Containing Russia: Back to the Future?

18 november 2007

Sergei Lavrov is Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

Resume: The experience of recent years has amply demonstrated that no single
state or group of states has enough resources for imposing unipolarity.
This allegedly constructive simplification of interstate relations, based on a vertical hierarchy – however attractive this may seem – is utterly unrealistic. Unipolarity, quite simply, is an encroachment on God’s prerogatives.

Influential political forces on both sides of the Atlantic apparently want to launch a discussion about whether or not to “contain Russia.” Judging by the facts, this reflects real sentiments and political strategies. At this time, I would like to make my personal contribution to this discussion.

The very issue of Russia’s “containment” appeals to instincts of the past. It not so much attests to the lack of imagination, but rather that for some individuals almost nothing has changed since the end of the Cold War. These people propose imposing the structure of international relations which took shape long ago in the Western alliance, to the present moment. The motives that dictated this policy of containment are making themselves felt at this new historical stage, as well.


What can be the goal of “containing Russia” today? A Russia that has renounced an ideology of imperial and other “great plans” in favor of pragmatism and common sense. How can a nation, which has placed emphasis on its domestic development and is now progressing remarkably well, be contained? Russia’s consolidation through creative work has naturally been translated into the strengthening of its international positions. Russia’s foreign policy is nothing more than the continuation of its domestic policy. We have realistic and understandable aspirations, namely: the maintenance of international stability as a major condition for our further development together with the natural evolution of international relations with the goal of achieving freedom and democracy.

If we analyze the ideological inertia that has led the United States to “transforming diplomacy,” it will become evident that there is a wide gap between the foreign-policy aspirations of Washington and Moscow. One should assume that it is here that the problem lies, at least the larger part of it. Russia has extensive experience with revolutions – the entire 20th century. Actually, the past century was a kind of purgatory for European civilization, which overcame the evil by exorcizing its ideological “demons” – various kinds of extremist products from European liberal thought. This is why Russia refuses to subscribe to any ideological project; more importantly, it will not borrow such concepts from abroad.

It has become fashionable among certain circles to criticize the Westphalian system, which placed value differences beyond the scope of interstate relations. In this regard, the Cold War was regression. Do we really need to continue going down this same path, which can only lead us to confrontation?

Ideology, when confused with practical politics, clouds one’s vision and mind. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who says that the United States provoked the entrance of Soviet troops into Afghanistan, provides a good example on this count. However, if Brzezinski is correct, this means that the U.S. had a hand in the creation of al-Qaeda to a much greater degree than is generally believed. Enthusiasm inspired by ideology brings to life the law of undesirable consequences.

What is the meaning of containing a country that is content with what it already has? It only wants to engage in trade, a field practiced – and with much success – by an overwhelming majority of our partners for centuries. By implementing our natural competitive advantages, we increase investment in human resources, as well as our ability for steering the economy onto a path of innovative development. Today, Russia’s economy is acquiring normal standards: its growth is largely based on domestic consumer demand. We also entertain the emergence of global corporations in new economies, which issue competitive challenges to “old” multinational corporations. We intend to continue integrating into the global economy on generally accepted terms, while adapting our legislation accordingly.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is an open country that has no intention of closing itself off from anyone. Therefore, there is no need to “open” us. It is not we who are building walls today, both physical (between and inside countries) and political. We oppose artificial barriers in international relations and support the removal of visa barriers, including in relations with the European Union. What other action could provide a more reliable guarantee against the unpredictable development of one or another country?

Russia concedes to the generally held belief that democracy and the market must make up the basis of the socio-political system and economic life. There is no doubt that we are at the beginning of this path and are still far away from an ideal situation. But the development vector has been chosen – and chosen irrevocably. Russian society, which experienced painful consequences from unprecedented transformations, has formed a broad consensus on the depth and rates of these changes. This is what brought about peace and internal political stability, together with its evolutionary development, without any upheavals. In the long run, a more mature democracy, including a developed civil society and a well-structured party system, will emerge naturally from a higher level of social and economic development. This means, above all, the formation of a substantial middle class, which cannot emerge overnight. It is only the “oligarchs” that can emerge overnight, as was the case in Russia in the early 1990s. But those times are gone for good.


