Russia’s Potential As a Spoiler Precludes Full-Blown Contaiment

So is the Crimea a game-changer that requires US/West to return to full-blown containment of Russia, as advocated by some US pundits?
Those advocating containment should keep in mind Moscow’s enormous potential as a spoiler that I itemize below (bulk of these items I came up with back in 2008) and that the Kremlin won’t hesitate to exercise if antagonized.  True, a lot of the ‘spoiling’ steps – that Russia could take  – would also damage Russia’s own interests, but not all. Given this spoiler potential and convergence of US/Western and Russian vital interests in spheres of counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism and prevention of state failures in Central Asia (see this report, which I have acted as a consultant for full list of common vital interests), I'd say it would be rational for US to continue selective partnership with Russia in those spheres while acknowledging competition in other spheres rather than go back to the Cold War mode of full-blown containment.

Major damage to US vital interests:

Short-to-medium term:

Disrupting energy markets:

  • Reducing gas exports: Russia can suspend supplies of gas to Europe, which relies on Russia for about one-third of its gas imports:
    • Can suspend exports via Ukraine, claiming that Ukraine has failed to the multi-billion dollar gas bill, but that won’t cause as much disruption as the previous Ukrainian-Russian gas wars, because there is a northern bypass (Nord Stream pipeline) and because mild winter has allowed European countries to accumulate months’ worth of gas.
    • Can suspend exports via all major pipelines, including Ukraine’s and Belarus’ transit system as well as Nord Stream. Russia has shut down individual pipelines before, citing need to service them to punish transit countries, but has always rerouted from ‘repaired’ pipelines to avoid punishing paying customers. Therefore, Russia won’t be able to justify a significant drop in deliveries to paying customers and European countries pay for Russian deliveries on time, unlike. Also, a sustained reduction of gas exports would be a self-defeating strategy, given Gazprom alone accounts for 12 percent of all Russian exports.
  • Reducing oil exports: Russia, which is world’s top oil producer, can cut production and exports of oil, citing need to repair pipelines, as it has done before,   in what would, if done on a massive scale, cause a surge in oil prices on world market. But Russia won’t be able to justify massive decline in exports. Saudi Arabia and oil major producers – that are friendly to US – as well as US itself can offset some, but not all of of the negative impact by increasing production or selling reserves. Also, a sustained reduction of oil exports would be a self-defeating strategy, given that oil revenues account for 35 of the budget’s revenues.
  • Kicking US companies out of Russia’s energy sector, including ExxonMobile.

Propping up the Iranian government:

  • UNSCR that bans sales of arms to Iran is vague enough for Russia to sell not only S-300Vs, but also S-400s to this country, which if deployed nation-wide can seriously obstruct US and its allies’ capabilities to take out nuclear and other facilities with air or missile strikes.
  • Russia could also clinch the discussed deal that would allow Iran to trade about $1.5 bn worth of its oil for Russian goods.


Adopting an aggressive Cold War redux posture. Russia could withdraw from New START, INF and Open Skies treaties, deploy nuclear-armed short-range systems in Kaliningrad/Western Russia. Such moves would seriously increase tensions, forcing US to commit more resources to deterring Russia while decline in transparency would fuel crisis instability, which would be especially detrimental, given that Russia remains the only nation that can destroy the US in half an hour. But some of such moves would impose significant costs on Russia, which is already lagging behind US in strategic nuclear forces and below some of the New START ceilings and whose stagnating economy won’t be able to sustain a significant hike in military expenditures to say less of a global stand-off with US and its allies.

Disrupting global nuclear orders If antagonized, Russia could covertly proliferate nuclear weapon and other WMD technologies as well as WMD delivery systems as some of the Russian rogue companies did in the 1990s, but in a more organized state-sponsored and state-concealed way to US foes, but that would impose costs on Russia too, eventually inviting painful Western sanctions and resulting in emergence of countries capable of using WMD against Russia on its borders, such as Iran.

Entering military-political alliance with China to assist Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia and deter US. But Russia would be a junior partner in such alliance with all the negative consequences that such an inquality and economic and demographic disparities between China and Russia’s Far East would entail.

Significant damage to US vital and very important interests.
Stopping transit of cargos from and to Afghanistan: Russia and its allies account for 50% of ISAF transit to and from Afghanistan and Russia can stop this transit. But US can re-rout transit if needed, which would incur additional cost, but is doable.

Military aid, including deliveries of air defense and other sophisticated weaponry,  training and military bases to Syria, Venezuela and countries, which US would like to coerce, but vis-à-vis which U.S. doesn’t have vital interests.

Blocking UNSCRs on issues, which affect very important, but not vital US interests, such as the Middle Eastern peace process.

Stopping counter-terrorism cooperation. Russia could stop sharing intelligence on Al Qaeda and other groups targeting U.S. and its allies. Also, if another Tamerlan Tsarnaev were to appear on FSB’s radar screen, it won’t alert FBI.


Destabilize former Soviet republics that are vying for integration into the West.  Russia could also fuel instability in those former Soviet republics that have already been integrated in the West:  encouraging protests of sizeable Russian diasporas in Latvia and Estonia.

Minor damage to US interests:

Reducing trade with US: Russia could cut imports of meat and poultry from US, which total $18 billion a year in what be a tangible blow to US producers. It can do the same to European food exports and in fact Russia has done it repeatedly before under the pretext that the food products fall short of safety requirements. Outside the food sector, however, Russia cannot hurt US much as neither country is in each other’s lists of top 10 trading partners or investors.

Suspending cooperation in space and deploy weapons there: Russian Soyuz-TMAs are the only means available to NATO to send its astronauts to International Space Station and Russia’s RD-180 engines power Atlas V rockets that launch USG cargos, but US will soon complete development of a new manned space craft to ferry crews to ISS and Atlas V can be refitted with US-made engines. Also, any deployment of weapons in space by Russia would justify moves by US that would be similar, but on a larger scale.

Suspending cooperation in fighting all types of trafficking. Again could backfire, given that ISAF is at least trying now to stem flow of opiates from Afghanistan, which kills thousands in Russia every year and which Moscow has declared a threat to national security.

Counter major international initiatives US is leading or involved in, but which don’t represent vital US interests, such as fighting climate change.


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