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Russia: Time To Contain?

Recap Video

On October 3, 2017, the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University hosted the next installment in its Debate and Decision Series, “Russia: Time to Contain?”

The event also marked the launch of David J. Kramer’s new book, “Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime.”

Arguing that the United States Should Contain Russia:

  • David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University, and Affiliated Senior Fellow, the McCain Institute
  • Evelyn N. Farkas, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council, and National Security Analyst for NBC/MSNBC

Arguing that the United States Should Engage Russia:

  • Thomas Graham, Managing Director, Kissinger Associates
  • Matthew Rojansky, Director, the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center

The debate was moderated by CNN Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott.


Presenting the argument that the United States should contain Russia, Kramer outlined the argument for “the clear, existential threat” the Putin regime poses to the United States, Russia’s neighbors, and to its own people. He argued that Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Ukraine demonstrates Putin’s lack of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors, as does his use of energy and propaganda as political tools. Citing Putin’s ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens of Russian orphans in response to the Magnitsky Act, defiance of the Minsk agreements related to Ukraine, Syrian ceasefire efforts and the INF treaty, undermining of sanctions in North Korea, support for the Taliban, unprecedented interference in U.S. elections, abuse of American diplomats serving in Russia and the ugly crackdown on human rights inside Russia, Kramer concluded that Putin “is a wholly untrustworthy interlocutor, and every administration that has tried to engage with him has come away disappointed.”

In accord, Farkas called for a “modern, 21st-century containment strategy”: military deterrence (including strengthening of NATO and other partners), economic sanctions, and robust democracy to highlight Russian transgressions. She argued Russia must be held accountable not only for the invasions, occupations, election interferences, and information wars, but also the violation of the Budapest Memorandum and its implications for nonproliferation, the shootdown of MH-17, targeted global assassinations, and violations of bilateral nuclear and multinational conventional arms control agreements.

Arguing that the United States should engage Russia, Graham began by alluding to two previous Institute debates in 2014 and in 2016 that also addressed U.S. strategy toward Russia. Since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the United States has sought to contain Russia to change its behavior, a strategy he argued has failed, as evidenced by Russia’s consolidated control of Crimea, the strengthened support of Assad in Syria due to Russia’s backing and interference in elections in Europe and the United States. “Containment has not worked in the past, and it will not work against Russia today,” he said, pointing to examples from U.S. history of attempts at containment that failed, including China, Cuba, and even the Soviet Union. It is impossible to contain one of the world’s largest economies, and sanctions will disappoint. Instead, Graham proposed “engagement leveled with realism,” acknowledging that while Russia poses challenges, it is essential for the United States to work with Russia to manage differences. Ultimately, he said, the United States will have greater success in dealing with Russia if the country addresses its domestic problems and restores the “promise of America.”

Along with Graham, Rojansky noted that both sides actually have significant common ground, but pointed to two basic disagreements. The first is “why Russia matters,” he said, and if the United States focuses on “the regime” and on combatting it, Russia’s response will be inherently defensive. The second is how politics in Russia work, and he warned that the United States should not attempt secure outcomes on behalf of the Russian people, as the flaws of the United States leave it unable to stand as a credible “guardian,” and doing so would further provoke an “us-versus-them” response.


  • Rojansky: Drawing from George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram,” he advocated for deeper knowledge and expertise on Russia, along with the United States clearly defining its interests and the consequences of crossing them. Further echoing Kennan, he argued that “leadership by example” is the most effective tool in promoting American interests.
  • Farkas: To resist further exacerbation of its own weaknesses, the United States must push back on Russia and its intrusion into U.S. democracy, thus defending its democracy as well as the international order and the free market economy.
  • Graham: The greatest threat to democracy exists inside the United States. While it is easier to blame Russian interference, the United States must bolster its cybersecurity, educate its population in aspects like fake news and ultimately get its system in order so that if Russia tries to intrude, it will fail.
  • Kramer: The United States needs a tougher approach in dealing with Russia that includes ramping up sanctions, bolstering Russia’s neighbors and helping them succeed, standing up to Russia’s human rights abuses, investigating Russian corruption, and protecting the integrity of U.S. political and economic systems.

Full Video


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Oct 3, 2017