From Isolation to Containment: Washington’s Economic War Against Russia Gets a Rebrand

Foreign Affairs came out  last week with a piece authored by a team from the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that argues for a sustained strategy of “containment” against Russia.

It’s a climb down (at least on the part of the US; judging from comments coming from Europe, they might keep looking to go all in despite a weak hand) from the goal of isolating Moscow and the “ruble is rubble” heyday of the economic war but still seeks to maintain the separation of Europe and other US-dominated states from Russia while drawing more nations to the West’s side.

The CSIS crew are recycling a 75-year-old strategy from George Kennan that no longer fits the geopolitical realities of the world in 2024. One of the few updates the same one we’ve been hearing about for a while, which is that Washington will lean more on its European allies:

A strategy of containment can enable the United States to deter Russia in Europe while still dedicating more resources to deterring China in Asia.

On the bright side, the CSIS crew keeps Kennan’s idea that containment seeking to avoid direct conflict between the US and Russia. On the other hand, it’s telling how little there is that is new in the Foreign Affairs piece, which is filled with bromides like the fact containment “will require different tools, such as support for governance reform and trade.” The path laid out in Foreign Affairs differs little from Washington’s current policies and those it has more or less followed since Kennan first proposed them. While the strategists at Washington think tanks tinker with Kennan’s post-WWII strategy, Russia is busy charting a new course for itself with Asia, Africa, and the BRICS.

Moscow weathered the shock and awe sanctions and is now in certain ways benefitting from the West’s economic warfare.

Russia posted a GDP growth of 3.6 percent in 2023 after contracting 1.2 percent in 2022. The International Monetary Fund expects the economy to continue growing and rise 2.6 percent in 2024. real wages in Russia grew by 7.8 percent in 2023. Compare that to the G7 nations:

Whether it’s called “isolation” or “containment,” Russian transport and logistics continues to be a major target of the sanctions, which means much of this geopolitical struggle revolves around transit and trade.

With Europe wholly dominated by the US, the Foreign Affairs piece argues that  “post-Soviet Eurasia and the rest of the world will be more central.” It’s two years into the economic war against Russia, and this realization is dawning on the thinkers at CSIS – that there is a “rest of the world” outside of the West.

That rest of the world is the reason why Russia not only survived the West’s economic war, but in many areas is actually flourishing. And if the West wants to now try to thwart all these trade links and “contain” Moscow, it has a lot of catching up to do.

Russia’s sea corridors are thriving under Western sanctions, which helped provide the impetus for their implementation. Moscow recently updated the public on its progress on its land corridors, and the same is happening there – especially in the region Foreign Affairs notes is of great importance: “post-Soviet Eurasia.”

The West had a lot of high hopes that the former Soviet states in Central Asia would join the isolation effort. That never came to pass, and the Central Asian states have arguably only grown more integrated with Moscow (and Beijing).

Central Asian Transportation Corridors

Let’s use the all-important Kazakhstan as an example. It plays a major part in transit flow between Russia and China, and that role is set to only grow.

The Russian Ministry of Transport is implementing memorandums of understanding with Kazakhstan and several other countries on the creation of two new transport corridors: The International Transport Corridor (ITC) and the Southern Transport Corridor (STC).

The ITC connects Belarus with Pakistan via Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. Russia, China, and Kazakhstan also just announced an initiative to improve their transport and logistics infrastructure, including a direct transport link connecting Xi’an with Moscow.

Kazakhstan is central to the plans of both Russia and China (as the Foreign Policy Reserch Institute notes, “for China a war over Taiwan would cause a severe economic disruption for Beijing, and the country would need to turn to Central Asia for energy and to keep important supply chains open.”). Those supply chains are now rapidly expanding throughout Central Asia as we see how countries grow closer together in order to defend themselves from Western belligerence. 

It’s not hard to see why both Beijing and Moscow are planning for the West to do everything it can to disrupt Asian integration. As Foreign Affairs noted, “A strategy of containment can enable the United States to deter Russia in Europe while still dedicating more resources to deterring China in Asia.”

The STC is an example of a plan to hedge against these types of “deterrence.” The route, which will connect Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China via the Caspian Sea, could be viewed as a contingency plan in case the shorter Kazakhstan connection is disrupted.

Kazakhstan seems solidly onboard with its central role in Russian and Chinese plans at the moment, but it is also of great interest to the West for the very same reason.

Back in September, Kazakhstan’s president reassured the German chancellor that his country was going to implement sanctions against Russia; the very next day he stated that Kazakhstan was going to further develop trade relations with Russia.

It seems that in the end Kazakhstan sided with its economic interests – as did the rest of the Central Asian countries – after Western sanctions backfired yet again. As former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar writes:

The economic performance of the region in 2023 registered an impressive GDP growth of 4.8%. And Russia contributed to this success story. The Ukraine war led to the vacation of western firms from the Russian market, which created new opportunities for regional states. At the same time, the conditions under sanctions prompted Russian firms and capital and Russian citizens to relocate their businesses to the Central Asian region.

Central Asian entrepreneurs haven’t missed the lucrative opportunities to source Western goods and technology for the Russian market — walking a very tight rope by ensuring compliance with Western sanctions, while also nurturing their interdependence and integration with Russian markets. The recovery of the Russian economy and its 3.6% growth last year created business opportunities for Central Asian countries.

