Joe Biden’s Containment 2.0 seeks to employ economic tools to undermine the Russian state. The strategy could prove counterproductive and divide the global economy into two competitive blocs. It will also raise international tensions and worsen America’s strategic overstretch
A Ukrainian armoured personnel carrier west of Kyiv on March 3, 2022 (Photo: Getty Images)
THE RUSSIAN INVASION of Ukraine and the sanctions-centred reprisals of the US and its allies are a watershed moment in international relations. They mark the advent of a new Cold War whose ramifications will extend to every corner of the world.
The current crisis has the makings of a drawn-out and dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West, particularly the US-led NATO. The West essentially is snapping its post-Cold War ties with Moscow despite the risk of creating international strategic instability. The crisis is already affecting the global economy, with higher energy prices and supply-chain disruptions set to fuel inflation and slow economic growth.
US President Joe Biden has made it clear that the US has embarked on a strategy of Containment 2.0 against Moscow. Containment 2.0 may be modelled on the Cold War-era Containment. 1.0, which ended with the Soviet Union’s disintegration, but it seeks to employ largely economic tools to disrupt the Russian economy and undermine the Russian state.
Biden has called the West’s punitive steps against Russia “the broadest sanctions in history.” Biden has vowed to make Russia pay “dearly, economically and strategically”, and to make Russian President Vladimir Putin a “pariah on the international stage”.
Team Biden’s narrative is that it has managed to globally isolate Russia. But other than in Europe and East Asia, US allies have refused to blindly follow the American lead. Take the Middle East: Israel and the Gulf oil sheikhdoms have taken a neutral or nuanced stand. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), like India, abstained from the February 25 vote at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on a US-sponsored resolution deploring the Russian invasion as a violation of the UN Charter.
The 10-nation ASEAN, as underlined by its February 26 joint statement, has taken an independent stance. The US later persuaded Singapore to take some punitive steps against Moscow. Those staying neutral include America’s neighbour Mexico, US ally Philippines and several Latin American states, including Brazil.
Still, February 24, 2022—the day Russia attacked Ukraine—will go down in history as a turning point, heralding the start of a new Cold War. The economic warfare the US and its allies have launched against Russia is likely to trigger Russian reprisals.
The new Cold War’s larger effects, meanwhile, are becoming visible. Germany, for example, has unveiled a remilitarisation plan, including boosting its military spending from 1.4 per cent to above 2 per cent of GDP. Its centre-left chancellor, Olaf Scholz, while contending that Russia’s Ukraine invasion means “the world will not be the same as before”, has announced an immediate investment of a whopping €100 billion in new weaponry, such as the American F-35 warplanes and Israeli drones.
As for Biden, whose approval rating at home had hit a new low, the Russian invasion has been a blessing in disguise politically. Now Biden is playing the “war card” to rally Americans behind him. Indeed, as his State of the Union address suggested, Biden is hoping that the Russian invasion can turn the political tide in the US in his favour just as the 9/11 terrorist attacks did for then-President George W Bush.
In essence, Biden is using the Ukraine war and his harsh sanctions against Russia to change the narrative that he is an incompetent and unpopular president. He has framed the Russian invasion as a “battle between democracy and autocracy,” telling the American nation that Putin has sought to “shake the foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways.” Never mind that Ukraine is no real democracy and that its comedian-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has shown himself to be no less autocratic than Putin.
Facts don’t matter in Biden’s alternative universe: having surrendered Afghanistan to the world’s most brutal terrorists and having deserted Ukraine to its fate in an avoidable war by ruling out in advance that the US will fight with it against the Russians, Biden declared in his State of the Union address, “We have fought for freedom, expanded liberty, defeated totalitarianism and terror.”
History will remember Biden for consigning Afghanistan to the dark age of terrorist rule. In fact, America’s Afghanistan humiliation encouraged Putin to up the ante. Biden’s Afghan blunder is also serving as a real shot in the arm for Islamic terrorist groups across the world.
