“Containment” and economic interdependence

Can a new “containment” of Russia work in an age of economic interdependence?

These days, there is much discussion about a new strategy of “containment” towards Russia. European policymakers are going back and reading George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” – written in 1946 and published anonymously as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs in 1947 – and wondering whether it is once again relevant. In it, Kennan, then a diplomat at the US embassy in Moscow and later the head of policy planning in the State Department, said the United States should “regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena” and called for “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies”. That meant “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”

Even during the Cold War, “containment” was a notoriously vague term.

Even during the Cold War, “containment” was a notoriously vague term. What began as an attempt to prevent further Soviet expansion later turned into a more aggressive attempt to “roll back” Soviet influence. In his memoirs, published in 1967 as the United States was escalating its involvement in Vietnam, Kennan said “containment” had been misunderstood: he had wanted to prevent Soviet expansionism using political rather than military means. There were different ideas about the focus and scope of “containment” as well as about means – thus John Lewis Gaddis, the leading historian of containment, distinguished between “symmetrical” containment (responding in kind) and “asymmetrical” containment (picking your battles). But what “containment” might mean now is even less clear than it was during the Cold War.

The biggest difference between the Cold War and the post-post-Cold War is the extent of economic interdependence between Russia and the West – and in particular between Russia and Europe. This is partly a consequence of globalization. But it was also a deliberate strategy. For the last twenty years or so, the West has expanded trade and tried to integrate powers such as Russia and China into the international system. This in turn was based on two assumptions. The first was that economic interdependence would lead gradually but inexorably to democratisation. The second was that economic interdependence would turn these powers into “responsible stakeholders”, as Robert Zoellick put it in a speech on China in 2005. The greatest achievement of this approach was Chinese and Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Although the idea that trade was transformative was shared throughout the West, including in the United States, it was particularly strong in Germany. German policymakers were particularly susceptible to what I have elsewhere called the “Ostpolitik illusion”. Invoking the rhetoric of “peace” and the memory of Willy Brandt’s policy towards the Soviet Union in the 1970s, German policymakers were among the most committed to a policy of Wandel durch Handel, or transformation through trade. But these assumptions have now been shattered. Remarkably, even some German policymakers are now talking about a new strategy of “containment” towards Russia. But what does it mean in an era of economic interdependence? Is such a policy even still possible?

Do we continue to unwind economic interdependence until it reaches the levels that existed with the Soviet Union during the Cold War?

Over the last few months, the West has taken tentative steps to reverse the integration of Russia into the international system. After the annexation of Crimea, Russia was immediately rejected from the G8. As Russia has destabilized eastern Ukraine, the West has also gradually imposed remarkably tough economic sanctions. The imposition of sanctions has been led by the United States, which had much less trade with Russia than Europeans and therefore less to lose. But Europeans have reluctantly followed and imposed sanctions of their own, especially after Flight MH17 was shot down in July – a kind of tipping point for public opinion in countries such as Germany. The question now is what happens next if Russian expansionism continues. Do we continue to unwind economic interdependence until it reaches the levels that existed with the Soviet Union during the Cold War (or with Iran now)?

One attempt to define what “containment” might mean in an era of economic interdependence was in the Power Audit of EU-Russia Relations by Mark Leonard and Nicu Popescu, one of ECFR’sfirstpublications. In it, they argued that the EU was split between two approaches towards Russia. At one end of the spectrum were those, particularly in member states such as Germany, who viewed Russia as a potential partner that could be drawn into the EU’s orbit through a process of “creeping integration”. At the other end were those, particularly in member states such as Poland, who saw Russia as a threat and advocated a strategy of “soft containment” in order to limit its expansionist tendencies.

According to Leonard and Popescu, “soft containment” involved “excluding Russia from the G8, expanding NATO to include Georgia, supporting anti-Russian regimes in the neighbourhood, building missile shields, developing an ‘Energy NATO’ and excluding Russian investment from the European energy sector.” They explicitly distinguished “soft containment” from the military containment of the Cold War. But“soft containment” was also not quite the same as the containment through political means that Kennan said in retrospect he had in mind. Rather, it was mostly a kind of geo-economic containment: the EU would “use its economic leverage over Russia more openly, while engaging with Russia only selectively and vocally criticising negative developments within Russia.”

It is striking how the measures that the West has taken in the last few months go far beyond what even the most hawkish Europeans had in mind in 2007.

The Power Audit was published in 2007 – that is, even before the Georgia war in 2008, let alone the shock of the annexation of Crimea.Clearly, an even tougher approach to Russia is now required. In fact, it is striking how the measures that the West has taken in the last few months go far beyond what even the most hawkish Europeans had in mind in 2007. In particular, they include not just elements of geo-economic containment such as sanctions and steps to reduce dependence on Russian gas but also elements of military containment such as the deployment of military assets to the Baltic states and Poland and exercises on Russia’s borders. At its summit in Wales earlier this month, NATO also agreed to create a new rapid reaction force and to limit cuts in defence spending. Some Western countries are even considering supplying weapons to Ukraine.

The question, therefore, is how these different elements of the emerging strategy of containment fit together. Is it really possible to continue economic interdependence in a context in which there is an ongoing conflict, albeit one using “hybrid war” techniques? Should we try to keep the two parallel tracks – the military and the economic – separate or could and should there be linkages between them? The relationship between them may not even be something over which we have control. For example, depending on how things develop, it could well be that Western companies divest from Russia and vice versa even if they are not required to do so by sanctions. In other words, the unwinding of economic interdependence could develop a dynamic of its own. We therefore urgently need to understand the logic of containment in an era of economic interdependence. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Research Director

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