The world changes rapidly, but Russia’s ways of coping with it have remained strikingly consistent over extended periods. This consistency offers a baseline for enduring principles for coping with Russia.
Enduring Russian attitudes
Means of exercising deterrence are as many, as varied and as complex as the different domains in which it can be exercised. One factor, however, remains relatively constant: the doctrine, preconceptions and conceptual underpinnings of the party to be deterred. In the case of Russia, this introduces a layer of relative predictability, since the behaviours of Russia’s military and state leadership in response to external stimuli have remained remarkably consistent throughout social, political and technological upheaval, not only during the Soviet and post-Soviet period but back through centuries of Russian history. Historical parallels can be overstated, but past performance can nevertheless be a guide to future results. As noted by RUSI’s Jack Watling, ‘Deterrence is about cognitive effects. Governments are not very revealing as to how they assess threats, and their public statements can be highly misleading. However, analysing statements over time, and tracking how they correspond with actions, does provide a baseline against which to assess threat perception.’ In the case of Russian security thinking, the responses displayed throughout the past are so strikingly uniform that they present a weighty argument for considering that they are likely to be emulated today.
This chapter therefore introduces a number of guiding principles of Russian state thought and action which appear persistent and dependable, and which therefore provide a basis for calibrating actions and messages intended to deter.
Russia has a consistent history of seeking stability and security through expanding the geographical area under its occupation or control, based at least in part on a drive to reduce potential threats by pushing them further away. This desire for a cordon sanitaire under Russian control remains strong, and was an important contributing factor to Russia’s decision to seize Crimea and undertake a military campaign in eastern Ukraine in order to avert the perceived danger of Ukraine escaping the Russian sphere of dominance – a move Russia later capitalized on by transforming Crimea into a militarized outpost protecting its Black Sea approaches in a mirror image to the role of Kaliningrad on the Baltic. But in the present decade, Russian control need not be achieved by the traditional means of military occupation. It remains the case that in order to stop losing ground, Russia sees the utility of seizing small slices of territory in order to create frozen conflicts and political impasses (a process known as piece-keeping, in the sense of keeping small pieces of other people’s countries). But its intensive focus on asymmetric measures, and in particular the utility of information warfare for exerting control without the need for overt military intervention, means that the threat from Russian expansionism is far more diverse and nuanced than when it could be detected through the simple fact of Russian tanks crossing a border.
The fact that one of the motivations for this expansionist urge is to reduce threats to Russia itself presents a further challenge, in the form of arguments that Russia’s actions must consequently be forgiven, excused and tolerated and – above all – that its aspiration to a sphere of unchallenged dominion in Europe is entirely defensive in nature. However, the drive to expand control at the expense of neighbouring states has persisted even in the absence of any perceptible threat to Russia. An assessment in 1955 concluded that the seizure of control over Eastern Europe following the Second World War was driven by persistent attitudes, not immediate stimuli: ‘The Soviet regime merely accentuated certain basic Russian cultural themes, and the Russians would have been expansionists in the post World War II period even if there had been no Soviet regime.’ A similar conclusion was reached at the end of the Cold War: ‘As Russians today  rediscover their tsarist past, they come face-to-face with an older and deeper national tradition of imperial rule over their neighbours.’
There is a perpetual debate over whether the background noise of hostile actions by Russia in a wide range of domains – in cyberspace, in disinformation, in military interventions in third countries – is caused by a belief that it is defending itself against an actual and genuine threat from the West, or is simply an expression of its nature as an unreconstructed expansionist power. But the net result is the same. In order to achieve its aspirations of expanded control, Russia needs to check and roll back, not cooperate with, the US and its influence worldwide. This is an inherently destructive impulse and one that it is essential to constrain.
Willingness to withdraw
However, another consistent pattern in Russian expansionist behaviour is readiness to stop or indeed pull back when significant resistance is encountered. A saying commonly attributed to Vladimir Lenin held that in order to expand its influence, Moscow should ‘probe with a bayonet; when you encounter mush, push on; if you find steel, pull back’. Russia’s adversaries have at times perceived this approach clearly: in the mid-19th century British prime minister Lord Palmerston noted: ‘The policy and practice of the Russian government has always been to push forwards its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy and want of firmness of other governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance.’ Certainly Russia and its leaders and military commanders have consistently acted as though guided by this principle. A year later a French political commentator observed that ‘it matters little to Russia to be right or wrong, or to draw back if required’, and this principle held good throughout the Soviet period in the next century, consistent with a ‘general rule that the Russians are cautious to a degree, are quite good at sensing danger, and, when they do miscalculate in the grand manner, think nothing of going into reverse and cutting their losses’. George Kennan observed that showdowns with Moscow could be avoided through sufficient demonstrations of strength and resolve: ‘Impervious to logic of reason [Russia] is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw – and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so.’ The example of the 2017 Syrian standoff described in Chapter 1 suggests that demonstrations of resolve and willingness to stand firm in the face of Russian demands, assertions or threats continue to be the best means of avoiding conflict; and anecdotal evidence from US and other service personnel encountering their Russian counterparts in similar situations suggests that this principle consistently holds good.