As the history of this century alone illustrates, foreign military invasions have destabilised sovereign states. And as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan demonstrate, such invasions have triggered unending violence and bloodshed. Russia’s invasion, and the US plan to arm Ukrainian resistance forces to bleed Russia, threaten to turn Ukraine into a Syria or Libya.
In this light, today’s tragic and volatile moment could get worse without caution and prudence.
GENESIS OF THE CRISIS
In its own hemisphere, the US still enforces the 198-year-old Monroe Doctrine to ensure there is no unfriendly state in its extended backyard. In 1823, President James Monroe declared that the US “should consider any attempt” by foreign powers “to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
Since then, the US has regarded its hemisphere as its exclusive sphere of influence. It brought the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe in 1962 when it imposed a naval quarantine on Cuba to thwart Soviet plans to place missiles there. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it became known, ended only after the Soviet Union, faced with the spectre of a global nuclear war, abandoned its plans.
In 2018, then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the Monroe Doctrine “as relevant today as it was the day it was written.” And the following year, then-US National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the “Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.”
Russia’s ejection from the western-led financial system will likely set in motion the search for alternatives immune to weaponisation of payments systems, banking, etc, while prompting non-western economies to diversify their central-bank reserves
Yet the US has expanded NATO to Russia’s borders, including deploying forces in the Baltics where the Soviet Union had its largest forward military bases. Between 2014 and 2021, the US poured more than $2.5 billion in arms and other military aid into Ukraine, which Moscow sees as part of its security perimeter. To protect its heartland, especially Moscow, Russia has historically relied on such a strategic buffer.
Believing the loss of the Baltic States to NATO had undermined Russian security, Putin drew a “red line” for the West with Ukraine. He started viewing the outcome of the standoff between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine as a contest Russia must win to shield its security.
As American Senator Rand Paul recently asked, “What do you think our response would be if Mexico were joining a military alliance with Russia against the United States? We would be hopping mad.”
After the Cold War ended, the US could have brought Russia into the Western fold in the way it did with Germany and Japan after World War II. Russia should have been accommodated in the post-Cold War European security architecture, given that Russian security historically has been tied to Europe.
The US, however, shied away from seizing that historic opening. Instead, after its triumph in the Cold War, the US made a series of strategic moves to expand its perimeter of influence deep into Russia’s near-abroad.
NATO, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, became obsolete, yet the US retained it so that it could dominate European security. The US expanded NATO eastward by adding 14 new members, taking in the entire former Warsaw Pact and the three Baltic states, and then declaring that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members. Such expansionism increasingly grated Moscow, contributing eventually to Russia’s remilitarisation.
Long before Putin became a major political force, Russia’s US-friendly president, Boris Yeltsin, had said in late-1994 (in front of US President Bill Clinton and other heads of state gathered for a summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) that the “domineering” US was “trying to split” Europe again through NATO expansion. According to US declassified documents, Clinton speciously assured Yeltsin that any NATO enlargement would be slow, with no surprises, and done “in partnership” with Russia.
The list of Russian grievances subsequently went beyond NATO expansion to other unilateral American actions, including Washington’s termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which was of unlimited duration) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
A number of eminent American thinkers had warned against NATO expansionism or ignoring Russian security concerns over Ukraine. Henry Kissinger, for example, said in 2014 that “Ukraine should not join NATO” but “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland,” which “cooperates with the West in most fields but avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.” George F Kennan, who became famous as the grand strategist who designed the Cold War-era containment policy, warned that expanding NATO to Russia’s borders was bound to become “the beginning of a new Cold War.”
With Russia feeling increasingly threatened by an encroaching NATO, Putin made clear late last year that Russia would “conduct itself as the US would behave if offensive weapons were near the US.” Yet his warning received little attention in the US media.
In Ukraine, Putin has sought to avert what the US created on India’s borders from the 1950s—a hostile, militarised Pakistan, both by arming it and by making it a member of the then American-led SEATO and CENTO military alliances.