International North-South Transport Corridor 

This route gets a lot of attention, but there are still problems, and its full completion is years away.

The INSTC refers to the use of several routes through the Caucasus-Caspian region and onto Iran and India: Trans-Caspian – through the Russian ports of Astrakhan, Olya, Makhachkala; Eastern – direct railroad connection through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with access to the Iranian railroad network; and Western (Astrakhan – Makhachkala – Samur, and further on through Azerbaijan to Astara station).

The INSTC, which formally opened in 2002, is meant to provide a shorter route than the Suez Canal from Russia and central Asian countries to Iran, the Persian Gulf, India, and Pakistan. The project was largely a dud, but Western sanctions on Iran and Russia (with those on the latter leading to an explosion in trade with India), is revitalizing the route.

The INSTC still has issues to overcome. For one, there is US meddling at key points in the Southern Caucasus that appears designed to throw a wrench in these trade connection plans. There is also the problem of infrastructure in Iran, which is difficult to overcome due to sanctions. Moscow and Tehran are working to overcome these issues, but it will take time as Lana Rawandi-Fadai details at Modern Diplomacy:

On May 17, an intergovernmental agreement was signed in Tehran between Russia and Iran on the construction of the 162 km long Resht-Astara railway line, which is scheduled for completion by 2027. As a result of this route being launched, the transit of freights over the western corridor of the North-South ITC can be increased to the level of 30 million tons, whereas the overall cargo traffic of the ITC will have to increase from 15 million tons today to 41-45 million tons by 2030, and reach 100 million tons in the longer term. Russia is going to invest 1.3 billion euros in the construction of this line. Once the above-mentioned section of the railroad is completed, a through railroad corridor will be formed from Russia to the southern ports of Iran, which will open direct access to the Persian Gulf for Russian freights.

The ultimate goal is to have another route connecting India and Russia with Iran playing a central role. In the meantime, seaborne trade between Russia and India continues to explode.  Over the first eight months of fiscal year 2023/24 ending in March, India’s total exports to Russia rose 46.2 percent. imports climbed 54.8 percent.

In late 2022, Russia shared with India a list of hundreds of items it wanted to import including axles, crankshafts, fasteners, pistons, bumpers, bearings and welding materials. India is now delivering on that request.

India’s engineering items exports to Russia recorded grew 88 percent in December, while for the April-December period they jumped 130 percent.

The ever-tightening US sanctions has complicated Russia-India trade, but they have yet to put much of a dent in its rise. India had been paying for Russian oil in rupees – a non-convertible currency with little value outside India, which was causing consternation in Moscow, but now that India is delivering more engineering items and Russia is able to use those rupees to pay for them, that issue has dissipated.

Asia Financial describes some more of the efforts from New Delhi and Moscow to work around Western sanctions:

Russian officials and oil executives have pressed Indian buyers to pay in Chinese yuan, which for Russia is a more useful currency.

For India, using the yuan is highly sensitive, although Indian private refiners have switched back to the yuan due to the lack of other options since the clash earlier this year, the sources said.Indian state refiners have turned to the UAE dirham, but that has been complicated by additional clearing requirements as Washington’s tougher line makes other governments wary.

From October, several UAE banks have tightened control over Russia-focused clients to ensure compliance with the price cap, according to five oil trading and bank sources. At least two UAE banks have introduced price cap compliance declarations for the clients involved in Russian crude, oil products and commodity trading, the sources said. They declined to name the banks.

Who’s Isolating Containing Who? 

It’s worth taking a quick look at another of Russia’s key trading partners (and NATO member). Trade between Türkiye and Russia has exploded since the West unleashed its economic war against Russia, but hit a speed bump recently, however, following the US’ stronger threat of secondary sanctions in December. Trade was down significantly in both January and February, yet still well above the pre-war average. Türkiye’s exports to Russia in February fell 33 percent year on year while imports from Russia fell 36.65 percent to $1.3 billion.

It is likely the decline will only prove to be temporary as the two countries devise a plan to get around the threat of sanctions. From Reuters:

“It has become difficult to make some energy payments to Russia, especially after the new sanctions (threat) at the end of December. Some payments were disrupted,” a Turkish source familiar with the payments issue said.

“The originally agreed upon method had to be changed or the payment had to be postponed, but the shipment continued. There may be problems on a cargo-by-cargo basis,” the source said.

So again, while the threat of secondary sanctions is causing Russia and other countries to recalibrate, it will not change the overall trend. Far from strengthening US power, these will likely speed up the US decline as they provide encouragement for other countries to reduce their economic dependence on the US. The West is caught in the paradox where the more it tries to isolate Russia, the more lucrative it is to be an intermediary country.

And the more ridiculous and heavy-handed the West’s demands to choose a side become. If we go back to the example of Kazakhstan, imagine how absurd it must be to have US Secretary of State Antony Blinken or French President Emmanual Macron show up asking the country situated to essentially destroy its economy in order to help Washington and Europe isolate or contain Russia. (And the conversation and outcome will likely be much the same, with China in Russia’s place, as the US turns its attention to Beijing.)

