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How to Contain Putin’s Russia: A Strategy for Countering a Rising Revisionist Power

Author: Michael McFaul

Affiliation: The Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies-Stanford University; Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia (2012-2014)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: January 19, 2021/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 4622


Keywords: Biden Administration, Putin’s Russia, Containment Strategy, Selective Engagement, and Rising Revisionist Power.


In this comprehensive article, the author proposes a strategy to contain Putin’s Russia, in which he sees a rising, revisionist power that should not be underestimated, especially since the next stage will carry a tension’s return between the two powers. The article is divided into six parts. In the first part, the author argues that American thinking towards Russia is full of myths and misconceptions that have hindered Washington’s analysis of Moscow for years and led to the development of inaccurate assessments of the nature of the threat it poses, and that Washington has not been designing an appropriate strategy to deal with it effectively. Therefore, the author calls, first of all, to get rid of these concepts. Underestimating Russia’s power and its regional and international influence in many areas is one of these prevailing misconceptions. Russia is not a weak country, as many US analysts and officials estimate. Russia is still a tremendous nuclear military power that continues to modernize its arsenal which constitutes a great threat to Europe and even surpasses NATO in some measures at the frontlines of Eastern Europe. Putin continues to make large investments in space weapons, intelligence, and cyber capabilities to the extent that Russia has reached to hack the US itself. Moscow has fewer and weaker alliances compared to Washington, yet its relations with Beijing are deep as ever. The Russian economy ranks eleventh in the world, and the Russian GDP is greater than its Chinese counterpart on a per capita basis. Thus, Putin has sufficient economic resources at his disposal to pursue an aggressive foreign policy agenda. Moreover, Putin has great ideological power, as he has invested heavily in soft power tools, as the budget for the RT channel, for instance, is $300 million annually. His regime has also encouraged the creation of numerous quasi-governmental organizations and paramilitary security forces to promote Russian interests abroad, such as the Internet Research Agency, the Wagner Private Military Group, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, and others. In addition, Putin is deeply motivated by a set of orthodox, anti-liberal, and anti-Western ideas, as he is trying to make himself the leader of the conservative-illiberal world in the face of American liberal internationalism. Today, Putinism has a list of adherents in Europe and America itself, including political leaders, parties, and ideological movements. For a long time, Washington underestimated the importance of this ideological dimension in the US-Russian rivalry, leaving room for the expansion of Putinism. Accordingly, the author recommends the necessity of deterring and containing Putin’s Russia in the long run, by benefiting from recommendations made by George Kennan 75 years ago and adapting them to new circumstances. In the second part, the author argues that the first steps for containment start at home, especially after recent Russian intervention in the Internet networks of the US government and the private sector have showed that the US has not invested sufficiently in defending against Moscow’s attacks on American digital networks. Therefore, the author calls upon the Biden administration to allocate more resources to contain Russian cyber threats and suggests some procedural recommendations to strengthen cybersecurity and its infrastructure. Containment must include an economic and ideological component as well. Washington should undermine the economic power of Moscow by demanding greater transparency regarding Russian financial and ideological activities in the US, Europe, and Asia. He also proposes related practical measures, such as his explicit call to ban Russian economic projects in the West that have clear geopolitical aims, such as blocking the construction of “the Nord Stream 2” pipeline and confronting Russian interference in future US elections. The third section is devoted to explaining how to embody containment abroad, which is based on the principle of deterrence using mainly NATO. After Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the US increased NATO’s readiness, budget, and resources in Europe. These were good initiatives, but insufficient as the author describes that NATO needs more conventional land military capabilities to repel any Russian attack, especially on its weak southern flank. NATO needs to address the growing political divisions among its members, as well as restore its commitment to democratic values, Washington’s commitment to its leadership, and modernization of its strategy, especially the maritime one. The best way to preserve peace in Europe is to deter Putin and make him aware of the high cost of any aggression he launches against a NATO member. In this regard, McFaul considers Ukraine as the most important theater in the battle to contain Putin, and urges Biden to increase the multifaceted support for Ukraine so that it becomes a safe, prosperous, and democratic country that inspires the region, in exchange for deepening sanctions against Russia as long as Putin continues his occupation of Ukrainian lands. He also urges Biden to support other countries on the Russian border. In the fourth part, the author calls upon Biden to fulfill his electoral promises related to elevating liberal values to US foreign policy behavior, especially towards Russia, so there will be more pressure on undemocratic Russian behavior that violates human rights. Biden must prove Putin wrong when Putin claimed the end of the liberalism era, by renewing American democracy at home. Here, McFaul presents some recommendations to reform and activate institutions, especially the media and cultural institutions with the aim of containing Putinian ideology and combating its propaganda. The fifth part explains “selective engagement”, a policy that Washington must work on at the same time as containing Russian influence at home and abroad. It is a policy based on the involvement of Moscow in a small number of issues of mutual benefits, such as extending the work of the New START treaty for a period of five years, cooperation on issues of pandemics, climate change, etc., and the US should push Russia to work within the multilateral institutions to contain its abusive behavior. In the final part, the author explains his point of view on how to establish good relations with Russia after Putin, for no matter how long the Russian leadership and perhaps the entire regime will change. This will lead to the opening of relations between Washington and Moscow. The US must prepare for that day from now by creating new ways to develop cultural relations between the two countries, deepening ties with Russian society in order to undermine Putin’s anti-American propaganda, as well as correcting American stereotypes of Russians. Thus, McFaul designs a comprehensive and integrated strategy to contain Putin’s Russia as a rising revisionist power and confront it in the coming decades.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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