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The U.S. and Russia seem to have fallen into a pattern over the crisis in Ukraine. When Washington increases pressure on Moscow, Russia ramps up its support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, even after a Malaysia airliner was shot down over a separatist-held region. Many wonder if it's time for a new approach to Vladimir Putin's Russia, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At the start of the Cold War, diplomat George Kennan came up with the policy of containment. The director of the Kennan Institute, Matthew Rojansky, wouldn't advocate that approach now. But he does believe it's time to rethink U.S. strategy, and he doesn't see any new George Kennans out there.
MATTHEW ROJANSKY: So far, the debate has been surprisingly narrow. I think there are lot of people lining up behind sanctions for the same intuition U.S. government has, which is, well, we have to do something. We're not going to go to war, so this is all we can do.
KELEMEN: At a recent confirmation hearing for the ambassador to Russia, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, said, he thought Putin would have changed course by now, after the Malaysian airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine. But instead Putin is doubling down. Ambassador John Tefft test says, it's hard to see how the crisis will end.
AMBASSADOR JOHN TEFFT: As you say, the $64,000 question is what is exactly President Putin's approach at this point? You were not the only one, Senator, who thought that this horrible tragedy provided an opportunity to disengage.
KELEMEN: Tefft, who has been ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania, says, there is still a diplomatic off-ramp for Putin. And the U.S. is watching what he says is a struggle between modernizers who know Russia needs capital and the nationalists who are circling the wagons.
TEFFT: I just don't see in this global market, in this globalized world that we live in how withdrawing into yourself, into an insular kind of nation is going to help you.
KELEMEN: But Rojansky, of the Kennan Institute, thinks the U.S. is underestimating what's at stake for Putin and the need to offer him a way to step back from Ukraine without losing face.
ROJANSKY: This is not an abstract foreign policy adventure for him. This is about regime stability and regime survival. And that's the kind of thing that he goes to the mat on.
KELEMEN: So Rojansky says, Putin is willing to endure more pain than the West is ready to impose. And he thinks relations, in some ways, are worse now than in the Cold War because there are few high-level contacts other than Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
ROJANSKY: They have to keep meeting. They have to have to keep talking. But the two presidents are perfectly capable of either not talking to each other or having what are essentially sanitized, meaningless, Cold War-style, stilted phone conversations.
KELEMEN: Former U.S. ambassador to Russia James Collins is also worried that there's not much diplomacy going on, particularly over Ukraine. He says, it's time to start talking about the broader issues.
JAMES COLLINS: Because the fighting is not about just a small piece of Ukrainian territory. It's about what role Russia will have in Ukraine and the areas that lie between the E.U. and NATO and the Russian Federation.
KELEMEN: Collins, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it's easy to take the moral high ground on this, but he just doesn't see sanctions as working in the long run.
COLLINS: Soon or later, we are going to have to have a negotiation with the Russian government about the future of these territories that are, if you will, in between. And it raises all kinds of very difficult political issues on both sides - issues that have largely been avoided for 25 years.
KELEMEN: Collins is hoping the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow can help move this relationship beyond where it is now, where both sides are taking tit-for-tat actions without any clear idea on how this ends. Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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