On the other hand, the Russian approach has not pressured countries to choose sides and accepts ‘neutral’ stances on the war.

The folly of the West’s strategy seems to be dawning on an increasing number of Western analysts. Here is Alexander Libman, professor of Russian and East European politics at Freie Universität Berlin, who is representative of the trend. He bemoans the inability of the West to isolate Russia for its “unprovoked aggression”, but admits that isolation is impossible:

India and China import commodities from Russia precisely because Western sanctions force Russia to sell these commodities at a discount; Türkiye, the UAE and the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union benefit a lot from the rerouting of trade flows between EU and Russia through their territory. For Chinese companies (e.g., automakers), the exit of Western firms from Russia, along with Western sanctions, became an excellent (and historically unique) tool to acquire new markets: Russia is now the largest importer of Chinese cars in the world.

Certainly, the threat of new sanctions makes some companies from these countries to rethink their engagement with Russia; however, others will then come to take their place, attracted by even more lucrative economic opportunities. This does not mean that this “shadow integration” of Russia into the global world is in any way efficient or superior to how the Russian economy worked before the war. The costs of arbitrage are substantial – meaning that imports to Russia are getting more expensive (or are of lower quality) and Russian exports are sold at a lower price. However, the new model works. …

There are limits to the effectiveness of even the most severe secondary sanctions the West could impose against those willing to trade with Russia. At the very least, these limits are determined by the monitoring capacity not only of the West, but of national governments. In the worst case, Russia’s shadow integration into the world economy could trigger the emergence of alternative payment systems and trade routes that are entirely outside Western control – this would be a substantial blow to Western statecraft in the long run.

Yet, Libman ends his reality check not with calls to abandon such a self-destructive strategy, but with a new rallying cry for the downtrodden Russophobes: that Moscow will likely “self-isolate” through its own missteps. The projection, as it often is with Western analysts, is strong here, but this hope is gaining traction. Here’s a piece from RAND on March 4: “Moscow’s History of Unforced Errors Is the West’s Hidden Advantage.”

This appears to be a variation of the years of media and think tank pieces denigrating the Russian military as drunks fighting with shovels; this idea that Russian officials and diplomats who have outmaneuvered their Western counterparts every step of the way will suddenly forget how to tie their shoes is some magical thinking.

Regardless, the Foreign Affairs piece argues for a subtle shift from shock-and-awe isolation to a longer containment strategy coupled with the hope Russia will self-implode. Key to that plan is that the US execute its long-planned shift of focus to China while leaving Europe to handle point on Russia.

This leads to a series of questions, including:

  • Is there any reason to believe the latter strategy will work better than the first?
  • Is the West even capable nowadays of executing a long term plan on such a scale?
  • Is Europe capable of directing the containment of Russia?
  • Which side is showing more cracks in its foundation and is more likely to crumble? For example, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius recently declared that Europe must prepare for a decades-long conflict with Russia. When one takes a close look at the current state of Germany, can keep from coming apart in ten months, let alone ten years?
  • And lastly, would a US containment policy do more to contain the West than it would Russia?

As Foreign Affairs and others try to update Kennan’s strategy for the decades to come, it’s worth remembering that Kennan himself opposed the militarized form his strategy took on. Often overlooked in his writings on containment were the passages that called on the US to do work at home in order to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”

That element is being ignored in Europe and the US yet again in the most recent iteration of the containment strategy.

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  1. Michaelmas

    Good work, Conor.

    Is the West even capable nowadays of executing a long term plan on such a scale?

    We can look at Boeing for the answer to that.

    As for the poverty of thinking behind the proposed strategy, international relations in the US and much of the West are — alongside economics — largely in the hands of a braindead priesthood. Every ruling class in history has maintained such a priesthood to canonically chant some threadbare justification — the divine right of kings, neoliberalism, whatever — for its rule.

    But no ruling class in history other than that of the US has been so utterly ignorant and arrogant as to give away the source of its power — its industrial base and technology — to potential competitors for the short-term enrichment of some of that elite.

    Is the US the stupidest empire in history?

    1. Ignacio

      As for your question. Probably not. A contest on stupidity would be a very difficult one to win. Look at Europe now, well, no longer empires but yet doing idiotic things to the extreme. Post-empire nostalgic stupidity?

      1. Retired Carpenter

        Perhaps one should not differentiate between the current ruling classes of the West (USA+). Blair, Macron, Biden, Mileikowsky, Ardern, Baerbock, von der Leyen, Pelosi…
        As the French say: “Le génie humain a des bornes, Mais la sottise n’en a pas.
        Retired Carpenter

    2. Mickey Hickey

      I would give the title of stupidest empire in history to the British. The USA would be in the top ten stupidest empires in history. The over financialized West is what Mao Tse Tung called a paper tiger although in the 1960s’ MTT was ahead of his times. Who could have foreseen that Europe would become a rag doll within 50 years. Olaf Scholz on orders from Biden cuts off imports of affordable Russian Natural Gas ensuring bankruptcy for Germany and the EU. I have what my Irish mother called over intelligent and over educated German relatives who support Olaf Scholz’s destructive policies in Germany and the EU. Countries like Germany usually self destruct, too big to be invaded but not big enough to forge an independent path.

