The inconvenience of history: Cold War containment won’t deter autocrats

George_F_Kennan_-_An_American_LifeIn an interview published in January, the FT’s Geoff Dyer notes, President Barack Obama downplayed the legendary American diplomat who was the architect of the Cold War policy towards the Soviet Union known as “containment”. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” he told the New Yorker.

But his administration is now “retrofitting for a new age the approach to Moscow that was first set out by the diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947 and that dominated American strategy through the fall of the Soviet Union,” Peter Baker writes for The New York Times. He reports that President Obama plans to revise his Russia policy into “an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.”

“However, the problem for the administration if it starts to map out a long-term approach towards Russia is that the world is very different from 1947, when Mr Kennan first raised the idea of containment. The global economy is much more interlinked and political power more dispersed, making it harder to think about marginalizing an important country such as Russia,” notes Dyer.

“Tough sanctions will have some impact on Russia, but the idea of long-term global isolation is unrealistic,” says Tom Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If the administration tries to do that, it is unlikely to succeed in holding together an international coalition.”

The Obama administration believes that even the modest sanctions announced so far have had a broader impact on the Russian economy, including capital flight and currency weakness, and that over time Mr Putin’s actions will discourage investment in the country.

“A Russian government that does not respect territorial sovereignty could be one that does not respect other basic principles, such as contracts and rule of law,” says a senior administration official.

Nor are such ‘realist’ postures as engaging autocrats likely to deter ideologically-driven bad actors, says a leading commentator.

There was no reason to expect that the Ayatollah Khamenei would take Obama’s “extended hand,” but every reason to expect that he would crack down barbarically on stirrings of democracy in his society, Leon Wieseltier writes for The New Republic:

There was no reason to expect that Assad would go because he “must go,” but every reason to expect him to savage his country and thereby create an ethnic-religious war and a headquarters for jihadist anti-Western terrorists. There was no reason to expect Putin to surrender his profound historical bitterness at the reduced post-Soviet realities of Russia and leave its “near abroad” alone. There was no reason to expect that the Taliban in Afghanistan would behave as anything but a murderous theocratic conspiracy aspiring to a return to power. And so on. Who, really, has been the realist here? And what sort of idealism is it that speaks of justice and democracy but denies consequential assistance (which the White House outrageously conflates with ground troops) to individuals and movements who courageously work to achieve those ideals?

Putin’s march into Ukraine had two rationales, notes FT analyst Philip Stephens:

The first, a consequence of Moscow’s failure to coerce Kiev into a Eurasian union, was rooted in the 19th-century concept that Russian security depends on command of its near-abroad. The second was a calculation that European disunity and Mr Obama’s aversion to confrontation would blunt the international response….I am not suggesting that the US and its European allies should be reaching for their guns. But Washington could have assembled (and should still do so) a much stronger set of economic measures, including financial sanctions, as a demonstration of its determination to defend basic international norms of behaviour.


Eastern Ukraine: ‘a new pawn in Putin’s dangerous game’

Putins-InterestThe wave of patriotic jingoism which Putin is riding is unprecedented in Russia’s post-Soviet history, writes Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative (EDI), an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of democracy and rule of law in post-Communist transitional societies:

And yet, having unleashed the beast of 19th century-style politics of territorial expansion in the service of a unifying national narrative, Putin’s very survival depends on his ability to continue to feed it. Whether keeping this beast happy will involve gobbling up eastern Ukraine in the near future may not matter as much, considering that a dangerous precedent has already been set with Crimea, threatening to unravel the very fabric of the post-World War II order of international relations. And while the Kremlin likes to point to the US’ own adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria as having set that very precedent, they did not involve annexation of a sovereign country’s territory.

Russia may one day rue its Crimea adventure when, say, in 20 years, Beijing decides to send tanks across the border to Russia’s Far East, ostensibly to protect its Mandarin-speaking guest laborers there, who by then may number in the millions, he writes for Al-Jazeera.

