New Containment: More NATO Expansion by Another Name

A new proposal in Foreign Affairs offers us just more of the same failed policies towards Russia.

The Simone Weil Center’s Symposium on ‘Containment 2.0’

On March 6, 2024, there appeared in Foreign Affairs a noteworthy article. Penned by four authors (Max Bergmann, Michael Kimmage, Jeffrey Mankoff, and Maria Snegovaya), the article is titled “America’s New Twilight Struggle with Russia: To Prevail, Washington Must Revive Containment.” 

As the article’s title makes clear, the authors are calling on the U.S. to return, in its relations with today’s Russian Federation, to essentially the same multi-faceted (and costly) global strategy of resistance to the USSR that was recommended, back in 1947, by George Kennan.

Whatever its possible weaknesses, such a policy has at least the clear benefit of not requiring fundamental changes in how anyone thinks about international politics — one is almost tempted to say that the proposal doesn’t require thought tout court. Western military alliances, Western think tanks, Western politicians, can simply let inertia continue to carry them forward, and as they do so, carry along with them the rest of the world. 

Will that be a good thing, however — for us, for the world at large? In an effort to mount a serious response to this enormously consequential question, we put out an appeal to our associated scholars and friends of the Simone Weil Center. Over the coming weeks, we will be publishing their responses in Landmarks.  

–  Paul Grenier 

The proposal for a “new American twilight struggle with Russia” and a “new containment” policy which recently appeared in Foreign Affairs offers us nothing more than a continuation of the policy that has already led to the NATO-Russia Ukrainian War – NATO expansion. The co-authors are in effect calling on the West to double, triple, and quadruple down on stupid on an even grander scale. 

After all, what, in effect if not intent, has been the policy of NATO expansion right up to Russia’s borders? Answer: a de facto ‘New Containment.’ The ‘post-Cold War’ New Containment based on NATO expansion and the attendant policies employed in order to achieve it – democracy-promotion, colour revolutions, economic sanctions,  the arming and equipping of Islamist and nationalist extremists in ‘target countries’ – led directly to the ‘New Cold War,’ as well as to the ongoing NATO-Russia Ukrainian War, and a series of preceding wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Georgia, Libya, and Syria. Now four Foreign Affairs authors are proposing an extension and expansion of post-Cold War New Containment in what will be the creation of global Containment 2.0 motivated once again by the pursuit of a now elusive American hegemony and the quest for total security by way of NATO expansion (or ‘integration into Western institutions’) and another escalation of the New Cold War. 

Containment 2.0’s geography, according to the authors’ concept, marks “the most important difference” from Containment 1.0, under which NATO was the lead mechanism. New containment’s geography should not encompass Europe “primarily,” as the old containment did. Instead, “post-Soviet Eurasia and the rest of the world will be more central.” In other words, as its focus, the West’s Containment 2.0 should substitute Europe with all of Eurasia, in reality Great Eurasia — MacKinder’s “World Island” — stretching east-west from China to the English Channel, and north-southfrom the Indian Ocean to the Arctic. The entire globe becomes the outer concentric circle of the core area of interest and a secondary area of economic, political, developmental (colour revolution/democracy-promotion), intelligence, and military operations. The key “flash points” are located along “Russia’s western periphery” as they have been ever since NATO began to expand after the Cold War. The West should work on integrating “Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine” (GUAM becomes GUAAM) into “Western institutions” – i.e. NATO (and the EU) – while “checking Russian influence in Central Asia” (and Africa).  

Outside Eurasia, the authors recommend military action to “contest Russian influence outside Europe” as a secondary strategy. There, Containment 2.0 should “primarily” deploy “development assistance, trade, and investment.” Thus, a West that is less robust and dominant economically than when it inaugurated Kennan’s Containment 1.0 in the post-World War II years will be expanding its sphere of ‘vital’ interests or domination to the entire globe, thereby expending even greater financial and military resources. This is being recommended in the aftermath of what is emerging as a failed effort to expand its domination to Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine, sparking wars and chaos in the bargain. Although this expansion and overextension would be merely making explicit and declared what has already been the implicit and undeclared policy in Washington, London, and Brussels since the Cold War’s end, it suggests a more intensive effort in its geographical, operational, financial, and budgetary dimensions. 

The authors are aware that the international context of the New and Old Containments differ, but they are not aware enough. They note that just as during the First Cold War, the West will face off in the Second Cold War against not just Russia but also China as well. But they pass over the facts that China is far more powerful economically than the USSR was, that there is no Sino-Soviet rift offering opportunities for peeling one of them off from their tight  geopolitical near-alliance, and that China and Russia are proving far more adept than were Russian and Chinese communists at rallying powerful states in vitally important regions such as the Middle East and the Arab and Muslim worlds and indeed elsewhere across the world’s continents.  BRICS+ is never mentioned, nor is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Yet the former has attracted three Middle Eastern states that the authors hope to rely on in the region. Most disturbingly, the authors also fail to note or consider important that a fundamental “novelty of the present moment” compared with the onset of the First Cold War and Containment 1.0 is that today NATO is already deeply involved in – is effectively a combatant-party – in a European war against Containment’s target.