Russia is often criticized for assuming its naturally large role in the global energy sector. This criticism is obviously a manifestation of complexes from countries that cannot reconcile themselves to their dependence on external sources of energy. But energy dependence is mutual. At Russia’s initiative, the St. Petersburg G8 summit in July 2006 found a balance of interests of all actors on the energy market. None of the countries that export energy resources finds it reasonable to “sit on the pipe” or on its energy resources like the tale of the dog in the manger. Like anywhere else in the world, energy is viewed in Russia as a strategic industry. This is particularly the case at the present time, as we are getting negative foreign reactions to the strengthening of our country and the growth of its role in global politics. However, Russia has not violated any of its commitments to importer countries, nor a single contract for hydrocarbon supplies.

I think it would be right to say that we view our role in global energy supply as a means for ensuring our foreign-policy independence. And it seems that it is the freedom of action and the freedom of speech – which we have acquired in foreign affairs and which, by the way, we use within the framework of international law – that comprise the main charges by those who are unhappy about a strong Russia.

Ninety percent of the world’s proven hydrocarbon reserves are under state control in one way or another. Thus, the Russian government’s energy policy corresponds to the general tendency toward increased state control over natural resources. But there is emerging a new balance in the global energy sector: today, state control over access to energy resources is being counterbalanced by the concentration of advanced technologies in the hands of private multinational corporations. Are these not healthy conditions for equal interaction based on competitive advantages of the involved parties united by the common goal of meeting the energy requirements of the global economy?


Russia has started pursuing a national foreign policy that is in striking contrast to the ideologically motivated internationalism that underlay the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. Multilateral diplomacy based on international law is becoming a universal instrument for regulating regional and global relations.

In the age of globalization, there are no objective reasons for confrontation – unless, of course, we introduce ideology into international relations and remilitarize them. As globalization has extended far beyond the borders of Western civilization, competition has become truly universal, and I am convinced this is what produced the new paradigm of international relations. Today, value benchmarks and development models have also become matters of competition. And this competition must be fair. This is a fundamental challenge for all of us.

Ages ago, French king Francis I wrote to his mother after he lost the Battle of Pavia that he had “lost everything but honor.” In the same way, no one ever will make the West give up its values and way of life, unless it itself wishes to do so. Thus, it should only be natural for the West to resist imposing its values on others, but rather focus on its own competitive advantages. It is worth recalling in this connection the words of Professor Eberhard Sandschneider, director of the Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations. In his view, the West’s positions in this competition have weakened in recent years due to U.S. policy, which has resulted in a “tremendous loss of the West’s image” in Asia and Africa. “Over the last eight years, we have done nothing, or almost nothing, to make our values attractive to people living in those regions of the Earth,” he says. One may ask then, why should Russia be held responsible for such consequences?

In global politics, challenges and threats have surfaced that require a truly global response through the broadest possible international cooperation. The traditional cumbersome “binding alliances” or “sacred unions” against specific targets do not solve these tasks. The diversity of interests and possibilities for participating in various international efforts has resulted in the development of network diplomacy; this is an optimum way for national interaction in bilateral and multilateral formats. It is only logical that diplomacy is learning those network methods devised by private corporations and civil society. Using the same methods will ensure the harmony of international life in all its diverse aspects.

Today, multipolarity is becoming the basis of the new international system. This objective reality can no longer be disputed. When Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Munich that a “unipolar world” had failed to materialize, he was only stating the obvious. The experience of recent years has amply demonstrated that no single state or group of states has enough resources for imposing unipolarity. This allegedly constructive simplification of interstate relations based on a vertical hierarchy – however attractive this may seem – is utterly unrealistic. It is one thing to respect American culture and civilization; it is another thing to embrace Americocentrism. Unipolarity, quite simply, is an encroachment on God’s prerogatives.

The new system of international relations is not anarchy or some random “Brownian motion.” The presence of more than two leading actors in global politics demands collective leadership to ensure the flexible regulation of international relations. This, in turn, requires an ability to reduce diverse interests of partners to a common denominator and to act in agreement with other leading nations.

In a multipolar world, confrontation is not predetermined. If I may quote the poet Anna Akhmatova, the future “casts its shadow long before it comes.” The United Nations, which in the Cold War years often only cast its shadow, represents the future of international politics in the age of globalization. Today, this global organization can and must become pivotal for the entire international system. The UN Charter provides all the necessary grounds for this to be worked into reality.


The development of international relations has reached a point where to further delay solving the world’s accumulated problems may have catastrophic consequences for all states, as security and prosperity are inseparable notions in the 21st-century world.

Unfortunately, in addition to problems inherited from the Cold War years, the international community has embarked on a path of creating new ones. The inertia of ideologically motivated unilateral responses has acquired its second wind today, resulting in “broken china” everywhere – stalemates that are impossible to resolve within the frameworks of former approaches.

