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Revanchist Russia: The Great Disrupter

The author studied Economics at the Eisenhower School in Washington DC and Strategy at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.


“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” [1] —Lord Palmerston

The framework of liberal and western political and economic rules seems increasingly under pressure. Today, one of its main challengers is the revanchist[2] state of Russia. The United States (U.S.) can no longer ignore the harm Russia is causing since further disintegration of the rules-based international order from a delay to confront Russian actions will lead to disruptions in the world economy, endanger alliances, and create unnecessary human suffering. Now is the time for the U.S. to exploit Russia’s weaknesses through appropriate instruments of national power[3] to stem off further disintegration in the international system by Russia.

Constrainment (Not Containment)

The U.S. strategy against Russia should be spearheaded by the policy of constrainment (not containment) against Russia, the great disrupter of 21st-century international law and order. The United States can best constrain Russia by doing three important but not so easy things.

  1. Support a European enmeshment strategy hedged with a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-based balance of power to quell Russia’s revanchism.
  2. Contain Russia’s Middle East military adventurism to only within Syria.
  3. Set the example of a rules-based international order for the world by not running afoul of the rules and order it led into creation.

The End of History…

Historians saw the collapse of the former Soviet Union as such a monumental event that it led renowned historian Francis Fukuyama to refer to the moment when the Cold War concluded as the “end of history” where Western liberal democracy became the dominant form of government.[4] The resulting collapse of the former Soviet Union seemed to signal Soviet Russia’s downfall as an international player. However, the news of their demise was premature. Core Russia (Muscovy and Siberia) was still too large, full of resources, and still very strategically located to so easily melt away. In addition, of utmost strategic importance, Russia possessed a vast and operational nuclear arsenal the West knew could only be properly controlled by a functional and dependable Russian government.

While Russia suffered due to the collapse of its economy and contracted due to breakaway regions, the U.S. emerged as the sole world superpower, able to dominate the globe and operate around the world with slight indolence.

The collapse of the former Soviet Union did give the U.S. a window of opportunity to destroy its former archrival through economic pressure and support of internal secessionist movements. However, at the time, the effort did not seem to be worth it for the U.S.[5] The U.S. felt it could just as easily create a long-lasting regional balance of power by fortifying its partners and expanding NATO.[6]

However, the emergence of a re-energized Russia under Vladimir Putin which is both discontented and distrustful of a system it feels prevents its political advancement, economic progress, and prevents Russia from taking its rightful place in the international scene is forcing the U.S. to rethink its strategic approach.

If a rules-based international order that continues to promote global security and prosperity, as well as dignity and human rights, is to continue, the U.S. will need to adapt its strategies to the changing international circumstances. An important initial action for the U.S. is to work with its European partners and allies to establish an enmeshment strategy.

Russian Enmeshment in Europe

Russia is a particular kind of actor: a revanchist state with imperial aspirations. The invasion of Ukraine is but just one element of a Putinist revanchist policy to re-establish Russian hegemony over the space of the former Soviet Union.[7] A revanchist state like Russia is normally disinclined to integrate on others' terms unless it’s with broad organizations of global prestige. This is because it prefers to construct its own regional security architecture along with its own economic bloc to establish a sphere of influence as the Soviet Union did.

Although a swift rise in power tends to engender an overtly territorial policy focus, the Lowy Institute for International Policy explains “the revanchist state has not experienced a lengthy period of sustained and diversified economic growth. This makes it potentially flimsy over the long term, but also potentially dangerous as it seeks to redraw the map around itself while a window of opportunity exists.”[8] Russia sees that opportunity and wants to seize it before the window closes.

All his bluster aside, Putin is not a modern-day version of his idol Peter the Great. Henceforth, the U.S. needs to assess Putin as an arch-pragmatist who understands Russia faces a long slide in the future due to key social and economic drivers. Russia also realizes that it finds itself in a pincer between a rising China in the Far East and the behemoth that is the U.S., where regardless of what it does or which side it chooses, it will be a junior partner. In this reality is where the opportunity lies for the U.S. The U.S. must work with Europe to develop an enmeshment[9] strategy to constrain Russian ambition in Eastern Europe and moderate their foreign policy. The way to do this is through an enmeshment strategy.

