How to Contain Putin’s Russia
A Strategy for Countering a Rising Revisionist Power
(By Michael McFaul - January 19, 2021 – Foreign Affairs Magazine)
MICHAEL McFAUL is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor of Political Science and Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia. From 2012 to 2014, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia.
After President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, some elements of U.S. policy toward Russia will change immediately. No longer will the president of the United States seek to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin, as President Donald Trump did throughout his tenure. Biden will not hesitate to criticize Putin’s belligerent actions, especially those directed at the United States. The Biden administration will also incorporate liberal norms and democratic values back into the United States’ Russia policy, so Putin can expect more criticism of Russian autocracy and more support for human rights. And the White House’s rhetoric about the United States’ transatlantic allies will shift markedly; the era of berating NATO will end this week.
That’s the easy and expected stuff. The harder task will be to develop a new, comprehensive Russia strategy that strikes the right balance between containing Moscow and engaging it in narrow areas of shared interest. To get there, the Biden administration will need to shed myths and misperceptions that for years have hampered U.S. analysis of Moscow and to replace them with an accurate assessment of what sort of threat Putin’s Russia really poses and how the United States can effectively counter it.
American thinking about Russia is clouded by misperceptions. Many analysts wrongly assume that Russia is a declining power, for example. Just last month, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican from Utah, quipped that “Russia is a gas station parading as a country,” adding that Moscow was “lashing out in a moment of decline.” Such analysis is outdated. Putin does not wield the same power that his Soviet predecessors did in the 1970s or that Chinese President Xi Jinping does today, but neither is Russia the weak and dilapidated state that it was in the 1990s. It has reemerged, despite negative demographic trends and the rollback of market reforms, as one of the world’s most powerful countries—with significantly more military, cyber, economic, and ideological might than most Americans appreciate.
Russia remains a formidable military power and one of only two nuclear superpowers. Putin has invested heavily in nuclear modernization, while the United States has not. He has also devoted vast resources to upgrading Russian conventional forces. The Kremlin’s armed forces do not have global reach, but they do pose a significant threat to Europe and even outmatch NATO by some measures, including the number of tanks, cruise missiles, and troops on the NATO-Russian border. Putin has also made major investments in space weapons, intelligence, and cyber-capabilities, about which the United States learned the hard way when a major Russian hacking campaign was exposed last month. Moscow has fewer (and weaker) formal alliances than Washington, but its ties with China, including deepening military ties, have never been closer. In terms of overall military capacity, Russia likely ranks as the third most powerful country in the world.
As an economic power, Russia trails far behind the United States and China, but it is not the basket case that many Americans imagine. It has the 11th-largest economy in the world; the sixth, measured by purchasing power parity. Russia’s GDP is bigger than China’s on a per capita basis. And Putin’s renationalization of property and other state interventions into the economy give him control over a much greater percentage of the country’s economic resources than democratic leaders in larger economies enjoy. Certainly, he has enough economic resources at his disposal to pursue an aggressive foreign policy agenda.
Putin wields considerable ideological power as well. He has invested heavily in the instruments of soft power, including state-owned and Kremlin-friendly television, radio, and social media platforms (on which Moscow has become adept at covert disinformation operations). RT, which claims to be the most watched news channel on YouTube, has an annual budget of $300 million. Putin’s regime has also encouraged the creation of numerous parastatal organizations and quasi-private security forces to advance Russian interests abroad, including the notorious Internet Research Agency, the private military Wagner Group, the Foundation for National Values Protection, the International Agency for Sovereign Development, and the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation. With so many levers of influence, Putin can no longer be cast as presiding over a declining power. Such analysis gives false hope.
In addition to power, Putin has purpose. He is highly motivated by a set of orthodox, illiberal, antidemocratic, anti-Western ideas. American analysts often imagine that Putin is a transactional leader (I heard that phrase dozens of times while serving in the administration of President Barack Obama). That judgment is wrong. Like all global leaders, Putin will pursue transactional deals with other countries when he believes they advance what he sees as Russia’s national interests. But he is also an ideological leader, and many of his decisions both at home and abroad are guided by his desire to advance his anti-Western worldview.
