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Confronting Confrontation: Is the Isolation of Russia the Right Strategy?


Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by then ambassador Michael McFaul, meets with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in May of last year. (U.S. Department of State)

In a New York Times op-ed last month entitled “Confronting Putin’s Russia,” Michael McFaul, the recently retired U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, channeled frustration over tensions in Crimea into a call for “isolating” Russia. His case, though passionate, appears to rely on some questionable assumptions and prescribes a rather shortsighted approach.

Taking Responsibility

McFaul begins by arguing that, “a revisionist autocratic leader instigated this new confrontation. [The U.S.] did not.” The notion that the U.S. played some kind of secret and nefarious role in promoting mass unrest in Ukraine and Russia is definitely ridiculous, but the U.S. is not entirely blameless.

There are many examples that the Russian Foreign Ministry likes to point to when they talk about U.S. aggression, but a couple stand out. During the 1990 negotiations about Germany’s unification U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised Mikhail Gorbachev that in exchange for his cooperation, NATO would not expand “one inch to the east.” The true meaning of these words is now a matter of debate, but it is clear how the Russian side understood it. Despite Russia’s very public objections, NATO presence grew over the next two decades to include not only Eastern Germany, but all of the Warsaw Pact nations (except Russia), and the former Soviet Baltic Republics on Russia’s border. This was, after all, a military alliance created, albeit in a different era, to confront Moscow’s foreign policy. And here it was growing, for what reason if not to confront Russia? Then, during the Bush administration, the U.S. pressed for setting up missile defense complexes in Eastern Europe, ostensibly to protect against threats from Iran.

Regardless of the intentions of U.S. foreign policy, it would have been naïve to presume that Russia, and especially a career cynic like Vladimir Putin, would be able to overlook its increasingly apparent powerlessness. No imaginary “reset” button could undo a very real military expansion all the way to Russia’s borders.

Russian Rationale

That said, it’s still a stretch to blame the invasion of Crimea on any other actor but Russia. McFaul fittingly identifies Putin’s growing insecurity about his power and popularity as one of the principle drives behind the move towards authoritarianism and a more aggressive foreign policy.

McFaul does not elaborate on the underlying reason for this insecurity, however. In fact, Putin is likely worried about his grip on power because of very practical concerns. Throughout his first two terms, he established an association in the minds of many Russians between eroding political freedoms and growing economic prosperity. Now, that relationship is threatened. Russia’s economy has been shaky since the global financial crisis in 2008, but it became especially apparent this past year, when its economic growth prognosis was revised downwards a total of four times, finally settling on 1.4 percent. With the fracking revolution in the U.S., oil and natural gas, which make up three-fourths of Russian exports, are expected to decline in price. In other words, Russian economic decline is here to stay.

The link between domestic challenges and aggressive foreign policy has been noted many times. Vladimir Putin’s own political career essentially began this way. By sending troops to Chechnya in 1999, a former FSB head with no discernible charisma or economic strategy instantly became a political superstar in a country still reeling from the economic ruin of the 1990s. When Russian forces confronted Georgia in 2008, Putin’s already impressive approval ratings rose above 90 percent. Naturally then, when Russian forces occupied Crimea in March, Putin’s approval ratings shot up nearly 20 percent to a total of 80 percent.


Keeping this relationship in mind, how can the West prevent further conflict? McFaul argues that confronting Russia means isolating it. He is careful to narrow his suggestions to expelling Russia from the G8 and the OSCE and sanctioning elite individuals and organizations, which, while definitely all sensible, are unlikely to cause Putin to change course. At the same time, stronger isolating measures, whether it is NATO mobilization or broader economic sanctions affecting common Russian citizens, would only play into Putin’s evolving anti-Americanism.

McFaul claims that, however hostile relations might become, the advent of the Internet era ensures that, “Russians today will not be as isolated as their grandparents.” This is an awfully optimistic assessment.

State-owned television channels are still the preferred medium for news. Here there is little variety. The last independent cable news channel, TV Rain, was taken off air earlier this year after publishing a controversial poll questioning Soviet strategy in World War II.

Meanwhile, Internet penetration in Russia, though growing, is still somewhere between 53 and 59 percent. The Internet-informed community that does exist is under tremendous pressure. Russia’s year-old “Internet blacklist,” launched to censor child pornography, drug abuse, and suicide advocacy has been liberal enough in its selection criteria to include the websites of political activists with perfectly legal agendas.

After publishing an interview with a far-right Ukrainian nationalist earlier this March, the chief editor of, a highly regarded news site, was fired by Lenta’s nominally independent owner Alexander Mamut. After that, nearly half the staff quit. The following day, the blog of Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and leading opposition politician, was blocked by Russia’s Roskomnadzor, the executive body overseeing the compliance of mass media with the law. Not only was his own blog censored, but major news sites hosting Navalny’s writings, including Russia’s most respected independent media outlet, Echo of Moscow, were temporarily censored as well.

The accumulating examples of Internet and media censorship are too numerous to list. It’s true that the most dramatic examples have come only in recent months, but they are part of a consistent trend that extends all the way back to the early 2000s when Putin first moved to bring the independent media outlets like NTV under government control. Relying on the existence of a few browbeaten and impoverished Internet news sites to connect Russians to the outside world is unrealistic.

It’s probably true that modern technology prevents Putin from ever imposing the kind of information control that existed in the Soviet era, but this kind of censorship is not even ultimately necessary. What matters are not the opinions of a tenacious liberal minority, but the opinions of a majority capable of imposing a culture of political conformity through fear and social pressure. Even at the height of Stalinism, determined Soviet citizens could secretly listen to the U.S.’s Radio Liberty broadcasts, but it did little to alleviate their separation from the rest of the world. Judging by the frenzy of approval ratings and patriotism in Russia, Putin has been quite successful in this endeavor.


McFaul’s isolation of Russia risks alienating and antagonizing common Russian citizens and, paradoxically, prolonging Putin’s career. By refusing to acknowledge the mistakes of American foreign policy in Eastern Europe, McFaul plays into Putin’s caricature of the United States as a self-righteous and hypocritical crusader. McFaul is nevertheless right that the U.S. and its allies should be vocal in their criticism of Russian aggression. Targeted sanctions should be used to create limited political pressure against the regime, but the real pressure has already been mounting for years. As the Russian economy continues to shrivel, Russia’s aggressive foreign policy will be simply unsustainable.

If the U.S. truly wants to pressure Putin, it should continue investing in its already booming energy production to further drive down prices and ease restrictions on energy exports. It should support the efforts of Western energy companies like Chevron to explore potential shale reserves in energy dependent countries like Ukraine. What it does not need to do is commit to a global strategy of ineffective confrontation that risks isolating the citizens who will still be there long after Putin is gone.



Eugene Steinberg

Eugene graduated Tufts University with degrees in International Relations and Quantitative Economics. He works with the editorial team at the Foreign Policy Association on Great Decisions 2014. He is deeply interested in Eastern European affairs, as well as the intersection of politics, technology, and culture. You can follow him on twitter @EugSteinberg