October 24, 2018

Deterring Russia: Twists and Turns of the Strategic Debate

May 9, 2018: Iskander-M ballistic missile systems during a Victory Day military parade marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War, the Eastern Front of World War II.
May 9, 2018: Iskander-M ballistic missile systems during a Victory Day military parade marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War, the Eastern Front of World War II.

The scale of defence expenditure might not save us from political and societal failure

The strategic debate in the West has been taking some strange turns over the last year or so. The first strand of this came to a head after the Trump administration published its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).1 Reacting to the US bid to expand the range of available response options to Russia’s so-called “escalate to de-escalate” approach—for instance, in the event of a conflict in the Baltic region—a number of experts came out in force to say that such an approach did not even exist and that the new US policy made a nuclear war more likely. Hence, they say, the new US nuclear policy is a “dangerous solution to a non-existent problem”.2 Then came the mea culpa by Mark Galeotti: the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine”—a moniker given to the musings of Russia’s Chief of General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, by Galeotti himself that gave rise to the entire “industry” of “hybrid warfare” across the West—did not really exist.3

All this also comes in the context of an ever-present number of voices heard in various fora that the Baltic states should finally stop worrying—Russia was never going to attack NATO members directly, by military means, and thus risk its own destruction in a Third World War that would surely be a nuclear Armageddon. Deterrence, they say, still works perfectly well, and Moscow is a rational actor that employs military force only as a last resort. To them, a tripwire force in the Baltics, in the form of NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battalion-strength battlegroups, is perfectly sufficient. It suddenly seems that all the insights, assumptions and conclusions drawn over the past decade from observing Russia’s strategic behaviour came crashing down at once. Did they really?

Let’s start with “escalate to de-escalate”. It is quite correct to say this is a something of an oxymoron and should rather be, per Thomas Schelling’s theory, “intrawar deterrence”.4 However, appreciating its existence is less a matter of reading the official documents and more of reading the Kremlin regime’s mind, rhetoric and modus operandi. And here the picture is not so optimistic: this regime—from top to bottom—is obviously not coy about throwing around loose nuclear threats. Russia’s military habitually integrates a nuclear dimension in its large-scale military exercises. (Although there are experts who say that evidence of practising limited nuclear strikes in these is weak,5 the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service says in its latest annual report that Zapad 2017 again included a nuclear phase.6) Russia also possesses more than enough tools—“low-yield”, “non-strategic”, “tactical”, whatever one likes to call them, warheads and their means of delivery—to be able to deliver a “limited” nuclear strike. And many Russia-watchers warn that Putin regards the West as being too weak-kneed to be able to accept the risks of escalation—a risk that nuclear blackmail serves well to compound.7 The latest revelation, in Bob Woodward’s book, that the Russians privately communicated to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis that Russia would not hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO in case of a war in the Baltics, only serves to confirm the existence of such thinking at the top levels in Moscow.8

Now let us imagine a scenario in which there is an ongoing conflict between Russia and NATO over, let’s say, Russia biting off a slice of one or two of the Baltic states. NATO is trying to reinforce a Baltic ally while Russia is using its “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) assets in the Kaliningrad exclave and in other parts of its Western Military District to fend the Alliance off and defend its quick military fait accompli. How confident can we be that Putin would keep his finger off the nuclear button? Could there be no circumstances in which Moscow might feel some strong reasons to up the ante, take a bold risk and use a “low-yield” nuclear weapon to stop a conventionally superior NATO in its tracks? It is possible to imagine there might indeed be: a kinetic action against A2/AD assets on Russian territory as well as physically isolating Kaliningrad Oblast would be one such development. As suggested by a prominent Russian strategic thinker at a seminar in Brussels last October (who cannot be named as the event was held under Chatham House rules), a perceived heightened risk of losing access to the Kaliningrad exclave would warrant Russia not only making a dash to take control of the Suwałki corridor but also issuing nuclear threats or even resorting to actual use of nuclear weapons, because such a course of events could plausibly fall into the category of “a threat to the very existence of the state”. (First use of nuclear weapons in circumstances threatening the existence of the state is also in line with official Russian military doctrine.)9

Misreading the West’s resolve to defend what could be construed as “peripheral members” could also play a part in the Kremlin’s miscalculation. The sheer desperation of a regime suddenly checked in the midst of a high-risk/high-reward military adventure, and perhaps feeling cornered domestically as a result, could be another cause of a “nuclear spasm”. Some analysts, although critical of the NPR’s measures prescribed to deter such a scenario, admit that it is plausible:10 the utility of a limited use of nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” and terminate a conflict still on Russia’s terms might indeed cross the minds of those at the helm of the Kremlin regime under a certain confluence of internal and external circumstances. So, it is better to be safe than sorry and do everything necessary to make sure Moscow harbours no illusions—either about the West’s resolve or about the availability of reliable means in NATO’s possession. This is the gist of the NPR message directed at Moscow, which says: “Russia must … understand that nuclear first-use, however limited, will fail to achieve its objectives, fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, and trigger incalculable and intolerable costs for Moscow.”11 At least from where the Baltic states stand, such language in the NPR sounds like Christmas coming early.

