In February of 2022, Russkiy mir, ‘Russian world’, came knocking on the gates of Kyiv. In fact, it had come knocking before in 2014, as it had for Georgia in 2008, and Chechnya prior. The Soviet Union seeded Russians across its vast empire, to Russify the many Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Chechens, Georgians, and so on—but today, Putin’s thugs hope to finish the job with brute force. For Putin today, Russia is a civilizational force, one uniquely opposed to the West. His pragmatism, once lauded by scholars like Andrei Tsygankov, has been replaced over time—as it became clear that Moscow’s star had been blighted. For successive Russian leaders, respect from the West was the Russian raison d’être. But since 1991, Moscow has been unable to command respect, as it failed to liberalize in the Western meld—leaving only brutality.
In light of the horrors we’ve seen in Ukraine, horrors levied not only against the Ukrainian people, but against the average Russian too, U.S. policy must recognize that the dream of integration with the West, that Russia could become a responsible member of the international community is over. To guard against Russia’s expansive tendencies, ones that see the promotion of a so-called ‘Russian world’, U.S. policy must apply a strategy of containment. The Western powers must not only guard against the expansive tendencies of Moscow’s leaders, but also the instability they wish to foment across the globe, even within our own backyards.
Defining Putin’s conduct
Tsygankov’s Russia’s Foreign Policy Change and Continuity in National Identity defines Putin’s foreign policy as pragamatic-cooperative statism. While it is true that Putin charted a course that emphasized the stabilizing role of the Russian state, but dually emphasized values of cooperation—that is, building a bilateral framework with countries of the Russian periphery, and holding out for cooperation with the U.S. on global issues like counterterrorism. The former was true when Russia sought actual cooperation with its neighbors, but this was ultimately killed as Putin led wars on the Russian periphery. The latter was only true for a fleeting moment in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when Putin reached out to a battered, paranoid U.S..
It is hard to say ‘pragmatic cooperation’ could define Putin’s foreign policy as Russian tanks, troops, and bombs bared down on Kyiv. At the beginning of the war, Putin made his aims clear—he wanted to break Ukrainian identity, he wishes to destroy the Ukrainian people. For all Putin’s alleged pragmatism—defended by useful intellectuals at the Valdai Club—his talk falls into the most alarming typology of Russian foreign policymaking, per Tsygankov—civilizationalism.
For the civilizationalists, the emphasis was on Russia as a civilizational force, both separate and opposed to the outside world—namely the West. Russian values were thus paramount, as was proliferating them. This obviously manifested itself in Soviet universalism in the last century, and Ivan IV’s view of Russia as the “Third Rome” prior. The war in Ukraine has solidified Tsygankov’s argument that Russian foreign policymaking is a question of national identity—with Putin drawing the lines of Russian identity, in true civilizationalist fashion, far off from Russia’s actual border.
Like his civilizationalist predecessors, budding Russian imperialists in the era of Tsars and Soviets, Putin has run the country towards total collapse. Imperial grandeur brought Russia to Ukraine, seeking to extend the line of Russian national identity—and it has quite literally destroyed the country. Outside of the defeat of the Russian Armed Forces abroad, the state apparatus has been shattered by dissension at the highest ranks. A fractured elite only invites conflict within the country.
Today, the Russians reap the imperial grandeur they’ve sown; in a bid to prove their civilizational superiority, and proliferate the Russian world, they’ve destroyed their future. Now that future is one of endemic regime weakness, an exodus, and even outright collapse—one compound by the sheer size of the problem; a large populous deprived of access to the global economy by its own genocidal hubris, with the largest nuclear arsenal on Earth. Even a shattered Russia, with its diminished capability to project power abroad, will continue to be an immense challenge after this war ends.
Building the politico-military front
Today, any strategy of containment would seemed destined to fail within an era of globalized politics. The oil shock, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China’s modernization, have crafted a sort of ‘proto-continentalism’. In the last few decades, we’ve seen the first stirrings of a regional collective, Eurasia. A world save from Cold War political antagonisms, and save from the real threat of large-scale state-on-state violence, created this world—one where the barriers to continental trade were drawn down in favor of interconnection. Though that world is in flux, it continues to be a reality—a challenge to bottling up the Russian world.
With these socioeconomic connections, the central tenet of this containment must be military-oriented. In fact, the framework of this containment lies within the NATO alliance. Recently, three sweeping changes to the European security architecture have fundamentally strengthened the hand of containment. On NATO’s eastern flank, the proactive quartet of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have been elevated, leading the rest of the alliance as the Eastern Flank heats up. To the north, the accession of Finland, and soon Sweden, will transform the Baltic Sea into a ‘NATO lake’—effectively defanging Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Finally, in Germany, the Zietenwende is poised to turn make the country a real military power on the continent—unseen since World War II.
Compounding those three changes is a growing Asian angle—one that ties the West’s closest partners, South Korea, and Japan to the security architecture on the other side of the vast continent. First, and foremost, is the growing defense ties between Poland and South Korea. Just last year, South Korea concluded the transfer of 10 K2 tanks, and 24 K9 Howitzers to the port of Gdynia, a small fraction of a $5.8 billion deal with Poland. Recently, the two countries ventured further, striking an agreement to produce South Korean tanks in Poland. In fact, South Korea more recently approved the transfer of South Korean self-propelled artillery from Poland to Ukraine.
Japan also has gotten in on European security—though in less material ways. While Japan has long maintained a mission to NATO, today it seeks to make closer relations, with the opening of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. Alongside this, Japan too is undergoing a Zeitenwende. The National Security Strategy announced late last year has charted a new look for the country—one making it poised to become a global military power. Japan is in a tough neighborhood of military powers, with trends towards further military buildup. Japan has seen a 2.2x increase in interdictions of Russian aircraft in disputed Northern territories from 2001 to 2022, and Russian deployment of Steregushchiy-class frigates, and S-300v4 SAMs on disputed islands. Japan’s Zietenwende with a robust increase in defense spending, poises it to get new capabilities, namely counterstrike missiles for a robust deterrence in this increasingly hostile environment.
The many different pieces across the Eurasian table, foster a robust strategy of containing Russia. The great Eurasian puzzle is now a chessboard, with pieces from far-flung ends of the continent cutting off the Russian world’s ability to expand further—to export its own violent tendencies, genocidal aims, and internal rot, abroad. Vigilance, in the form of strengthened, mutual security architecture, is the price the U.S. and its partners must pay to achieve a lasting peace.