Containment Lite: U.S. Policy Toward Russia and Its Neighbors

f the U.S. government had wanted to destroy Russia from the inside out, it couldn’t have devised a more effective policy than its so-called “strategic partnership.”

From aggressive foreign policy to misguided economic advice to undemocratic influence-peddling, the U.S. has ushered in a cold peace on the heels of the cold war. Containment remains the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward Russia. But it is a “soft” containment. It is Containment Lite.

On the foreign policy front, for instance, Containment Lite has consisted of a three-tiered effort to isolate Russia: from its neighbors, from Europe, and from the international community more generally. The Clinton administration’s policy of “geopolitical pluralism,” designed to strengthen key neighbors such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan, has driven wedges into the loose confederation of post-Soviet states. By pushing ahead recklessly with expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the U.S. government is deepening the divide that separates Russia from Europe, effectively building a new Iron Curtain down the middle of Eurasia. Instead of consulting with Russia over key foreign policy issues such as the Iraq bombings and allied policy toward former Yugoslavia, Washington has attempted to steer Moscow into a diplomatic backwater where it can exert little global influence.

Part of this three-tiered foreign policy of “soft” containment has been to eliminate Russia’s last claim to superpower status—its nuclear arsenal—without providing sufficient funds for mothballing the weapons and without pursuing commensurate reductions in U.S. stockpiles. By implementing a missile defense system, the U.S. has put several arms control treaties in jeopardy; by opposing key sales of Russian military technology, arguing that these sales would lead to arms proliferation while itself continuing to export weapons technology, the U.S. has applied a double standard. By announcing the largest increase in the military budget since the end of the cold war, the Clinton administration began 1999 with a clear signal that Russia’s decline would have little effect on the Pentagon’s appetite.

Though Russia’s geopolitical fortunes have been grim, its economic position is even grimmer. In 1992, while implementing Russia’s first market reforms, Boris Yeltsin predicted that good times were just around the corner. This corner has retreated further and further into the distance (particularly after the crisis of August 1998, when the ruble went into free fall and Moscow defaulted on its treasury debt). Today, Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is half what it was ten years ago. The government is suffocating under $150 billion in foreign debt. Barter has reemerged as a dominant mode of economic transaction.

Workers are paid in-kind when they are paid at all. Poverty is rampant. Life expectancy is dipping, the population is declining, and Russia is flirting with third world status.

Economic reform in Russia has not only been unsuccessful, it has been profoundly undemocratic. By collaborating almost exclusively with Boris Yeltsin and his hand-picked “reformers”—and circumventing Russia’s popularly elected legislature, the Duma—the Clinton administration placed expediency over accountability, transparency, and the checks and balances of a truly democratic system. The international community poured billions of dollars into Russia, money that didn’t trickle down but was instead diverted into the pockets of a select few. The result was a crony capitalism far more pronounced than anything on show in Asia: all the corruption with none of the growth.

Under its cold war containment policy, the United States relied on aggressive rhetoric and military might to confront a powerful Soviet Union. By contrast, today’s Containment Lite takes advantage of Russia’s economic and military weakness and, at first glance, has relied more on carrots than sticks. In reality, however, the U.S. has wielded these carrots much like cudgels. Washington’s aid and investments, expert advice, and high-profile workshops are designed to reduce the military and diplomatic reach of its erstwhile superpower rival and to remake the Russian economy in the neoliberal image regardless of the social costs. Prodded by these carrots, Russia is moving along a path that has led to economic chaos and escalating resentment.

The Clinton administration is acutely aware of the dangers of a Russian implosion. Yet the administration has crafted policies that are inexorably leading to the realization of its own worst fears.

Roots of U.S. Policy

For the better part of the 20th century, U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union fluctuated between aggressive confrontation and brief attempts at détente. During their respective eras, Truman and Reagan were bent on containing the Soviet Union and, when possible, rolling back its influence in Eastern Europe and the third world. Nixon, without compromising his anticommunism, managed in the 1970s to ease tensions between East and West with a mixture of arms control measures and modest openings in the East for Western business. In the cold war period, confrontation and engagement often followed one another with little breathing room, as in Kennedy’s near-apocalyptic showdown with Khrushchev over Cuba in 1962 followed by the negotiation of the first major arms control treaty with the Soviet Union in 1963. Whether in confrontation or détente mode, however, successive U.S. administrations sought (often unsuccessfully) to limit Soviet influence in the world and blunt the impact of communism.

Beginning in 1985, when the Soviet Union began a complex dance of reform and decline, the Reagan and Bush administrations did little to encourage the former and much to hasten the latter. True, Washington slowly came around to supporting glasnost and perestroika rhetorically. But during this period, the U.S. largely withheld economic support for perestroika while continuing to maintain high levels of military spending and provocative rhetoric. From 1989 to 1991, the Soviet Union’s terminal stage, Washington switched to damage control mode in order to preserve the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe, pressure the Soviet Union to back German unification, and prevent conflict from flaring up over the secession of the Baltic states.

In 1992, after the official collapse of the Soviet Union, new Russian President Boris Yeltsin ushered in a “honeymoon” period with the United States. Yeltsin and his pro-Western foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proceeded to follow the U.S. lead on arms control, economic reform, and global politics. The other leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—notably Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk, Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze, and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev—largely followed suit, each competing for the affections and favors of the United States. In return, the U.S. promised to help Russia and the other CIS nations integrate into the global economy and later, through the Partnership for Peace, into European security structures.

The honeymoon did not last long. Russia never received the Marshall Plan it had hoped for. Nor did the U.S. government make room at the world’s table for the new Russian entity (the seven largest economic powers, G-7, extended membership to Russia, but this was largely a symbolic gesture). As a result, the pro-Western faction in the Russian foreign policy establishment lost influence and Russian national interest became the new organizing principle for the Yeltsin team. The disastrous 1994 invasion of Chechnya, the refusal to ratify the latest strategic arms reduction treaty, and the elevating of relations with Serbia, Iran, and Iraq signified a change in Russian policy. For its part, the United States maintained support for Yeltsin personally, but gradually withdrew from close bilateral relations. Washington strengthened relations with the other CIS nations to cover its bets and to balance Russian power in the region.

As Sergei Rogov, the head of Moscow’s U.S. and Canada Institute, has remarked, the U.S. government’s rhetoric toward Russia has changed from “strategic partnership” to “pragmatic partnership” to “realistic partnership” to just plain realism—a realism that aims to minimize the impact of Russia’s economic and military collapse on the world at large.

The partnership is gone, and this change in rhetoric is mirrored very concretely in a range of issues from security to economics to politics.