What would George Kennan say about Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has positioned 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and is threatening an invasion. He aims to roll back the expansion of NATO that was undertaken after 1997 and restore his version of a Greater Russia. The United States and its European allies are scrambling to respond.

The situation has commentators urging a refresher course in the Cold War strategy of containment of Soviet Russia, outlined 75 years ago by famed State Department diplomat George Kennan. But looking back at how Kennan described containment, and the policy prescriptions it entailed, does not necessarily offer the roadmap one might expect.

Today is an echo of 1946, when Washington was struggling to assess the postwar ambitions of the Soviet Union and devise a strategy to temper them. A fledgling Truman administration, following Roosevelt’s Yalta script, harbored naive expectations regarding co-existence with Joseph Stalin’s regime.

A turning point of sorts came on Feb. 9. Stalin made a saber-rattling speech, where he declared that future “catastrophic wars” would be “impossible” to avoid “under the present capitalist conditions of world economic development.” In the words of Kennan biographer John Lewis Gaddis, Stalin’s address had the effect in Washington of “a shot on Fort Sumter.”

Serving as deputy chief of the Moscow embassy, this became Kennan’s moment. On Feb. 22, 1946, he dictated from a sickbed (Kennan was a lifelong hypochondriac) and cabled to the State Department his famous 5,000 word  “Long Telegram.” 

His appraisal was blunt. The Soviets were only the latest in a long line of their nation’s autocratic regimes. The Kremlin’s “neurotic view of world affairs” arose from a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Moreover, Moscow’s behavior would not change “until the internal nature of Soviet power is changed.”

Confrontations between East and West would be inevitable, he wrote, but must not be avoided or feared. World War III was not inevitable. But how exactly should those confrontations be met and challenged? 

Kennan elaborated on that question the following year, under the pseudonym “Mr. X”  in a  famous July 1947 article in Foreign Affairs.

“Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world,” he wrote, “is something that can be contained by 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, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.” 

Thus was the rhetorical kernel that grew into the paradigm of containment. As Gaddis points out, Kennan was primarily focused on explaining what motivated Soviet leadership; his prescription for “vigilant application of counterforce” was remarkably light on actual strategy. But when pressed he suggested containment was ultimately a political and economic program rather than a military one.

Seeing it vital to the recovery of Western Europe, Kennan was one of the architects of the Marshall Plan. But he was dead set against the development of two armed camps in Europe. He believed the only solution to the division of the continent was the ultimate withdrawal of both U.S. and Russian forces.

Kennan had reservations about the sweeping language of the Truman Doctrine. Along with the neo-isolationist Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio), he argued against the 1949 creation of NATO, and the subsequent U.S. military build-up in the wake of the Korean War. And going even further, he opposed the establishment of West Germany and its military integration into the Western Alliance.  

As late as 1957, in the wake of the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Kennan claimed in a well-publicized lecture in London that the threat of Soviet aggression in Western Europe was exaggerated. He suggested that the independent West Germany should be undone, unified with the East and the combined entity declared neutral on the model of postwar Austria. 

His critics called his proposal a plan for appeasement of Moscow and, at the very least, strategically naive. Retired Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Kennan’s former boss, charged that he “has never … grasped the realities of power relationships, but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.” 

Mystical or not, Kennan maintained for decades that his original concept of containment had been distorted by hard-line anti-Communists and champions of the military industrial complex. “It was not containment that failed,” he wrote in his memoirs, “it was the intended follow-up,” political and psychological, “that never occurred.” 

It’s clear in retrospect that containment was intended to occupy a position between war and appeasement. But to policymakers hoping to implement it, it presented itself as something of a black box: its aspirations clear, its actual workings opaque.

Kennan’s critique of a divided Europe survived even the fall of the Soviet Union. Writing in 1997 at age 92, he declared that expanding NATO to the east “ would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”

“Such a decision,” he went on, “may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations.”

Were he with us today, Kennan would undoubtedly say “I told you so.” 

But confronted with the reality of the current standoff, in which Putin is challenging the territorial integrity of a sovereign Ukraine, would Kennan advocate Kyiv’s renunciation of NATO and EU membership? Would he hope those concessions would compel Putin to guarantee a neutral Ukraine, along the lines of what Kennan had hoped for postwar Germany? 

If not, then he’d be leaving Team Biden with the default strategy of “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 Putin’s policy. A thoughtful prescription, but one that would leave policymakers once again contemplating the black box.

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.

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