What will be the mechanisms to implement Containment 2.0? One can be sure that one, if not the leading one will be that very same NATO at war with Russia in Ukraine. A return to and expansion of ‘out-of-area operations’ will be ensured, and the transformation of NATO into a global rather than a European military alliance is all but certain. The opening of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization office in Japan was the first toll of that bell. Cooperation between NATO, AUKUS and QUAD will grow and be subject to being parlayed into the formation of a global NATO by some other name. NATO expansion’s internal logic of eternal expansion – the need to secure new, newer, and newest ‘flanks’ – will be locked in as a result of the proposed Containment 2.0.

The authors’ policy would mean the West would eschew seeking a modus vivendi, a mutually acceptable security architecture with Russia or any agreement regarding Ukraine. This proposal demonstrates that many in Washington intend to persist in expanding NATO “irrespective of how the war in Ukraine ends.” Indeed, the authors think that “even if Ukraine does not achieve total victory on the battlefield, it could nevertheless be integrated militarily and politically with the West”! Pursuit of a Containment 2.0 will lock in confrontation and likely also further military conflict with Russia, whether through proxies or otherwise, and so perhaps with China as well.  Of particular importance is another result that follows from the authors’ typical, for Washington, lack of self-awareness. They ignore that the project of insisting on NATO expansion to Russia’s borders, a project which was pursued for over a quarter of a century, revived what is typically called ‘Russian paranoia,’ but what is in reality a quite rational security vigilance strain in Russia’s strategic and political culture in respect to the West.

Historically, divisive cultural and political influences, interference in Russia’s domestic affairs, interventions of various sorts, and numerous military invasions from the West have taught Russians to distrust the very West they have often sought to emulate. The post-Cold War era has seen this pattern repeat, with the revival and renewed dominance of Russia’s traditional security vigilance culture vis-a-vis the West after having gone through a period, during perestroika and the post-perestroika 1990s, when Russia’s traditional security culture had receded into the background.  This is the result of the West having rejected the path of a strong, not open-ended but sufficient, American and Western security order enveloped in a balanced global security architecture. 

The West’s relentless post-Cold war pursuit of a ‘new world order’ of maximal American power, dominance, and hegemony across the globe has its very own emblem: it is the emblem of NATO. Intensifying NATO expansion in the form of Containment 2.0 will exacerbate these trends, entailing still more escalation in the relationship as Russians become even more convinced that the rationale of their security vigilance norm vis-à-vis the West is the correct path, even a special Russian calling. This will inspire a new, even an official state ideology in Russia and perhaps elsewhere that will be anchored in animosity toward the West. In the West itself, the escalating, already partly hot New Cold War will lead to further enlargement and authoritarianization under the national security state. 

The Containment 2.0 proposal further confirms my own suspicions that the slogan ‘long war’ in relation to the NATO-Russia Ukrainian War is the product of the aspirations among certain elements in Washington that the Ukrainian war be dragged out, because this is to the West’s advantage. Regardless of the risks of escalation, they believe the West must prolong some form of armed resistance to Russia in Ukraine. Indeed, as the authors put it, “Containment should be implemented “for as long as necessary,”[emphasis mine – GH] and “Ukrainian victory” is “a long-term goal.”  They appear to define ‘victory’ as “(f)orcing Russia to abandon all or most of the territory it has occupied.” But the authors propose no new specific strategies or tactics for how to defeat Russia in Ukraine or how to “push the Russian threat farther from Europe’s borders” – other, that is, than by sending insufficient military aid packets from Europe of $50 billion and the still-unapproved American packet of $60 billion. This means continuing the war ‘to the last Ukrainian’ for as long as it takes for Russian forces to reach the Polish border. After Kiev’s defeat in conventional war, it will require proceeding to build and sustain a partisan insurgency movement in any post-war pro-Russian or occupied Ukraine or rump neutral Ukraine. 

The long war is designed not only for the domestic political purpose of holding off a full collapse of the Ukrainian front until America’s November election. No, this next ‘twilight struggle’ must last as long as it takes to achieve ‘regime change’ in ‘Putin’s Russia,’ or, failing that, the West’s hoped for succession crisis in Russia could provide another opening for making good on the West’s ‘right’ to expand NATO to Ukraine and beyond.

Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D.,, Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics,, Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, Author of five books on Russian and Eurasian Politics.