Containing Global Russia

Michael Kimmage and Hanna Notte | 07 March 2024
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“It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” George Kennan wrote in 1947, “must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” When Kennan devised this famous sentence, he did not only have Europe in mind: Asia and the Middle East were catalysts of early Cold War contestation. Soviet expansive tendencies proceeded from the universal sway of communism and from the legacy of the Russian empire, which had been active in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In 2024, with Russian expansive tendencies once again in evidence, the global thrust of Kennan’s thinking is as salient as his recommendation that U.S. policy cohere around the idea of containment.

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was meant to prove that the United States and its allies do not write the rules internationally. To prove this point in Europe, the heart of the liberal international order, is to hasten the advent of a post-Western order globally. Russia has recalibrated its entire foreign policy to fit the needs of a long struggle. Prior to 2022, Russia was already expanding its trade and political relations with non-Western countries and tangling with its Western counterparts in international fora. Since 2022, Russia has dramatically expanded these pre-existing trend lines, while improvising at every turn.

The four pillars of Russia’s global foreign policy are self-preservation, decompartmentalization, fragmentation, and integration. Russia has secured lifelines for its economy and defense enterprises, while navigating to retain its military influence outside of Europe — successfully in Syria and the Sahel and less successfully in the South Caucasus. On a host of policy issues, Russia has abandoned compartmentalization with Western states. Waging a war of narratives, gumming up legacy multilateral institutions, and pushing for the de-dollarization of international finance, a diplomatically hyperactive Russia has sought to fragment the existing international order. Russia has also been integrating partners into clubs that exclude Western states (like the BRICS alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and working with alliances that are openly anti-Western (like the new Alliance of the Sahel States). 

Russia’s progress has been substantial enough in these four domains to give it the upper hand in the war and to place the Russian economy on a non-Western foundation. Russia’s successes have not just been a matter of savviness: the Kremlin has benefited from the West’s many mistakes in rallying global public opinion. At the same time, Russia’s redirected foreign policy generates costs and risks to the Kremlin. For Russia, much depends on the war. Victory in Ukraine would prove that Russia is an autonomous global actor capable of thwarting formidable adversaries. Should the war linger indefinitely or should Ukraine surge forward, Russia’s extreme anti-Westernism may start to look short-sighted, accident-prone, and self-defeating.

The United States and its European allies should respond to global Russia with a multi-part containment strategy. One task is analytical: to connect the dots in Russia’s global foreign policy. Another is to confront Russia selectively — where its activities are especially malign. A third is to define its own global outreach positively and not simply as a default strategy for opposing Russia (or China). Most importantly, the United States should help Ukraine to frustrate Russia’s European war aims. These aims are central to Russia’s global aspirations.


To deter Russia in 2022, the West had bet on markets. It had counted on its own centrality to the worlds of finance, technological innovation, and commerce, hoping that the threat of massive sanctions would restrain Russian President Vladimir Putin. Once the war began, the West wagered that Russia would be so damaged by sanctions that either its war machine would malfunction or a frustrated population would curtail Putin’s ambitions. An undeterred Russia preserved lifelines for its economy and military machine, leveraging an already robust relationship with China and many other bilateral ties in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Russia found markets for its energy products in Asia and reliable sources of weaponry in Iran and North Korea. Turkey, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus emerged as conduits for the “roundabout trade” of sanctioned goods into Russia.

For Putin, Russia’s economic break with the West may not have been an opportunity cost of the war. It may have been one of the war’s strategic objectives. In the 1990s, Russia’s deep dependence on the West hemmed in its foreign policy. Because Russia relied on the West for loans and for investment, then-President Boris Yeltsin could do nothing to halt NATO expansion. Having shown in 2014 and again in 2022 that Russia’s economy can ride out Western sanctions, Putin has reduced the efficacy of future Western sanctions, a virtuous circle for him. Russia’s growing reliance on Iran and North Korea, often dismissed as technological backwaters, has given it real-time advantages vis-á-vis Ukraine.

While pouring resources into Ukraine, Russia has not stood still elsewhere. In Syria, Russian troops relinquished several positions to groups affiliated with their partner Iran after February 2022. At the same time, Moscow pushed for Syria’s normalization with Arab states and Turkey, hoping to attract the reconstruction funding for Syria that Russia itself cannot provide. Both measures have been aimed at protecting Russia’s influence. In Africa, Russia has similarly ensured its staying power, most recently by restructuring and rebranding the Wagner private military company into the Africa Corps, which the Ministry of Defense holds on a tight leash. Only in the South Caucasus, where Russia’s nominal ally Armenia mourns the forced exodus of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, has the war in Ukraine visibly dented its military clout.