The enmeshment strategy is composed of bilateral and multilateral connections in prominent areas such as financial agreements, medicine and public health, science and technology, disaster preparedness, educational, culture, and the arts.[10] The preceding actions just mentioned leads to additional agreements and connections in defense and diplomacy. The thinking is that, short of full European Union membership, Russia’s interconnectedness at such levels with countries throughout Europe would prevent the temptation for disruptive behavior and therefore forego the consequences of any conflict due to the internal high costs of such actions.

The key for the Euro-Russo partnerships is getting to a point of indispensability; Russia would no longer be an antagonistic country looking from the outside in. The enmeshment with Europe gives Russia the participation and voice it’s been seeking for decades so it no longer feels its security and stability rests solely on international goodwill and the norms and laws it played no part to create.[11]

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The key lies in ensuring the maintenance of the security is of equal interests for all-powerful countries. Therefore, a critical step for enmeshment is to provide Russia with assurances that NATO and/or other organizations end future designs to have countries in Russia’s periphery such as Ukraine and Georgia join them. This serves as an act of commitment that could once and for all remove the constant fear of encirclement for Russia.

Beyond security, much of the enmeshment would come from Russia’s role as a supplier of energy and other crucial raw materials to a wide range of trading partners making Russia a reliable supplier to its partners. But be assured, Russia cannot just be a raw materials appendage for Europe, but a full security and trading partner that grows upon the present US$400 billion in European-Russo two-way trade.[12]

A multi-layered enmeshment strategy is hardly original and there is no reason it cannot or should not go hand in hand with an attempt to sustain strong military and economic partnerships. Simply put, the enmeshment strategy embraces the old adage that one should “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Enmeshment takes into account that Russia, now part of the system and process, is able to air out its differences through constructive ways where they trade their military ambitions for the opportunity to be part of the greater rule-making process of European affairs through the exercise of diplomatic, economic, and political instruments of power.

Although enmeshment could curb Russia’s negative behavior, it would only be prudent for the U.S. to hedge on Russia’s reluctance to play by the rules due to a perceived lack of Russian incentives.

The U.S. will need to cooperatively rebalance Europe through NATO and the anchor of the rebalance needs to be Poland. Poland is a full member of NATO which would readily accept NATO forces into its borders and has trained military forces capable of operating independently. This capability allows Poland to effectively defend NATO’s Eastern frontier from possible Russian aggression. Thus, Poland, the anchor of the rebalancing strategy, has the military power to seriously blunt any Russian moves westward; a fact which does not escape Russia.

As in 1920, when the Soviet Army could not push past Warsaw, Poland served as the wall to defend Central Europe from any westward progress by Moscow’s military.”[13] In this hedge strategy, the U.S. is leveraging its diplomatic, military, economic, financial, political, and ideological instruments of national power to fend off Russia’s hunger for additional territory by creating an impenetrable wall of defense in Eastern Europe.

For the reasons mentioned before, the enmeshment strategy can provide Moscow, regardless of its leader, with “terra firma” and have the opposite effect containment had on the Russian psyche.

Containment, as a policy launched by the Truman Administration, was designed to frustrate Soviet attempts to expand their military, political, and economic base in Europe.[14] However, a side effect of the policy was paranoia which led to erratic and dangerous behavior stemming from the fear of a Western European and U.S. attack that is still prevalent in Putin’s Russia. Instead, enmeshment can bring about an end to the paranoia and replace it with calm and pragmatic Euro-Russo relations.

Russian Containment in Syria

The United States and its regional allies have been frustrated as their policies to topple the President Bashar al-Assad regime repeatedly failed. Meanwhile, jihadists such as Daesh (the Islamic State (IS)) thrive in the chaos that is Syria’s civil war resulting in death and in millions of refugees flooding Syria’s neighbors as well as Europe. Complicating U.S. policy in the region is Russia’s introduction to the Syrian conflict where the costs to Moscow have so far been limited.[15] So what are Russia’s interests in Syria?

Moscow has a long history with Syria, based on long-lasting cooperation that preceded Bashar al-Assad, and even his long-reigning father, Hafez.[16] This Damascus-Moscow alignment still endures for a few reasons.

