asia, accused Putin of failing to abide by “the sprit or the letter” of the week-old Geneva agreement to de-escalate the Ukrainian crisis.

Vice President Joe Biden was even tougher during his recent Kiev trip. Russia, he said, must “stop talking and start acting.”

In Putin’s view, however, it is the West that doesn’t abide by the agreement. The more Biden promises financial support to Kiev’s elections, scheduled for May 25, the more he confirms Putin’s conviction of U.S. meddling. If Washington announces it’s going to influence votes, why can’t the “green men” — suspected Russian militants who foster pro-Russia attitudes in the Ukrainian east — in Donetsk, Lugansk or Kharkiv? If the Kiev government can’t get rid of its own radicals — like the nationalist political group the Right Sector, which is still occupying buildings on the Maidan — why does the Kremlin need to call its own radicals to surrender?

The United States, Putin insists, continually advances its own agenda — “using slogans of spreading democracy… to gain unilateral advantages and ensure their own interests.” During his 15 years in power, he can cite the invasion of Iraq, widespread National Security Agency spying and the U.S. drone program. Why can’t Russia pursue its own interests in the same way?

Washington rejects Putin’s thinking, for a number of reasons. For starters, it could return the world to the pre-1991 Cold War dynamic, when two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, faced off. To circumvent this situation, the White House mistakenly treats the Ukrainian crisis as if it could be resolved in a matter of days, at most months. It’s as if a tee ball team were going up against hardball pros, pretending they are all paying the same game.

It could be years, however, before Putin leaves the Kremlin, so the United States needs to decide now on its short- and long-term objectives.

Obama may insist that Russia is nothing more than a regional power. But wishfully limiting Moscow’s influence doesn’t make Moscow less capable of wreaking havoc around the world.

Consider: In the last year, Russian military spending went up almost 5 percent, while global defense spending overall declined.

If Russia were only a regional power, it could be contained. The West would be able to isolate it, as Iran has been since the 1979 Iranian revolution, as well as North Korea.

All Russian international financial accounts and businesses could be frozen, for example, and Russians’ travel to Europe banned. This economic isolation might push Russians to take care of Putin on their own.

Yet, as has proved true with the Iranian government, convincing Russians to turn against the Kremlin may not be easy. Not because they necessarily support Putin’s policies — his current nationalist popularity over Crimea’s annexation is unlikely to last — but because national pride and support of the government usually flares up when other nations try to undermine it.

A larger problem for Washington is that Europe has been inconsistent in its efforts to sanction Putin. Russia and the European Union remain key trading partners, with Moscow supplying at least 25 percent of the continent’s oil and gas.  So the European Union is worried about pressing Moscow too hard.

For the short term, Washington has been unable to convince the EU to uniformly enforce tough, targeted sanctions — not only against select Russian businesses and people, but also against whole economic sectors, such as energy or trade. It such sanctions were passed, the argument goes, the resulting jittery Russian markets could restrain Putin’s appetite for more of Ukrainian territory.

In addition, far more North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces could be tethered closely to Eastern European and Baltic countries to balance against the roughly 40,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian eastern border.

The White House, however, is wrong to assume that the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election, economic sanctions or even beefed up NATO forces will force Putin’s into existential retreat. Like so many Russian leaders before him, Putin is determined to be recognized as a world power by any means necessary — whether that means destabilizing Ukraine, or any other country, through military threats, oil and gas price manipulation or using his veto power on the United Nations Security Council.

I was Kennan’s last research assistant at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. We talked a great deal about the U.S. role in the world. Though he had designed the  U.S. containment policy against Russia — neither full appeasement nor total regime change — Kennan always insisted that the greatest American strength is when it exercises “the power of example.” He regularly cited Washington’s crucial ability to project a positive image to the rest of the world.

The problem today is that many nations don’t see the U.S. worldview as positive and sunny. Though Russians are unlikely to support Putin in his Ukrainian adventure for the long term, they don’t want to be lectured by the United States either.

Obama, even while engaged in his historic visit to Asia, couldn’t avoid addressing his Russia stand-off. I suggest he reread Kennan,  for it is clear that Putin, like Soviet leaders of old, wants to be acknowledged and respected.

Even though Putin is now saying he does not want to talk with the West, why doesn’t Obama visit Moscow for a frank man-to-man conversation? They can discuss mutual — or competing — geopolitical interests, or even mistakes.

For the sake of all other nervous nations on the Russian periphery, it’s a policy worth trying.


PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012. The leaders are in Los Cabos to attend the G20 summit. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (INSERT 1): George Kennan, 1947. WIKIMEDIA/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a live broadcast nationwide phone-in, in Moscow, April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

PHOTO (INSERT 3): A barricade is set up in front of the seized office of the SBU state security service in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