Before 2022, compartmentalization in Russia’s relations with the West was already an endangered practice. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States had suspended cooperation with Russia on a range of issues — to punish it and to elicit a change in Russian foreign policy. Yet Moscow and Western capitals managed to insulate areas of critical interest from their mutual grievances, continuing to talk about the future of nuclear arms control, the Arctic, or ways to bring much-needed humanitarian aid to Syria.

With the 2022 war, Russia has become much more categorical. Moscow suspended its participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction (New START) Treaty and rejected multiple overtures from the Joseph Biden administration to resume discussions on nuclear arms control. With this, Russia is sending several signals: that something resembling a state of war obtains between Russia and the West; that for Russia to give an inch on any one issue might mean undermining itself on other issues; and that winning the war in Ukraine is a priority far above the value that cooperation on arms control, climate change, or the Arctic might provide for Russia.

Putin’s willingness to jettison any collaborative agenda with the West creates dangers for Russia itself. Arms control, not to mention setting global norms for climate change, is an effort that makes Russia safer and improves Russians’ quality of life. Having emboldened (near-nuclear) Iran and (nuclear) North Korea, the Kremlin cannot be certain that these countries will forever be ruled by regimes friendly to Moscow. A medium-sized economy, Russia does not have endless resources to compete in a multipolar nuclear arms race — one that its own policies may well be fueling. Just as compartmentalization had once contained conflicts between Russia and the West, a global escalation with the West could rebound against Russia. Should current tensions in the Middle East ignite an all-out war, for example, Russia would struggle to protect its presence in Syria.


Ever since Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov’s celebration of “multipolarity” in the mid-1990s, post–Cold War Russia has taken issue with the West’s global dominance. In the years leading up to the 2022 invasion, Russia had chipped away at support for existing multilateral institutions and regimes. It propagated a narrative about a dysfunctional “rules-based international order,” Russia’s derogatory reference to presumed Western hegemony. For years, Russian diplomats lamented that Western states were bending the rules in organizations like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Since 2022, Russia has upped the ante. Moscow has intelligently exploited global discontent with the West. By arguing that the West has been invading sovereign countries and redrawing the map since time immemorial, Russia has deflected criticism of its war against Ukraine. Hamas’ attack against Israel on Oct. 7 and its aftereffects have given Moscow new tools of persuasion. While the West backs Israel’s assault on Gaza, Russia has been watching from the sidelines. It can amplify a global outrage that would be proliferating with or without Russia. Without a blueprint, Russia jumps on the West’s travails whenever and wherever they materialize.

Russia has also grown more obstructionist in multilateral institutions. Amid heightened acrimony at U.N. agencies, Russian diplomats have been creative in causing paralysis, tabling texts to compete with Western-backed resolutions and causing procedural hiccups. Russian diplomats have used the U.N. rulebook “as if they were sleeping with it under their pillow,” according to one official. At the U.N. Security Council, the fragile modus vivendi that had still held between Russia and Western states in 2022 also became more precariousover time. The paralysis cannot be blamed on Russia alone: Western diplomats took their grievances with Russia over Ukraine to each and every forum, alienating counterparts from the Global South. Post-invasion demands by Western states that the Global South fall in line with their position on Ukraine have backfired spectacularly.

Finally, Russia’s intent to fragment Western-led international systems includes international finance. Hit with unprecedented Western sanctions and cut off from the financial messaging infrastructure of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, Russia has embraced the idea of de-dollarization, although Russia’s reliance on the yuan and rupee has come with problems. While the Kremlin dreams about the BRICS moving toward a single currency, practical obstacles remain, and Russia has failed to induce other countries to bypass the U.S. dollar. Here, Russia’s push for fragmentation has made little headway thus far.


The most confounding of Russia’s global projects is the integration of non-Western structures of partnership and allegiance. Moscow has labored to expand both the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, cheering growing integration among what Russian diplomats term the “global majority.” As chair of the recently enlarged BRICS, Russia is planning to host over 200 events this year, including a ministerial in Nizhny Novgorod and a summit in Kazan.

