WASHINGTON – U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns on Thursday laid out a strategy of patiently trying to counter Russia, including its intervention in Ukraine, reminiscent of legendary American diplomat George Kennan’s concept of containment.
Testifying before Congress, Burns suggested that Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian region of Crimea reflects Moscow’s weakness, not its strength, and that a resolution of the crisis, if one is possible, will take time.
As one of the U.S. government’s foremost experts on Russia, where he served twice, including as ambassador, Burns appeared to be thinking of Kennan, widely seen as the intellectual author of Washington’s Cold War policy of containment against the Soviet Union, as he spoke about the Ukraine crisis and a Russian leader with little apparent appetite for cooperation with the West in what he sees as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.
“We . . . need to be mindful of the enduring strengths of the United States and its partners and the very real weaknesses sometimes obscured by Russian bluster,” Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“No one should underestimate the power of patient and resolute counterpressure using all of the nonmilitary means at our disposal, working with our allies, and leaving the door open to de-escalation and diplomacy, if Russia is prepared to play by international rules,” he added.
U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the West’s first sanctions in response to Russia’s military takeover of Crimea on Thursday, declaring his determination not to let the Kremlin carve up Ukraine. EU leaders announced their own measures but split over how forcefully to follow the U.S. lead.
Obama issued an executive action slapping new visa restrictions on Russian and other opponents of Ukraine’s government in Kiev and authorizing wider financial penalties against those involved in the military intervention or in stealing state assets.
In the latest threatening move Thursday, Crimean lawmakers voted 78-0 to schedule a referendum on March 16 on whether the region should secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
Obama said such a vote would “violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law.” Because Ukraine is a member of the United Nations, any action that is unconstitutional in Ukraine would be considered illegitimate in international law.
Burns’ testimony to Congress contained what seemed a deliberate echo of Kennan.
Kennan first spelled out his views in a private 8,000-word “telegram” from Moscow, where he was charge d’affaires, to State Department headquarters in 1946. They later became public in his anonymous 1947 article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”
Published as the Soviet Union was cementing its grip on countries such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, the essay argued that the United States had to regard the USSR as a rival that sought to undermine any countervailing power.
“Balanced against this are the facts that Russia, as opposed to the Western world in general, is still by far the weaker party, that Soviet policy is highly flexible, and that Soviet society may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total potential,” Kennan wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs under the byline “X.”
“This would of itself warrant the United States entering with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world,” he added.
Like Kennan, in counseling a strategy that is patient, “steady and determined,” Burns may be thinking in terms of the long arc of history and implicitly acknowledging that there are unlikely to be any quick fixes to the Ukraine problem.
Crimea, which is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority, has effectively been seized by Russian forces following last month’s ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
U.S.-based Russia analysts argued that Russia’s effective seizure of Crimea was a reflection of Moscow’s weak hand in Ukraine, illustrated by protests centered in Kiev against Yanukovych’s spurning an EU trade deal.
James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said: “I have seen the Crimea military option taken by the Russian side as a sign of — maybe ‘desperation’ is too strong a word, but that they didn’t see any other particular options. Their soft power wasn’t working, their economic power didn’t seem to be doing the trick. What was left?”
Analysts say Russia’s weaknesses include an economy whose growth has slowed and is heavily dependent on oil and gas exports that could be undercut in the coming years by imports from Qatar and even North America.
One point Burns was careful to stress Thursday was that he was talking of countering Russian power by nonmilitary means, something Kennan regretted that he had not made clear enough in his original Foreign Affairs article.
“A . . . serious deficiency of the X-Article, perhaps the most serious of all, was the failure to make clear that what I was talking about when I mentioned the containment of Soviet power was not the containment by military means of a military threat, but the political containment of a political threat,” Kennan wrote in his memoirs 20 years later.