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Containment: Time for a new approach to Russia?

History is often messier and more complex than what contemporary discussions make out. When George Kennan, the American diplomat stationed in Moscow after the Second World War wrote the ‘Long Telegram[↗]’ which advocated a ‘containment’ strategy towards the Soviet Union, debate about how to deal with Joseph Stalin was fierce. What did the Russian leader really want? How far would he go? Could he be enticed to cooperate or was he – and the regime he led – bent on conflict and imperialism?

After some time, policy-makers realised that while a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union was undesirable, it did not really matter what Moscow wanted. It did not matter whether the regime was assertive by nature, driven by the Russian leader’s personality, or motivated by long-held national views. What mattered was to contain the Soviet system so that it did not destroy a free and democratic Europe. The Cold War did not come about because anyone in the United Kingdom (UK), United States (US) or Western Europe hated the Soviet Union or did not believe in peaceful coexistence; it came about because the Soviets had to be constrained. 

As Vladimir Putin, today’s leader of Russia, embarks on the latest war of his rule, having illegally occupied parts of Georgia in 2008, and annexed parts of Ukraine in 2014, the UK, US and Europe are now faced with exactly the same question, and should adopt the same stance: containment. 

While Twitter is full of keyboard generals trying to understand Moscow’s motives, it is best to de-emphasise a historiographical debate with Moscow about the nature of Ukraine’s heritage[↗], and to waste no time speculating about Putin’s psychological state. 

It should be taken as a given that Russia’s current leadership will never agree on whether the Kremlin was promised the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would not expand after the Cold War – for the record, it was not – nor worry about Putin’s paranoid state of mind. The Russian leadership believes that the democracies are hellbent on destroying Russia[↗] and have ‘encircled’ Russia for this purpose (despite that only one sixteenth of Russia’s border is shared with NATO). It believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical tragedy[↗] and, as the Russian leader said this week, a mistake to allow former Soviet republics to become sovereign, including EU member states like Estonia and Lithuania.

It should also be taken for granted that nothing Putin or any of his team say is believable. In the last several weeks, the Russian leader has looked the US, French and German leaders in the eyes and lied. Russia’s ambassadors, Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, and countless other Russian officials have vehemently denied for weeks that Moscow would act against Ukraine. All lies. 

What a new containment strategy might look like

Russia today believes it has the right to exercise military force, including waging wars of aggression in contravention of the United Nations (UN) Charter, and it believes it has the right to kill dissidents and foreign citizens, including on British streets and in German nightclubs, or above the skies of Ukraine, as it did when it shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 killing 283 passengers and 15 crew.

This is not a regime one can do business with, unless one’s business is to do oneself out of business. It is time to wage a new cold war. Not for the destruction of Russia or the collapse of its authoritarian regime. Not even to shore up Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia. But for the protection of a free, sovereign Europe and an international order governed not by warfare and aggression but by rules and law. 

Frontline states from Norway, Sweden and Denmark in Scandinavia to Poland and the Baltic states neighbouring Russia need to be reinforced. Russia has torn up all agreements that limited the permanent deployment of larger NATO forces in Eastern Europe. So NATO now needs to rethink its footprint and build permanent bases in Eastern Europe to double down on deterrence.

But a more proactive approach is needed. The first step is to shore up Ukraine, economically and militarily. It may or may not be a primary objective of Russia’s strategy to destabilise Ukraine’s economy but the Kremlin’s actions are decreasing investment, closing down transport links, and will put pressure on Hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency. A large economic package of support is required. The UK and EU, working together, should appoint a Coordinator of Economic Stabilisation, such as Gordon Brown, a former prime minister, who can work with Kyiv to coral financial support. 

A corollary of economic assistance is military support. In the past there has been reluctance to arm Ukraine or deference paid to existing agreements to ask for the approval from countries that have manufactured one or two components of a larger weapons systems. No more. Any agreements that serve as a purpose to undermine the democracies need to be ignored. Ukraine’s army needs to be capable of both deterrence but also combat effectiveness.