At the same time it should not be assumed that Moscow’s ambitions are limited to the immediate cause or focus of conflict, whether geographically or politically. Open invitations to seize control or ground will be taken, as in the armed conflict with Georgia in 2008, when the leading elements of Russian troops continued their advance towards Tbilisi after the effective end of the fighting simply because nobody had told them to stop. If Russia achieves its objectives and is still unchecked, previous patterns of behaviour suggest that it will continue, in order to marshal additional means for leverage at the negotiating table. Following another principle that holds good throughout both recent and more distant history, Russia has shown itself content to take two steps forward and one step back in order to advance its position. There is a consistent pattern, whether in territorial control or in any other aspect of international relations: Moscow routinely wins by demanding the whole of somebody else’s cake and then ingraciously settling for only half.
Respect for strength
According to former Estonian defence minister Sven Mikser: ‘For Putin, weakness is more provocative than strength.’ President Putin has indeed expressed this view clearly, justifying his country’s far-reaching and enormously expensive military transformation and rearmament with the concern that Russia ‘must not tempt anyone by our weakness’. In this mindset, both deficiencies in conventional military power and a visible deficit in will to resist present a temptation and an invitation. Weakness provokes, but readiness deters.
Russia will continue to employ threats, bluster and attempts at intimidation in order to seek advantage. Its confrontational approaches, even when considered entirely inappropriate to the situation by the other side, serve a clear purpose.
It has been found throughout the history of relations with Russia that there is only one effective deterrent to its military adventurism: the possession of significant military force, present in evident mass where it is needed, coupled with demonstrated willingness to use it. In 1953 Chatham House published a retrospective of recent history analysing the root causes of the loss of Eastern Europe to Soviet domination. One of its key conclusions, when reviewing what was effective in dealing with Moscow, was that any initiative by the Western Allies that was ‘not backed by significant military force merely irritated the Russians without impressing them’. Precisely the same assessment had been made by Karl Marx exactly a century before: for countries seeking to reach an understanding with Russia, ‘to show that they were ready to back up their intention with the last reason of kings – fleets and armies – was the sure means of maintaining peace. There is only one way to deal with a Power like Russia, and that is the fearless way.’ Even further back in history, it was consistently the case that ‘when neighbours are in a position to mount military counterforce, as was Sweden or China or the Ottoman Empire, [Russian] expansion stops …. Muscovites typically behaved as pragmatic opportunists; they were characteristically risk-averse and quite willing to give up any objective when resisted or when the goal became too costly.’
Russia will continue to employ threats, bluster and attempts at intimidation in order to seek advantage. Its confrontational approaches, even when considered entirely inappropriate to the situation by the other side, serve a clear purpose. According to experienced US academic Kimberly Marten, ‘Russian diplomats sometimes use angry tirades and insults as negotiating tactics …. Being confrontational [is] a way to test a partner and look for psychological weaknesses or cracks in the opposing team’s unity that could be exploited.’ In almost all circumstances the appropriate response to this approach is to not back down; otherwise, Russia will continue to follow its ‘historical expansive drift along the line of least resistance, which it is easy, if troublesome, to stop by firmness.’ This firmness is required to call the bluff – with the caveat that it must necessarily be backed by the demonstrated capability and readiness to respond to further pressure.
Acceptance of conflict
The perception that the aim of Western policy is to destabilize Russia and overturn its system of governance has probably become unchallengeable within Russian decision-making circles. This is one symptom of a world view that sees state-on-state conflict as normal and inevitable, in striking contrast to the Western assumption that peace is supposed to be the normal state of affairs. Russia’s perception of the West as an adversary is in no way dependent on how the US or its partners perceive the relationship. In 2007, when with the exception of expert Russia-watchers and the front-line states the West was convinced that relations with Russia were comfortable, the then chief of the General Staff, Yuriy Baluyevsky, noted that ‘Russia’s transition to interaction with the West on the basis of forming common or close strategic interests has not strengthened the military security of our state. Russia should observe the immutable axiom that wars and armed conflicts will continue uninterrupted, because they are generated by the continuing rivalry between states.’ Today, according to Daniel Gouré, ‘one cannot understand how the Russian leadership thinks about strategic issues without appreciating the fact that the Kremlin sees itself as being at war with the West.’
This distinction between attitudes to conflict gives rise to the current situation in which Russia is willing to carry out a wide range of offensive actions against adversary states, including economic and cyber actions, subversion and targeted assassinations, while the states subjected to these attacks are only on the defensive. This differing perception can only further exacerbate the related asymmetry of will to resort to armed force. Russia will have far fewer constraints on entering open conflict than its Western adversaries. This is in part aided by a perception within Russia, assiduously promoted by state media, that the conflict has already begun. The absence of a shared presumption, often mistakenly assumed by Russia’s interlocutors, that conflict is undesirable and should be avoided almost at all costs also has direct implications for effective deterrence. Put simply, where the desire to avoid open conflict may be a substantial motivating factor for Western liberal democracies, it plays a demonstrably different role in Russian decision-making. As a result, policies that may deter other countries risk being ineffective in the case of Russia because of entirely different assumptions about desirable outcomes and ways and means to achieve them. In addition it is argued that Russia would not risk an overt military conflict with the US or NATO because the far greater aggregate power of the West – including as expressed in terms of GDP – would make the eventual outcome of any extended conflict a foregone conclusion. But Russia is fully aware that a brief conflict would not be a clash of GDPs but rather in many cases a race to establish facts on the ground – a race in which Russia would enjoy a head start.