Putin began his political career as an opportunist, working for pro-Western leaders such as St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Once he had moved up the ranks, Putin gravitated toward illiberal, nationalist, and orthodox values. In his first decade in power, he focused on advancing those values within Russia by suppressing democratic practices and liberal ideas, asserting greater control over state media, rewriting history books, passing anti-LGBTQ laws, and courting ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. In his second decade in power, he devoted greater attention and resources to promoting his illiberal values abroad. Why, after all, would Putin invest hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding RT’s global reach if he were only a transactional realist?
Putin has deliberately tried to position himself as the leader of the illiberal, conservative world—a role he defines in opposition to U.S. liberal internationalism. To liberate Europeans from NATO’s imperial control, he champions sovereignty. To defend autocracy, he berates the United States for supporting so-called color revolutions, whether in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, or the Middle East during the Arab Spring. To counter what he labels Western liberal decadence, he trumpets his definition of Christian, traditional family values, which he asserts are central to Russian identity and to resurgent conservative movements around the world. Although less demagogic in style than other populists, Putin deploys some of their rhetoric and methods, dividing both Russian and other societies into “real” folk and their elite exploiters (never mind that Putin himself is deeply intertwined with Russia’s ruling economic elite).
Putinism is winning over converts, mainly in Europe but also in the United States and elsewhere. Several years ago, Putin remarked that “so-called conservative values are acquiring a new significance,” citing the political success of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and France’s Marine Le Pen. Today, he might add to his list of ideological allies Prime Minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic, Brexit leader Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of Italy, President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, and Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. In almost every European country, as well as in the United States, there exists a political party or movement that leans more toward illiberal Putinism than toward Western liberalism. For too long, U.S. officials have downplayed this ideological dimension of Russian-American competition.
American policymakers also underestimate the Russian leader’s tolerance for risky behavior, often assuming he will respond predictably to threats and inducements. But Putin consistently acts belligerently even when the costs would seem to outweigh the benefits—annexing Crimea, intervening in Middle Eastern civil wars, stealing and publishing documents to try to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, and trying to assassinate former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom.
Putin is far more of a revisionist leader than his Chinese counterpart. In his view, he is at war with the United States, its allies, and the multilateral institutions that Washington created and currently anchors. Putin no longer desires cooperation with the West or even a respected place within the liberal international order. Rather, he seeks the destruction of that U.S.-led order.
Putin is an old man, set in his ways after two decades in power. He is not going to change his mind suddenly about a country he sees as a threat or embrace any effort on the part of the Biden administration to restart a major positive bilateral agenda. Biden and his team must accept that Putin will not end his assault on democracy, liberalism, and multilateral institutions anytime soon. They must therefore deter and contain Putin’s Russia for the long haul.
Tragically, what George Kennan famously recommended in these pages almost 75 years ago is just as apt today: “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” U.S. policymakers must not romanticize containment or the glory days of confronting the Soviet threat; the differences between the Cold War and the current era of “Hot Peace” are many, some making Moscow less menacing and some making it more so. But Biden and his national security team must retire outdated perceptions of the Russian threat and formulate a new policy to contain the Kremlin’s economic, military, and political influence. Washington can work to counter Putin’s ideological project even while working with the Russian government in narrow areas of shared interest and deepening ties with Russian society at large.
Containment must start at home. Russia’s recent intrusion into U.S. government and private-sector cybernetworks clearly demonstrates that the United States has not invested enough in defending against Moscow’s attacks on U.S. digital networks. The Biden administration should work with Congress to devote more resources to containing Russian cyberthreats, especially against critical infrastructure such as the U.S. banking system, electrical grid, armed forces, and nuclear weapons systems. It should also take greater responsibility for enhancing the cybersecurity of all Americans. U.S. citizens expect the armed forces to deter or repel physical attacks from U.S. adversaries. Why shouldn’t they expect the same in the cyber-world?
In order to protect the networks of private citizens and the private sector, the U.S. government will need to stop relying on commercial products and private actors for cyberdefense and bring more of the necessary technology and expertise in-house. At a minimum, the Biden administration will need to increase the staff and budget of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Cybersecurity expert Alex Stamos has also smartly suggested that the administration create a cyberspace parallel to the National Transportation Safety Board, which could investigate attacks and recommend ways to prevent them.