Time and again, be it in practice in Iraq and Lebanon, or at the level of analysis with respect to North Korea, Syria, Iran or the Darfur region in Sudan, one will arrive at the conclusion that these existing problems cannot be solved by force. Security cannot be simply stockpiled – this is a living process, which reveals the meaning of the truth about one’s “daily bread” as applied to international relations. Real security for now and in the foreseeable future can be ensured only by establishing normal relations and cooperation with all states, including the problem ones, and by involving them into dialog. It is difficult not to agree with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said that the modern world should be based not on military deterrence but on a readiness for cooperation. Moreover, the recent seizure of 15 British troops in the Persian Gulf has shown that the human factor, including the motivation of behavior, is not up to the tasks demanded by policies of force, and genetically resists them. So what is the use of continuing to pursue these policies and engaging in self-deception?

Let us briefly consider the Middle East. The number of personnel enlisted in the so-called “private security companies” in Iraq implies that not everything is going well in that country in purely military terms. This number has already reached 30 percent of the coalition forces’ strength. But these individuals act outside the framework of international humanitarian law, misrepresent the true role of the force factor in the Iraqi settlement, and do irreparable damage to intercivilizational relations.

Complex problems require comprehensive approaches. This is particularly true of the situation in Iran. Relying only on coercion with respect to Teheran means threatening the energy security of Europe and the world at large. The problem can be solved, in part, by the normalization of relations with Teheran, which would also help preserve the nonproliferation regime.

Now, attempts are being made to solve the Kosovo problem at the expense of the international community – that is, by creating a precedent that would go beyond the frameworks of international law. In the case of Kosovo, our partners tend to yield to blackmail of violence and anarchy, whereas in Palestine, where violence has been continuing for decades, they display indifference: a Palestinian state has never come into existence.

Absolute security for one state is absolute insecurity for all the others, as Henry Kissinger accurately acknowledges in his book Diplomacy. Such a policy dooms a state to isolation. But the chimera of “absolute security” is also a dangerous temptation: then, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “everything is permitted.” Putting oneself beyond international legal frameworks is tantamount to attempting to rise above the moral law, beyond good and evil.

Today’s problems, including the contradictory consequences of globalization, cannot be solved without morals. The Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, and humility provide the moral law for international relations, as well. The incumbent U.S. administration seemed to understand this at the initial stage of its rule: in February 2001, President George Bush said America should project its strength “with purpose and with humility.” [Remarks by the President to State Department Employees, February 15, 2001 – Ed.] Only equality and universal application of international law, where “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” can help restore the governability of the world’s development. If we do not treat others in a Christian way, will others treat us Christian-like?

Perhaps, the collectivism of the Russian mindset makes it easier for us than for others to comprehend this. Russia’s tragic history has taught us the ability to coexist. Reaching agreement – this is the way to stronger intercivilizational accord, while attempts to divide the world along civilizational lines are a repetition of the experience of Bolshevism and Trotskyism.


The problem of overcoming the legacy of the Cold War is particularly acute in Europe. Bloc politics, based on the logic of containment, dominated in Europe for too long. And now we are confronted with what can only be interpreted as the restoration of a sanitary cordon to the west of Russia’s borders. Favoritism in this part of Europe is generating an unsound atmosphere, encouraging the growth of nationalist sentiments, which pose a major threat to the continent’s unity. Does the past imperative of ensuring the U.S. presence in Europe, while excluding Russia and blocking Germany’s rise, remain valid?

Whatever the case may be, under the burden of the EU’s politicized enlargement, the European project has been dealt a major setback. It turns out that the policy of containment was targeted not only against Russia, but also against Europe as one of the potential centers of the new world order. Moreover, Europe may have to face the absurd situation where it will have to finance its own division; in other words, the EU will be unable to influence the positions of some of its new members that are presently obsessed with a desire to “contain” Russia and take “historical revenge.”

I am deeply convinced that the current problems of the European Union, and European politics in general, cannot be solved without constructive and forward-looking relations with Russia that are based on mutual trust. This must meet the interests of the United States, as well.

Instead, there are ongoing attempts to “contain Russia” in any way possible. Thus, NATO keeps enlarging in violation of previous assurances given to Moscow that this would not happen. Now the continuation of the enlargement policy is justified by the need to “proliferate democracy.” How can democracy be promoted by a military-political alliance that, within the framework of its “transformation,” has been consistently increasing the number of scenarios for the possible use of force?