There are two persistent assumptions in Western policy towards Russia to which policymakers repeatedly return, but which repeatedly founder as a result of the Russian attitudes outlined above. These are, first, to assume that Russia has an interest in cooperation with the West or in reducing tensions that could lead to conflict; and, second, to assume that there is anything the West can do to affect Moscow’s deeply held conviction that the West harbours hostile intent towards it. Once these assumptions are abandoned, it is possible to construct policy that is based on a realistic assessment of what is achievable, and this includes selecting effective means of deterring Russia from hostile actions.
Overall, the development of policy must not lose sight of the basic fact that Russia and the West have fundamentally different understandings of what constitutes acceptable state behaviour. Russia’s approach to relations with the West today carries clear echoes of George Kennan’s observation that Moscow sees security ‘only in [a] patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of [the] rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it’. To the extent that these guiding assumptions form the framework of Russian decision-making, they must also inform any attempts to influence that decision-making, including through deterrence.
Enduring Russian behaviours
Over the last decade Russia’s assertive foreign policy agenda, its evolving capabilities and the perceived absence of severe costs and consequences for the methods it can employ against the West have combined in an increased willingness to test the boundaries of acceptable actions. This manifests itself both in undeclared attacks on Western societies and citizens (discussed in more detail in Chapter 3, Section 7) and in the increased incidence of Russian brinkmanship – such as aircraft coming dangerously close to US surface vessels in the Black and Baltic Seas, provocative air manoeuvring over Syria, cross-border covert action against NATO personnel in the Baltic states and Poland, and a general assertive force posture and military exercises in the European shared neighbourhood.
Russia and its constellation of propagandists, influencers and willing or unwitting accomplices abroad have been highly successful in creating an impression of imminent danger.
A key aspect of Russia’s approach is not just to probe and test adversaries, but to intimidate them. Russia wants its adversaries to believe that the risk of military or political miscalculation leading to conflict is rising, and that NATO forces operating in close proximity to Russian forces could lead to potentially catastrophic consequences arising from unplanned conflict and subsequent uncontrollable escalation. Russia and its constellation of propagandists, influencers and willing or unwitting accomplices abroad have been highly successful in creating an impression of imminent danger. The consistent message is that ‘there is a very high risk of unintended war, as a result of miscalculation in cyberspace, air and water. There is the risk of escalation of an unintended war to a nuclear level.’ This message has found a receptive audience in the West, with well-informed Western commentators concluding that ‘the scale and scope of the dangerous encounters problem should be viewed … with a sense of urgency. Otherwise, the risks of a disastrous accident increase, and the escalation consequences thereof will be very difficult to contain.’ But as described further in Chapter 3, Section 4, in the case study of ‘Close Encounters’, this coordinated campaign of alarmism has distinct and tangible goals in the form of specific responses by the US and NATO. Furthermore it appears unrelated to a genuine fear of uncontrolled escalation, since the primary driver of dangerous encounters between Russian and foreign forces with a resulting risk of serious incident is precisely the irresponsible brinkmanship by Russia.
Foreign observers seeking to diagnose the underlying motivations for this stepping up of assertive activity typically choose one of two fundamental drivers for Russian behaviour:
- Russia is a revisionist actor, motivated by neo-imperial ambitions; or
- Russia is a defensive actor, motivated by fear and insecurity.
Either or both of these can provide explanations for Russia’s recent actions. Unfortunately, because these two postures appear incompatible when measured by Western notions of state behaviour, they yield contradictory strategic prescriptions. Thus NATO allies need a robust deterrence posture to stop a revisionist Russia, but it is feared that such measures will provoke a defensive Russia. Conversely, NATO allies should try to reassure a defensive Russia, but a revisionist Russia perceives concessions, compromise and de-escalation as signals of weakness. Meanwhile, in part as the result of disjointed policy on the Western side, dialogue with Russia has deteriorated and channels of communication have narrowed, further hampering accurate diagnosis or engagement with the underlying pathology.
But regardless of which of the above assumptions is accurate – or whether both are correct at the same time – repeated experience over decades shows it is a fundamental mistake to assume that Russia is interested in cooperation or reducing tension, and that the West acting on its own can improve the situation. Russian actions will continue to be driven by the persistent attitudes and assumptions described above. This means that its Western adversaries must continue to find ways of dissuading those actions by reducing their perceived benefits and increasing their likely costs. The next chapter describes specific principles that past experience has shown to be effective in this task.