How Do You Deter Russia?
The West needs to learn how to deter Russia in the deniable places the Kremlin likes to operate from
In his 1984 speech on Soviet-American relations, President Reagan said that “deterrence is essential to preserve peace and protect our way of life.” His comments came in the context of countering Soviet aggression after a three-year arms build up, and everyone understood achieving deterrence to be through credible nuclear and conventional forces. Today, the question of how to deter Russia has broadened and needs to be more specific about what, exactly, it is we are trying to deter. The current situation the United States faces regarding Russia is that Moscow has a suite of tools it can employ across a broad spectrum of confrontation and the U.S. has deterred only a portion of them. The table below lays out a notional conflict spectrum that includes nuclear war, conventional war, non-conventional operations (there are several terms for this including unrestricted war, hybrid warfare, indirect action, active measures…etc.) and other baseline activities.
Judging by the lack of Russian action in the past 70 years that would breach NATO’s Article 5 threshold, I believe the United States and its allies have arguably succeeded in deterring Russia from the top part of the above spectrum but not the bottom. That is, the alliance knows how to deter both a conventional military territorial invasion and a nuclear threat against member states, and has demonstrated that ability for multiple generations. It achieved this with its aggregately large and technologically capable conventional and nuclear forces, supported by large economies to generate those forces.
However, there are several things Washington and its allies have not deterred Moscow from. That list includes conventional invasions against non-NATO members, such as in Georgia in 2008. The United States and NATO have also been unable to deter non-conventional attacks against NATO members, such as Russia’s cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007, the use of chemical or radiological weapons in assassination attempts on NATO member soil (see the 2006 Alexander Litvinenko poisoning and the 2018 Skripal poisoning in the UK), or multiple interference operations such as the French and American Presidential elections.
Russia’s pursuit of its objectives through means short of conventional force against America and its allies may be a result of NATO’s successful conventional deterrent. I also argue that the lower end of the conflict spectrum is appealing to Moscow because it entails far less cost.
Cost can be measured or defined in several ways. First, there is financial cost. Russia’s economy is far smaller than that of either the United States or Europe, and a fraction of the combined strength of NATO. For perspective, using the International Monetary Fund’s estimates, the American economy is 13 times larger than the Russian economy. Even after accounting for Russia’s purchasing power parity (aka what it can actually buy with the ruble) Russia still lags behind by a factor of five. Due to its relatively weak financial position, operating on the low end of the conflict spectrum by using cyber tools, intelligence services, intimidation, and other inexpensive options should be viewed as a financial necessity for Moscow. If competition with the West gets costly, NATO can easily afford to out-spend Russia.
Another way to define cost is in human lives. Ignore the idea created by the Soviet experience in World War II that Russian leaders and its public are willing to suffer enormous casualties in any conventional conflict. The Great Patriotic War is not comparable to any conflict Russia has experienced since and, hopefully, will never be. Then, the USSR was defending its homeland from an existential Nazi threat where both fighting and surrender produced the same fatal outcome. Furthermore, Stalin was a ruler uniquely tolerant of casualties. If Russia found itself in a similar situation today, it would likely use its nuclear arsenal, rather than absorb millions of casualties. Furthermore, since WWII, the Soviet Union and Russia have been politically sensitive to casualties. The USSR withdrew from Afghanistan rather than take indefinite losses that further aggravated its public, and Russian leaders were frustrated by their performance in both the First and Second Chechen Wars, as well as in the 2008 Georgia war. President Putin masked and played down the number of casualties Russia suffered in Ukraine and the Russia public is largely opposed to military involvement in Syria. Like most world powers, achieving the nation’s aims with few or no casualties is preferable for the Kremlin and is one more reason operating at the bottom of the spectrum is appealing.
Beyond financial and human, perhaps the best way to think of costs is in the risk of provoking an opponent’s reaction. Options on the low end of the spectrum entail less risk that the conflict will escalate or provoke a strong response. Often this is because operations at the low end are more covert or plausibly deniable, making it harder for the West to react in a unified or forceful way. When Russia is caught conducting normal intelligence operations there is rarely any reaction beyond some intelligence officers being expelled from a host nation. When Russia conducted a cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007, Moscow suffered no repercussion. When Russian agents poisoned Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006 with radioactive polonium, it took over 9 years for the UK Home Office to publish its official inquiry results. And, when Russia conducted a coup attempt against Montenegro in October 2016, as that nation was entering the NATO alliance, the only consequence Russia suffered was that 14 people were given prison sentences; two Russian agents were charged in absentia and will never serve time. However one may define how Russia seized Crimea and leads the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, be it little green men, hybrid warfare, indirect action, active measures or any other term, this action allowed the Russian state to violate Ukrainian territory with a veneer of plausible deniability. The international community reacted with sanctions and by expelling Russia from groups like the G8, but these costs are almost certainly lower than they would have been if Russia acted more boldly and overtly. When one looks at Russian interference in U.S. and other elections, the consequences of those actions are again sanctions or nothing at all.
So, How Does one Respond to These Lower Spectrum Actions?
I believe the United States too often tries to control how conflict moves up or down the escalation scale by seeking dominance at higher levels under the assumption that it will deter aggression at lower levels. This logic presumes that adversaries will be reluctant to enter a conflict if Washington has the ability and willingness to escalate and win. This may hold true when core strategic interests are at stake and the nation is willing to expend resources and accept risk. However, deterring from the top down has a poor track record of success, as the previous examples of propaganda, cyber-attacks, coup attempts, and assassinations illustrate. The reason such deterrence doesn’t extend down the spectrum is because a massive military response is often considered a radical, incommensurate overreaction and not internationally or domestically viable. “Release another propaganda video and I’ll bomb you” just sounds comical.
It shouldn’t be surprising that more weapons systems, deployed forces, or exercises won’t deter such low level Russian activities, considering most of what Russia does at this level isn’t through traditional military operations. Instead, Russia uses multiple tools across its society to include intelligence services, oligarchs, banks, and even biker gangs. Likewise, countries should think beyond military activity to mitigate threats. As one successful example, Lithuania diversified its natural gas supply away from 100% reliance on Russia when it opened a liquefied natural gas reception facility at Klaipeda port in 2014. One of the results of breaking Gazprom’s monopoly was that increased competition compelled the Russian gas giant to lower prices by 20%. Ending Lithuania’s gas reliance on Moscow thus produced greater energy and economic security. More generally, efforts to strengthen the rule of law counter the influence of Russian oligarchs while improving investor confidence. Paper ballots reduce the risk of election interference and increase citizen’s confidence in the democratic process.
Beyond such defensive measures, to deter Russian actions nations need to find new ways to inflict cost on Moscow. While this may entail more sanctions, offensive cyber operations, or other actions, one of the best ways to respond may be through public attribution. Denying Moscow the ability to operate out of the view of the international community, and Russia’s own public, will force it to accept more risk. That is what former UK Prime Minister Theresa May did when she announced on 12 March 2018 that it was highly likely Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent. Her public attribution to Russia was noteworthy because it was only 8 days after the attack and put the spotlight on Moscow without waiting for the forensics to be airtight. The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats published a paper on Deterrence which expands thinking on this topic.
Working from the bottom of the conflict spectrum up instead of the top down complicates Moscow’s freedom to operate on the cheap and in the shadows. It forces Russia’s leaders to ask themselves how overtly they are willing to act and how much risk are they willing to accept. Ultimately, the more Russia is forced to act in the open, the more it rallies the international community to oppose it. The Bell¿ngcat approach of employing unclassified intelligence armed with new tools could be a start. Creative minds can surely add other strategies to increase the costs to Moscow.