Testifying before Congress, Burns suggested that Russia's seizure
of the Ukrainian region of Crimea reflected Moscow's weakness, not
its strength, and that a resolution, if one is possible, will take
As one of the U.S. government's foremost experts on Russia, where he
served twice, including as ambassador, Burns appeared to reach for
Kennan's language and thinking as he spoke about the Ukraine crisis
and a Russian leader with little apparent appetite for cooperation
with the West in what he sees as Russia's traditional sphere of
"We ... need to be mindful of the enduring strengths of the United
States and its partners and the very real weaknesses sometimes
obscured by Russian bluster," Burns told the Senate Foreign
"No one should underestimate the power of patient and resolute
counter-pressure using all of the non-military means at our
disposal, working with our allies, and leaving the door open to
de-escalation and diplomacy, if Russia is prepared to play by
international rules," he added.
His phrasing contained what seemed a deliberate echo of Kennan, a
diplomat and historian widely seen as the intellectual author of
Washington's Cold War policy of "containment" against the Soviet
Kennan first spelled out his views in a private, 8,000-word "Long
Telegram" from Moscow, where he was charge d'affaires, to State
Department headquarters in 1946. They later became public in his
anonymous 1947 article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct."
Published as the Soviet Union was cementing its grip on countries
such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, the essay argued that
the United States had to regard the Soviet Union as a rival that
sought to undermine any countervailing power.
"Balanced against this are the facts that Russia, as opposed to the
western world in general, is still by far the weaker party, that
Soviet policy is highly flexible, and that Soviet society may well
contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total
potential," Kennan wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs under the
"This would of itself warrant the United States entering with
reasonable confidence upon 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," he added.
Like Kennan, in counseling a strategy that is patient, "steady and
determined," Burns may be thinking in terms of the long arc of
history and implicitly acknowledging that there are unlikely to be
any quick fixes to the Ukraine problem.
Crimea, which is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet and has an ethnic
Russian majority, has effectively been seized by Russian forces
following last month's ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor
Yanukovich, a pro-Russian politician.
The crisis began in November when Yanukovich, under Russian
pressure, turned his back on a trade deal with the European Union
and accepted a $15 billion bailout from Moscow. That prompted street
protests leading to his February 22 overthrow.
Moscow denounced the events as an illegitimate coup and refused to
recognize the new Ukrainian authorities.
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U.S.-based Russia analysts argued that Russia's effective seizure of
Crimea was a reflection of Moscow's weak hand in Ukraine,
illustrated by the popular protests centered in Kiev's Maidan Square
against Yanukovich's spurning the EU trade deal.
"The results of
the whole Maidan catastrophe, the fleeing of the president, was
essentially to set back very greatly any Russian influence," James
Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia now at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington, said of
the Ukrainian street protests.
"In a way I have seen the Crimea military option taken by the
Russian side as a sign of, maybe desperation is too strong a word,
but that they didn't see any other particular options," he added.
"Their soft power wasn't working, their economic power didn't seem
to be doing the trick, what was left?"
Collins, and other analysts, said Russia's weaknesses include an
economy whose growth has slowed in recent years and which remains
heavily dependent on oil and gas exports. Russia's strong position
in European gas markets could be undercut in coming years by imports
from Qatar and even North America.
"The message here is not only the Russian economy not growing fast
enough that they can't have long-term confidence, (but) they
probably shouldn't even have quite so much short-term confidence,"
said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the
Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars think tank.
But not everyone sees weakness in Putin's actions.
"I've heard a number of people say that Russia's move in Crimea
signals a certain amount of weakness on the part of Russia. Looks
like a pretty strong move to me," Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin
Republican, told Burns, asking him: "Why do they think they can do
that with impunity?"
One point Burns was careful to stress was that he was talking of
countering Russian power by "nonmilitary means," something Kennan
regretted that he had not made clear enough in his original Foreign
"A ... serious deficiency of the X-Article — perhaps the most
serious of all — was the failure to make clear that what I was
talking about when I mentioned the containment of Soviet power was
not the containment by military means of a military threat, but the
political containment of a political threat," Kennan wrote ruefully
in his memoirs 20 years later. He died in 2005.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Andrew Hay)
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