Putin’s Russia: New Cold War or Pest?
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In 1962, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said, “Britain has lost an Empire, and not yet found a role.”  Similarly, Vladimir Putin’s Russia lost an empire, but needs a crisis in order to find a role.  From Moscow’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria, to reports confirmed by several U.S. government entities that Russia has attempted to corrupt the integrity of our electoral process, the Russian President is playing an outsized role on the world stage. We may not be in a new Cold War yet, but Putin is not a mosquito that can be swatted away. Russia is a regional power that can threaten American interests by being a troublemaker.

While Russia is bent on challenging our interests, the Cold War was a competition between equals.  Today, there is no question about the relative positions of the United States and Russia. Russia’s GDP in current prices is $1.178 trillionsmaller than that of Canada, France, or Italy.  (The U.S.’ GDP is $18.697 trillion.) Moreover, Putin has demonstrated that he is unwilling to undertake the types of economic reforms necessary to make Russia great again, such as reverse the brain drain of talent to the West, or privatize state-owned or controlled enterprises. For all of Putin’s chest beating, Russia has only managed to maintain the status quo in Syria for the past year; it cannot even build a twelve-mile bridge from Crimea to Russia.


The Cold War was an ideological competition between democracy and communism. The United States and its allies in Europe and Asia remain dedicated to classic liberal democracy, but Putin’s Russia does not provide an ideological alternative that it is seeking to export. Much of the present competition between the United States and Russia is taking place in regions that were once part of the Soviet Union or its sphere of influence.

Putin’s Russia engages in behaviors that pose problems for America.  From conducting military exercises with China in the South China Sea, “buzzing” American aircraft carriers in the Baltic Sea, to intervening in Ukraine and Syria, Putin’s Russia has used tactics that raise the costs for America to project force. During the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia demonstrated its ability to coordinate cyber attacks with conventional military tactics. It may still intervene in other parts of former Soviet territory, from Moldova to Nagorno-Karabakh to Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan. Despite all of this, there has been little in the way of serious discussion as to how the next administration should handle Putin. We have options, but each has drawbacks.

The first option is containment.  The successful Cold War doctrine sought to bring down the Soviet Union by limiting its sphere of influence through a series of international alliances.  Many of America’s Cold War alliances are still in place. 

However, containment has its drawbacks.  First, some of our allies do not see Moscow as the preeminent threat to their national security, which may impede cooperation. Second, by containing Russia we may miss out on opportunities to contain China, a more powerful challenger.  Third, if containment succeeds and Putin’s regime collapses, there’s no guarantee of what may come next.

The second option is rollback.  Originally coined by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, rollback was designed to move beyond containment and push the Soviet Union out of Eastern Europe. A modern-day version of rollback would force Russia out of Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. This would involve making security guarantees to former Soviet states outside of NATO, from the Caucasus to Central Asia.

Rollback may not be currently feasible, because it risks war with a heavily nuclear-armed state.  It also has the potential to drag the U.S. into conflicts over which it has only peripheral interests, and would likely push Russia closer to China.

The third option is a wedge strategy.  A wedge strategy is designed to prevent hostile powers from allying with one another by accommodating the weaker party.  This would mean having to stomach a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin in order to draw Moscow away from Beijing. 

Wedge strategies are not new. Otto von Bismarck, the long-serving Prussian Chancellor, used wedge strategies to prevent Germany’s isolation after its unification in 1871.  However, there is no guarantee of success. Great Britain unsuccessfully attempted to break up the Axis Powers by offering concessions to Mussolini.

The fourth option is offshore balancing. The U.S. would “pass the buck” of dealing with Russia to other regional states.  When the balance of power becomes too tilted in Moscow’s direction, only then would the U.S. intervene. However, other regional powers may also pass the buck while Russia engages in aggression. By the time the balance of power has tilted in Russia’s direction it may be too late for the U.S. to do anything to reverse it (like in Syria).

When it comes to Russia, the Congress has been active on the legislative front, having developed bipartisan legislation that refuses to recognize the annexation of Crimea, strengthened sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, and condemned Moscow’s infringements upon Georgia’s sovereignty. Despite Vladimir Putin’s outsized role in this presidential race, there has been little serious discussion of Russian policy. (For example, former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonConservatives pound BuzzFeed, media over Cohen report BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president Trump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier MORE only has six sentences that mention Russia on the “National Security” section of her webpage.) The presidential debates have yielded shallow sound bites but little substantive discussion of how America should handle Moscow over the next four years. Putin’s Russia is seeking status, and when we demonize him as an enemy on equal footing with ourselves, we are giving him exactly what he wants.  We should not overstate Russia’s status, nor underreact to its provocations. 

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) is the Chairman of the Small Business Committee and is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.