Ukraine needs arms to defend itself. The democracies need to send to Ukraine massive consignments of anti-drone sniper rifles, surface-to-air missiles such as the FIM92 Stinger, and man-portable fire-and-forget anti-tank missiles like Javelins. They can be deployed against helicopters, remotely-piloted aircraft, cruise missiles, low-level fixed-wing aircraft, tanks, tilting the balance of power in Ukraine’s favour. The Ukrainian Army also needs weapons to target high-altitude aircraft, which means surface-to-air missiles such as the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAMM) or Patriot missile. 

A third strand of the strategy needs to be economic sanctions on Russia. It is time to disconnect Russia from the global economy. Already sanctions have been unveiled but the UK, US and EU need to go further. The West needs to introduce a ban on owning or trading Russian debt (sovereign or major corporate) even on secondary markets. Then Russia’s main banks need to be cut off from clearing or currency markets and Russia needs to be expelled from the SWIFT payment system. 

Trade with Russia needs to be reviewed in total from Gasprom’s sponsorship of sports events like Champions League to the right of other state-controlled Russian firms to operate in the UK, US and Europe. Much as the democracies have largely ceased trading with Iran so they must review the visibility of reading with a Russia that wants to undermine them. Russia’s access to key products required for its industry need to be curtailed – such as microchips but also access to Google’s Android operating system, Apple’s stores and AWS cloud services.

Actions should include closing the ‘Londromat’ which has seen billions of unexplained wealth siphoned through the City of London. The beneficial owners of all firms need to be made clear. People linked to the Kremlin need to have their assets examined and, if necessary, frozen. British and European courts need to bar access for those doing Moscow’s bidding. And anyone working for Kremlin-controlled entities like Gazprom should be compelled to resign or liable for prosecution; their work enables a foe.

A key part of this strategy is to wean Europe of its dependence on Russian gas. That is particularly important for Germany and Italy, who are the two largest recipients of Russia’s gas exports. This will not be an easy shift. Irrespective of the cancellation of Nord Stream II[↗], Germany in particular has deluded itself that it can sustain a policy of reliance on Russian gas. It cannot and the new German Government should be encouraged to make the requisite shift back to nuclear power, shale and to investing even further in renewables. 

Indeed, NATO and the EU should jointly establish a ‘Task Force on Europe’s Energy Independence’ which can help chart a way forward and give cover for European leaders on issues like nuclear, shale, renewables, energy efficiency, etc. Obvious candidates to lead such an effort are Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO Secretary-General, Sigmar Gabriel, a former German Energy Minister and leader of the Social Democrats. 


The likely short term outcome of a new cold war will be increased tension with the Kremlin, a recession in Russia and increased Russian reliance on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But that is a price Putin seems willing to pay. It will also come with a large cost for the democracies – in increasing energy prices and perhaps larger than expected inflation, already predicted to run at 7.25% in the UK. Russia will seize British, European and US assets. Companies like BP and Carlsberg will suffer greatly. 

The political consequences of such a shift are unpredictable. Would the far-right benefit in the French presidential elections, for example? Or will a recession help Donald Trump win power in the US? None of that can be predicted. Nor can Russia’s reaction elsewhere against Western assets be predicted. But those are risks worth taking to avoid the collapse of the Euro-Atlantic system and a world order built on peaceful change and the UN Charter. 

The UK, US and Europe should do everything to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia. Down that route lies nuclear destruction. There should always be room for de-escalation. In time there may be space for so-called ‘Track II’ measures. But for now waging a new cold war against Russia’s revisionist kleptocracy is the only way to contain it. It is the only way to stop a wider war. It is the struggle of the next decade, until Russia changes behaviour or changes its regime.

Daniel Korski is the Chief Executive Officer at technology firm PUBLIC and has twenty years of experience in senior positions in government. He currently sits on the Government’s Digital Economy Council. Daniel was most recently Deputy Head of Policy at No. 10 Downing Street and Special Advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron.

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