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Originally published March 31, 2014 at 5:38 PM | Page modified March 31, 2014 at 6:00 PM

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Guest: Cold War containment is the wrong way to deal with Russia

Isolating Russia in response to its actions in Crimea would be a bad idea, argues guest columnist Glennys Young.

Special to The Times

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THE world leaders, American politicians and intellectuals who clamor for isolating Russia — whether through sanctions or exclusion from international meetings such as the G-8 — advocate a misguided return to the containment policy of the 45-year-long Cold War.

Containment through isolation might seem like the international community’s best bet for stopping future violations of international law after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. After all, didn’t containment win the Cold War and prevent World War III?

That approach might have been appropriate when the Cold War began. Then, the Soviet Union’s leadership subscribed to a Marxist-Leninist ideology that promised socialism’s triumph over capitalism. But the West’s policy of inflicting political, military, diplomatic and even military confrontations did not destroy Soviet communism.

What did were corrosive consequences of domestic reforms launched by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Soviet economic decline amid Western economic dynamism catalyzed Gorbachev’s reforms. But once in motion, Soviet policies of perestroika (the restructuring of the Soviet economy) and glasnost (transparent self-critique of Soviet life, within limits) destroyed Soviet communism from within.

Those reforms inadvertently created successful challenges to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and its role in preserving the Soviet Union. Long term, the Cold War policy that did help to fell Soviet communism was détente — the relaxation of tension that led to discussion on arms control, European security and human rights. Détente contributed to the inadvertent political destabilization that Gorbachev’s reforms produced in the Soviet Union. Containment, on the other hand, dragged the United States into the Korean and Vietnam wars.

If containment didn’t win the Cold War, it makes no sense today. It is a bad idea for at least four reasons.

Would economic sanctions restrain Russia, for example, from occupying more of Ukraine? Because of Russia’s integration into the world economy, the argument goes, President Vladimir Putin would change course when disgruntled oligarchs and ordinary people call for stopping the aggression that brought about their economic hardship. So far, however, evidence is to the contrary. Russia’s oligarchs remain loyal to Putin, whose approval rating is at a five-year high. True, muffled voices of opposition bemoan sanctions’ economic costs. But Putin now has a weapon against such critics. Recently, he asserted that those who oppose his course are traitors seeking to weaken Russia internally and are in cahoots with Western powers.

Containment is also problematic because economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation would push Russian politics, and foreign policy, in a more authoritarian direction. History offers many examples of how isolation makes autocratic regimes more repressive by justifying fears of encirclement. Isolating Russia gives credibility to Russian perceptions of American hostility. It has reinforced Putin’s claim that an American-led conspiracy toppled Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich.

Moreover, containment would cause Russia to forge closer ties with Asia. In last week’s speech, Putin, after denouncing the West, praised China’s and India’s supportive positions on Ukraine. In Tokyo, Putin’s adviser Igor Sechin warned that further isolation by the West would propel Russia more sharply eastward for diplomatic alliances, military contracts and business deals. Moscow has for years negotiated a deal to send gas via pipeline to China. It could be signed when Putin travels to China in May.

Ominously, containment could also lead to military confrontation. Isolating Russia could produce dangerous brinkmanship — post-Cold War versions of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a global system in which international institutions have had limited success in defusing post-Cold War tensions, such gambles are too risky.

If not containment through isolation to curtail Russian expansion and prevent future violations of international law, then what?

The U.S. needs a new framework for a Russia policy based on realistic assumptions in a new global order. What Russia perceives as security needs and reclaiming great power status often trump playing by norms of international conduct.

But Russia is not our enemy. It is a formidable international actor with whom we need to sustain dialogue to continue productive partnerships in areas such as combating terrorism, as well as to broker less than ideal compromises, whether on Syria or Ukraine. Engagement — a kind of post-Cold War détente — might not work. But it is our best hope.

Glennys Young is professor of History and International Studies in the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and the Department of History.

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