  • During the Cold War, Soviet Russia regarded Syria’s Ba’ath Party highly favorably since it refused to participate in the U.S. containment strategy.[17]
  • Additionally, Syria is geopolitically significant to Russia. As the civil war began back in 2011, Syria had a population of 23 million people, making it the eighth-most populous Arab country and it has a long Mediterranean coast with good ports.[18]
  • In return for supporting its military with the Soviet and now Russian armaments, Syria’s leaders have been willing to provide Russia access to naval bases and airfields.

As a result, Rajan Menon from the National Interest explains that “Moscow has what economists call substantial “sunk costs” in Syria: interests acquired, political contacts cultivated, markets (for arms and trade) nurtured and access to strategic installations—above all the naval facility at Tartus—gained.”[19] But there were just as powerful self-interests for Russia to throw their full support behind Syria’s Assad regime.

In 2011, Russia endorsed (by abstention) a humanitarian UN resolution on Libya that NATO later used to topple Gaddafi. Russia felt this was a betrayal of their goodwill and cooperation with the West on a humanitarian effort.[20] With this recent experience fresh in their mind, Russia became convinced the U.S. had similar designs in Syria. As a result, Putin steeled himself to not let the political slight suffered from Libya happen again.

In Syria, Putin drew a line to prevent any more Western-led regime changes in the Middle East vis-à-vis Iraq and Libya. The defense of state sovereignty is very important to Russia; this is mainly for self-preservation. Putin and many Russians fear that Moscow could be a future target if regime change gains international momentum.[21] In addition, Putin now sees Syrian intervention as an opportunity to show the world his ability to bring stability to an area the U.S. failed to, therefore, increasing his stature on the world stage.

An unintended consequence of the U.S. minimalist political approach to the Middle East is the apparent partnership developed between Russia and Iran; a partnership that grows strategically more important each day.

Aside from the mutual support for the Assad regime, Syria is important to Iran’s strategic interests in the Middle East and has long been Iran’s closest state ally. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the Assad regime provides “crucial access to Iranian proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, allowing Iran to move people, weapons, and money to these groups through Syrian territory.”[22]

While Syria provides Russia an international stage to act, it provides Iran the regional stage it desires to exert its power and influence at very low risk as Russia absorbs the majority of the risk. There is an additional critical reason for the Russo-Persian axis: preventing terrorism in Russia.

Historian Stanislav Khatuntsev explains that Iran serves as a “kind of shield protecting Russia’s Caucasus and Central Asian regions from the onslaught of militant Islamism.”[23] Iran provides Russia the strategic depth it needs against Saudi-encouraged Sunni extremism seeping into its national boundaries.[24] Chechnya-type terrorist acts and potential threats are never far from Russian memories.

Understanding the political interconnected webs forming in Syria, what strategy can the U.S. develop to counteract Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East? Russia astutely exercised its diplomatic, political, military, and ideological instruments of power to get ahead of the U.S. and fill a crucial power vacuum in Syria. However, it is now important for the U.S. to formulate a realistic strategy versus Russia to ensure Russia cannot expand its influence outside of Syria.

The United States' Middle East strategy needs to adjust through a containment strategy that brings in regional partners to prevent the spillover influence of Russia in the Middle East.

To begin with, the U.S. needs to make the international community and the Middle East in particular, believe that Russian intervention (in partnership with Iran) will only bring instability with resulting misery for the region.[25] Once the region accepts this inevitability, the U.S. can lead the formation of a containment coalition composed of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and even Israel in order to encircle Russia in Syria.

Some of these countries have publicly expressed opposition to Russian intervention in Syria so they are already predisposed to work in a manner that would severely limit Russia’s potential reach outside of Syria. The facility in building the coalition comes as many of the countries mentioned already have strong political and social differences with Russia. Meanwhile, the U.S. needs to help solve crucial issues for their partners.

Ian J. Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council explains that the U.S. effort in the Middle East in concert with its partners requires military action, security assistance, and humanitarian assistance.[26] Therefore, the U.S. can work in Iraq to defeat the Islamic State (IS), assist with the displaced personnel crisis in Turkey and Jordan, and enlarge support for Egypt’s military rulers.

