Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: getting the right Western strategy in place


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The Western world – and a good deal of the planet beyond – has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a mixture of shock and horror. Condemnations of this unprovoked and inexplicable act of aggression have been pouring in from all continents and all shades of the political spectrum. Russia has been condemned in the United Nations Security Council and by an overwhelming vote in the UN General Assembly. There have been massed diplomatic walk-outs even in places, such as the UN Human Rights Council, where Moscow used to find a hearing. Even loyal Putin allies in Western political and business circles have felt obliged to distance themselves from the Kremlin. Whether it is Russian para-Olympians, orchestral conductors or footballers, no one wants to be seen in their company. In little over a week, Russia has achieved a degree of self-isolation previously only experienced by North Korea.

Yet as Russia’s attacks on Ukraine enter a second week, and Moscow ramps up the military pressure by shelling urban populations in Kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv and trying to get its forces into the Ukrainian capital, it is time to move beyond disbelief and develop a coherent Western strategy to punish Russia for its aggression and to deter it from going beyond Ukraine, especially on to NATO territory. We do not yet know if Putin will succeed in his ambition of subduing Ukraine and if he has the forces and finance to impose a military occupation on this large and recalcitrant country, which is greater than the size of France, for an indefinite period. We do not yet know either if the Ukrainian army, despite its plucky resistance thus far, has the wherewithal to resist the Russian onslaught for months to come.

So far, Russia’s military performance has been underwhelming and Russia’s losses in terms of soldiers and equipment have been significant. Yet there is no sign that these setbacks will induce Putin to accept an early ceasefire and to back down. Quite the reverse; given the way he has pitched this war as necessary to repel an existential threat to Russia from Ukraine and NATO, he is likely to double down harder and to use the full panoply of Russia’s heavy weaponry to terrorise Ukraine’s civilian population and force President Zelensky and his government to meet Russia’s terms.

As a dictator with absolute power at home and an army with still substantial capabilities in reserve, Putin is able to soak up far more pressure than his victims before being compelled, for the survival of his regime or his country, to change course. As the history of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan demonstrated, it usually takes an occupying force at least a decade before it realises that the costs of occupation far outweigh the gains and that it is time to head for the exit. In any dictatorship, it takes a long time for elite and public opposition to build and produce an effect. Thus, we are set for a long, drawn-out conflict in Ukraine, especially if the Ukrainians are able to preserve a good portion of their territory, particularly in the west around Lviv, from where they can re-organise and re-equip their army and continue to harass the Russian forces elsewhere in the country. Of course, all this at the moment can only be guesswork, but as the West looks to develop a counter-strategy to Russia, certain elements are already clear.

The threat from Russia to NATO in the Black Sea and the Baltic region is bound to grow

One is that Russia will occupy far more of Ukraine than it did at the outset of the invasion. It may be pushed back in the north, especially if it fails to gain control of Kyiv, but it is already extending its hold in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea coast, linking Russia and the Donbas to Crimea. It is also extending Russian control to the whole of the Donbas region and will probably keep hold of cities such as Kherson and Kharkiv. Russia will also retain its control over Belarus, integrate the Belarusian forces totally into the Russian command and control system, and station sizeable Russian forces permanently in Belarus. So the threat from Russia to NATO in the Black Sea and the Baltic region is bound to grow as the warning time of a possible Russian move on a NATO member state reduces. The mounting tensions and the proximity of larger and more heavily armed forces to each other also carries the risk of incidents and accidents. Already Russian aircraft have violated Swedish air space and cargo ships bearing the flags of NATO member states have been damaged by mines in the Black Sea. Russia also appears to be increasing its cyber-attacks against NATO’s eastern allies. So even if there is no imminent threat of a conventional attack by Russia against a NATO member state, the possibility of a hybrid campaign spinning out of control or of a military or border incident triggering the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defence clause will worry NATO planners today far more than just six months ago.

