All the U.S. needs to do, then, is demonstrate convincingly but carefully that it can use force, and Russia — with or without Putin at the helm — will retreat. It’s not clear, though, whether the U.S. can afford to project strength every time Russia provokes it. Would a U.S. administration enhance or reduce its popularity by going all-in in Syria to remove President Bashar Al-Assad? How many U.S. voters would agree to a military adventure in Ukraine? Clearly, less resolute U.S. action is not seen in Moscow as a credible show of strength. Putin is always willing to go an extra step because he’s not held back by any democratic baggage, and the likelihood that Russia will have other rulers like him on a long-term horizon is quite high. That undermines the neo-Kennanist narrative.
There is an alternative to the Komodo dragon tactic and the Kennan deterrence doctrine. It’s to ignore Putin’s self-serving vision of Russia as a conservative, Orthodox bulwark against Western rot and Islamism as a flimsy propaganda construct, and to see the country, ultimately, as part of the Western civilization. It’s not much harder than viewing today’s Hungary or Poland through that lens despite the setbacks democracy and Western values have suffered in these countries.
Such a perspective would dictate a clear strategy: Cooperate with Russia where it’s acting fundamentally like a Western country and confront it where it isn’t.