top of page

A U.S. Strategy to Contain and Engage Putin’s Russia


This article was adopted from testimony delivered on July 7, 2020 to the U.S.

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the


President-elect Joseph R. Biden has an opportunity to forge a bipartisan, sustained grand U.S. strategy for Russia. With decades of experience in foreign affairs, especially transatlantic relations, he knows Russia, he knows Vladimir Putin and, equally important, he knows the region. When I worked at the National Security Council during the Barack Obama administration, I traveled with then-Vice President Biden to Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Russia. Unlike his immediate predecessor, President Biden rightfully will not try to befriend Putin. He and his expert team of foreign policy advisors understand that the central objective in U.S. policy towards Russia today is to contain Putin’s belligerent behavior abroad.

At the same time, the incoming Biden administration offers the U.S. a chance to develop a more predictable pattern of bilateral relations with the Russian government and Russian people, supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. After relations with China, competing with Russia is the second-greatest foreign policy challenge of our time, complicated by the fact that China and Russia today are closer to each other now than they were during the Cold War. To successfully achieve American objectives will require the implementation of a comprehensive, sophisticated and nuanced strategy for containing

Putin’s belligerent actions abroad and simultaneously cooperating with Moscow on a small set of issues of mutual benefit.

After 20 years in power, Putin is unlikely to change his long-held perceptions of the American threat. This summer, he amended the Russian constitution to allow him to rule until 2036. Because Putin will not end his assault on democracy, liberalism and multilateral institutions, American policymakers must articulate a bipartisan, nuanced, long-term grand strategy that is similar in scale and scope to our strategy during the Cold War. We must not

romanticize the merits of containment nor the glory days of confronting the Soviet threat. There are many differences between the Cold War and our current era; some less threatening, others more so. A new strategy must prioritize containment, while selectively pursuing engagement and isolation. Washington must find ways to address the Kremlin’s economic, military and political influence, while working together when truly necessary.

Strengthening NATO

The central pillar of a new, improved policy must be to strengthen ties with our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and repair the damage to these ties of the last four years. Putin seeks to foment division within this alliance, and he has successfully attracted admirers. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán highly regards Putin, as does Matteo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom and

other politicians in nearly every country in NATO. Restoring unity among NATO members, therefore, is critical.

Furthermore, the Biden administration must encourage NATO allies to meet their spending commitments of 2% of GDP and continue to fund and build the European Deterrence Initiative and the “Four Thirties” NATO Readiness Initiative, which established a goal for the alliance to be able to deploy 30 land battalions (roughly 300,000 soldiers), 30 naval combatant ships and 30 air squadrons (approximately 300 aircraft) within 30 days to the eastern-most member states. Enhancing transportation and logistics within NATO also

should be an important goal.

Lifting Sanctions (at the Appropriate Time)

The United States and our allies and partners rightly sanctioned Russian individuals and companies in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Unless Putin changes his behavior, these sanctions must remain in place. Despite requiring major diplomatic efforts, sustaining the status quo regarding this sanctions regime should be a top priority. Any premature relaxation would send a terrible signal to Moscow

about NATO disunity. In affirming existing sanctions, the Biden administration must also clearly articulate that sanctions are not aimed to punish the Russian people nor to trigger regime change.

Helping Ukrainian Democracy Succeed

Ukraine is the most important frontline state in a strategy to contain Russia. The Biden administration must continue to provide military assistance and training to the Ukrainian army to strengthen deterrence capabilities. More important, the Biden administration must engage more vigorously with a comprehensive plan to reinvigorate Ukrainian democratic consolidation. By dragging Ukraine into his reelection efforts, President Donald Trump did

enormous damage to U.S.-Ukraine relations. The Trump administration’s indifference to Ukrainian domestic developments regarding economic and democratic reform was equally detrimental. Vigorous bilateral diplomacy, combined with greater engagement and support for Ukrainian civil society, can jumpstart that reform process again. There is no greater gift to Putin than a failed Ukrainian democracy.

Reengaging in Diplomacy in Russia’s Neighborhood

In addition, the Biden administration must return to the diplomatic field in Russia’s neighborhood. Belarus, the Caucasus, Central Asia and other societies threatened by Russian coercion want to see the United States return as a more active player. Our diplomatic absence—especially in regard to the Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh—and our moral voice—especially in Belarus— have been missed over the last four years.

