June 27, 2024

Winning the Russian War: Moving from Appeasement to Coercion and Deterrence

A Ukrainian serviceman of the 25th Separate Airborne Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine operates a Marder infantry fighting vehicle near the front line in Donetsk region on 29 April 2024.
A Ukrainian serviceman of the 25th Separate Airborne Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine operates a Marder infantry fighting vehicle near the front line in Donetsk region on 29 April 2024.

Despite all the west’s attempts to persuade Russia to refrain from aggression against Ukraine, in February 2022, it launched the largest war in Europe since World War II. As a result, hundreds of thousands have already died and millions have become refugees. The west’s attempts to avoid the escalation have also failed.

In early March 2022, the number of Russian troops in Ukraine was about 140 000, and missile strikes mostly had military purposes. In 2024, the Russians have about 600 000 troops directly on the territory of Ukraine, and the main targets are civil infrastructure, including power plants and dams, while entire settlements are annihilated by artillery and aerial bombs.

Russia openly declares its intentions to completely destroy Ukraine, as well as admits to being in a state of de facto war with the west. In such a situation, when the existing models of deterrence have turned out to be unable to fulfil their tasks, it is extremely important to conduct an honest analysis of the reasons for this failure, as well as to find those forms and methods of deterrence that would finally ensure sustainable peace in Europe.

The Fundamental Problem

First of all, it must be recognised that the west’s failure to deter Russia lies in fundamental problems in planning and implementing such deterrence measures, and not in Russia’s exceptional resilience. President Biden has repeatedly spoken out against a new Cold War with Russia, contrasting it with the idea of strategic stability. Observing what is happening now in the very heart of Europe, it would be fair to note that the Cold War approaches to ensuring stability were much more successful. The absence of grey and buffer zones, the presence of clear red lines, and the readiness of the west for maximum escalation in the event of their violation kept Russia (the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact) from direct military confrontation.

The same cannot be said about the policy of seeking permanent “compromises,” which, in fact, is nothing but concessions. Given that deterrence by definition cannot be achieved at the expense of concessions, the west’s policy towards Russia for many years has been one of appeasement, which, as in the case of Nazi Germany, has only whetted appetites and encouraged the aggressor. Thus, the current geopolitical crisis — which, given the growing ambitions of China, Iran, and North Korea, could easily turn into a new global war — is the result of abandoning the old proven methods of deterrence, and not at all the result of loss of their abilities.

Paradoxically, even in the conditions of the third year of this war, as the west provides direct support to Ukraine, including by supplying weapons and military equipment, the return never happened. The political goal, set by the leadership of the main NATO countries, is to create the preconditions for Russia to renounce its intention to completely destroy Ukraine, as well as for the continuation of aggression, but not to defeat Russia and restore the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine with the unequivocal withdrawal of all Russian troops from its entire territory, including Donbas and Crimea.

Hence, efforts both to help Ukraine wage this war and to inflict economic damage on Russia through sanctions are limited in nature and aimed at forcing Russia to settle for smaller concessions, such as freezing the conflict on the pre-full-scale invasion demarcation line, thus maintaining control over Crimea and a large part of Donbas. If this approach persists in the west, the war will continue in the same way, as there are practically no ultimate risks for both Russia as a state and for its current political regime. The biggest risk in such a situation for them is receiving not all of Ukraine but only a part of it.

The Long War Strategy

At the same time, the west ignores the fact that the goal of the Russian leadership is not so much the capture as the destruction of Ukraine. From this point of view, a long war — which makes the normal existence of Ukraine, and even more so its development, impossible — is a completely satisfactory result. Russia is carrying out a punitive operation in Ukraine, the purpose of which is to demonstrate to other countries of the former Soviet Union what will happen to those who show ‘excessive independence,’ develop democratic institutions, and move closer to the west. The indecision of the west and its unwillingness to face an ultimate confrontation with Russia also coincide with the Russian strategy. It calls into question the ability of the west to protect not only its partners but also allies and allows Russia to grow its influence beyond the territory of the former Warsaw Pact. Such expectations are not unfounded, since the fear of a possible war and the need to avert it at any cost are actively exploited by Russian political proxies in Europe and contribute to their popularity.

In addition, the Putin regime needs the war to neutralise the growing internal dissatisfaction with low living standards and to consolidate the people around the idea of Russian expansionism, as one of the Kremlin’s leading ideologues, Vladislav Surkov, writes quite frankly. According to him, the “export of chaos” outwards, as well as the consolidation of Russians around the idea of “collecting historical lands,” which began with the seizure of Crimea, is the only alternative to the inevitable Russian liberal revolution. Thus, war, from the point of view of Putin and his entourage, is the only way for them to retain power.