    3. spud

      “The argument for pure free trade is built on sand and is almost wholly intellectually bankrupt if it is supposed to be describing the world in which we live. A longer analysis is here. This theoretical incompetence in neoclassical and Austrian economics on the issue of free trade is accompanied by a blockheaded ignorance of the real-world success of protectionism (see Bairoch 1993; Chang 2002 and 2008; Hudson 2010; Reinert 2007).

      The argument for free trade would be a joke, if it didn’t have such disgusting and terrible consequences for real human beings.

      Look at the images of Detroit here and weep. This once prosperous city has been wrecked by the cult of free trade.”

  2. ciroc

    Unable to overcome Russia, the West has begun to shift to a confrontation with the more powerful China. Seriously?

    1. JonnyJames

      It’s all part of the same long-term policy. This seems like standard-issue hubris of a decaying, corrupt empire.

    2. CA

      “Foreign Affairs piece argues for a subtle shift from shock-and-awe isolation to a longer containment strategy coupled with the hope Russia will self-implode. Key to that plan is that the US execute its long-planned shift of focus to China while leaving Europe to handle point on Russia.”

      The US shift to containing China began formally with the Wolf Amendment in April 2011, and has become fiercer ever since. Nonetheless, China has gone about becoming ever less contained since 2011. The just concluded Chinese national policy and planning congress showed just how determined China is to be internationally active, from space exploration to food and energy self-sufficiency to manufacturing advance and trade.

    3. vao

      Just throwing an idea into the discussion: confronting Russia appears to be a painful and expensive setback for NATO, which is losing its appetite for continuing the fight against the bear.

      Confronting China directly does not look promising — because of China’s economic might, the reluctance of Asian countries to be involved in a conflict, China geographic remoteness, the risk of North Korea’s involvement, etc.

      On the other hand, there have been plenty of moves in Africa in the past decade — China moving in economically, Turkey economically and politically (witness Libya), Russia moving in militarily and economically, the USA reinforcing its military presence, France being booted out militarily, economically, and diplomatically… And Africa is the last frontier for the exploitation of mineral and agricultural resources.

      What if Africa will be the actual battlefield, just like, during the 1st Cold War, the Third World was, when the USA carefully avoided to confront the USSR directly, and refrained from confronting China again after the disastrous experience in Korea?

  3. Chris Maden

    The West’s “billigerent” stance.

    Hmmm… So Ukraine welcomed in Russian tanks two years ago, Taiwan and the SE Asian nations that border the South China Sea would willingly forego their claims to that sea, etc., if only the West would shut up?

    Thus constant glee your newspaper takes in the West’s supposed decline seems to take a very rose-tinted view of some countries where you’d be jailed for expressing those same views if the expression “the West” were replaced with “BRICS”.

    The trouble is, this detracts from the important part of your analysis, which is the weaponisation of the global financial system in particular, and the degneration of capitalism in general. Focus on that, and I’d take the article and your newspaper a lot more seriously.

    1. The Rev Kev

      ‘The West’s “billigerent” stance.’

      Say, do you remember the time when the Russians spent billions of dollars to organize a putsch in Mexico and have that country taken over by a fascist regime? And that fascist regime was bombing and shooting thousands of Americans on the other side of the Rio Grande for nine straight years? And that it was only a matter of time until the Russians stationed nuclear-tipped missiles on the Mexican-US border? No? Me neither. I must be thinking of another place.

    2. timbers

      “Thus constant glee your newspaper takes in the West’s supposed decline seems to take a very rose-tinted view of some countries where you’d be jailed for expressing those same views if the expression “the West” were replaced with “BRICS”.”


      Russia: 400 people arrested for social media posts. Britain: 3300 people arrested for social media posts

      You seem to think the West is “free” and not in decline due to it’s weaponisation of weapons (only finance). Guess you haven’t yet heard of Gaza or Ukraine or Taiwan or Iraq or Syria or Libya or Pakistan or Iran or Yemen or Vietnam or the Balkans or…That may be your gleeful rose tinting.

    3. britzklieg

      No one actually cares how “seriously” you take anything. Remind me again, who are you?

    4. .Tom

      Now I know that feeling I get reading the news and what it’s likely to mean to me isn’t anxiety bordering on panic but glee.

    5. Paris

      Your comment is not that bad (say, last paragraph is correct), but to say that Russian “aggression” was unprovoked… man, are you hiding in a cave? Where have you been for the past 2 years?

      1. Amfortas the Hippie

        or 30?
        or an hundred?
        antirussianism has been a constant in the West…at least among the Boss Class…like, forever.

        1. JonnyJames

          Very true, even otherwise very objective writers like Craig Murray apologized to his readers that he got the Ukraine/Russia issue partly wrong. Subcounscious bias may be present even in the most critical western observers, but I’m no psychologist.

          Anti-eastern bias in general may even go back to the Roman Empire: the Greek East and the Latin West. The Great Schism of 1054 and the sack of Constantinople in 1203/4 was another watershed event that contributed to the east/west divide.