PHOTO (INSERT 4): President Barack Obama speaks about the crisis in Ukraine from the White House in Washington, March 17, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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Russia has done the right thing to annex Crimea . Historically Crimea has been part of Russia for over 200 years, demographically the majority of the population is of russian origin, militarily Crimea since 1784 has been the naval base of the russian black sea fleet and economically Crimea depends largely from the trade with Russia. For these reasons Russia always deemed Crimea belonging to its sphere of influence. Once the Maiden movement in Kiev, thanks to a coup d’etat organized and financed by the CIA, succeeded in overthrowing the democratic elected government of Mr Yanukovych, Russia felt that its sphere of influence in Ukraine was threaten and consequently decided to intervene in Crimea. NATO since the end of the USSR has been encircling Russia and it has stretched its area of operation up to the Baltic countries in direct contact with the russian borders. It tried to do the same in Georgia but it was contained by Russia with the South Ossetia war in 2008. The NATO alliance and in particular the USA should be the last ones to talk when it comes of infringing the sovereignty of independent states and respecting the rules of international law. The 1998 NATO military intervention in Kosovo was engineered to remove Serbia from the Russia sphere of influence and in defiance of every international law it contributed to the split of Kosovo from Serbia. In 1983 and in 1989 the USA did not hesitate to invade the tiny island of Grenada and Panama only because it felt that the governments of those countries might have posed a remote threat to its dominance over the Caribbean and the Panama Canal. Furthermore in 2003 the USA invaded Irak with the excuse of eliminating the weapons of mass destruction which allegedly were in that country. The weapons of mass destruction were never found and during that wicked military campaign half million of iraqis and five thousand US servicemen lost their life. Let alone two trillions of dollars spent by the US for the Irak war thanks to which today Irak is firmly placed under the sphere of influence of the mullahs of Tehran. At the end what has the Irak military campaign achieved apart the destruction of hundreds thousands human life and the loss of trillions of dollars? Treating Russia not as a regional power but instead as a political , financial and military global player will not only help to stabilize the entire East Europe but it will make the world a much safer place to live

Posted by CiucciNeri | Report as abusive

Obama and Kerry have spent way too much time lecturing Putin, that’s one thing I agree with. On the other hand, it isn’t the United States’ fault that Russia is a failed country. Obama reached out to Putin in a number of very significant ways, but Putin saw it as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to take advantage. Obama’s approach has been discredited. What Obama should be doing is effective sanctions that will weaken Putin’s position and internal support.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Dear Dr. Khrushcheva, thank you for a nuanced and insightful article. I agree that Obama’s preaching and the West’s own transgressions against international law both undermine the US credibility in speaking with Russia and provide Putin with ample material to justify his own voluntarism. Alas, I don’t believe a visit from Obama and a manly heart-to-heart will help.

As you say, Putin, as Russian/Soviet leaders before him, wants recognition and acknowledgement of Russian great-powerhood and defines the entire idea of Russia in juxtaposition to the West. The recognition is acceptable if it is granted by a ‘worthy’ interlocutor. In other words, the recognition is as good as its grantor. And ‘worth’ is currently defined by Putin in terms of compulsory power which is true for his domestic politics as much as foreign. That is so because Putin’s politics have been entirely devoid of ideology, at least up until now, which means that other than Russia’s national interests, there’s no idea and no institutional framework that Russia can try to sell to the world and get a following for, leaving only brute force or deception in its arsenal. (In the West, democracy-building and human rights, all valid criticism notwithstanding, is at least something, a merit for judgement.)

What I’m trying to say is that the West and Russia talk different languages of power. As long as it is so, there are no good options: if US descends to Putin’s game of blatant realpolitik and force, it will undermine what it preaches even further. If US/EU continue their muddling through, it spells weakness for Putin and undermines them as an interlocutor worthy of granting recognition. Tough economic sanctions may be unglamorous, but they may bring about the result of weakening Putin’s support coalition and brining about a Russian leader who is willing to engage in a different power speak.

Posted by mbudjeryn | Report as abusive

Furthermore, NATO can contain Russia, since NATO is farther East than it was in the past. Putin won’t be able to destabilize those countries, unless he wants a war.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Yes, Ive seen how the US’s containment policy has worked so wonderfully on Iran. Iran is now a regional power, with governments and proxies under ther control in almost every corner of the middle east, when in 1979 it was not. And even the current sanctions only got them to talk. They managed to ram the nuclear program down America’s throat! It will remain intact, only alittle more limited.

All this talk of sanctions and containment is useless. If it had limited results on Iran, a country smaller than Russia, what makes you think it will work on Russia???????????

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

It would be convenient to ignore what is happening in Ukraine. But it’s a bad idea for all of the reasons given in this opinion piece in support of leaving Putin alone. Why should we care if Putin is insecure or if goading him is likely to make him intransigent and do the opposite, no matter what the cost? His insecurity is his problem. My experience is that people who are getting what then want tend to be happy and that happy people don’t get angry. Therefore, Putin’s apparent anger and intransigence are indicators that he is losing, and that is a good thing. The only way to deal with bullies is to call them out.

In addition, it is apparent that things in eastern Ukraine are not going to plan for the Russians. That is apparent, because they have not yet entered the country militarily. At this point, regardless of the technical military outcome, the entry of Russian forces into the Ukraine would constitute a long-term diplomatic and political defeat for Putin. That is because enough time has passed for the non-Russian world to see that the cause of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine is a farce, while at the same time the Ukrainian government in Kiev has had enough time to position itself to put up at least a token resistance to a Russian invasion. There is no glory for the Russian military in demonstrating that it can beat up the Ukrainian military, so all that could be accomplished is to convince other countries that Russia is dangerous and unpredictable, and not really capable of coexisting with other countries.

The reality is that Putin is yesterday’s man, and this, no doubt, also applies to his allies in Russian government. It does not make sense to appease.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Not a single monument in Moscow has been erected to honor those 20-30 million Russians killed by Stalin. Not a single plaque even 1 square inch by 1 square inch. For a people who love death of their own kind, there can be no better dictator than rasPutin. Russia is a cursed country that wallows in movies with disastrous endings, the two love interests dead by suicide for example, one drowning in a bath of his own blood. This is the Russian mindset, a cursed filthy lying corrupt country of lazy F**cks who couldn’t build a small car to sell the world if their national sanity depended on it.
Forget about appeasing Russia. Wait until they slit their own throats in the bathtub.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

[…] Russia — U.S. vs. Russia: Searching  for Kennan, Nina Krushcheva, Reute rs http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/20 14/04/28/u-s-v-russia-searching-for-kenn an/ […]