Three days before launching the invasion of Ukraine, Putin said, “The US and NATO have begun the shameless development of the territory of Ukraine as a theatre of military operations.” What he was saying in effect was that Russia will not tolerate the creation of a “Pakistan” on its southwestern borders.
After Kabul fell to the Taliban, a weakened Biden sought to restore his credibility at home with a tougher Russia policy that left little room for compromise with Moscow. Last autumn’s provocative US-NATO military exercises near Russia’s Black Sea coast incensed Moscow, foreshadowing the present crisis. Following the US-NATO exercises, Kremlin massed large numbers of troops and equipment near the borders with Ukraine, signalling its readiness to use force if diplomacy fails.
STRATEGIC MISCALCULATIONS THAT LED TO THE CRISIS
The conflict over Ukraine has resulted from strategic miscalculations by both sides. Let us start with Russia.
Mounting a credible threat to use military force can often achieve an objective without the need to actually execute the threat. When Putin launched a major military buildup against Ukraine to compel the US to abandon its post-Cold War policy of NATO creep to Russia’s borders, he woke up the world to the dangers of NATO expansionism. Commentators even in the US began asking whether expanding NATO to Russia’s borders and creating a hostile Russia was in American interest.
The Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders kept the US on tenterhooks, with Biden warning for days on end that the invasion was about to start. Instead of sustaining the threat, Putin decided to execute the threat, even though controlling the outcome of a war once it is launched is virtually impossible. By launching the aggression, he has united the Western bloc against him and brought Russia’s economy and standing under intense pressure.
Biden’s strategic objective was never to defend Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. His goal was to help contain Russia, including by ensnaring it in a military quagmire if it launched an invasion. This explains the arms funnelled to Ukrainian resistance forces
It is ironic that Putin has invaded a country that, in the Russian view, is part of the historical heart of the Russian state. Indeed, Ukraine’s capital Kyiv is supposedly the cradle of the Russian civilisation, which explains the period of Russian history known as Kievan Rus’.
As for the US, several missteps by it precipitated the present conflict, including putting missiles and troops close to Russia’s borders, hardening Ukraine’s approach towards Moscow by pouring huge military aid into that country, sustaining an escalating sanctions policy against Russia and refusing to address Russian concerns over Ukraine.
Biden thought he could use the threat of greater sanctions to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. The problem with that approach was that the US, through overuse, had blunted the instrument of sanctions by repeatedly slapping sanctions on Russia since 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea. Indeed, after taking office last year, Biden imposed two rounds of sanctions on Russia. No wonder, despite dangling the threat of harsh new sanctions, Biden failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.
Biden’s most important miscalculation was to rebuff Putin’s demand for a US security guarantee that the US and NATO would not turn Ukraine into a frontline launchpad for attacks on Russia by deploying offensive weapons systems on Ukrainian soil. For over three months, Putin sought such a guarantee but his warnings that conflict was inevitable in the absence of such an assurance were ignored.
The irony is that an internally fractured, highly corrupt and increasingly authoritarian Ukraine has little chance of ever becoming a NATO member. Each existing NATO member must ratify the addition of a new member, with the process in the US requiring support from two-thirds of the Senate.
Yet Biden refused to rule out Ukraine’s NATO membership or assuage Russia’s concerns that the US intended to turn Ukraine into its cat’s-paw against Moscow. It is as if he and the American “deep state” wanted a new Cold War to begin.
Yet another irony stands out: In the run-up to the Russian invasion, Biden made clear that the US would provide military aid to Ukraine but not come to its direct defence against Russia. With the US and its NATO allies loath to send their sons and daughters to fight for Ukraine, Biden’s strategic objective was never to defend that country’s territorial sovereignty. Rather, his goal was to help contain Russia, including by ensnaring it in a military quagmire in Ukraine if it launched an invasion.
This explains the large quantities of arms Western intelligence agencies began funnelling to Ukrainian resistance forces as soon as the Russian invasion began.