          Then in the 20th century we have Boris Badenov, and his evil sidekick Natasha.,vid:4txmBNCAXg8,st:0

          1. Belle

            I have an idea for a book on Russophobia and how certain dead people contributed to it, and how they affect the world today. It would be called “Dead Hands”. A tentative list of those covered would be:
            -Cardinal Humbert of Sylvia Candida (Launched the East-West Schism)
            -Viscount Palmerston (Crimean War and the Great Game)
            -C. I. Scofield (helped promote dispensational theology, literally demonizing Russians)
            -Leon Trotsky (Neoconservatives and popularizing world revolution)
            -Winston Churchill (British Empire)
            -Adolf Hitler (Nazis past and present)
            -Harry Truman (Launched Cold War)
            -Bobby Fischer (Politicized Cold War sport)
            -Ronald Reagan (Influential in popular image of Cold War)
            -Boris Berezovsky (Oligarch critic who helped establish Putinophobia with Russophobia.)
            -Zbignew Brzezinski (Continuity behind the scenes and between parties)
            Each person would have some chapters on tangents from what each individual did.

            1. Polar Socialist

              In principle the East-West schism started as South-North schism: the original thinking was that south was civilized and north was barbaric – this idea was still strong in the 18th century.

              In the 9th century the Italian bishops did want to follow the “original” Eastern rite, but Charlemagne and his successors more or less forced the Western (that is German) rite on them – eventually by threatening with “or else” which triggered the Great Schism as it is known in the church history.

              Most of the Christendom at the time didn’t notice any schism, since it only affected the topmost layers of the church. And majority of the Christendom was located in the Eastern Europe and West Asia anyway and couldn’t care less about the status of the bishop of Rome.

              The first proper Russophobes were the Baltic Germans (there’s that word again, odd…) who were threatened by the Russian expansion during the reign of Ivan IV Vasilyevich. Hoping to get help they started a massive propaganda campaign in Germanic Europe and every new wave of Russophobia has repeated literally the same propaganda ever since.

              Getting back to where I started, it was mostly at the end of the 18th century when the western thinkers and writers rotated the schism and announced that West is civilized and East is barbaric – the same East that had transmitted the wisdom of the antique to the West… The West has always been exceptionally good at both self-promotion and self-delusion.

    6. Altandmain

      The Russian speaking parts of Ukraine did indeed welcome Russian tanks. They saw them as liberators. If anything, as people like Scott Ritter, who recently returned from a trip from Russia, where they visited the Donbass, they wished that they had joined Russia with Crimea back in 2014.

      If anything, more areas of what was Ukrainian Donbass and now a part of Russia wanted to join the Russians than the Russian military was prepared to defend, hence the need for a mobilization later in 2022.

      Also, dissent in Russia and China are permitted. People criticize Putin all the time at home. Evidently, the poster also does not read Chinese social media, where the CPC is heavily criticized.

      The difference is intent. The people who criticize at home want their nations to grow stronger and better. The Western criticism is designed to lead the nations they criticize to ruin, by appointing Western puppets so that the West can loot those nations and put their preferred puppets in charge. That’s also because the West desperately wants these nation’s to fail to hold onto their hegemony.

  4. Froghole

    Now that Nuland has been evacuated from the Administration, it appears that Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ is gaining traction with the preferment of Campbell and Bass.

    It seems that the sotto voce abandonment of Ukraine by the US is part of a wider strategy – one shared by Trump – to split China from Russia, to co-opt Russia after a decent interval, and to surround China, which so many perceive as Russia’a wire-puller.

    I fear this strategy, if true, is dangerously misconceived. It has its origins in the enduring deficit which the US has to China. Even if the subordination of Europe to the US as a vent for high-cost US energy exports will reduce the overall US deficit, it will still not offset the deficit which the US has to China; it will only mitigate it. Moreover, the subordination of Europe to the US (and its function as a vent) only remains credible if Russia remains hostile; but keeping Russia in a state of hostility will militate against it being split from China.

    The US presumably feels that it needs to attempt to resolve its deficits with China given the present trajectory of de-dollarisation and the risk that a tipping point will be reached which would result in the US being drowned in its own external liabilities.

    Moreover, how plausible will it ever be to split Russia from China? What does the US have to offer Russia that is significantly more appealing to Moscow than anything which China has to offer? Even if the US did have more to offer Russia than China, would it really be credible for Russia to abandon China when Chinese economic and political penetration of the Central Asian former SSRs has effectively extended the already indefensible Sino-Russian political frontier by another 7,600km? See here: The sheer length of this frontier now effectively locks Russia and China together. It, and the relative economic and demographic weakness of Russia, makes it impossible for the two nations to disengage from each other save upon calamitous terms for Russia. Russia has *perhaps* pivoted permanently eastwards. Moreover, the increasing affiliation of China and Russia creates an enormous geostrategic gravity which inevitably pulls much of Mackinder’s ‘world island’ into its orbit – and we see this with the collapse of much Western influence in the Middle East and Africa. The Sino-Russian understanding also prevents the encirclement of China to its north and west, and gives it enormous strategic strength in depth (as well as discounted commodities), which then permits it to concentrate its forces along its Pacific littoral (against the US).