Containment must include an economic element as well. Putin uses Russian companies and capital to advance his foreign policy interests. The United States and other Western countries should therefore develop a strategy to limit Moscow’s economic power—namely, by requiring greater transparency around Russian financial activities inside the United States and in European and Asian countries. The Biden administration should take advantage of new legislation banning anonymous shell companies to expose shadowy Russian investments in U.S. businesses and real estate and work with European allies, especially the United Kingdom, to counter Russian money laundering in all advanced democracies. Russian economic projects in the West with clear geopolitical goals, such as the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, should be blocked.
At the same time, the Biden administration should compel the U.S. intelligence community to declassify more information about the assets and activities of Putin and his cronies. The degree of detail about Russia’s illegal activities documented in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election showed the incredible (and underused) capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community. While protecting methods and sources, Biden and his team should seek to declassify more information about Russian financial transfers and money laundering inside the United States and around the world.
To contain Putin’s ideological power within the United States, the Biden administration should develop clearer regulations and norms requiring Russia to be more transparent about its efforts to influence U.S. public opinion, whether through traditional or social media, foundations, philanthropy, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Some progress has been made on this front; American social media companies have taken a series of proactive steps to reduce disinformation and increase transparency. But the norms and laws for exposing Russian influence operations and defending U.S. sovereignty and the sovereignty of allies are still poorly developed.
Finally, containment at home must include efforts to counter Russian interference in future U.S. elections. Dozens of electoral and cybersecurity reforms, large and small, have been drafted but not yet signed into law. The Biden administration should work with Congress to pass and implement these reforms, starting with the Defending Elections against Trolls from Enemy Regimes Act (DETER Act), which will automatically trigger new economic sanctions against regimes found to be interfering in U.S. elections.
Containment abroad starts with deterrence. Since Putin annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine in 2014, NATO members have pledged to increase their defense spending to two percent of GDP; deployed additional troops to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland; and devoted more resources to countering cyber-intelligence and disinformation operations. The United States has also initiated a multibillion-dollar project to increase its military presence in Europe and helped spur a NATO readiness effort enabling the alliance to deploy some 300,000 soldiers, 30 naval combatant ships, and 30 air squadrons to the easternmost member states within the span of 30 days.
These initiatives are good, but not enough. NATO needs greater conventional ground force capabilities to repel a Russian attack, especially on its vulnerable southern flank. The alliance must also improve military mobility between countries and heal widening political divisions among member states—in particular Hungary, Turkey, and other allies. NATO needs to reaffirm its commitment to democratic values as well: it should set minimum governance standards that member states must meet or risk being suspended.
These improvements will require renewed U.S. leadership of the alliance. Biden must signal that the United States is once again committed to defending its NATO allies and working with allied leaders to enhance military readiness. He should continue to encourage NATO members to meet their two percent spending pledges but also devote more of the alliance’s pooled resources to improving military mobility and transportation capabilities. His administration should push to update NATO’s maritime strategy: the alliance needs new weapons systems, including frigates with antisubmarine technologies, nuclear and conventionally powered submarines, and patrol aircraft.
In reaffirming the United States’ commitments to NATO, Biden should emphasize that the alliance is a defensive one that has never attacked Russia and would be insane ever to do so. Enhanced NATO military capacity threatens Russia’s armed forces only if they attack a NATO ally. Indeed, the best way to keep the peace in Europe is to ensure that Putin knows that military aggression against a NATO member will come at a high cost.
The Biden administration must also counter Russian aggression against non-NATO partners. And no theater in the fight to contain Putin is more important than Ukraine. Building a secure, prosperous, and democratic Ukraine, even if parts of the country remain under Russian occupation, is the best way to counter Moscow’s ideological and military aggression in Europe. A successful, democratic Ukraine will inspire new democratic possibilities inside Russia and other former Soviet republics—just as a failed Ukrainian democracy and economy will serve Putin’s narrative about the futility of revolutions allegedly sponsored by the United States. The Biden administration should therefore increase U.S. military, political, and economic support for Ukraine to help its stalled reform efforts succeed.
Trump did real damage to U.S.-Ukrainian relations. His administration rightly provided lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military and increased U.S. military training and assistance to Kyiv. But as the world learned during his (first) impeachment hearings, Trump undermined this progress by trying to leverage U.S. assistance to advance his 2020 reelection efforts. During the Trump years, Ukraine’s economic and political reform agenda drifted, and the political influence of big business conglomerates grew. In the new Biden era, U.S. federal agencies, Congress, businesses, and NGOs should engage more deeply with Ukraine’s government and society to assist democratic and market reforms.