The Biden plan is to engineer an Afghanistan 2.0 against Russia by replicating the success of the 1980s, when the largest covert operation in CIA’s history used Pakistan as a conduit to dispatch trained and armed anti-Soviet jihadists to Afghanistan, culminating in the Soviet army’s defeat there.
As part of the mission to similarly entrap Russia in a military quagmire in Ukraine, Biden responded to the Russian aggression by immediately instructing the release of $350 million worth of weapons from US stocks for the Ukrainian resistance, on top of the more than $650 million in such assistance that the US provided to Ukraine last year. Furthermore, he has asked Congress for a staggering $6.4 billion more for such arms aid.
THE LARGER IMPLICATIONS FOR THE WORLD
Russia’s virtual ejection from the Western-led financial system at a time when economic power has shifted East will likely set in motion the search for alternatives that are immune to weaponisation of payments systems (especially SWIFT), banking, trade finance and currencies, while prompting many non-Western economies to diversify their central-bank reserves as an insurance. More countries will seek to do bilateral trade in their own currencies.
In other words, the economic war that the West has unleashed against Russia could eventually prove counterproductive to Western interests by spurring the creation of an alternate financial system and dividing the global economy into two competitive blocs.
Furthermore, as if to confirm Putin’s long-held fears, the US-led response to the Ukraine invasion appears aimed at ultimately bringing about regime change in Moscow.
The raft of harsh sanctions imposed, however, leaves the West with little leverage over Russia. In power politics, outcomes, not intentions or objectives, matter most. The new sanctions are likely to only embolden Putin’s belligerence.
The West has already fired virtually all the weapons it had in its arsenal of sanctions. The only thing left in its armoury is a possible trade embargo. Such an embargo will be difficult to enforce and could trigger a direct US-Russia war. A trade embargo will also be self-defeating, given Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and the tight global energy supplies at present.
Russia is a military and nuclear superpower, as well as a cyber superpower. And it is certain to retaliate against the Western sanctions. Right now, Putin’s primary focus is on achieving his basic war objectives in Ukraine.
It is too early to judge how Putin’s invasion is going, as truth is the first casualty in the fog of war. But it is worth remembering that non-stop aerial bombardments for 42 days preceded America’s 1991 ground attack on Iraq. And NATO’s regime-change military operation that turned Libya into a failed state lasted more than seven months.
Putin cannot afford to emerge as a loser from his Ukraine military operation, because that could unravel his power base at home.
Russia, the world’s richest country in natural resources, has the capability to retaliate against the Western nations that have imposed sanctions of historic scale on it by reversing three decades of post-Cold War engagement. It can deliberately limit energy supplies to Europe and restrict export of some critical minerals that Western economies need. More significantly, Russia has the capability to take down or disrupt the Western digital infrastructure.
US foreign policy has long relied on sanctions, despite their uncertain effectiveness and unintended consequences. Sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea created only a modest drag on Russia’s economy but set in motion the China-Russia strategic alignment. The latest US-led sanctions will further deepen the China-Russia strategic entente and deliver a profits bonanza for China, which will become Russia’s banker and secure greater Russian energy supplies, thus aiding the rapid expansion of Chinese economic power.
Russia is already the junior partner in the relationship with Beijing because of China’s economic might. The new US-led sanctions against Russia will help China boost its status as the dominant partner and dictate the terms of the relationship with Moscow.
The sanctions also raise a larger question: Can Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state in breach of the UN Charter justify Western reprisals in violation of international norms? It is open season on Russia and its people, with boycotts, cancellations and other repudiations extending from sport and culture to commerce. Switzerland has frozen bank accounts of all Russians. Big Tech and other Western corporate behemoths have quickly aligned themselves with the US government to target Russia, including its media outlets.
More fundamentally, Biden’s Containment 2.0 strategy against Russia is set to raise international tensions and volatility while also worsening America’s strategic overstretch through greater entanglement in European security. This will likely sap US strength to deal with the bigger challenges in the Indo-Pacific and accelerate America’s relative decline.