    This, then, makes it somewhat implausible for the China hawks in Washington to isolate China, and it also makes a revival of containment policies unlikely. Moreover, even if Russia could be detached from China, given the vast increase in the wealth and strategic capacity of China since the late 1970s, any attempt to essay a revival of containment would surely be ruinously expensive for the US. It would entail even greater increases in defence expenditure at the expense of civilian investment. Presumably no US administration would wish to contemplate the much higher taxes necessary to fund this, so presumably it would need to be financed by a mixture of unpopular cuts to social programmes, increased debt and economic predation – specifically against the new European vent (which risks instability within Europe). It is a project which just doesn’t seem to stack up.

    Wouldn’t peaceful co-existence be ever so much less disruptive at home and abroad, and also far cheaper? Isn’t it now time for at least three powers (China, Russia and the US) at the top table?

    1. John

      Exactly! That is what the rational foresee and that is what will happen more or less peacefully if those wedded to hegemony can be brought to sobriety and reason. There is no sign of that. Giving up on Ukraine only to emphasize China is deranged.

      1. Froghole

        Many thanks. The other fantasy is that massively increased expenditure on containment will be on the back of a generation of stagnating living standards, and it will be inflationary (the public will be that much more sensitive to inflation as so many are defined contribution pensioners with no indexation protection, and given so many of them haven’t had a real pay rise for aeons). The diversion of resources to containment will also be prejudicial to civilian investment, and so will make the stagnation worse.

        So in order to preserve a hegemony which cannot be preserved, are Western governments (who remain accountable to their own electorates) really willing to shred economic stability and social peace at home and expect to get re-elected?

        Or is it that they really believe that military Keynesianism will somehow offset the costs of containment and provide an economic fillip, as during the 1940s and 1950s when the West controlled almost all of the Global South? If they really believe this, then they need their heads read.

        What this points to is the profound failure of the study of IR at universities, when (even accounting for the slow rise of IPE) few students of IR really have any knowledge of welfare systems or domestic economics. As such, they too often perceive that foreign policy is somehow detached from domestic policy, when most of the time foreign policy is a mere outgrowth of domestic policy.

        Kennan had effectively repudiated his own containment theory by about 1958 – little more than a decade after he first adumbrated it. He felt that the communist world was not as aggressively expansionist as hitherto supposed, and that fear of communism was fast becoming a ramp for a military-industrial complex which was running away with itself and debauching the domestic political system. Of course, containment was extremely expensive the first time around, when the West still had substantive control over the Global South, and then when it could reduce spending by relying on the impact of the Sino-Soviet split. However, China and Russia were reconciled in 1989 (well before the pact of 2001) precisely because the Soviets needed to reduce military spending on their southern flank. How vastly more expensive will containment be this time around on the back of a generation of negligible growth, exploding superannuation/care costs as the boomers retire and move into nursing homes, and the West having lost access to the discounted commodities from the Global South on which its prosperity has been based for the last 500 years?

        1. Amfortas the Hippie

          excellent summation, Froghole.
          as all this drags on, it seems more and more that the western elites really have been smoking their own stash…or worse, have some sort of death drive built in to their hive mind(like a samson option).
          i cant think of anything else at all to explain their behavior….unless they are all russia/china manchurian candidates….
          a death cult seems far more likely than that, though.

          and, a side note…just a lil while ago, i spoke to an actual frog in a hole, on my rounds with the stirrup hoe and murdering baby maximillion sunflowers.
          (he sez Hi)

          1. Robert Gray

            > … murdering baby maximillion sunflowers.

            Not familiar with specifically maximillion sunflowers, and given the context, i.e., your murdering them, I first thought that this was perhaps Texan for ‘dandelions’. :-) Then I found them on that internet.

    2. rkka

      “It seems that the sotto voce abandonment of Ukraine by the US is part of a wider strategy – one shared by Trump – to split China from Russia, to co-opt Russia after a decent interval, and to surround China, which so many perceive as Russia’s wire-puller.”

      I agree that this could be the Anglosphere’s strategy.

      The reasons it simply won’t work are two.

      1) The Russian government know to the marrow of their bones, that the Anglosphere hate them far more than they fear PRC.

      2) The Russian government know from the post WWII historical experience that were they inclined to assist the Anglosphere to defeat the PRC, not only would they pay the majority of the butcher’s bill in ground combat, but the Anglosphere would turn on them the instant the PRC were defeated with Russian assistance.

      So the Russian government are not going to find the prospect of this Anglosphere-Russian alliance appealing.

    3. Polar Socialist

      It seems that the sotto voce abandonment of Ukraine by the US is part of a wider strategy – one shared by Trump – to split China from Russia, to co-opt Russia after a decent interval, and to surround China, which so many perceive as Russia’a wire-puller.

      It’s often pointed out outside mainstream that for The West Ukraine originally was about removing Putin from power and somehow replace* him with Yeltsin 2.0 thus isolating China. Just one of the steps in the China policy.

      Even the slowest of the China hawks are starting to understand that Ukraine has become a resource drain and even NATO is getting weaker by the week while that coveted regime change will be further away than ever before after the election this week**. Better cut the losses and focus on the main target.

      * for some reason it’s always about one, single person for The West. I don’t think the Russian political system is capable of producing another Yeltsin anymore.
      ** for those who like good trolling ( It’s an advertisement for the Russian presidential election.