The first element of a Western strategy is to ensure that NATO’s capacity for deterrence across the spectrum of possible threats is fully functional. In recent weeks this has taken the form of additional troops, ships and aircraft being despatched urgently to reinforce the Baltic states and Poland or Romania along the Black Sea coast. Those sceptical about the future of the transatlantic security relationship have been confounded by the major role that the United States has played in this effort, sending elements of the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland and redeploying US Stryker brigades from Germany and Italy to the Baltic states and Romania. Although many other allies, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Norway and Spain, have sent more forces, the US contribution still surpasses all the European efforts put together.

NATO has also mobilised its high-readiness Response Force (NRF), under French command, for the first time and has decided to establish four new multinational battalions in the Black Sea region, with France offering to lead the one in Romania. Most of the deployments are on a temporary basis but the receiving allies would understandably like them to stay longer and for NATO to commit to permanent stationed forces. This would oblige the alliance to break formally from the pledge it made to Moscow in 1997 not to station substantial combat forces or nuclear weapons or build military infrastructure on the territory of its new member states in eastern Europe. Yet this was a political undertaking rather than a treaty, and given Russia’s behaviour, there is no reason why NATO should not now abandon it.

NATO will need to revise its exercises to prepare and train for the new threat level

Yet, beyond showing the flag along its eastern flank, NATO faces some longer-term issues that will need to be clarified in its new Strategic Concept due to be adopted at its summit in Madrid in June. First is whether to abandon its current strategy of reinforcement and military mobility across Europe – the Enhanced Forward Presence in the NATO jargon – in favour of the deployment of heavy armoured brigades or even divisions in fixed positions close to borders. This will be expensive over the long run and will deprive allies of the flexibility they have enjoyed since the end of the Cold War to use their forces as and where they wish – from deployments in the Sahel or Afghanistan to fighting forest fires or building emergency hospitals for COVID-19 patients at home. The only exception is when they have put forces on rotation into the NATO high-readiness forces or the EU Battlegroups.

The decision of Germany to increase its defence spending to 2% of GDP and to devote €100bn to modernising the Bundeswehr makes it technically possible for NATO to move to a Cold War-style forward, armoured defence. Yet how quickly will Berlin raise its new divisions and how much of the conventional defence burden in NATO will Germany, traditionally a country averse to war fighting and of narrow military approaches to security, be willing to take on? Will this be the opportunity to create more integrated European units with neighbours like France, the Benelux, Poland and Italy, and even with the post-Brexit UK? London recently re-established a permanent army base at Sennelager in Germany and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has certainly forced ‘Global Britain’ to re-engage with continental Europe and its security and refugees much sooner than it expected.

The other issue for NATO is to work according to a single theatre-wide strategic plan managed by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and the NATO command structure. In reinforcing the alliance’s eastern flank, allies have sent forces to where they have liked and largely under national command. This would not be optimal in a real war situation. NATO will need to revise its exercises to prepare and train for the new threat level. It will need to ensure that its forward deployed forces are fully integrated with the local forces, police and border guards to anticipate and respond to any Russian hybrid war tactics. It will also need to step up its joint planning and interoperability with Sweden and Finland, whether these two Nordic neighbours decide to join NATO or not – a hypothesis that seems increasingly likely.

Yet one thing that NATO has done well in this crisis – in addition to the intense and full range of transatlantic consultations at multiple levels and in different formats – is its political messaging vis-à-vis Moscow. At a time when Russia has become more threatening and reckless, it is essential for NATO to be consistent and predictable. Re-affirming NATO’s core defensive purpose, refusal to put NATO forces in Ukraine or to fast-track Ukraine’s membership of the alliance may be frustrating for some who think that NATO can better deter Russia through a posture of ‘strategic ambiguity’. Yet this would only play into Putin’s playbook regarding an ‘aggressive NATO’ and give Putin the sense that he is being pushed into a corner. The calm and measured way in which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has responded to Putin’s gesticulations regarding nuclear strikes underscores this strategy of de-escalation and of denying the Kremlin a pretext for even more risky behaviour.

