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Russian President Vladimir Putin, foreground, leaves after a nationally televised question-and-answer session in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 17, 2014.

Pavel Golovkin, Associated Press - Ap

Echoes of Cold War shape U.S. Russian policies

  • Article by: Peter Baker
  • New York Times
  • April 19, 2014 - 7:15 PM

– Even as the crisis in Ukraine continues to defy easy resolution, President Obama and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.

Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions and making it a pariah state.

Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Putin, aides said. As a result, Obama will spend his final years in office trying to minimize the disruption Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible.

“That is the strategy we ought to be pursuing,” said Ivo Daalder, formerly Obama’s ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “If you just stand there, be confident and raise the cost gradually and increasingly to Russia, that doesn’t solve your Crimea problem and it probably doesn’t solve your eastern Ukraine problem. But it may solve your Russia problem.”

Clues in personnel choice

The manifestation of this thinking can be seen in Obama’s choice for the next ambassador to Moscow. The White House is preparing to nominate John Tefft, a diplomat who previously served as ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania.

When the search began months ago, administration officials were leery of sending Tefft because of concern that his experience in former Soviet republics that have flouted Moscow’s influence would irritate Putin. Now there is no reluctance to offend the Kremlin, officials said.

In effect, Obama is retrofitting for a new age the approach to Moscow that was first set out by the diplomat George Kennan in 1947 and that dominated U.S. strategy through the fall of the Soviet Union.

The administration’s priority is to hold together an international consensus against Russia, including even China.

While Obama’s long-term approach takes shape, though, a quiet debate has roiled his administration over how far to go in the short term. So far, economic advisers and White House aides urging a measured approach have won out, prevailing upon a cautious president to take one incremental step at a time out of fear of getting too far ahead of skittish Europeans and risking damage to still-fragile economies.

The White House has prepared another list of Russian figures and institutions to sanction in the next few days if Moscow does not follow through on an agreement sealed in Geneva on Thursday to defuse the crisis, as Obama aides anticipate.

But the president will not extend the punitive measures to whole sectors of the Russian economy, as some administration officials prefer, absent a dramatic escalation.

The more hawkish faction in the State and Defense departments has grown increasingly frustrated, privately worrying that Obama has come across as weak and sent the message that he has written off Crimea after Russia’s annexation.

Damage will affect Putin

The prevailing view in the West Wing, though, is that while Putin seems for now to be enjoying the glow of success, he will eventually discover how much economic harm he has brought on his country. Obama’s aides noted the fall of the Russian stock market and the ruble, capital flight from the country and increasing reluctance of foreign investors to expand dealings in Russia.

The two sides have not completely cut off ties. U.S. troops and equipment are still permitted to fly through Russian airspace. Astronauts from the two countries are in orbit together at the International Space Station. A joint program decommissioning old Russian weapons has not been curtailed.

“You can’t isolate everything from a general worsening of the relationship and the rhetoric,” said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and an adviser to multiple administrations on Russia and defense policy. “But there’s still very high priority business that we have to try to do with Russia.”

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