At the same time, the Biden administration should maintain, if not deepen, the current regime of economic sanctions against Moscow. President Barack Obama worked closely with allies and partners to put in place the most comprehensive set of sanctions ever imposed on Russia as punishment for its annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. As long as Putin continues to occupy Ukrainian territory, sanctions should continue to ratchet up. At a minimum, the Biden team must maintain the sanctions that are now in place, as fatigue is growing in Europe. To lift them before Putin reverses course in Ukraine would send a terrible signal.
The Biden administration should also seek to support other countries on Russia’s border: Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Uzbekistan all deserve diplomatic upgrades. Biden should meet with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to signal clearly that the United States will not mend relations with President Alexander Lukashenko, as it has done so many times in the past. Lithuania has emerged as an ardent defender of freedom in the region in recent years: Biden should reward Vilnius by appointing to the country a high-profile U.S. ambassador with a track record of promoting human rights.
Putin has declared liberalism obsolete; the Biden administration must prove him wrong—first and foremost by renewing American democracy at home. At the same time, the incoming president must make good on his campaign promise to elevate values in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, especially with respect to Russia—by calling out antidemocratic behavior and human rights abuses but also by following those words up with action. The Biden administration should sanction those who poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year (and have now unjustly arrested him upon his return to Russia) as well as those who continue to abuse peaceful demonstrators in Belarus. Biden should sanction not just those who carry out these human rights abuses but the economic players that support and benefit from these criminal acts. Invoking the Magnitsky Act to sanction a few low-level colonels or judges is exactly what Putin and Lukashenko expect; Biden should do the unexpected and sanction those with real power.
The Biden administration should also restructure the U.S. government to more effectively advance liberal democratic values. It should fold the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor into the Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, so as to better align U.S. values and strategic communications. The undersecretary in charge of this portfolio should be tasked with exposing, deterring, and slowing the spread of anti-American disinformation, including from Russia.
The Biden administration will also need to reform the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which has sustained considerable damage during the Trump era. Washington should not seek to counter Russian propaganda with American propaganda. Rather, it should work to counter disinformation with real reporting from credible journalists in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries in the region. To that end, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty should be spun out of the USAGM and made an independent organization, still funded by Congress but with its own board and a sturdier firewall separating it from the federal government. To support independent journalism and anticorruption efforts in Russia and the surrounding region, Washington will need to develop new programs and approaches. Direct U.S. funding of Russian media outlets would taint them. The United States should focus instead on providing short-term training opportunities, yearlong fellowships at U.S. and European universities, and internships at Western media organizations. Education and the free flow of information are the most effective weapons the United States has for fighting Russian propaganda.
The Biden administration should encourage American social media platforms to de-emphasize or at least provide more information about Kremlin-supported content. The algorithms used to rank and organize content in YouTube, Google, and Bing searches should be adjusted to downgrade the information Russia distributes through its propaganda channels. When such content does appear in search results, companies should pair it with similar content from more reliable news organizations; every time an RT article or video appears, a BBC story should pop up next to it. The Biden administration should simultaneously work with other democracies around the world to develop a common set of laws and protocols for regulating Russian government–controlled media, including bots and trolls.
Even as Washington works to contain Russian influence at home and abroad, it should seek to engage the Kremlin on a small number of issues of mutual benefit, much as it did during the Cold War. Most immediately, the Biden administration should work with Putin to extend the New START treaty for five years. This treaty not only prevents a needless arms race between Russia and the United States but also establishes verification measures that provide valuable information about Russia’s nuclear weapons and their modernization. The treaty’s limitations are especially advantageous to the United States, since Moscow has invested heavily in the development of nuclear weapons while Washington has not. Trump proposed including China in these talks. Biden should not pursue this idea. Instead, his administration should first seek a bilateral extension of the New START treaty with Russia for five years and then begin discussions with China, Russia, and perhaps France and the United Kingdom about a future multilateral treaty that would limit the deployment of nuclear weapons. In other words, these two efforts should be sequenced, not linked.