Providing Greater Transparency about Russian Money in the U.S. and the West

Kremlin-connected individuals have leveraged their political connections in Russia for profit and have then invested that money across the United States and Europe, where the rule of law protects their property rights. Mysterious companies and real estate are frequently used as vehicles for this wealth transfer. The Biden administration must devote greater attention to exposing money laundering and to providing greater transparency about such transfers.

Countering Russian Disinformation and Propaganda

The best method for countering disinformation is improved reporting from credible journalists in Russia, Ukraine and other countries in the region. Instead of directly funding these media outlets, the United States should focus on providing short-term training opportunities, fellowships at universities and internships at media organizations. Education and the free flow of information are our strongest tools against Russian propaganda. The United States and other democracies, in partnership with the philanthropic world, should unite to provide more permissive conditions for independent journalism, including when possible, in the Russian language. Funding for investigative journalists, support to locate servers outside of Russia and aid to hide the identities of journalists and their sources would greatly support independent media.

In addition, President Biden should work with the U.S. Congress to draft legislation to make Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) an independent, non-government organization. Historically, RFE/RL has been most effective in providing independent reporting when it had greatest distance from the U.S. government. However, the lines between RFE/RL independence and the U.S. government became blurred during the Trump administration. A permanent firewall should be created between RFE/RL (and other private grantees) and Voice of America (and the U.S. government in general), so that RFE/RL would receive direct appropriations from the U.S. Congress, and its leadership would be appointed by a bipartisan, independent board, rather than by the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The funding mechanism and governance structure of the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States or the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom could serve as models. A similar restructuring may also be useful for other grantees of the U.S. Agency for Global Media—Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and the Open Technology Fund.

In general, it is essential that the United States seek to contain, degrade and counter Putin’s international ideological campaign. Social media algorithms should demote content distributed by the Russian government through its propaganda channels. Such content should also be labeled clearly and displayed alongside information provided by more reliable news organizations. Ultimately, the United States must organize with other democracies to develop a common set of laws and protocols for regulating Russian government-controlled media.

Practicing Selective Engagement

In parallel to an overall strategy of containment, U.S. policymakers need to engage the Kremlin on a small number of mutually beneficial issues, as the U.S. did during the Cold War. Most immediately, the United States and Russia must extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Not only does this treaty prevent a needless arms race, but its comprehensive verification measures also provide valuable information about Russia’s nuclear weapons and modernizing systems. The treaty’s limitations especially serve American national interests today, when Russia is investing heavily in the development of new weapons, while the U.S. is not doing so. Preservation of the inspection regime helps us to keep the peace. Uncertainty about the other side’s capabilities is always destabilizing,

causing military strategists to develop plans based on worst-case scenarios. Intelligence obtained from inspections is invaluable for making accurate assessments. “Don’t trust;

only verify,” should be the new slogan of our Hot Peace era. Without an extension of New START, we will need to spend billions more on deploying additional nuclear weapons of little strategic value and on trying to gather intelligence through more opaque channels. Although U.S. arms control negotiators should also begin discussions with their Chinese and Russian counterparts about a future multilateral treaty, these actions should be sequenced, not linked. After extending New START for five years, American and Russian diplomats must launch a comprehensive agenda of strategic stability talks that include all nuclear weapons—deployed and non-deployed, strategic and non-strategic—as well as space and cyber. In parallel, the U.S. and Russia also could engage China, France and the United Kingdom in multilateral discussion about a freeze on all of their nuclear arsenals.

Regarding cooperation, American diplomats at the highest levels should engage with their Russian counterparts to end the war in eastern Ukraine. Washington and Moscow can also cooperate on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, combating climate change, pursuing nuclear nonproliferation—especially regarding Iran—and negotiating a minimal agreement on limiting cyber-attacks.

In general, the Biden administration should practice more diplomacy with the Russian government. Despite Trump’s obsession with befriending Putin, actual contacts between senior American and Russian officials declined dramatically over the last four years. Biden and Putin will continue to disagree on a range of major issues, as will the U.S. and Russian governments more broadly. But it is diplomatic malpractice to allow disagreements or conflict based on misperceptions of the other side’s intentions. If only as a mechanism

for crisis management and prevention, American and Russian diplomats should engage more often and for substantive issues. In many ways, America’s most important diplomacy occurs with adversaries, not allies.