Israel can benefit from U.S. support against Hamas and Palestinian militant groups as the U.S. joins Saudi Arabia in condemning Iran’s continued involvement in Syria and the support of extremist groups around the region. These actions serve to draw Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and Israel close to the U.S. so they never have to consider shifting allegiances to a resurgent Russia in the Middle East.

The result is an isolated Russia in Syria that needs to follow through on its high-risk Middle East commitment. This containment strategy may be even more important if Russia is successful in Syria as Russia’s newfound confidence will lead it to look for the next Syria in the Middle East that needs “fixing.”

As all of the aforementioned takes place, the U.S. needs to lead an international chorus that holds Putin accountable for Syria. The law of unintended consequences works for Russia too, so it would suit Putin well to realize, now that he has ostentatiously shouldered the burden of combating Islamic extremism that his only chance of success is a diplomatic settlement that begins with the management of a more inclusive government (though still led by the Assad regime), followed by their commitment to combat IS in Syria, and finally deliver on his promise to stave off the flow of migrants into Western Europe.

The U.S. and the international community need to demand that Russia now play the game they so much wanted to play; the part of a responsible and law-abiding international player. However, for that challenge to fully work, the U.S. itself must abide by the rules and values it established and espouses.

Setting the Example for the World

One of the great challenges for great powers is properly behaving in accordance with the international norms and rules. Thucydides’ realpolitik behavior infamously demonstrated in the Melian Dialogue no longer represents the rules and standards the U.S. must emulate for the international system to properly function.

The Chatham House at the Royal Institute of International Affairs points out that for a “system based on rules to have an effect, these rules must be visibly observed by their principal and most powerful advocates.”[27] The U.S. is the undisputed principal of the present international system and when it decides to not follow the rules, the repercussions can be felt for years and undermines the credibility so crucial as an international leader.

The U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 under a strongly contested UN authorization casts a long shadow over America’s assertion to be the prime defender of a rules-based international system. And although the U.S. has taken a more multilateral approach to problem-solving and demonstrates discretion in using overt military force, the world still points to major obstacles to their commitment to follow the rules such as the failure to completely close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility where detainees are held without charges, the reports on the use of torture, the continued use of presidential authority to carry out lethal unmanned aircraft strikes throughout the Middle East and Pakistan, and the revelations by Edward Snowden of how the U.S. intelligence apparatus used the Internet to carry out espionage.[28]

All of the aforementioned policies leave the U.S. exposed to the accusation that it is as discriminating as any country as to when it abides and does not abide by the international norms and rules it expects of others.

The main danger is that this perplexed method of U.S. leadership opens space for other nations to pursue a ‘might is right’ approach when it comes to their own strategic priorities.[29]

As the guardian of international law and order, the U.S. cannot forfeit its leadership position through hasty policies stemming from short-sighted threats and interests. This is especially true for the Middle East; a region where the U.S. needs to establish strong partnerships in order to defeat Daesh and contain Russia.

Pragmatic Strategic Options

The 19th century British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Henry Lord Palmerston stated that:

The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity.[30]

Why should the U.S. be the nation that ends Russia’s revanchist behavior? Simple, it’s the only one that can. Since a military option is not politically feasible or acceptable, inclusion through an enmeshment strategy is the path forward.

An enmeshment strategy in Europe positively entangles Russia in European trade, financing, and security, making its own interests those of Europe, and making events such as the invasions of Ukraine and Georgia less likely to happen. However, U.S. prudence calls for an accompanying hedge strategy where NATO serves as a balance of power to quell Russia’s revanchism if it decides to continue on such a path.

During World War II, Winston Churchill explained, “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is to fight without them.”[31] The U.S. must come to the full realization that it needs to dedicate effort to renewing and creating valuable alliances and partnerships throughout the world. This could not be truer than now in the Middle East where the U.S. needs to check Russian ambition.

To achieve this, the U.S. needs to develop a containment strategy against Russia’s military adventurism in the Middle East by constructing and enhancing security partnerships with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Israel.

The emphasis placed on these partnerships serves to draw these countries closer to the U.S. so they never have to consider shifting allegiances to a “resurgent” Russia in the Middle East. This endeavor, though with challenges, checks Russia’s influence on the boundaries of Syria.