After extending the New START treaty, the Biden administration should try to open a wide-ranging dialogue with Moscow about possible restrictions on nonstrategic nuclear weapons, hypersonic weapons, new delivery systems, and space weapons. Putin will likely reject an offer from Biden for such talks, but the world should know that Moscow, not Washington, refused them. On a separate negotiation track, American and Russian cybersecurity experts should attempt to reach an agreement on which assets can and cannot be legitimately targeted. Nuclear weapons systems and infrastructure, for instance, should be off-limits to Russian and American hackers alike. Again, no one should be under any illusions about the likelihood of progress on this front, but the Biden team loses nothing by offering to talk.
On a small handful of shared international issues—pandemics, climate change, and nuclear nonproliferation, for instance—the United States should also seek to work with Russia within multilateral institutions while also containing its abusive behavior in other multilateral organizations, including, first and foremost, INTERPOL.
More generally, senior officials in the Biden administration should seek to establish more regular contact with their Russian counterparts in order to reduce the risk of misunderstandings. Despite Trump’s personal praise for Putin, actual diplomacy between Washington and Moscow diminished substantially over the last four years. High-level contacts were rare. After the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. and Soviet leaders developed several crisis management and prevention mechanisms in order to avoid unnecessary escalation and reduce misperceptions. For the next four decades, the worst form of conflict—all-out conventional war or nuclear war—was avoided. Tragically, that most minimal of goals must be on the incoming Biden administration’s agenda. Washington and Moscow will continue to disagree, compete, and clash on many issues no matter how much talking they do. But misunderstanding should never be the source of conflict.
In keeping with his paranoid anti-American agenda, Putin closed down the Peace Corps, canceled the long-standing high school Future Leaders Exchange program, and chased away U.S. foundations and NGOs working in Russia, because he feared cross-cultural contact. Biden’s team should come up with new ways to grow these ties even over Putin’s objections. In the long run, forging and sustaining links with Russian society will undermine Putin’s anti-American propaganda as well as American stereotypes about Russians.
The new administration should make it easier for Russians to study in and travel to the United States (and urge European allies to do the same). The more U.S. visas the better. Russian university students should be encouraged to come to the United States and perhaps even be granted visa-free travel, provided U.S. counterintelligence agencies can undertake the necessary due diligence to intercept spies. The Biden administration should clear the way for talented Russians to immigrate to the United States and encourage legitimate Russian private-sector companies to pursue American investments and partnerships. The goal of fostering such contact is to demonstrate to those who visit the economic benefits of markets and Western integration—and the cost of state ownership and mercantilist behavior.
Biden’s State Department should encourage all U.S. diplomats inside Russia to engage actively in public diplomacy. Every Foreign Service officer and many officials serving in other departments and agencies in Moscow should become honorary members of the Public Affairs Section. Biden should also reverse Trump’s decision to close the U.S. consulates in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok and instead provide these outposts of American soft power with the necessary staff and resources to make them effective.
Most important, the Biden administration—as well as other American elected officials, commentators, and journalists—must stop demonizing the Russian people. Biden and his team should go out of their way to distinguish between Russia and Russians—between Putin and the Russian people. For instance, the administration must explain clearly that U.S. sanctions are designed to punish human rights abusers and change Putin’s belligerent foreign policy behavior, not to hurt the Russian people, let alone foment regime change. Americans must remember that Russians did not annex Crimea; Putin did. Russians did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. election; Putin did. Not every Russian working in the United States is trying to steal American intellectual property, and not every Russian student in the United States is a spy (the vast majority of them are not). Not every Russian Twitter account that criticizes U.S. policy is a bot controlled by the Kremlin. Washington’s current conflict with Moscow was precipitated by Putin’s choices, not by Russian history or culture. “Russophobia” and stereotypes about innate Russian proclivities for imperialism and dictatorship only serve Putin’s interests.
Putin and his autocratic regime have pushed Russia into conflict with the democratic, liberal West and with the United States in particular. But Putin will not rule Russia forever. Someday, a change in leadership, and perhaps even Russia’s system of government, will open the possibility for better relations between Washington and Moscow. By containing Putin at home and abroad, engaging with his regime where prudent and possible, and speaking directly to the Russian people, Biden’s administration can begin to lay the groundwork for that day, however distant it might be.