04/08/2014 03:16 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

Getting "Containment" Right This Time

In his 1947 Foreign Affairs article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," George F. Kennan wrote that the Soviet Union's political action was "a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power." The Soviet Union's descendant, Vladimir Putin's Russia, is following a limited, but similar, course. Crimea was the nook in Ukraine available to the Russian stream, and Putin might decide to search for similarly vulnerable crannies in other former Soviet republics and satellite states.

If during the next few months it appears that the Crimean move was more than an isolated maneuver, the West must make clear that any modern version of Russian expansionism is no more tolerable than was its Soviet predecessor. Although Kennan's observations about the Soviets were made almost 70 years ago, his prescription for an American response remains valid: "a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."

To Kennan's dismay, his concept of "containment" was adopted as primarily a military rather than a political doctrine. Fortunately, the Obama administration shows every indication of not making that mistake. Its response to the Ukraine situation has been measured and the United States has refrained from providing Ukraine with weapons that would surely escalate tensions. A realistic appraisal of the security interests of the United States has, so far, prevailed over a reflexive matching of force with force.

Kennan's use of "counter-force" was perhaps an unfortunate choice of words because "force" caught the attention of Cold Warriors eager to flaunt American muscle. As it turned out, the "force" that most significantly contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union was rooted in the exercise of economic, not military, power. With today's Russian economy already facing serious problems, "counter-force" in the form of sanctions and related pressures, particularly on the Russian oil industry, is more likely to deter Putin than would military menace. The latter could lead to more Russian bluster and provocative tactics, becoming increasingly dangerous to all.

Beyond the immediate situation, a longer-term U.S. strategy toward Russia should involve economic support for Eastern European countries with the goal of making economic partnerships with Russia less attractive. A big part of this would involve weaning these countries away from their dependence on Russian oil and natural gas, and here is where a significant U.S. initiative is needed. Energy producers from the Middle East, central Africa, and the Western hemisphere offer a collective possibility over the long term for superseding much of Russia's contribution to meeting Europe's energy needs. It won't be easy; realigning energy supplies will require complex financing and technology for new infrastructure. But if the United States gets fully behind such planning, it will get the attention of Putin and the recently rich elite in Russia whose wealth depends on their country's energy exports. This would be a latter-day version of Kennan's "counter-force."

Even while this pressure on Russia is applied, it is worth remembering Kennan's observation in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" that "it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia" that the other government "should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige." Helping Putin save face is annoying, but probably worthwhile as a means of discouraging him from further adventures. This, along with persistent application of energy-related economic "counter-force" and "soft power" efforts directed toward the West's friends in Eastern Europe might make clear to the Russians that in this era they are isolated and will lose more than they might gain by resurrecting Soviet-style bullying.

In a less well-known article by Kennan, "America and the Russian Future," written in 1951, also for Foreign Affairs, he expressed hope that a "new Russia" would "refrain from pinning an oppressive yoke on other peoples who have the instinct and the capacity for national self-assertion." As many Ukrainians would testify, that hope remains unfulfilled, but an updated version of Kennan's strategy for containing Russia's 21st century expansionism that moves toward such a goal makes more sense than would more bellicose maneuvering.

"Containment" is dismissed by some today as an archaic strategy. But as it was defined by Kennan -- rather than as it was implemented by the Dulles brothers and others -- it remains a sensible and honorable way to keep rogue states from proceeding too far down a path that could lead to continued tension and eventual conflict. As policy, it should be reconsidered, not discarded.