chapter  1
‘There are more important things than where the border runs’: the other side of George Kennan’s containment theory
ByALEXANDER ASTROV
Pages 13

Washington DC from the US Embassy in Moscow. The telegram, in turn, resulted from Kennan’s frustration with American policy-makers who still took the Soviet Union for an ally. As a result, a significant part of the article was focused on providing a detailed explanation of why Stalin’s Russia should be seen as a potential enemy. This is what both Putin and current advocates of containment in the West have in mind: The world as we thought – or at least spoke – of it since 1989 has changed; and in this new world Russia is playing a different role, that of a potential enemy. Attitudes towards this realization may differ radically from Moscow to Washington DC, but the realization itself is certainly in line with the original idea of ‘containment’. In this manner, although containment is explicitly paired with the notion of

change, it implicitly signals a possibility of finding a still point amid the flux of changes. After all, some things, Russia’s confrontation with the West among them, never change. Consequently, the Ukrainian crisis is presented as a continuation of a long-standing trend visible to the initiated at least since the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. References to Kennan are then meant not as a lesson in political analysis capable of uncovering processes hidden from a less attentive and experienced observer, but as a sign of membership in a club of ‘wise men’ who know what is afoot before even looking. Meanwhile a closer look only at Russian official rhetoric and only during the brief period between

the Georgian and Ukrainian crises reveals concepts that are indeed in flux, dispelling any illusion of straightforward continuity. Most of the Russian statements during the Georgian war may be read as a demand for recognition; recognition that Russia, even when resorting to military force, is following the rules of the current international system; the same rules that led to the independence of Kosovo, for example. Since the annexation of Crimea, the rhetorical game played by the Kremlin has changed dramatically. Its main theme now is the collapse of any recognized set of rules governing the international system. In his speech on 18 March 2014, Putin claims that Russia’s

Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in the exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.2

This view was echoed a year later by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Munich Security Conference: ‘it is impossible to agree with the arguments of some of our colleagues that there was a sudden and rapid collapse of the world order that had existed for decades’; instead, already for some time, ‘the world is…facing a drastic shift connected with the change of historical eras’.3 And during this interregnum there are no readily available rules by reference to which state-actions can be judged. Especially so when the state in question is a great power. The latter point has been prominent in Russian foreign-policy debates since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Even liberal reformers of Yeltsin’s era agreed that Russia cannot simply follow the rules imposed by others and has to devise a unique modus operandi appropriate for a ‘normal great power’.4