Ukrainian servicemen sand by the coffins of Ukrainian servicemen Oleksandr Golubkov, Taras Osmyakevych, and Gennady Palievets during a funeral ceremony at the Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv on 2 May 2024 amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. AFP/Scanpix

For As Long As Popular

Based on the above, one of the main tasks of the west in coercing Russia to stop aggression against Ukraine is to deprive this war of its ability to preserve the current Russian regime. Putin will wage this war for as long as it is popular. Therefore, the level of public support for the continuation of this war is the main target at which the concerted efforts of both Ukraine and its partners should be directed. Military and economic losses, loss of reputation in the international arena, the need for the government to worsen social standards for the population, and new waves of mobilisation — these are the factors that should be used to reduce Russian support for the war.

It is the level of support for the war that is the main criterion for evaluating the effectiveness of the military operations, sanctions, and diplomatic measures of the anti-Putin coalition. Russians’ support — although influenced by objective factors — depends primarily on their subjective perception of reality, which is distorted by Putin’s total propaganda. In this regard, the psychological dimension of the confrontation with the Kremlin is no less important than the military or economic ones. Russians need to realise a few simple things. First, Russia will not be able to win this war; the west is ready to increase aid to Ukraine and pressure on Russia as much as necessary; and so, all the losses that Russia has already suffered and will continue to suffer are meaningless. As Harold Lasswell rightly observed, the main refrain of psychological influence on the enemy should be “Your cause is hopeless, your blood is spilt in vain.”

Second, it is important to neutralise the Kremlin’s narrative about the existential nature of this war for Russia and Russians. It is extremely important to convince the Russian population that renouncing the war and returning to its internationally recognised borders will lead neither to the destruction of Russia as a state nor to the enslavement of Russians as a people. On the contrary, the continuation of this war, which increasingly strengthens Russia’s dependence on China, can lead to such an outcome, while the colossal losses among men open the possibility for the colonisation of the Russia’s Far East by China (where men outnumber women) within a generation.

Coalition, Coordination, and Calculation

Of course, communication is an important component of deterrence (as is coercion) but not the only one. The so-called three Cs of deterrence consist not only of communication but also of capabilities and credibility. The anti-Putin coalition must actually have the capabilities necessary to inflict such damage on the interests of the Russian regime and population that they will find unacceptable. Even more importantly, the anti-Putin coalition must be perceived as not hesitating to do so should Russia continue its hostile behaviour. For this, with an essential contribution from political psychologists, it must urgently identify those interests that are recognised as critically important by representatives of the Russian political, financial, and industrial elites, other influential social groups and their representatives, as well as the population as a whole.

A thorough analysis of those interests should follow in order to develop direct measures aimed at harming them by exploiting their integral vulnerabilities. The measures, in turn, should be divided according to the degree of damage, which will allow for constantly building up pressure in response to the Russian leadership’s refusal to return to acceptable behaviour. In the military dimension, for example, this means that when Russia escalates by increasing financial support for the war, the number of troops in Ukraine, and military production, there should be an immediate and proportional increase in military aid to Ukraine by providing it with more modern systems, which could neutralise Russia’s attempts to gain a strategic advantage.

In the economic dimension, such steps could be connected, for example, with the gradual replacement of Russia in the international oil and gas markets by stimulating other countries to increase production, as well as the exclusion of Russia from existing international cartels, such as OPEC+. After the development of such measures and their enforcement, a targeted communication campaign aimed at explaining the consequences of Russia’s continued undesirable behaviour should be conducted. The unanimity of both the public statements of the leaders of the anti-Putin coalition and the messages they will deliver to the target groups in the Russian Federation through non-public channels is extremely important.

The Grand Strategy

Since the main political goal for Ukraine and its allies in this war is to force Russia to comply with international law, the most relevant role model of a grand strategy may be, to some extent, the strategy of Russia and China to back North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. In parallel with providing North Vietnam with a colossal amount of the most advanced weapons (with a special emphasis on combat aircraft and air defence systems, which made it impossible for the US to achieve air supremacy and led to unprecedented losses in the American Air Force), a powerful anti-war campaign was organised, covering both the US and its allies. It made the war so unpopular that the US was forced to withdraw troops from Vietnam.

Nobel Prize Winner Thomas Schelling, the author of Diplomacy of Violence, used game theory to analyse the effectiveness of international deterrence and coercion. He rightly noted that military strategy in the modern world can no longer be reduced exclusively to the search for military victory but is rather the art of coercion, intimidation, and deterrence. The ability to harm the adversary’s interests should be used as the main motivating factor in order to influence its behaviour. The west’s rejection of such approaches continues to expose humanity to unprecedented dangers. Only by significantly increasing the risks of ultimate damage in response to violations of the international order can strategic stability be restored.

This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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