Which brings us to another issue: should the Baltics really stop worrying, relax and watch the Alliance’s bright minds and machinery shift their focus to other, more vulnerable, spots (e.g. the Balkans)? Apart from having to pinch myself as though we were back in 2008–9 again, trying to prove the validity of our concerns to our allies—and also apart from the assurances that “Russia will never attack” sounding like something straight out of Maria Zakharova’s [spokesperson of the Russian foreign ministry—Ed.] playbook—it seems this question will not be going away. To start with, the Baltic states do not really believe an invasion is nigh: that much is stated very clearly, for instance, in the report by the Estonian intelligence service mentioned earlier. Estonia’sdefence-policy documents and assessments refer to more immediate concerns about military intimidation, border violations, risks of miscalculation and the possibility of incidents and provocations spiralling out of control.

Still, deep down we are right to be worried: should a nightmare scenario actually materialise, it would almost certainly entail an existential threat. Hope—that this will never become a reality because of what NATO is already doing in the region or because Putin does not want to commit national suicide just yet—is not a sound basis for prudent defence planning and policy in militarily vulnerable front-line nations. At the same time, those sceptics of a nightmare scenario base their own belief in Russia’s self-restraint on (a) the fact that NATO’s deterrence has never failed before, (b) hearing their interlocutors in Moscow rubbishing the Baltics’ concerns and, sometimes, (c) understanding that Russia uses military force only as a last resort, once all other means have been exhausted.

However, deterrence is a somewhat slippery concept in which chance and luck play as large a role as rational calculations or psychological inhibitions conditioned by particular historical contexts. As they say in the prospectuses of investment funds, “past performance does not guarantee future returns”. Deterrence needs continuous maintenance, calibration and adjustment—and accurate reading of the adversary’s mindset—to stay effective. NATO still relies heavily on “deterrence by punishment”—capability and the will to incur unacceptable costs on the aggressor—to deter Russia’s conventional military aggression against the Baltics. Such a posture, however, seriously lacks credibility in the conditions in which the other side—as one senior US think-tank analyst puts it (under Chatham House rules)—“can punish you back”. At the same time, suggestions to strengthen “deterrence by denial” in the Alliance’s most vulnerable spots (e.g. the Baltics) keep eliciting dismay and ridicule, even though it is, as Professor Lawrence Freedman put it, “a stronger form of deterrence”.12 Moreover, it would not require matching Russia’s conventional forces tank for tank, missile for missile—just an ability to deny Russia the ability to establish a quick military fait accompli. And the Baltics clearly feel that they, and the whole of NATO, should do too much rather than too little when it comes to bolstering military deterrence and defence.13

Second, the interlocutors in Moscow that Western Russia experts talk to are often low-(ish) or middle-ranking, or even retired, officials in the ministries or armed forces who neither have any impact on the strategic decisions made in the Kremlin nor are actually closely familiar with the calculations and perceptions at the top—particularly not in the head of the one person who matters most, Vladimir Putin. (Not to mention that they are often just toeing the official agitprop line fronted by Zakharova & Co.) We should listen to the behavioural scientists and their predictive models based on analysis of the integrative complexity of political leaders14 rather than to insights gleaned from interacting with such unreliable interlocutors.

This leaves us with the suggestion that Moscow always plays it nice and uses military force as a last resort, which in turn brings us back to “Gerasimov Doctrine”. Galeotti should not be beating himself up too hard (or getting too upset about RT distorting, misrepresenting and misusing his story15—this is what they always do). He applied a reasonably good label to how Russia’s top military leadership thinks about the character of contemporary conflict and geopolitical confrontation in which Moscow sees itself involved. The now famous Gerasimov article having been an interpretation of the West’s actions rather than an authoritative prescription and guide for Russia’s own is now mostly water under the bridge, as Russia’s confrontation with the West is in full swing. We may call it “political warfare” or something else, but this is what the regime so heavily based on the KGB cadre is historically accustomed to doing and is currently engaged in, and it is facilitated by new technology (such as social media and cyber hacking) reaching deep into “enemy” societies.

