The Limits of Empire

Denis Salivanov, Germination, 2019 © The Artist and The Naked Room


The Limits of Empire

Max Krahé on Containment.

In Denis Salivanov’s semi-surrealistic paintings, detached bodies seem to act as machines, anonymous figures controlled by some invisible mechanism that is weirdly detached from real life. Are they cyborgs, human-beings or puppets only? Salivanov (*1984, Kyiv) works at the intersection of painting, video, sound and digital media, and is also a member of Ubik group, focusing on human interaction with tangible spaces and the transformation of visual perception. He further studies sciences and neurosciences by himself, currently living and working in Kyiv.

Max Krahé on Containment

If peace is the goal, strategic clarity must now replace confusion. The doctrine of containment, developed by US strategists after WWII, offers a promising way forward for Europe. After this war, appeasement is no longer an option. As Putin’s war speech—among other indications—made clear, he has come to understand Russia as a traditional “land empire.” As is the case for all land empires, a regime with this self-understanding sees itself perennially beset by insecurities in its borderlands. There is no natural point where its expansionism can be trusted to stop.

Given Russia’s nuclear forces, military engagement is also not a viable option. While material support to Ukraine’s valiant war effort is just and expedient, an escalation of conflict must be avoided at all costs, except in the unlikely case of Russia violating vital interests, such as the integrity of NATO or EU territory. If appeasement today means greater aggression tomorrow, and if military action is suicidal, what is left? The answer is containment.

Containment requires strategic restraint and credible commitment.

“The idea behind containment is to refuse to be bullied, while at the same time declining to become a bully.” As with the original doctrine outlined by George Kennan after WWII, the strategic goal is to prevent the dominance of a hostile power without seeking supremacy yourself, which is inevitably perceived as threatening by third parties.

Containment’s theory of change is simple: “Patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” will eventually wear out irredentist, neo-imperial ambitions. However, containment is difficult because it requires strategic restraint and credible commitment.

Strategic restraint rests on an agreed distinction between vital and peripheral interests. By blocking mission creep and focusing attention on what truly counts, containment is made viable in the long run. However, distinguishing the vital from the peripheral is thorny in practice, particularly when it comes to a union of states. What is Europe’s Cuba or Cold War Berlin, where the interest is vital and the line is red? What is our 1956 Hungarian Revolution or Vietnamese independence, where the interest is less than vital, and restraint is called for? Posing this question reveals how uncomfortable and divisive the answers can be.

Denis Salivanov, Counterpart, 2019 © The Artist and The Naked Room

Only a political process can determine what Europe’s vital interests are today. Democracy within the Union; reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy; guaranteed security in the East; these are all credible candidates. However, it will be difficult to reach an agreement even on such topics: In the past, Germany and France have treated the latter in a way that was perceived as peripheral by Poland and the Baltics. Conversely, other member states have appeared shaky on affordable or sustainable energy or, worse, on democracy.

For interests to align, besides a firm line on democracy, solutions for questions concerning energy and security must be found. In terms of security, while everything should be done to foster transatlantic unity, Europe cannot base its ability to contain Russia on a US security umbrella. Today, Trumpism is only ever an election away. In addition, China is calling on American resources. Neither of these two trends looks set to reverse any time soon. Without an independent European defensive capability, Eastern Europe cannot commit, nor can it be expected or trusted to commit to a European strategy of containment.

Concerning energy, although weaning off Russian oil and gas is required, building deep, strategic trust within the EU requires a more radical step. If the tap is closed but the pipelines remain, the possibility of reopening them will eventually become a pawn for domestic politics in Germany, Italy, Czechia, Hungary and elsewhere. Other member states will be afraid that once the guns lay silent but the economic going through a rough patch, the pipelines might be turned back on, and old divisions and dependencies will re-emerge. To build trust, this option must be taken off the table.

Putin’s attack on the common peace must be resisted as calmly as possible, but as forcefully as necessary.

This could take the form of physically dismantling the connections - a burning of bridges, so to speak. However, a more desirable option would be to subject any reopening to an appropriately calibrated qualified majority vote, perhaps via a new EU treaty on an energy union. This would foster unity by creating a high hurdle, while simultaneously signalling that energy trade (e.g., in green hydrogen) could one day be resumed with a transformed Russia.

A final question remains: how does China fit within this strategy? Given historic Sino-Soviet tensions, the paucity of transport links to Russia’s East, and the historic concentration of Russia’s economy west of the Urals, Chinese cooperation is not an absolute necessity for containment. However, the strategy would benefit from it. And given that, unlike Putin, Beijing has time on its side, there is reasonable hope that an understanding could be found, for example by linking European economic cooperation to Chinese support for, or toleration of, containing a rogue Russia. Building on this hope, a cooperative offer could be extended, while remaining vigilant as to what choices the Chinese regime will make in the coming weeks and months.

Regardless of how the war in Ukraine ends, a return to the status quo ante is impossible. Putin’s attack on the common peace must be resisted as calmly as possible, but as forcefully as necessary. Yet containment is not all bleak. A commitment to this strategy involves a belief that history is on our side. It represents a wager that, if economic, social, and cultural trends can be left to play themselves out, the good will triumph and the aggressive will falter. If we can commit to this wager—without becoming that which we seek to contain—we can be sure of our cause and hopeful of our prospects.

Max Krahé is a political economist and co-founder of the think tank Dezernat Zukunft.

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