The rouble has lost 30% of its value

The next leg of a Western strategy is naturally assistance to Ukraine as long as the present government is in place and the Ukrainians are able to continue their resistance. There has been a lot of discussion about establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but this would require enforcement by NATO aircraft and sooner rather than later result in confrontation with Russia. To impose a no-fly zone, NATO would also need to suppress the Russian air defence system and take out long range S400 and S500 batteries deep inside Russia itself and perhaps Belarus too. As the Russians would still have superiority in heavy weaponry on land, it is not clear how a no-fly zone would change the war in the Ukrainians’ favour. So better to focus on those things that can help the resistance, such as easy-to-use anti-tank and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems, observation and armed drones, electronic warfare, jamming and cyber effects, intelligence on Russian troop movements and bases, and the use of Western special operations forces to train the groups of civilian volunteers from inside and outside Ukraine who have gone to join the fight.

It is encouraging that many countries, including now Germany and the Netherlands, are sending lethal arms and other equipment, such as uniforms and medical supplies, to Ukraine and that deliveries are continuing even though Western militaries can no longer fly the supplies directly to Kyiv. Establishing secure supply routes will be essential; this means transportation at night and in small consignments to reduce the impact of strikes or interceptions by the Russian forces. Equally important is to adapt the equipment and supplies to the circumstances and modus operandi of the Ukrainian resistance. The UK, for instance, was active before the Russian invasion in supplying the Ukrainian Navy with corvettes and finance for ship construction, but this is now moot as Ukraine loses control over much of its coastline. So adapting the assistance quickly and flexibly to the changing needs on the ground and to serve as true force multipliers for what the Ukrainians can do by and for themselves will be essential.

Sanctions clearly must be the third leg of the strategy. At the outset, invoking sanctions seemed to many observers to be the face-saving default option for countries not wishing to give Kyiv military assistance or become involved in the fighting. Yet the unified and simultaneous way in which they have been applied and the inclusion of measures, such as limits on Russia’s access to the SWIFT interbank clearing system or on Russia’s central bank operations, or the decision of the London Stock Exchange to stop trading in Russian assets, has confounded many sanctions sceptics. The shares of one of Russia’s major banks, Sberbank, went down by 97% in a single day. Countries well beyond Europe, such as Australia and Japan, have imposed sanctions too; and even neutral Switzerland, which usually stays strictly on the sidelines, has decided to align itself with the EU.

Most remarkably of all, the private sector, which usually tries to stay out of politics and protect both market share and bottom line, has acted against Russia without being compelled to do so by governments. Shell, BP and Total Energie are divesting their Russian assets and pulling out of joint ventures with the likes of Rosneft. Apple will stop selling its iPhones in Russia, and Airbus and Boeing will freeze the sale of spare parts or maintenance services to Russian civil aviation. Citibank will pull out of Russia, while Google and Facebook take RT and Sputnik off their platforms. Others have dumped sponsorship deals with Gazprom or other Russian companies. The long queues outside Russian banks the day after the sanctions were announced were no doubt the reaction that Western governments wished to see. The rouble has lost 30% of its value, the Russian stock market has seized up, and even valuable commodities like Russian oil have become toxic with shipping and insurance restrictions, despite a barrel of oil now approaching $120.

NATO countries now are united by a common fear of what Putin is willing and able to do to them

Yet the link between sanctions and changes in political behaviour is a tenuous one, and sanctions take a number of years to produce their full impact. Countries learn to adjust over time and find work arounds and evasion techniques as Iran, Cuba and North Korea have long demonstrated. Russia itself has followed with some success its import substitution strategy, especially in the food sector, since the EU and the US imposed sanctions on Russia after its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s low level of foreign debt, wealth funds and financial reserves give it some cushion, although those reserves can be sequestered if they are held in foreign banks. Moscow is clearly looking to Beijing for a bale out and is trying to stem the haemorrhage by preventing foreign companies from divesting their Russian assets and Russian citizens from taking large amounts of foreign currency outside the country. The fact that oil and gas exports have not been sanctioned so far, and the spiralling prices for these commodities, may give Russia a lifeline if it can keep its major markets.