  5. DJG, Reality Czar

    1. Is there any reason to believe the latter strategy [containment] will work better than the first [sanctions and proxy wars]?
    Former ambassador Elena Basile has just published a book in Italy with the theme that the West wants a permanent enemy, that the West can’t accommodate multipolarism, and that the military becomes the only solution to the ills of the West. Containment is just as absurd as sanctions and proxy wars. Answer: No.

    2. Is the West even capable nowadays of executing a long term plan on such a scale?
    The first half of the post describes building of railroads on a scale completely unknown for years in the U S of A and Canada. Here in Italy, there are still big plans for the highly successful railway system. If the “West” is the rickety transport systems of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., why ask this question? On the other hand, the many plans in Italy to build train lines and subway extensions mean only that the Italians are still capable of long-term thinking–but then in Italy 100 years is a short historical period. Answer: No.

    3. Is Europe capable of directing the containment of Russia?
    The Mediterranean countries have no real need to contain Russia. Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey? Montenegro and Slovenia? So the question becomes, what about the panic-stricken Northerners, you know, the Serious and Thrifty Crowd. Finland? Estonia? Rule Britannia? Don’t count on it. Estonia wants someone else to do it. Likewise, Finland, Et cetera. Answer: No.

    4. Which side is showing more cracks in its foundation and is more likely to crumble?
    I hesitate to bring this up, but the Northerners, with their strong sense of their own superiority (U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Poles (when they aren’t snivelling)), are showing signs of stress. I won’t predict crumbling, because I am not a prophet. Further, authoritarian countries like Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have many internal stresses that are covered over. Answer: Who knows? Anyone who has worked in a U.S. business knows that bad management and fear of problem solving can go on virtually forever. Conversely, who knew that the Czechoslovak communist state would collapse so easily?

    5. And lastly, would a US containment policy do more to contain the West than it would Russia?
    The U.S. “containment” policy is designed to inflict harm. Cuba. Iran. It has caused real inconveniences for them. The question becomes: Why should Americans support a government that is inflicting harm on others, neglecting the home front (where are all of those new train lines?), and engaging in spectacular corruption (Nancy Pelosi, capitalist wealth manager)? Answer: It is the U.S. populace that is being contained.

  6. The Rev Kev

    I think that it is clear that right now the US is re-configuring itself to start confronting China and Nuland’s departure was a sign of this. Of course this will take months to do so things won’t really heat up until next year. It does not matter if the Democrats or the Republicans are in charge then as this is a uniparty policy so will be done. So I am thinking how this isolation-slash-containment policy would play out in practice.

    Europe has been wrecked so though US aircraft, troops and ships may harass the Russians, they will not confront them nor will they allow lunatics like Macron to get them involved in a shooting war. The place will be let to simmer on a high temperature. But this brings up the question of the Eurasian mainland where this massive region is being integrated between Russia, China and all those Republics which see themselves being able to get a much better economy. So I think that this will be the US playbook.

    First they will threaten any country that has any dealings with this BRICS entity and already Washington has reportedly warned Austria’s banking giant Raiffeisen over its operations in Russia. It will be that you are either with us or against us. This will be done against big countries like India as well. There will be lawfare attacks with the approval of the G-7 of course and the G-20 will be degraded as they have not lined up behind the Collective West.

    But the US will also finance, train and arm any number of nationalist or jihadist groups to attack this BRICS infrastructure and Brian Berletic reports this happening already against Chinese infrastructure and workers. Nothing like a bunch of terrorist groups to destabilize things – if it works long term. But I imagine that the Chinese and Russians will be prepared to deal with this as they have been training together for years now.

    I do not think that any of this will work in the end for a very good reason. All those BRICS nations are commodity-based nations and countries like China and Russia are technologically and industrially advanced. The Collective West, however, is financially based and produced nothing much of value and when the music ends for the west, that is when the lights get turned off.

    1. John k

      Yes, the us needs the rest more than the rest needs the us, witness the us 1.1T trade deficit that us funds with debt.
      Granted a reserve currency facilitates trade, but how many $ does row need for that? Plus BRICS are beginning to show they can manage without so many… and perhaps trade flows are more important for general prosperity than capital flows?
      And China is showing rapid increases with tiny chips, maybe big planes will be the next disruptor, especially as growth is in row and Boeing has growing quality issues.
      Russia seems likely to be a big arms competitor, who wouldn’t like a few s300/400 defense missiles to discourage gunboat diplomacy? S America?
      Imo us should focus on fixing stuff at home rather than disrupting others, but not gonna happen no matter which unacceptable candidate wins.

  7. Lefty Godot

    Containment was based on the perception that Communism was an expansionary ideology that would never be satisfied until it had promoted Marxist-Leninist revolutions in every country. Whether that perception was very close to reality in the first two decades after World War II, there isn’t any comparable threat now. Russia and China and Iran are all nationalistic, not ideologically driven, and their military concerns have to do with possible adversaries on or near their own borders, rather than being worldwide. What is the big expansionary threat we would be containing now? Free trade that we were promoting a dozen or so years back? The Belt and Road Initiative?