Nevertheless, the idea that NATO membership is somehow a laissez-passer to the “club” of democratic nations is now proclaimed for members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (although only one criterion is applied to see whether a candidate country can pass the “democracy test” – namely, its readiness to follow in the wake of the West’s policy). It is difficult to say whether such development of the post-Soviet territories is aimed at receiving moral satisfaction or “containing Russia.”

As regards the CIS, nobody has any doubts that Russia has the capacity to maintain social, economic, and other kind of stability in the region. Moscow’s renunciation of politicized trade and economic relations, together with its transfer to market-based principles, convincingly attests to its resolve to ensure normal interstate relations in this space. These are required conditions for Russia-West cooperation in this region. But this cooperation must be equal and respectful, both with regard to each other and with regard to CIS member countries as well. These nations need help in building their statehoods, not making them hostages of the notorious geopolitical “zero-sum game.”

Washington’s unilateral plans to deploy elements of the U.S. missile defense system in Europe are also in line with the “Russia containment” mentality. It is hardly coincidental that a missile defense base in Europe will fit into the U.S. global missile defense system, being deployed along the perimeter of Russia (and China’s) borders, like a jigsaw piece falling into place. Naturally, this strategic challenge will be met at the strategic level. No one has abolished the interrelationship between strategic offensive and defensive armaments. Many people in Europe are rightly concerned that the deployment of elements of the U.S. National Missile Defense will have negative global consequences for the disarmament processes.

The Russian president’s proposal to the United States for joint operation of a radar facility based in Azerbaijan’s Gabala, and his recent proposals made in Kennebunkport for the creation of a regional monitoring and early warning system, provide an opportunity to find a way out of the current situation while taking into account the sentiments of all parties involved. As a starting point for truly collective efforts in this field, we are ready to conduct joint analysis of potential missile threats (in the period until 2020) together with the United States and other interested countries, above all those in Europe. Such cooperation, as President Putin already stated, could help improve the quality of Russian-American relations in the sphere of security and elevate them to a higher level of confidence. We would thus acquire mutual trust, which our countries are lacking now. This would grant us to establish a truly global strategic alliance that will pave the way to a new multilateral system of collective security, the creation of which was bequeathed to us by the founding fathers of the United Nations.

The desire to “contain Russia” is also evident in the situation over the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Russia complies with the treaty in good faith and only desires what the document was designed to give: equal security. The problem, however, is that the principle of equal security was undermined with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, while NATO was left intact and then enlarged. Attempts to correct the situation were met by the categorical refusal of members of the North Atlantic Alliance to ratify the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. For any individual who has read the documents from the 1999 Istanbul conference, it is quickly understood that any pretext to justify the refusal of the accord is legally groundless. So, the matter at issue again is not law but politics, that is, the containment policy.

The levels of armaments assigned by the CFE Treaty to the Warsaw Pact members have made their way into NATO’s quota. This is already not “equal security” but a desire to take what belonged to others. This situation attests to attempts to reproduce bloc instincts and approaches and to return to the “zero-sum game” logic. The situation with the CFE Treaty vividly shows that not a single element of the global or European security architecture can be stable if it is not based on the principles of equality and mutual benefit.

After all, if we cannot adapt this old instrument to the new realities, is it not time to review the situation and start working on a new system of arms control and confidence-building measures? That is, of course, if we can agree that modern Europe needs such measures. The frank and honest discussions at Kennebunkport inspire hope that ways to put the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty into force can be found. This will be possible only if everyone fulfills their legal commitments and does not hide behind artificial political bonds.

Perhaps, it would be better to “clear” the European political scene of the entire Cold War legacy and to start building new structures for arms control and confidence-building measures, which will meet the demands of our time, since we are no longer enemies and do not want to create the false impression that a war in Europe is possible.


The way to trust lies through candid dialog and well-reasoned discussions, as well as through interaction that provides for the joint analysis of threats. It is this latter opportunity that Russia is denied for no particular reason. Actually, the West demands from Russia implicit faith in its partners’ analytical abilities and good intentions. But in matters involving national security demanding such things cannot be taken seriously, to say the least.

We will safeguard our own security and will do this on the principle of reasonable sufficiency. At the same time, the door for positive joint actions to ensure common interests on the basis of equality will always remain open.

In his speech in Munich, President Vladimir Putin invited all our partners to meet for serious and well-reasoned discussions about the unsatisfactory situation in international relations. We believe that the dual partner-foe attitude to Russia must go. Such an attitude cannot help solve the problem of trust and cooperation. If someone intends to “give a rebuff to Russia’s negative behavior,” why expect cooperation on our part in matters of interest to our partners? One should choose between containment and cooperation, including in such matters as Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization and the Asian Development Bank, or the Jackson-Vanik amendment, grounds for which ceased to exist in the late 1980s.

