Why you should care
George Kennan’s 1947 X Article explained the source of Russia’s paranoia and how to cope with it. Read it to understand today’s Russia, and how its seeming intransigence has roots that run both deep and wide.
The year: 1946. The war had ended, and yet America’s great ally in the fight against Nazi Germany — the Soviet Union — wasn’t acting much like a friend. Why, the Treasury Department asked the U.S. Embassy, wouldn’t Moscow support the formation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the post-war institutions designed to repair the damage wrought by WWII and promote stability?
The answer, from the deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Moscow, led to what is arguably the most famous and influential diplomatic dispatch in history — the “long telegram” — which eventually became the X Article in Foreign Affairs, published anonymously in July 1947.
The anonymous author? George Kennan, who coined the concept of “containment,” underpinning 45 years of Cold War strategy. And he anticipated with remarkable clarity the internal collapse of the Soviet communist system in 1991 — predicting that its citizens would ultimately stop supporting it.
Kennan argued against expanding NATO to the former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, which he called a ’strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.’
Nearly 70 years after they were written, the telegram and the X Article have acquired an eerie contemporary relevance as the West tries to make sense of Russia’s current aggressive behavior in Eastern Europe and formulate effective countermeasures.
Kennan had been a persistent critic of State Department policy, which he believed reflected a naïve expectation that the Soviets could be trusted to cooperate. Instead, he concluded: “It is clear that 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.”
Precisely the strategy that many observers recommend for dealing with contemporary Russia.
- Ideologically driven toward a patient approach to world domination — and confident that capitalism would inevitably collapse.
- Disposed to fight — war was an expected part of the conflict with capitalism and had to be prepared for.
- Dishonest — What X Article referred to as “the secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity, the wary suspiciousness and the basic unfriendliness of purpose,” stemming from the belief that the capitalist enemy is nefarious and without honor.
- Delusional — resulting from an “atmosphere of oriental secretiveness and conspiracy which pervades this Government.”
The U.S. government embraced Kennan’s concept of containment, but not exactly in the way he had hoped. He envisioned a broad political and economic effort to contain the Soviets — not the military standoff that developed. The Russians left behind massive mechanized forces in Eastern Europe, against which the West was defenseless without a nuclear deterrent — thus triggering a frightening nuclear arms race.
Nearly 50 years later, Kennan resumed his fierce criticism of U.S. policy following the collapse of the Soviet behemoth in 1991. He opposed putting human rights and democracy at the center of the policy, favoring realpolitik, and argued against expanding NATO to the former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, which he called a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.”
Today, watching Russia’s hostile moves in Georgia and Ukraine, his views seem strikingly prescient.
“The bottom line [for Russia] is to prevent any European Union structure or NATO structure from coming closer to Russia,” says Angela Stent, Georgetown University professor and author of The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.
Stent notes that, compared to the Cold War era, the element of ideological competition is more muted today, and Russia’s territorial interests are less ambitious — confined to the former Soviet space. But within that space, the West has limited options at its disposal.
“The Russians don’t have to send 40,000 men across the border,” she says. “They are destabilizing the Ukraine by sending in these masked men. Nobody can stop them. Sanctions won’t stop them.”
And Russian President Vladimir Putin is more popular than ever at home.
Today, Russia’s territorial interests are less ambitious — confined to the former Soviet space. But within that space, the West has limited options at its disposal.
Helping the Ukraine build a more effective government and reducing European dependence on Russian energy are smart objectives, but, adds Stent, “I think you also have to keep holding open the possibility of talking to the Russians. Be careful of the [insulting] rhetoric.”
A strategy that could easily have been lifted from Kennan’s playbook. He pushed to contain the Soviets’ inherently expansionist tendencies, but also understood that Russia was an exceptionally difficult piece of turf to defend. No amount of threats or sanctions could eliminate the paranoia and insecurity built over centuries of experience.
Even the father of containment, who died in 2005 at the age of 101, would agree that Russia could never entirely be bottled up inside its borders. We are paying a price today for thinking it could.