In retrospect, the international compromise reached last week to calm tensions in eastern Ukraine seems like a vehicle for both sides to pursue their broader objectives, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia hasn’t abided by either the spirit or the letter of an agreement to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, and he warned that the U.S. is prepared to impose additional costs. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required: HT – FPI)  

The Ukrainian interim authorities said Thursday that “civilian activists” had regained control of City Hall in the southeastern city of Mariupol, forcing pro-Russian protesters to leave without bloodshed. – New York Times

Clashes between Ukrainian security forces, local protesters and pro-Russia activists spread across the region Thursday, with fighting at an arms depot, a city hall and at checkpoints near the restive city of Slovyansk, where the “people’s mayor” threatened to protect his men with hostages. – Washington Post  

The promised Ukrainian military effort to reassert control over the restive eastern part of the country barely registered on Wednesday, but the Geneva agreement to defuse the crisis in the country frayed even further as the United States and Russia exchanged warnings and accusations of meddling in the region. – New York Times  

Russian oil and gas company Gazprom has billed Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz $11.4 billion for not importing the full amount of natural gas under a 2013 supply contract, Gazprom’s deputy Chief Executive Alexander Medvedev said Thursday, Interfax news agency reported. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)  

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that it is “deeply concerned” about reports that Vice News reporter Simon Ostrovsky has been kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists in the Slaviansk city of eastern Ukraine. – Washington Times  

Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland are planning to band together and form a joint military brigade, according to local media reports. – Washington Times  

  The death of a pro-Ukraine activist adds to a growing file of vigilante “arrests” and disappearances of politicians, activists and journalists – blamed on armed separatists – as law and order erode, the civic fabric frays, and fear of violence grows in Ukraine’s east. – Financial Times  

Ukrainian confectionery tycoon Petro Poroshenko has a chance of winning the May 25 presidential election in the first round, an opinion poll indicated on Wednesday. – Reuters

Russia’s Soviet Spring prompts ‘civil cold war’


Back to the future

Back to the future

The Soviet Union is suddenly alive and well again in the minds of a giddy cohort of the Russian elite. Not the ideology, but the gravity, the cold-eyed assertion of power abroad and at home, and the allegiance demanded by the state, Will Englund writes for The Washington Post:

The equinox of Russia’s “Soviet spring” coincided with the appearance of the men in green who took over Crimea for Moscow. It blossomed with a wave of patriotic denunciations of fellow citizens and a torrent of new restrictive legislation.

On Tuesday came another sign: media reports that the Interior Ministry was banning foreign travel by every one of the nation’s police officers. And other law enforcement agencies were said to be following suit, so that as many as 4 million state employees may find themselves unwelcome to leave.

Iron Curtain Lite?

At a time when polls indicate that 80 percent of Russians are backing their president, it is difficult to be both a patriot and a critic of the Kremlin, Der Spiegel reports:

Sitting in her office in a historical building in central Moscow, Irina Prokhorova, chairwoman of the opposition party Civic Platform, laments the current situation. “It’s almost as if we’ve returned to the Soviet era,” she says, “a time when all discussions about government decisions were prohibited.” The building belongs to her brother Mikhail, a billionaire who ran for president in 2012 on a platform of ensuring greater democracy and a stronger free market economy. He ultimately garnered 8 percent of the vote, a respectable result.

Prokhorova sees in the enthusiasm over the annexation of Crimea a “nostalgic return to the imperialist past.” “Earlier, people with differing political convictions had mutual respect for each other,” she says. “But now even friendships are breaking up. A witch hunt has begun.” She warns that Russia is steering itself on a course toward a “civil cold war.”

Other intellectuals, like former television executive Nikolai Svanidze, are more cautious and view themselves not as members of the opposition, but as a “liberal and democratic part of the political elite.” Although Svanidze considers Crimea to be Russian territory, he rejects the methods used to annex it as well as the actions of forces in eastern Ukraine he believes are steered by Russia. He says he now fears the creation of an “Iron Curtain Lite,” the “archaization and Sovietization of our domestic politics” and major economic problems in the mid-term.

“It’s particularly scary to see how Russia is isolating itself, and scary to see how quickly it’s happening,” Tatyana Lokshina, a human rights activist, said Tuesday. “After several weeks of rhetorical hysteria, the authorities are moving toward real restrictive measures.”

