Devising the strategy to deter Russia and weaken Putin

A coherent strategy needs to deter Russia from further atrocities, prevent aggression beyond Ukraine, withstand its threats globally, and hold it to account.

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The response to the invasion of Ukraine is a mixture of shock and horror, with Russia condemned in the UN Security Council and by an overwhelming vote in the UN General Assembly (UNGA). But despite this, Moscow is ramping up the military pressure by shelling in Kyiv, Mariupol, and Kharkiv, and trying to get its convoy into the Ukrainian capital – it is time to move beyond disbelief.

The first aspect of a strategy is to ensure NATO’s capacity for deterrence is boosted by more combat forces able to defend territory – recently this has meant additional troops, ships, and aircraft to reinforce the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania along the Black Sea coast. The US has played a major role in this effort, sending part of the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland and redeploying US Strycker brigades from Germany and Italy to the Baltic states and Romania – surpassing all the European efforts combined.

NATO has also mobilized its high-readiness Reaction Force for the first time and aims to establish four new multinational battalions in the Black Sea region with France offering to lead the Romania one. Although most deployments are temporary, the receiving allies would understandably like 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. But this was a political undertaking linked to circumstances at the time – given Russia’s behaviour, there is no reason for NATO to keep to it.

No-fly zone could create confrontation

The next leg of a strategy is naturally to assist Ukraine for as long as the Ukrainians can continue their own resistance. Although there has been much discussion of a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine, this requires enforcement by NATO aircraft and would quickly result in confrontation with Russia. 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.

Governments must avoid a situation whereby standing up to the Kremlin becomes the scapegoat for falling living standards and high prices at the fuel pump

It is also not clear how a no-fly zone could change the situation in the Ukrainians’ favour as the Russians still have superiority in heavy weaponry on land. A better focus is on 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 special operations forces to train civilian volunteers.

Many countries – including now Germany and the Netherlands – are sending lethal arms and equipment such as uniforms and medical supplies and so establishing secure supply routes are essential for transportation at night and in small consignments to reduce the impact of strikes or interceptions by the Russian forces. It is vital to adapt the assistance quickly and flexibly to changing needs on the ground and to provide equipment which truly enhances what Ukrainians can already do.

Sanctions clearly must be the third leg of the strategy. At the outset, these were derided as merely a face-saving option for countries not wishing to give military assistance. But 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, on Russia’s Central Bank operations, and the decision of the London Stock Exchange to stop trading in Russian assets, has confounded the sceptics.

Countries well beyond Europe, such as Australia and Japan, have imposed sanctions too and even neutral Switzerland which usually stays on the sidelines has decided to align itself with the European Union (EU). Most remarkably, the private sector, which usually tries to stay out of politics, has acted against Russia without being compelled to do so with action by Shell, BP, Total Energie, Apple, Puma, Airbus, and Boeing among others. The rouble has lost 30 per cent of its value, the Russian stock market has seized up, and even Russian oil has become toxic with shipping and insurance restrictions.

Vital to keep public support in place

But the link between sanctions and political behaviour change is tenuous, and sanctions take years to produce full impact. Countries learn to adjust and find workarounds and evasion techniques – as Iran, Cuba, and North Korea have long demonstrated. There are two things to get right – firstly, front load the full sanctions package to maximize the pain on Russia and give it less time and scope to adjust and, secondly, keep public opinion – worried by rising inflation and energy bills – on side for as long as possible.

The instruments – economic, diplomatic, military, and legal in terms of tying up Putin and his regime in a host of criminal proceedings – are there

Governments must avoid a situation whereby standing up to the Kremlin becomes the scapegoat for falling living standards and high prices at the fuel pump. And so – even if understandably unpopular with environmentalists – maintaining pressure on OPEC, and particularly on Saudi Arabia, to increase oil output, releasing 60 million barrels from US and others’ strategic reserves and even burning more coal on a short-term basis could make strategic sense for now, while speeding up the green transition helps offset the temporary reversal.

Finally, there must be a plan to contain and constrain Russia as mixing competitiveness with partnerships and cooperation now needs to be abandoned, along with hopes that cooperation outside Europe in areas such as Afghanistan, piracy, or the Iran nuclear issue would dampen the Kremlin’s determination to overturn the European security order.

Devising the strategy to deter Russia and weaken Putin 2nd part

Russia’s hostility towards NATO has not diminished just because it was allowed to take its seat in the NATO-Russia Council. Whatever the mistakes of the past, such as not sanctioning the Kremlin more vigorously following the annexation of Crimea or allowing London to thrive as a hub of shady Russian financial transactions despite G7 pledges 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 policy focus. The instruments – economic, diplomatic, military, and legal in terms of tying up Putin and his regime in a host of criminal proceedings – are there. The yardstick is the perseverance and skilfulness in using these tools effectively, and for the ultimate good of the Russian people as much as for others’ freedom and security.