Moscow is also exploring less institutionalized forms of integration. At Russia’s behest, synergies are emergingamong constellations of states that are hostile to the West. Russia’s ally Belarus and Iran are strengthening their defense cooperation. This spring, Russia will conduct routine joint naval drills with China and Iran, having also proposed similar three-way exercises with China and North Korea. China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are attempting to tie down the American Gulliver in intersecting crises and war zones. Synchronization is not necessarily gamed out in advance, but it is already having a cumulative effect. The United States faces the prospect of simultaneous security crises in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

In the Sahel, a region that continues to tip toward military dictatorships, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger signed a tripartite mutual defense pact in the fall. Amid their joint departure from the Economic Community of West African States, Moscow signaled its interest in enhancing cooperation with the Alliance of Sahel States. After recent successes in fighting in Mali, the Africa Corps has been invited into Burkina Faso and may well emerge in Niger. Successfully branding itself as the only external force serious about fighting terrorism, Russia is creating a new axis of partners.

Closer to home, Russia’s integration projects have foundered. For decades, Russia has been the leading force in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance made up of post-Soviet states that was established in 1992. In January 2022, the treaty had its moment in the spotlight when it successfully performed a regime maintenance operation amid protests in Kazakhstan, but since the invasion of Ukraine, it has failed to impress. When its members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rekindled their longstanding border dispute in September 2022, the Collective Security Treaty Organization was unable to mediate. In the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it also played a muted role. An irritated Armenian government eventually turned to France and India for arms and held joint military exercises with the United States. In the economic sphere, Russia’s regional integration efforts have performed somewhat better. Amid the flourishing of Russia’s roundabout trade, the Eurasian Economic Union — designed to pursue a common market among Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia — witnessed a re-entanglement of business elites after February 2022.

A Balance Sheet

When Russia failed to take Kyiv and was pushed back in eastern and southern Ukraine in late 2022, low expectations crystallized for Russian foreign policy. The U.S. government identified Russia’s “strategic defeat” as the end state of its Ukraine policy. This optimism was premature — not just for the military configurations on Ukrainian territory, which have gradually begun to favor Russia, but also for Russia’s redesigned statecraft. Russia has been adept at the political economy of war, at styling itself as a David taking on the American Goliath, while thus far avoiding entanglement in costly blunders outside of Europe.

The open question for Russia’s foreign policy is whether its global ambitions are coherent. They are sustainable for Russia, though dangers for the Russian economy loom on the horizon. But if Russia’s improvisatory opportunism gives it agility, it also bespeaks a certain nihilism, as if Russian foreign policy exists for the war and not the war for some larger set of policy aims. This nihilism is most pronounced in Russia’s almost obsessive anti-Westernism, which globally is always in vogue but is too abstract and too empty a position on which to build anything really solid. It also makes for a lot of strange, disparate bedfellows.

Contending with a Global Russia

To recognize the scale of the challenge Russia represents is, first and foremost, to connect the dots of its global foreign policy. To diminish Russia’s sources of self-preservation, the United States should continue to close the loopholes on sanctions. Disrupting weapons transfers from Iran and North Korea will be a tall order, but other efforts to starve Russia’s war machine are having an effect — as shown by the growing number of foreign banks that are restricting their business with Russian clients. Although Russia’s military presence outside of Europe remains modest, the United States should counter Russia’s support for malign actors in the Middle East, where possible, while buttressing partner governments in Africa to limit the further expansion of Africa Corps. Since Washington cannot (and need not) take on Moscow everywhere, it should focus on those theaters where Russian military activities risk producing the greatest negative spillover effects.

The United States should not expect Russia to return to compartmentalization any time soon. Efforts at restraining a nuclear North Korea and preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold will have to be done not just without, but also in opposition to, Russia. Washington should call on Russia to return to nuclear arms control talks before New START expires in 2026, while seriously planning for the eventuality that Putin will not cooperate.

Contending with Russia’s efforts to upend the international order and to advance its own integration projects will be very difficult. Washington’s support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s irresponsible government has further degraded trust in the West, elucidating a simple lesson: The more the United States and its allies have to offer the Global South in its terms, whatever those may be, and the more respect they show to the foreign policy autonomy of those countries, the more they will expose the many points of hollowness that inform Russian foreign policy. The power of example will in every case outshine the power of argument. The same is true for the power of negative example.

Most urgent is continued support for Ukraine. If Moscow wins the war, its efforts to remake international order will accelerate. A Russia in control of Ukraine would feel more self-confident, and it would suffer from fewer resource constraints. Its appeal as a partner to non-Western states would grow, while Western credibility in Europe and elsewhere would be in ruins. Russia’s global game runs through Ukraine. That is where it must be stopped.

Hanna Notte, Ph.D., is director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a nonresident senior associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her work focuses on Russia’s foreign and security policy, the Middle East, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a senior non-resident associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His latest book is Collisions: The War in Ukraine and the Origins of the New Global Instability, which is due out with Oxford University Press on March 22.

This article was originally published on Waron the Rock.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.