In newly Russian Simferopol, the Crimean capital, a monument was plastered with the photos of 10 leading critics of Putin under a banner that read: “Attention! Agents of Western Influence.”

The newspaper Izvestia reported that members of the Presidential Human Rights Council, which has become a punching bag for patriots, had circulated an e-mail with an English-language subject line. It was proof, the paper said, that they were in cahoots with the U.S. State Department.

“The idea that if you speak English you must be a spy really belongs to a different era,” ­Lokshina said.

Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the Kremlin’s new information wing, said in a recent interview with Izvestia that he can’t understand why “propaganda” has such negative connotations in the West, which is so intent on imposing its own values on Russia.

“I think we have switched roles,” he said. “Russia is now a beacon of freedom.”


Ukraine on ‘long road to rupture?’

ukrainesolidarnoscIn retrospect, the international compromise reached last week to calm tensions in eastern Ukraine seems like a vehicle for both sides to pursue their broader objectives, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Sestanovich. For Russia, he says the Geneva agreement allowed political conditions in Ukraine to deteriorate, and highlighted Kiev’s weakness in the east. For the United States, it demonstrated Moscow’s bad faith and set the table for further sanctions. The Kremlin is likely waiting to see how far things in Ukraine disintegrate from within before making its next moves. “It may be that this is a process of separatism that can go on for a couple of years,” says Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

You have new calls in daily from political groupings, formal and informal, in the major cities, calling for federalizations or for new legislation on languages. Every couple of days, you’ve got a new episode of violence in which a few people are killed, and inter-communal tensions rise with those incidences. We’re not yet at a situation like what you had in the Balkans in the 1990s, but we’re beginning to get closer to that.

It may be that a better analogy is the process of separatism that occurred in other countries of the former Soviet Union immediately after the breakup—the creation of separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, in Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan, in Transnistria in Moldova. It may be that this is a process of separatism that can go on for a couple of years. You might have a territory in the east and south of Ukraine that would be essentially ungoverned by Kiev.


Ukraine and Russia are going in opposite directions, says Adam Michnik, a leader of the anti-Communist opposition in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, and the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza:

Ukraine has chosen the European Union, democracy, human rights, and the market economy in a state governed by the rule of law. Putin’s Kremlin is pushing Russia toward the re-creation of an aggressive empire where democracy is a Potemkin village and where violence and lies rule. This is why Putin wants to destroy Ukrainian democracy and the Ukrainian state—so he can rule Ukraine as part of his post-Soviet empire.

“The West passively observed the forceful pacification of uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. It broke with passivity only after Soviet aggression against Afghanistan,” he writes for The New Republic.

It was at that point that Brezhnev was stopped, and his doctrine landed in the dustbin of history. That’s where Putin’s doctrine and his policy belongs.”

Propaganda, disinformation, dirty tricks: resurgence of Russian political warfare


A new ideological Cold War?

A new ideological Cold War?

The invasion and annexation of Crimea, a part of Ukraine, has renewed the interest in Russia’s extensive political warfare activities.  In Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and other states of the former Soviet Union, Russian influence operations have been aggressively increased and targeted at Russian-speaking populations, who often have little other access to news and information and, therefore, are easy targets for Russian propaganda. 

Russian efforts hark back to the ideological battles of the Cold War and are aimed at audiences and policymakers here in the United States as well.  For home audiences, Russian propaganda persistently shows strong strains of anti-Americanism.  A panel of experts analyzes this threat and how the United States can best counter it.

 Propaganda, Disinformation, and Dirty Tricks The Resurgence of Russian Political Warfare  


John Lenczowski, Ph.D.

President, Institute of World Politics

 Paul Goble

Former Special Advisor to the International Broadcasting Board,

and Guest Lecturer, Institute of World Politics

 Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia Studies, The Heritage Foundation

 Hosted by

Helle Dale

Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy,

Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, The Heritage Foundation

Monday, April 21, 2014 – 10:00 to 11:30 a.m.


The Heritage Foundation’s Lehrman Auditorium 214 Massachusetts Avenue, NE | Washington, DC 20002 | (202) 546-4400