Galeotti’s article elegantly analyses Russia’s thinking and modus operandi once again, leaving no one under any illusion that pressure on countries such as the Baltic states will go away as long as the present regime remains in power in Moscow. Does labelling it the “Gerasimov Doctrine” do any harm? Perhaps it might sometimes convey the impression that the military is in the lead of such warfare, or that the military elementweighs most heavily in Russia’s strategy, but renaming it the “Surkov Doctrine” would not do it many favours either. It is important not to be naïve and to see that military force is not used by Russia as “the last resort” (as if contemporary Russia were a highly responsible and restrained international actor), but rather as part of a broad mix of instruments of power and when the conditions are right and ripe, perhaps after years of shaping the target. The riper that target, the less actual fighting is required and less resistance encountered—just ask the Ukrainians why they lost the Crimea in the way and at the time they did. Sometimes the military component might be absent altogether in a specific theatre in what Dima Adamsky calls “cross-domain coercion”,16 but there is never complete certainty that it will not come along at some point—the Kremlin has already shown it is willing to use it for blackmailing, protecting geopolitical gains or actual warfare whenever expedient.

Given the nature and character of the regime in Moscow, the Baltic states have no basis for trusting any assurances of Russia’s benign intent, or its unwillingness to resort to military force and nuclear suasion, let alone to engage in political and societal subversion and destabilisation. At the same time, they also appreciate that stronger military defence and deterrence by denial are necessary but not sufficient conditions to protect themselves: the fundamental lesson from 1940 by the three countries which were spending almost a fifth of their national budgets on the military was simple—no amount of military power will save you from political and societal failure. Russia’s regime has to be contained in all dimensions, from military—nuclear and conventional—through cyber and information to the economy, finance, culture and even sport, just as democratic societies now have to be protected in all those dimensions, too. Instead of engaging in recurrent soul-searching about our “fault”, pointless hand-wringing about being “too provocative” and endless debates over whether we attach correct labels or have enough “evidence” to act, we should be putting in place robust solutions that keep the Kremlin in a box. Russia under Putin is a rogue but fundamentally weak state—and should be treated like one.



Holger Mölder, Associate Professor in International Relations at TalTech

Russia’s confrontation with the West has been in full swing in recent decades. I agree with Tomas Jermalavičius that the conflict is not only military but involves various dimensions, which is why the politically popular solution of increasing defence expenditure (the equivalent of buying two candles instead of one in a church) might not be enough to guarantee security. I believe that our defence does not depend solely on the number of tanks and fighter aircraft, and the best factor to guarantee a country’s security is a well-functioning and innovative civil society, where citizens are glad to live. National security is a comprehensive whole. Favouring military defence over political, economic, psychological and social defence might not result in the best security solution.

I definitely don’t agree with the claim that Russia isn’t a rational actor. On the contrary, the primary task of every regime is self-preservation, which is why even North Korea can be called rational. In the worst case, it is a rational actor that forces its opponent to act irrationally. I think demonising Putin is a rather unreasonable way to handle the problem, but I’m not a politician whose personal well-being depends on serving up popular solutions to voters as cheaply as possible. If we believe that the regime might use nuclear weapons at any moment, the most effective countermeasure would be to launch a preventive attack; but would that be the best solution? That is why it would be best to give up discussing key doctrines like “escalation–de-escalation” and the “Gerasimov Doctrine”—because we won’t find a way to deal with the problem there.

Harnessing the “Russian threat” to push political slogans that might lead to a permanent culture of fear is equally dangerous—that may be Russia’s actual purpose and could bring about tragic consequences. Zbigniew Brzezinski characterised the culture of fear as a force that obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilise the public to support the policies they want to pursue.1 As we can’t be sure that Russia won’t ever attack us with military force, we can’t be certain that the aggression will occur or in the exact form we expect from Russia. This does not mean underestimating the Russian Federation and the threat it embodies, but if we look at the example of conflicts in the post-Soviet space, we see that Russia has used the tactics of destabilising its opponents effectively and the culture of fear has been a successful tool in realising that purpose.


1 Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Terrorized by ‘War on Terror’”. The Washington Post, 25 March 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/23/AR2007032301613.html (accessed 20 July 2011)


Raivo Vare, Observer

Tomas Jermalavičius has provided a clear and concise summary of two opinions that have become quite unpopular in the West, and argues quite well why they are wrong.