    The only thing the US has to offer the world now is the unlimited printing press for dollars that it uses to bribe pet foreign leaders and chosen members of the international nomenklatura. It will almost certainly keep using that to create hostile situations (color revolutions, ethnic guerrilla movements, religious terrorism, etc.) on the borders of Russia, China, and Middle Eastern countries, all in the name of “democracy” and “human rights” and other such airy phrases. At least until the neoconservative and neoliberal apparatchiks are purged from our government and saner people take over their positions. But if that is going to happen, it seems a way off yet.

  8. JonnyJames

    Indeed, hubris and short-sighted greedhave spurred the US into more failed policy. This has resulted in the US isolating itself, bombing and sanctioning itself into a corner.

    The Pivot to Asia (Brzezinski) Containment/Isolation “Cordon Sanitaire” policies have backfired and will continue to fail..

    A reckless, declining empire full of corruption and hubris has already, and is going to engage in more reckless actions. The policy of the US appears to be total hegemony or total destruction. Nuclear First Strike is official doctrine and treaties like ABM, NPT, INF etc. treaties have been torn up. Diplomatic relations between Russia and the US are even WORSE than during the USSR days.

    Also, what I can’t understand: since the US has de-industrialized, if the conflict escalates to total economic embargos, or even military confrontation, where is the US going to get its consumer goods? The US economy would likely collapse, or am I missing something?

    1. John Steinbach

      NPT is still in force with a Review Conference every 5 years. However the last several RCs have ended in disarray & NPT is well on the way to becoming a “dead letter”. The ROW is demanding that the nuclear powers live up to their treaty obligations to disarm.

    2. Amfortas the Hippie

      embargoes against the usa is what im waiting for to batten down the hatches…and with the apparent pivot to asia implied in things like nuland retiring, we’ll poke the dragon pretty soon.
      (i note: it was hard enough learning to sound out cyrillic,lol…i dont know that i have the bandwidth for doing the same with all those squiggles and tic-tac-to grids—like arabic…i find that i can tease out meaning from ancient greek, or even gaelic better,lol)
      it says on the bar fridge right over there: war with china, china cuts off trade to usa, walmart closes, war ends.
      They’ve been studiously and patiently(but with remarkable rapidity) building up their fan base/trading networks to be able to do without us…above my paygrade how close they are to being able to kick us to the curb….but i think its in their playbook…for when they’re ready…and we go too far.

  9. jrkrideau

    A couple of silly comments.

    Are Foreign Affairs and the Rand Corp in competition for the “Lewis Carroll Prize For Creative Writing” ?

    I tend to view the Cuban Missile Cris as a clear win for the USSR. Khrushchev got those missiles out of Turkey and Italy. That was the reason for sending missiles to Cuba in the first place. Since the Soviet Gov’t was not popularly elected, they did not need public credit. they were fine with JFK getting kudos.

    In a more serious vein, do these people actually believe what they are writing? It is a rhetorical question I have asked here before. Back in early 2022, I thought they were propagandists, now more and more I am coming to think they really believe this nonsense. The more I think this the more terrified I become. They make MAGA supporter seem calm and rational.

  10. Skip Intro

    Containment is not the only Golden Oldie these neocons are rebooting. The Domino Theory is also big again, with Ukraine being the first domino, ready to sweep the Baltics and even Poland.

    The current Yemeni sanctions against Israeli genocide and its collaborators also seem like a challenge for the idea of ‘containing’ Russia and China.

  11. CA

    “From Isolation to Containment: Washington’s Economic War Against Russia Gets a Rebrand” — Conor Gallagher

    Really nice essay. I am grateful.

  12. Starry Gordon

    If it is military conflict the US needs and desires, perhaps the possibilities of civil war should not be forgotten. After all, there are a lot of Americans talking about it.

  13. Kalen

    Another excellent piece. It is astonishing that political elites and their oligarchic backers are so ignorant about how real economy especially Russian economy works. Most of sane economists know that once Russian secured their food supplies by internal production, energy and developed solid industrial and intellectual base crashing Russian economy became impossible without nuclear war. It was not accident but deliberate Putin’s policy since 2014. As far as Russian trading routes are concerned already functioning Northern Arctic Route is another blow to US desires to isolate Russia as it is Russia that have naval supremacy over those seas.

    West massively lost its economic war suffering huge defeat that irreversibly damaged western economies. All of that on the top of deep self inflicted wounds like de facto forced dedollarization of world trade and hastening growth of BRICS which soon will control 90% of world crude oil promoting non dollar trades.

    All of that mountain of unforced policy errors already amounted to breaking US/western political and economic hegemony and losing its “premium” US enjoyed for at least eight decades.

    Since last year US traders found that they have to agree to much less beneficial and more equitable deals in fact also fueling US inflation and also resulting in outflows of foreign capital FED de facto is fighting by maintaining relatively high interests rates to attract global investors.

    Amid US financial blackmail and threats against world economies and serious considerations seizing Russian Central Bank assets dollar confidence is at decades low significantly trouncing dollar hegemony as investment currency now despite the fact that substantial alternative has not been found yet. But US financial system has been already weaken by series of belligerent counterproductive measures that even western bankers oppose. It is hard not to describe western policies as chaotic or panicky based on delusions of ignorant political elites.

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