scorecardresearch Skip to main content
opinion | John Shattuck

Containing and engaging Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin.Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin via REUTERS


Russia is working hard to weaken the European Union, courting the governments of Hungary and Greece, and funding extremist political parties in France, Bulgaria, Austria, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. At the same time, it is stepping up its aggression in Ukraine and threatening other neighboring countries. And last month Vladimir Putin announced that Russia plans to add 40 new missiles to its nuclear arsenal.

A new Cold War is on a path of escalation. How to respond? The West needs to sharpen its approach.

The conflict is symbolized by competing narratives. The Putin narrative is that the United States and Europe humiliated Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the objections of a weakened Russia, NATO and the EU expanded to the old Soviet borders and began to pose a direct threat to Russia’s sovereignty. This threat was exemplified by Western support of democracy movements in Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia itself. Putin asserts that Russia is standing up to these threats so that Russians will be treated with respect by the West.


The opposing narrative is that the West effectively won the Cold War. Promoting a market economy and democracy was the best way to help countries from the former Soviet sphere recover from the legacy of communism. Because Russia had been an aggressor in Eastern Europe, NATO was expanded to guarantee the security of these countries, and the EU was expanded to foster their market economies.

Putin’s narrative stretches the facts but has gained credibility among Russians. A Western strategy to defuse the conflict should start from a realistic assessment of the competing narratives and a rational analysis of the interests on both sides.

The strategy should be based on approaches similar to those that ended the original Cold War: confrontation, containment, and engagement.

Western interests in an independent and democratic Ukraine can be asserted by US and EU sanctions. Although blunt instruments, sanctions are having an effect on the Russian economy by restricting Russia’s access to international financial markets. At the same time, NATO can reassure the Baltic countries that the common security responsibilities of the alliance will be honored.

Putin’s designs on Ukraine and Eastern Europe can be contained by EU support to bolster the Ukrainian economy. The United States could develop a parallel plan to open US energy reserves for sale to European countries threatened by the prospect that Russia will turn off their gas.


But confrontation and containment are not enough. It’s time to step up diplomatic engagement with Russia by proposing a formula beyond the Minsk agreement for an enforceable peace in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s sovereignty and its international border with Russia could be guaranteed in exchange for increased local autonomy in the east and protection of Russian minorities, supervised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Conditional incentives could be offered to pursue this path of de-escalation. Sanctions could be progressively removed as benchmarks are reached in implementing a Ukraine agreement. The Crimea issue could be set aside by allowing Russia’s continued access to the Black Sea without recognizing Russia’s claim to a territory it annexed in violation of international law. Any breach of the new Ukraine agreement would be met by immediate reimposition of sanctions and the defensive mobilization of NATO.

Beyond this is a larger strategic vision of potential cooperation between the West and Russia. The European Union could open a dialogue with Moscow about economic and trade relations with the new Eurasian Union.

An isolated Russia that blames the West for its troubles will only enhance the threat posed to Europe by a new Cold War. It’s time for renewed diplomatic engagement, backed by firm response to any new aggression.


John Shattuck, president of Central European University, is a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and US ambassador to the Czech Republic.


Editorial: There will be no winners in a renewed Cold War

Nicholas Burns: A resolute US can win struggle with Putin

H.D.S. Greenway: Obama has set a long game with Russia

James Carroll: New Cold War with Russia? Learn the right lessons

Ideas: Putin’s long game? Meet the Eurasian Union