I’ll address the first, according to which the Baltic states should stop worrying about potential Russian aggression. It is claimed instead that the US nuclear doctrine is dangerous, as it provokes Russia and therefore increases the nuclear threat. I have to say that this creates a sense of déjà vu for people from older generations because it resembles the “tunes” of Cold War-era “peace nightingales”—who were, as it turned out, wrong. The opinion is based on the belief that Russia will behave rationally and use military force only as a last resort. By the way, the “escalate-to-de-escalate” approach attributed to Russia is said to not even exist.

On this issue, I think the author is correct: instead of listening to the Kremlin’s pleasantries, we should try to analyse its way of thinking, rhetoric and actual actions. When we follow this method, the picture is not quite so optimistic. The limited use of nuclear weapons or the threat of it unfortunately has an important place in Russian military and strategic planning and it is practised during military exercises. Moreover, both the Russian leadership and public see the West as weak, sufficiently fragmented and lacking in willpower and presumes it would not use nuclear force, which would allow Russia to secure conquests or at least favourable political solutions following military success after the limited use of nuclear weapons or threatening to use it. After all, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel did allegedly say that Putin had gone crazy when she talked to him after the annexation of the Crimea—because of the nuclear threat, no less. I completely agree with the author that deterrence as such takes constant care to guarantee its credibility so as to prevent the opponent from being tempted to see whether it works by grabbing something using military force and holding on to it.

As for the author’s criticism of the opinion that the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” does not exist, I agree it is the substance that counts, not the name. The term is but a succinct name for the combined strategic approach Russia practices. With the help of years-long directed activity—what we now call hybrid warfare—it is possible to achieve results without actually launching a direct military attack. This is why deterrence should involve all other dimensions in addition to the military, i.e. the cyber, information, economic and financial fields.

One aspect of the article that I did find a bit questionable was including the fields of culture and sport among the objects of deterrence. I do see the author’s logic behind this to some extent. This forceful approach, which the author supports, probably has a reason that should not to be clouded by unrealistic wishful thinking.


1 US Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review”, February 2018. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF.

2 Olga Oliker and Andrey Baklitskiy, “The Nuclear Posture Review and the Russian ‘De-escalation: A Dangerous Solution to Non-existent Problem”, War on the Rocks, February 2018. https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/nuclear-posture-review-russian-de-escalation-dangerous-solution-nonexistent-problem/.

3 Mark Galeotti, “I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’”, Foreign Policy, 5 March 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/05/im-sorry-for-creating-the-gerasimov-doctrine/.

4 Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press, 1966).

5 Bruno Tertrais, “Does Russia really include limited nuclear strikes in its large-scale military exercises?”, Survival Blog, 15 February 2018. https://www.iiss.org/blogs/survival-blog/2018/02/russia-nuclear.

6 Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, Estonia and International Security 2018. https://www.valisluureamet.ee/pdf/raport-2018-ENG-web.pdf.

7 Ivan Krastev, “Putin’s World”, Project Syndicate, 1 April 2014. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/ivan-krastev-blames-the-west-s-weak-response-in-crimea-for-empowering-russia?barrier=accesspaylog.

8 Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), p. 132.

9 Президент Российской Федерации, Военная доктрина Российской Федерации, 5 февраля 2010. http://kremlin.ru/supplement/461.

10 Matthew Harries, “A Nervous Nuclear Posture Review”, The Survival Editor’s Blog, 5 February 2018. https://www.iiss.org/blogs/survival-blog/2018/02/nuclear-posture.

11 US Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review”. https://dod.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/0218_npr/

12 Lawrence Freedman, Deterrence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).

13 Jüri Luik and Tomas Jermalavičius, “A plausible scenario of nuclear war in Europe, and how to deter it: A perspective from Estonia”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 73, Issue 4 (2017), pp. 233–9, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2017.1338014.

14 Lucian Gideon Conway III, Peter Suedfeld and Philip E. Tetlock, “Integrative Complexity and Political Decisions That Lead to War or Peace”, in Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology for the 21st Century, edited by D. J. Christie, R. V. Wagner and D. A. Winter (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001). https://cpb-us-west-2-juc1ugur1qwqqqo4.stackpathdns.com/u.osu.edu/dist/b/7538/files/2014/10/Chapter-5-Integrative-Complexity-War-Peace-Conway-Suedfeld-Tetlock-18rzq6y.pdf.

15 “‘Gerasimov doctrine’ finally put to rest? Russia ‘expert’ apologizes for coining snappy term”, RT, 6 March 2018. https://www.rt.com/news/420555-gerasimov-doctrine-galeotti-apology/.

16 Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy”, Proliferation Papers 54, November 2015. https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/pp54adamsky.pdf.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.