The Ukraine War: Continuation of U.S. Policies of Containment and Limited War

“Intervention against the USSR, while it would be disastrous to those who undertook it, would cause renewed delay in progress of Soviet socialism and must therefore be forestalled at all costs,” wrote George Kennan, a policy advisor to President Harry S. Truman, in 1946. Similar logic is being applied to Russia today.

The Russian threat to U.S. interests includes preserving peace and stability in Europe and the world, freedom of navigation in the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia, as well as maintaining a rules-based order which would protect the sovereign borders of countries. Allowing Russian aggression to go unchecked would result in chaos and further acts of aggression.

Washington’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is consistent with two policies that date back to the Cold War, namely containment and limited war. Ironically, although there are numerous examples of one or the other of these policies being applied to other conflicts over the past several decades, they were originally developed to counter a Soviet threat, and are now being applied to the Russian Federation.

A White House Statement by President Joe Biden on June 15, 2022 reads: “I reaffirmed my commitment that the United States will stand by Ukraine as it defends its democracy and support its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression…that the United States is providing another $1 billion in security assistance… artillery and coastal defense weapons, as well as ammunition for the artillery and advanced rocket systems.” President Biden vowed to support Ukraine economically and to provide Ukraine with weapons, but has made no commitment to send U.S. troops into battle.

According to the statement, Biden and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also discussed efforts by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “to coordinate additional international support for the Ukrainian armed forces.” The statement went on to say that Austin had been tasked with drumming up international support for a war in which the U.S. is not involved. While this may seem unusual, the success of U.S. strategic and national security objectives are viewed, by the administration, as dependent on a Russian failure in Ukraine.

Just as Austin now organizes international support for U.S. policy objectives, Kennan, 70 years ago, realized that the League of Nations and other political attempts to contain totalitarianism would fail. The League of Nations had been unable to prevent World War II. The United Nations could not stop Soviet- and Chinese-backed communist armies from invading South Korea or South Vietnam. And neither the UN, nor numerous treaties and agreements, could prevent Russian military expansion. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has participated in or played a role in the Georgian Civil War (1991-1993), the South Ossetia War (1991-1992), War in Abkhazia (1992-1993), the Transnistria War (1992), the East Prigorodny Conflict (1992), the Russo-Georgian War (1998), and war in Ukraine (2014–present).

The Origin of the Russia Problem

During World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies, and Stalin naturally assumed that Moscow would be given an equal seat at the table after the Nazis were defeated. Kennan, however, believed that the Soviet Union — and communism in general — posed a threat to U.S. national security and strategic interests. Consequently, in 1946, he sent the famed “Long Telegram” to Truman’s State Department, and the following year he wrote “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In both documents, he argued that the Soviet Union had expansionist ideals and that its influence had to be “contained.” Kennan’s recommendations catalyzed the Truman administration to adopt an anti-Soviet policy, which would develop into the Cold War.

Prior to World War II, the United States was attempting to follow a policy of neutrality and isolationism, to avoid being dragged into overseas conflicts. With the fresh memory of the Nazi threat and the new threat posed by the Soviet Union, policymakers realized that in order to secure U.S. objectives, the U.S. would have to become an active player in global affairs. In spite of being the largest economy and having the world’s most powerful military, the U.S. was only one country, and could not afford to dilute its power, whether economic or military, across too many conflicts. As a result, the U.S. had to be strategic in its triaging of emerging threats and deciding which fires to fight.

Kennan supported the Marshall Plan as not only a projection of American power but also a means of arming U.S. allies, while keeping potential threat-countries from developing. Similarly, since the beginning of the Ukraine War, the White House has been arming and funding Ukraine and has galvanized the E.U. and NATO, encouraging them to do the same. This provides the U.S. with a consensus of approval, as well as the moral high ground, while alleviating the economic costs of funding a war.

Kennan also opposed the rearmament of Germany, as he believed a powerful Germany could pose a threat to U.S. interests. In the context of the current conflict, international economic sanctions are being used to diminish the Kremlin’s operating budget, while fighting in Ukraine, prolonged by the arms and money sent by the U.S. and its allies, is draining Russia’s military might.

After the Korean War broke out, Kennan was in favor of containing China, the Soviet Union, and North Korea, but opposed sending U.S. troops across the 38th Parallel to invade North Korea. He feared that this strategy would cause the war to escalate. And this leads to the second U.S. policy evident in Ukraine: Limited war, fighting without directly engaging the enemy in open combat.

Kennan’s “containment” strategy tasked the U.S. with redeeming the Soviet Union, by first containing and eventually breaking the Soviets. It was believed that once the Soviet Union fell, Russia’s leadership would come around to the Western way of thinking, embracing capitalism and democracy. Kennan was correct that containment would eventually bring down the Soviet Union. He was also correct that the country would transition to capitalism and at least nominally, to democracy. He had no way of predicting that there would be a Vladimir Putin, who would pursue the same, failed tactics as his Soviet predecessors.

The U.S. policies of containment and limited war were successful in countering the expansion of the Soviet Union. The Soviet zone of occupation, established after World War II, did not expand, and Western Europe remained free. The response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan showed that Washington had learned valuable lessons in Vietnam and Korea, namely, that limited war is best kept to financing and supporting a proxy army, rather than sending in U.S. troops. (This lesson had obviously been forgotten by the time of the U.S.’s 2001 intervention in Afghanistan.)

Additionally, the U.S. dragged the Soviet Union into an arms race, which can also be seen as a kind of limited war, as the weapons were never used. The Kremlin, however, was forced to react, by spending money. U.S. funding and support for NATO, as well as positioning U.S. troops and weapons close to Soviet territory, escalated a Soviet military buildup, which led to economic decline and contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

Similarly, a protracted war in Ukraine, combined with sanctions, could break Russia’s economy and exhaust the Kremlin’s future ability to wage war or to expand its influence abroad.

So far, total monies which Biden has given or intends to give to Ukraine total around $40 billion. This is much cheaper than fighting an active war, such as in Korea or Vietnam. The Korean War cost the United States $495.43 billion in today’s dollars, plus 36,516 American deaths. The Vietnam War cost $1 trillion, in today’s dollars and resulted in 58,200 Americans losing their lives. In comparison, $40 billion is a bargain. What is more, no American, E.U. or NATO personnel have died. And, so far, because of the limited nature of U.S. and NATO involvement, Putin cannot claim concrete provocation or justification to launch attacks beyond the borders of Ukraine.

Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo, PhD. China-MBA, is a China economic-analyst who has spent over 20 years in Asia, including 7 in China, and 3 in Mongolia, where he teaches economics at the American university. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Additionally, he conducted three years of post-doctoral studies at School of Economics Shanghai University, focusing on U.S.-China trade, and currently studies national security at the American Military University. He is the author of 5 books about China, including Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion and The Wushu Doctor. His writing has appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Lowy Institute China Brief, Penthouse, and others. He is a frequent guest on various TV shows, providing China commentary on NTD network in the United States.