Even though an increasingly confrontational Russia invaded Ukraine and IS spreads across the Middle East from Syria, the U.S. does not find itself alone in facing these tough and new challenges. Allies and partners around the world are looking again to the United States for leadership as they once did during the Cold War.

The attraction for America to serve as the prevailing world power the world turns to for leadership comes from the trust it holds as the principal defender of the rules-based international order.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and Commander of U.S. European Command, stated that Russia "is on a far different course than the West had expected after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today the country employs all elements of national power; its course is not a temporary aberration but a new norm; and its path reflects a long-term commitment, sustained by long-term plans for resource allocation.”[32] Russian revanchist behavior is not new.

Throughout its history, Russia expanded and contracted in relation to its power. As an entity that sees itself more as an empire instead of a nation-state, it is prudent for the U.S. to clearly understand what drives Russian revanchist behavior and find ways to make Russia behave in accordance with international norms and rules.

Enmeshment in Europe, containment in the Middle East, and the self-regulation of U.S. international behavior can make a great difference in constraining Russian actions and future behavior. Power politics is still the major game and a new chapter in the rise and fall of great powers—the United States and Russia—is now open.


[1] Lord Henry John Temple Palmerston, British statesman who served twice as Prime Minister in the mid-19th century, quote on national interest, (accessed 17 November, 2015).

[2] Revanchism is a policy seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory.

[3] A power profile structure serves as an analytical tool to allow the strategic leader to compare and contrast the instruments of power for one country or numerous countries to ascertain where their strengths and weaknesses lie in order to assist in the strategy and policy making process. NSPS NDU Course 2015.

[4] Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?”, The National Interest 16, (Summer 1989): pp 3-18.

[5] George Friedman, The Next Decade, (New York: Doubleday, 2011), 120.

[6] Ibid., 121.

[7] Ian J. Brzezinski, “Transatlantic Security Challenge: Central and Eastern Europe,” Washington, DC, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 10, 2014.

[8] Matthew Sussex, “Russia-Crimea. Putin’s Revanchism,” March 19, 2014, (accessed November 13, 2015).

[9] Enmeshment is an international relations term for a strategy secures voluntary compliance to a system of accepted norms and rules.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The XX Committee, “Poland Prepares for Russian Invasion,” October 30, 2014, (accessed November 11, 2015).

[14]Richard F Grimmett. Conventional Arms Transfers to the Developing Nations, 2001-2008, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, September 2008.

[15]Christopher Phillips, “Syria: The View from Moscow,” December 9, 2014, (accessed 13 November, 2015).

[16] Carnegie International Peace and Security, “Should the US Cooperate with Russia on Syria and ISIS?”, October 1, 2015, (accessed November 14, 2015).

[17] Christopher Phillips, “Syria: The View from Moscow,” December 9, 2014, (accessed 13 November, 2015).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Rajan Menon, “Why Russia’s Action in Syria are no Shocker,” The National Interest Online, September 15, 2015, (accessed November 13, 2015).

[20] Christopher Phillips, “Syria: The View from Moscow,” December 9, 2014, (accessed 13 November, 2015).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Will Fulton et al., Iranian Strategy in Syria (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2013), 6.

[23] John W. Parker, Understanding Putin through a Middle Eastern Looking Glass, (Washington, DC: INSS 19, 2015) 25.

[24] Ibid., 87.

[25] David Ignatius, “The U.S. Cannot Pass Syria on to Putin,” Washington Post Online, September 29, 2015, (accessed November 13, 2015).

[26] Ian J. Brzezinski, “Transatlantic Security Challenge: Central and Eastern Europe,” Washington, DC, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 10, 2014.

[27] Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs , “Challenges to the Rules-Based International Order,” (accessed 14 November, 2015).

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Lord Henry John Temple Palmerston, British statesman who served twice as Prime Minister in the mid-19th century, quote on Russia’s appetite to expand when given opportunity, (accessed November 14, 2015).

[31] Spalding and Lowther, “How Russia, China, and IS Have Made the US Popular Again,” The Diplomat Online, July 29, 2015, (accessed November 13, 2015).

[32] Ashish Kumar Sen, “2015 Distinguished Leadership Awards: A Night to Remember,” April 30, 2015, (accessed November 14, 2015).

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Fernando Guadalupe Jr

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