Regretfully, even in the event of clear issues – such as the need to halt the revival of neo-Nazi tendencies and insults to the memory of the victors over Nazism – the positions of many of our Western partners take shape under the same desire to “contain” Russia.

Now that challenges and security threats are becoming global, there is a big difference between cooperation and its absence, between concerted efforts and the need for each state or group of states to act at their own risk and peril or rely on others’ wisdom, dogmatically proposed as the only possible solution to global problems. We bear responsibility of our own in global affairs: no one will do that for us. We do not suffer from an exceptionalism complex, but we do not have grounds either to consider our analytic abilities and our ideas to be worse than another’s. Interaction with Russia is possible only on the basis of full equality, respect for the security interests of each other, and mutual benefit.


Russian-U.S. relations still enjoy the stabilizing benefits of a close and honest working relationship between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush. Their recent meeting at Walkers Point graphically demonstrated this. Both Russians and Americans hold to the memory of their joint victory over Nazism, and share the experience of the Cold War and their joint departure from it.

If an equal partnership prevails in U.S.-Russian relations, both countries will be able to achieve almost anything. What must be prevented is making Russian-American relations hostage to election cycles of the two countries, or worse, letting a third party to step in to do this. That would mean washing our hands of the vital interests of our peoples and the interests of global stability.

The struggle against international terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking; the search for realistic ways to protect the climate; the development of nuclear energy, while strengthening the nonproliferation regime; the ensuring of global energy security, and space exploration. Should we sacrifice all these and many other areas of our already developing practical cooperation at the altar of the containment policy?

It would be unfortunate if the inertia of bloc approaches (which, by the way, are theoretically codified by the return to the containment policy) and the unnecessary haste in matters that can wait, provoked alienation between Russia and the United States. That would reduce the area of our interaction and produce an effect of “shagreen skin,” which can determine its own dynamics in relations between the two countries, especially if ordinary Americans are told that Russia is to blame for almost all the troubles of their country.

Anti-Americanism is not as widespread in Russia as elsewhere. And if individuals want to mention George Kennan, they should not only quote his Long Telegram but also heed his advice as to how the outside world should behave (without didacticism and the imposition of will) in the post-Soviet period of Russia’s development. The recent establishment of a working group, named “Russia-U.S.: A Look Into the Future,” which was co-chaired by Henry Kissinger and Yevgeny Primakov, could not have come at a better time. Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush actively supported this initiative, just as the establishment of the Vladimir Lukin-Jessica Mathews group for unbiased discussions of issues pertaining to democracy, human rights and freedoms.

Both sides should demonstrate a broad-minded and unbiased view of things. Such an approach could be provided by the perception of Russia and the United States as two branches of European civilization, each contributing its own added value. We could meet at a common table on the basis of European attitudes. Trilateral interaction in international affairs between the United States, Russia and the EU could be a practical formula for preserving the integrity of the Euro-Atlantic space in global politics. I can only agree with Jacques Delors, who believes that “future development must bring about a truly comprehensive agreement” within the framework of this troika. The former president of the European Commission is absolutely right by saying that Russia, the EU and America are “three political forces that are accustomed to disputing with each other” and that “every time they become divided by disagreements, when each party starts playing its own game, the risk of global instability increases dramatically.”

Georgy Adamovich, a prominent literary figure of the Russian émigré community, once said that pessimism is generated by dealing with people about whom there remain no illusions. I am confident that this has nothing to do with either Russia or the United States.

I do not think we have lost the ability to surprise the world. Both Moscow and Washington are quite adept at doing this separately. Why not try and work more closely together – especially since we must become more concentrated in the global economy and politics? So why not be together and act in the spirit of cooperation and healthy and fair competition based on common standards and respect for international law? We have nothing to divide, but we share, together with other partners, responsibility for the destinies of the world. Thereby we would live up to the great future predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville for our two countries. At the same time, we could “contain” those who are trying to deny the present world indisputable benefits that Russian-American and, generally speaking, Euro-Atlantic partnership brings.

The July meeting between the Russian and U.S. presidents, which also involved George Bush Sr., showed what could be achieved by teamwork. Both leaders agreed to look for common approaches to the issues of missile defense and the reduction of strategic armaments, and came out with a new joint initiative on nuclear energy and nonproliferation. Symbolically, they also fished together, but they did not fish in troubled waters.

Last updated 18 november 2007, 13:12

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