21 March 2014
John Lough

John Lough

Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Pedestrians walk along the banks of the Moskva river opposite the Moscow International Business Centre, Moscow, Russia, 16 March 2014. Photo by Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Pedestrians walk along the banks of the Moskva river opposite the Moscow International Business Centre, Moscow, Russia, 16 March 2014. Photo by Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty Images.


Western countries are waking up to the fact that Russia’s grab of Crimea is far more than a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Its actions have created a serious threat to Europe’s security and the crisis is far from over as Moscow positions itself to decide the future of Ukraine.

The recent events in Ukraine have shown that the West’s current deterrence model cannot constrain Russian behaviour in Europe’s immediate vicinity. Its nuclear deterrent in this case was irrelevant.

Despite Russia’s claims that NATO poses a military threat to its security, this supposed threat did not stop it from seizing Crimea and telling the West to stop fiddling in Ukraine. Moscow correctly calculated that Western leaders would not respond militarily to the crisis because they would not risk war with Russia. However absurd their talk of neo-Nazis running riot in Crimea, Russia’s leaders were not out of touch with reality on this.

Western policy-makers must now identify strategic options for deterring Russia from further destabilizing Ukraine and taking similar actions elsewhere on its periphery.

So far, only a tactical response has emerged. The US and EU visa bans and asset freezes on individuals in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and those responsible for Russia’s Crimean adventure are the first indications of the desire of Western countries to punish Russia and constrain its behaviour towards Ukraine. Less influenced by protecting business relations with Russia, the US is setting the pace. By comparison the 28 EU members were inevitably going to struggle to find a consensus position.

While a process has started, the impression remains that Western countries are playing catch up and that the strategic initiative still lies with Moscow. To turn this situation around, they need to decide in the short term whether in practice they genuinely intend to back Ukraine’s independence and prevent Russia from dictating the terms of its existence.

To do so, they need to assess the likelihood of Ukraine’s political leaders being able to pull together to lead the country out of crisis before they commit to support the process. Unfortunately, it is not a given that Ukraine’s politicians can catch up with society’s expectations to provide the leadership required.

Buying time for this purpose requires two immediate actions: firstly, delivering emergency financial resources to resuscitate to the economy and, secondly, creating space for Ukrainians to decide themselves how to govern their country.

However, this approach can only work if there is a credible deterrent in place to dissuade Moscow from destabilizing Ukraine. Russia has already set out its stall, saying that the country should be non-aligned, should not enter into an association agreement with the EU and should govern itself on a federal model allowing its regions significant autonomy. This is a recipe for making the country ungovernable and depriving it of its independence.

To give Ukraine a chance to re-group after the Maidan revolution, Western countries need to persuade Russia to back off and drop these conditions.

Russia has not yet brought to bear on the new Ukrainian government the economic instruments that it used successfully last year, through a series of selected trade embargoes, to dissuade President Viktor Yanukovych from signing an association agreement with the EU. Ukraine’s eastern regions are not Crimea, and Russia will not be able to peel them away in the same way. However, it clearly retains the capacity over time to sap the will of local elites to stay aligned with the central government in Kyiv.

To face down these pressures, Western countries need to force Moscow to make choices. This requires creating a new form of deterrence that targets its weaknesses. While Russia has competitive advantage over the West in Ukraine and across much of its periphery through the political, economic and military levers at its disposal, its stagnating economy is still based heavily on commodity exports and highly vulnerable to sustained economic pressure. To achieve traction with Russian decision-makers, the West needs to present a credible threat to inflict severe and lasting damage on the Russian economy.

Words matter. So far, the vocabulary of strategic deterrence is absent in discussions of how to manage the current crisis. If Western leaders want to influence Moscow’s behaviour, they need to find a linguistic register that moves beyond ‘sanctions’ and ‘possible targeted measures’ to express real strategic intent. The message to Moscow needs to spell out that the West defeated the USSR economically and is ready to adopt short-, medium- and long-term policies to undermine Russia’s economy if it continues to undermine Europe’s security.

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