Putin and his inner circle will no doubt seek to exploit the grey zone of cryptocurrency exchange dealing on the Russian SU-EX market and use smaller shell companies not on the sanctions list to keep the money flowing. Usefully, the US Treasury has set up a Klepto Tracker Task Force to clamp down on the Kremlin’s trade in crypto currency and other illicit financial flows. Yet the paradox of sanctions is that the very time they need to produce their full impact is also their worst enemy. The news cycle moves on, emotions and outrage fade, and the wall of unity of the international community starts to fragment. China has already refused to go along with the sanctions, as has India.

So there are two things that the Western democracies have to get right. First is to frontload and implement the full sanctions package immediately to maximise the pain on Russia and give it less time and scope to adjust. Second is to keep domestic public opinion, worried by rising inflation and energy bills, on side for as long as possible. Governments must avoid a situation where standing up to the Kremlin becomes the scapegoat for falling living standards and $5 a gallon at the fuel pump. That is why maintaining pressure on OPEC to increase oil output, releasing 60mn barrels of oil from strategic reserves and perhaps even burning more coal on a short-term basis now make strategic sense, even if they may be difficult to sell to environmental campaigners.

Finally, we need a plan to contain and constrain Russia. Previous hopes for a strategy mixing competition with partnerships and cooperation need to be abandoned, as do hopes that cooperation outside Europe in areas such as Afghanistan, piracy or the Iran nuclear file would dampen the Kremlin’s determination to overturn the post-1990 European security order. Russia’s animus towards NATO has not diminished just because the alliance allowed Russia to enter the NATO building and take its seat in the NATO-Russia Council. Whatever the mistakes of the past, such as not sanctioning the Kremlin more vigorously after the annexation of Crimea or allowing ‘Londonistan’ to thrive as a hub of shady Russian financial transactions, notwithstanding pledges made at G7 summits to shut it down, NATO countries now are united by a common fear of what Putin is willing and able to do to them. Taking away that capacity and weakening Putin’s grip on Russia must now be the focus of Western policy.

The contours of a containment strategy will undoubtedly emerge as a result of the war in Ukraine

Regime change from within Russia will not be easy and it will not come overnight; but a start has to be made. Russia is not just an avowed adversary of Ukraine but of the US, NATO and the EU as well. Its opposition is to the democratic way of life and to the international liberal order as much as it is to individual countries or certain organisations. Moreover, the Russian campaign to undermine the West is now evident in many other parts of the world: the Middle East, Egypt, Libya and the Sahel, where Russian assistance and Wagner mercenaries have hastened the departure of French and other European forces, as well as in Latin America, where the Kremlin is seeking to rebuild old Soviet footholds in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The contours of a containment strategy will undoubtedly emerge as a result of the war in Ukraine.

One strand will be the criminalisation of the Russian security elite after the deliberate shelling of civilians, the destruction of cities and the unleashing of a massive humanitarian crisis with over one million people fleeing from the fighting in Ukraine in just the first week of the invasion. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has already begun an investigation into Russian war crimes after being asked by 39 countries. Ukraine has also initiated a case against Russia in the International Court of Justice. Lawfare is a key instrument here: to tie Russia up in so many legal proceedings that its future liabilities increase and its leaders and diplomats become persona non grata on the international scene as Russia’s image and brand become toxic. Magnitsky Acts adopted by the US, UK and EU member states have already expanded the legal tools to go after Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. Here, civil society and groups involved in data mining and open source intelligence gathering and social media monitoring, such as Bellingcat or the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Laboratory, have a vital role to play in working with Ukrainian groups and Russian whistleblowers to gather enough hard evidence to permit indictments of Putin and his entourage, as well as Russian military commanders.

Another strand is to communicate the reality of the war in Ukraine to the Russian public. Again, this is not an easy feat, as the Kremlin has established a stranglehold on the media and, since the invasion began, has moved against the last remnants of a free press by closing Echo Moscow radio and threatening TV Rain. Mindful that many Russians get their news from the social media rather than state-controlled TV, the Kremlin has also banned YouTube and retaliated against Google and Facebook. Deutsche Welle was also recently banned. Only positive stories about the war are broadcast, casualty figures are hidden and stories clearly indicating that Russian soldiers are poorly led, fed and reluctant to fight their Ukrainian fellow Slavs are quickly suppressed.

