The West needs containment 2.0

Military vehicles and tanks of Poland, Italy, Canada and United States during the NATO military exercises in 2021.
Associated Press/Roman Koksarov, file

By invading and occupying Ukrainian territory, Russian President Vladimir Putin has plunged the world – not only Europe – into a new cold war. From his standpoint, this invasion and occupation are merely the latest stages in a multi-domain war against the West that began in 2004-05, when the first effort to subvert Ukraine failed in the face of staunch Ukrainian resistance.

Now, the West should understand that Putin’s war is not solely directed against Ukraine but is, as former National Security Council official Fiona Hill noted, an effort to evict the U.S. and NATO from Europe.

This war, as shown by Putin’s speech on Feb. 21 announcing the recognition of Ukrainian provinces seized by Russian forces, is ultimately attributable to the Russian elite’s continuing obsession with empire and possession of untrammeled power over Russia, which evidently is unsustainable without Ukraine.

Thus, as a Tsarist statesman, P.A. Valuev, observed, the driving force of Russian policy is “the lure of something erotic in the peripheries.” And it is equally clear that if empire is the precondition for perpetuation of Putin’s system, then that system’s continuity is utterly incompatible with European, if not global, security. 

Putin’s quest for empire entails permanent war since none of Russia’s neighbors will accept that outcome willingly. Therefore, we are obliged now to devise and execute a strategy of containment of Russian power. That strategy, like Putin’s, must be a multi-domain strategy utilizing in synchronized fashion all the instruments of power: diplomacy, information, the economy and the military. Our objective must be not only to reverse Putin’s aggression in Ukraine but also to compel an end to Moscow’s ongoing efforts to subvert governments in Europe and elsewhere.

Diplomatically we must strengthen both our European and Asian alliances to do more on their own behalf. It also means calling out Russian crimes when they happen and exercising constant pressure on Russian violations of human rights, the unremitting corruption of Putin and his entourage, and Russian violations of international law, up to indictment of Russian leaders at the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

At the same time, we must not only enhance our defenses against Russian cyber and information warfare here and abroad but also take the fight to Russia and counter Putin’s unceasing efforts to create a Chinese wall or its equivalent with regard to Russia’s information space. By doing so we strike at the thing he fears most: losing popular support.

Economically the sanctions we and our allies, particularly the European Union, impose should be draconian. They should not only strike at energy, as does Germany’s suspension of Nord Stream 2’s certification, but aim at reducing Russian gas and oil flows to Europe and Asia. This means obtaining gas and oil from other sources while joining our allies in an accelerated investment program to reduce overall dependence on hydrocarbons. Sanctions should strike as well at Putin and his team and at Russia’s banks and financial networks abroad.

This also entails blocking Russia’s ability to exploit Western capital markets, exposure and destruction of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the “Matrioshka dolls of Russian-owned companies and Russian-owned entities to find the ultimate beneficiaries within.” Finally, sanctions should be structured to make sure that third parties, including China, pay a cost for supporting Russian efforts to finance the war and evade sanctions.

Militarily there should be an open pipeline of NATO assistance to Ukraine. Priorities should be defense, electronic warfare and counter battery systems, and anti-ship missiles to resist the threat from Russian aircraft, naval blockades and potential amphibious operations.  

It also is worth considering a revival of Lend-Lease whereby Ukraine offers NATO bases in return for ships that could be used to forestall Russian naval operations in the Black Sea. We should also prevail upon Turkey, which opposes Russia’s invasion, to close the Black Sea to Russian naval vessels since it is at war in violation of the Montreux Treaty regulating passage into that sea in wartime. For itself, NATO must not only raise effective defense spending but also strengthen genuine conventional deterrence from the Arctic to the Black Sea.

Lastly, Putin’s invasion demonstrates that he and his government cannot accept either an independent or neutral Ukraine under any circumstances. His prior demand for fulfillment of the Minsk accords is nullified thanks to his own actions, so we should not succumb to the argument made by Moscow and Putin supporters and agents here and abroad about the threat to Russia posed by a Ukraine in NATO.

In other words, NATO should either accelerate the track membership for Ukraine or give it the membership it needs now. The argument that reforms there are incomplete is now irrelevant. NATO is first an organization for the collective, and Russia’s invasion threatens European security as a whole. Moreover, in the past, NATO admitted many undemocratic states to full membership for sound strategic reasons, such as the Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, the Colonels’ Greece and Turkey. Surely Ukraine is more democratic than they were, but it also is at much greater risk than they were.

These actions will deter Moscow, strengthen Ukraine and our allies, and invigorate international, not just European, security. If there are those who do not believe that defeating and deterring Putin is in our interest, then the burden of proof remains upon them.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.

Tags Boris Johnson Containment NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russian irredentism Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Ukraine invasion Vladimir Putin

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video