More diplomatic engagement, however, should never translate into signaling that better relations with Russia is a goal of U.S. diplomacy. During the post-Cold War era, American presidents were eager to give their Kremlin counterparts symbolic leadership roles as a way to signal respect. But concerning our most vital national security interests, the United States does not need Russian cooperation. Too often, American and European leaders ignore Putin’s hostile behavior and exaggerate the importance of “better relations” for achieving security and economic goals. For instance, U.S. officials frequently highlight cooperation with Russia on fighting terrorism as a lowest common denominator of shared interests. Yet even this issue area is difficult to coordinate. Sometimes, as in Afghanistan and Syria, Russia is supporting directly and indirectly the very forces we are fighting.

A strategy of indifference and isolation may be better for achieving results on many issues. Cooperative relations with Moscow are better than noncooperative relations. However, the pursuit of improved relations cannot come at the expense of forgetting Russian aggression. A more prudent and effective policy is to realize that the status quo stalemate is the best that can be accomplished while Putin remains in power, and simply mitigating deterioration in

our relations would be a major achievement.

Engaging Russians, Combatting Russophobia

While the Biden administration seeks to implement a strategy of containment and limited engagement with Putin’s government, the new U.S. government should directly engage Russian society. When I traveled with then-Vice President Biden to Ukraine and Georgia in 2009 and to Russia and Moldova in 2011, he practiced dual-track engagement. Following a meeting with Prime Minster Putin, Biden met with Russian human rights and opposition

leaders; this kind of diplomacy comes naturally to him. The rest of his new administration must do the same.

In parallel, U.S. nongovernmental organizations, business leaders and universities must expand direct contacts with their counterparts in Russian society. Not all Russians support Putin’s autocratic policies at home or abroad. Those who still seek to return to democracy and rejoin the West should be encouraged. Putin’s regime seeks to limit and prevent such contacts; we must discover new modalities for expanding them.

One approach to achieving closer cooperation is to allow more permissive conditions for Russian immigration to the United States. Rather than erecting barriers, the United States should welcome the best and the brightest from around the world. U.S. officials and journalists must also stop demonizing the Russian people and instead distinguish between Russia and Russians—between Putin and the Russian people. They are not synonymous.

“Russia” did not annex Crimea; Putin did. “Russians” did not interfere in our elections; Putin did. Not every Russian working in the United States is trying to steal intellectual property. Not every Russian on Twitter criticizing U.S. policy is a Kremlin-controlled bot. Not every Russian student in the United States is a spy. Our current conflict with the Russian government is not determined by Russian culture or history; Putin individually has made choices to fuel this confrontation. Fueling “Russophobia” or propagating stereotypes

about Russian national proclivities for imperialism or dictatorship only serves Putin’s political objectives.

Revitalizing American Democracy

The United States will be engaged in an ideological struggle with the Russian autocracy for decades to come. To win the argument will require democratic renewal and improved governance—a democracy that delivers—at home. Poorly run elections and prolonged transitions damage the image of American democracy abroad. Voter disenfranchisement and suppression, police violence, gerrymandering and weak campaign finance laws all undermine America’s reputation. Likewise, our poor performance in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic offers autocrats the opportunity to argue that their systems of government are superior. Failing to identify the connection between our democracy’s declining performance at home and our ability to fight and win the ideological battle with autocracy abroad would be a strategic error.

Renewing U.S. Leadership of the Free World and the Liberal International Order

Trump was the most radically isolationist U.S. president since World War II, and American withdrawal has created opportunities for Russia (and China) to fill the global vacuum. The Biden administration, and the United States as whole, is more likely to succeed in containing Putin’s Russia by accepting greater leadership for the United States as the world’s most powerful democracy and reengaging the liberal international order. If Putin wants to undermine democracy and the liberal international order, then we should seek to

build and maintain the largest global coalition possible as a strong defense. Easy first steps for the new administration would be to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate accords, and the World Health Organization. Ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would help us achieve national security objectives vis-à-vis Russia in the Arctic (and China in the South China Sea). Demonstrating leadership in reforming and

reinvigorating the Community of Democracies, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the World Trade Organization also would establish clearer lines between democracies and autocracies in the world.


AMBASSADOR MICHAEL MCFAUL is the Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute

for International Studies, the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies, Department of Political Science, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, all at Stanford University. He also works as an international affairs analyst for NBC News and writes a monthly column for The Washington Post. He served for five years in the Obama administration, first as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council at the White House (2009-2012), and then as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012-2014). He has authored several books, including The New York Times bestseller From Cold

War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (2018). His forthcoming

book is American Renewal: Lessons from the Cold War for Competing with China and Russia Today (2021).


bottom of page