Yet we know from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan that pictures of body bags coming home ultimately mobilised Russian society, and not just the mothers of dead Soviet soldiers, against that particular intervention. So governments are relying on the creativity of the big tech companies and the ingenuity of civil society activist groups to circumvent state censorship and show the reality of Putin’s War to the average Russian. As the video and social media campaigns of the imprisoned opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, have shown, Russians have a low tolerance for the corruption of Putin and his circle. There have been protests against the invasion in a number of Russian cities and 6,000 protesters have been arrested. So this is fertile territory for a well-resourced and persistent Western strategic communications effort. Even the hacking group Anonymous is now targeting the Kremlin and claims to have disrupted Russian satellite signals. The mobilisation of civil society will make it harder for the Kremlin to put all the blame on the dark machinations of foreign powers. Western governments will be able to preserve a certain distance, at least on the surface.

The Ukraine crisis has also reinforced the long apparent need to reduce the West’s dependency on Russia

A third strand is to constrain Russia’s capacity for military modernisation by making it harder to access advanced technologies. This is not easy in an age when knowledge rather than physical materials is the core component of military systems. Yet the fact that much of Russia’s military modernisation after the hapless war in Georgia in 2008 was facilitated by easy access to Western defence research and technology makes it worth trying. As the US has focused so much in recent times on countering the theft of intellectual property and innovative research by China, it has lost sight of Russia. So catch up is needed. During the Cold War, there was an organisation called COCOM, based in Paris, which maintained a list of sensitive civilian and military technologies subject to stringent and common export controls. In 1994, COCOM was succeeded by the Wassenaar Agreement to which 64 countries now subscribe. It may be worthwhile to review this mechanism to see how it could be tightened to make it harder for Russia to gain technological superiority over NATO.

The Ukraine crisis has also reinforced the long apparent need to reduce the West’s dependency on Russia, and thus vulnerabilities to blackmail and coercion. This is especially evident in the energy field where Germany imports 50% of its gas from Russia and Italy almost 100%. Even liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Gulf or the US reaches Europe in Russian tankers. Moreover, the US, despite being today one of the world’s largest energy producers, still imports oil from Rosneft. Energy autonomy will take time and while the EU is looking to increase its gas reserves and to transition to renewables while sourcing alternative supplies in Algeria, the US or Qatar, it must not create future dependencies by, for instance, agreeing new joint ventures with Russian companies for the development of hydrogen or the supply of Russian rare earths. Although the EU is pushing its Green Deal and Fit for 55 agenda to decarbonise its economy by mid-century, the Russian challenge will force it to perform a balancing act between environmental and geopolitical imperatives. Putin likes to intimidate Europe not only with nuclear weapons alerts but also the threat of counter-sanctions. So decoupling from the Russian economy and finance will create more headroom for Western democracy in crisis situations.

Finally, the US and Europe will need to develop a joint plan to counter Russia’s moves to gain influence in the wider world, particularly in the Middle East, Africa and the Caucasus, where Georgia is in a most exposed situation. The EU’s sanctions against the Wagner Group are a useful start. Additionally, the allies need to counter Russia’s exploitation of the mineral and mining resources of African countries in exchange for military assistance. Working with regional organisations and multilateral security structures like the G5 Sahel can help to stabilise fragile states and reduce opportunities for Russian interference. Finding ways to incentivise China to distance itself from reckless Russian adventurism and exert a moderating influence on the Kremlin, particularly as Russia’s economic dependency on China grows, will be another tough but essential facet of a Russia strategy. Yet China’s abstentions in the UN Security Council and General Assembly and stress on the respect of national sovereignty show that the task is not impossible.

At the moment, we are all watching the war in Ukraine intensively, trying to grasp the significance of every detail and wondering which new events the next day will bring. Yet now is the time to exit the reactive mode and start to design a long-term strategy to limit the damage that Putin and his regime are causing us, and which will continue to inflict on us in the future if left unchecked.

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