The New ‘Long War’ with Russia

Russian navy destroyer firing at a distant target during a gunnery exercise, June 29, 2011
Russian navy destroyer firing at a distant target during a gunnery exercise, June 29, 2011

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Commodore Philip Thicknesse is a Falklands War veteran and career warfare officer and aviator, Philip Thicknesse is an international adviser at the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). He previously directed the UK Defence Crisis Management Centre, Maritime Warfare Centre and commanded British Forces South Atlantic Islands. 

While it is immensely difficult to place oneself in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position and to see the world as he and Russia undoubtedly see it, there are things that we do know.

The first is that Russia has always seen itself as encircled and threatened, a condition exacerbated by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A simple exercise with a globe can help to demonstrate this. Rotate it until Moscow is in the center and then scan the points of the compass. To the north, over the pole, is the United States; to the east, China; to the south, Islam, and to the west, Europe, the European Union and NATO.

Second, over the past 20 years, Russia has shrunk, physically and conceptually. The Soviet Union was, in all but one way, a force to be reckoned with. It was able to hold the world hostage and force it to focus, above all, on the maintenance of an uneasy but mostly stable peace. The Soviet Union’s Achilles’ heel was its economy; NATO’s Cold War victory was essentially an economic one. The West defeated the Soviet Union by fielding more, and better, military technology with fewer, but infinitely better-trained personnel, funded by economies that worked.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, it shed a number of its republics, which functioned, in part, as buffers between mother Russia and the encircling threat. They also provided vital access to the sea. A sympathetic observer might note that Russia’s only guaranteed ports are on its north coast, all of which have, in recent human history, been accessible only in the Arctic summer months. Even now with the ice receding, the Northern Sea Route is a far from reliable route into either the Pacific or Atlantic and therefore strategically unsatisfactory. In the Baltic, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad serve well, though Russia must be concerned for the long-term stability of Kaliningrad because the city has a long German history as Koenigsberg. This stability should also concern Europe: arguably, as long as Kaliningrad is secure, the threat to the other Baltic ports and countries is reduced. To the east, Vladivostok serves the Pacific but, in extended living memory, has been directly threatened (and occupied) multiple times, by the Japanese in the early 20th century and throughout the Cold War by the United States.

This brings us to the south and the Black Sea and the Russian ports on the Crimean peninsula. The southern access to the Mediterranean has always been problematic because of the Dardanelles, which has forced Russia to find staging posts in the Mediterranean from which to sortie. Throughout the Cold War, the Russian fleet could be found in anchorages all around the eastern Mediterranean, which helps to explain Russia’s interest in the Syrian port of Tartus. The port is now unavailable as a result of a civil war made infinitely more complicated by a West that had not taken the time to weigh the true factors and factions, which always included Russia (the leadership of which may, actually, have been right all along in siding with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad).

When Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean peninsula became a significant strategic problem and, almost certainly, the subject of contingency planning: The naval ports and other military bases had to be accessible. The matter of which way Ukraine faces is not simply, for Russia, a matter of either lost trade or a lost buffer state, both of which are important, but also of lost oceanic access.

Vladimir Putin (then Russian Prime Minister, now President) talks to the participants of the 'Private Meeting of the Members of the International Business Council with Vladimir Putin' at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009
Vladimir Putin (then Russian Prime Minister, now President) talks to the participants of the ‘Private Meeting of the Members of the International Business Council with Vladimir Putin’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009

If this is the case, the West needs to think, with great clarity and caution, about what is actually happening in Ukraine to understand the nature of Putin’s problem. The need for assured oceanic access at each point of the compass may be so deeply engrained in the Russian psyche as to significantly affect his decision-making and risk appetite.

So what? A Russia that prefers to believe that it is surrounded by enemies is one thing. A Russia denied what it believes to be its birthright – unfettered oceanic access and secure land borders – is another. The West has learned to live, uncomfortably, with the first, just as one learns to accommodate a paranoid neighbour. But it has also learned the consequence of unnecessary needling, which invariably ends in tears. Sometimes it is necessary, for the greater good, to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. The wrong thing, in this case, is to persuade Ukraine to cede the peninsula, and a land corridor, to Russia. Access to EU markets is a possible compensation but not, at any price, membership in NATO. Buffer states are a tragic necessity in an uncertain world – and as important for NATO as for Russia.

Why would the West, and especially Ukraine, do this? Because Russia is on its knees, for three reasons. The first, and most immediate, is the price of oil, which is far below what Putin requires to make the country function. Second is that Russia’s political system looks unlikely to survive in the long term. Only a North Korean or a young Saudi would see Russia as a political paradise. One suspects that many Russians, if they had the economic wherewithal, would choose to live in a liberal democracy, for all its faults. The third, and most telling, reason is that the population is in long-term, possibly accelerating decline, with a birthrate way below replacement levels and falling life expectancy in the ethnic Russian population. Current predictions put Russia’s population, in 2050, at 118 million, a loss of 16 percent to 19 percent in 50 years.

At the moment, it would appear that Putin has the upper hand because he is able to take a longer view than any of his fellow leaders, almost all of whom are time-limited, or time expired, and most of whom are, at best, tacticians, not strategists. The evidence seems to indicate that the West could regain the upper hand by opting to play a very long game: Russia, as currently constituted, is itself time-limited. Yet the personalization of politics and leadership in the West has increasingly led to tactical behavior driven by short personal horizons — as short as 60 days in the case of the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is facing a serious reelection challenge. Maybe proper statesmanship requires strong and enduring institutions, rather than individuals, capable of thinking beyond an opponent’s horizon?

The alternative approach is to learn to deal with the nuisance and uncertainty of continued ambiguity. Airspace incursions make for good photographs and alarmist tabloid headlines but are mostly an expensive inconvenience. Submarine incursions, such as those off Scotland’s coast, designed to test Britain’s resolve to protect the submarines carrying Britain’s nuclear deterrent may be of a different order. During the Cold War, there were well- established protocols for close encounters, which by and large worked well. But they required well-practiced and well-equipped military services that, through their actions, acquired a familiarity with their opponents and an understanding not just of their capabilities and limitations but also their methods.

What does this mean for the NATO Baltic States, which are seen as being as vulnerable as Ukraine? First, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad provide access to the Baltic Sea, so there is no pressure on Russia to find another port. Why would Putin test NATO’s resolve through an action against one of the Baltic States? Protecting the Russian minorities was a convenient lie used in Ukraine to cover the real reason for intervening — to secure the naval and military bases in Crimea.

Yevtaporia, Crimea: a strategically-important Russian port on the Black Sea
Yevtaporia, Crimea: a strategically-important Russian port on the Black Sea

And what of the barely veiled threats of lowered thresholds before involving nuclear weapons? Most Cold War veterans were at least passingly familiar with Herman Kahn and his ladder of escalation. He described advancement on the ladder toward war as a series of deliberate choices, the results of which determined the direction of travel. We practiced at every level, from decision-making in Whitehall to the delivery of the weapons and then the whole grim business of operating in an environment partly demolished by biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. I think we came to appreciate that the conduct of nuclear deterrence was a deeply skilled and intelligent business; it demanded very high levels of familiarity. The current risk seems obvious: an oversupply of unpractised tacticians in power in Western capitals, and an absence of strategists.

Finally, then, what should the West do in Ukraine? To fuel a proxy war by supplying materiel and trainers would be foolish, naïve and wilfully escalatory. Surely the better approach is to use proper, powerful economic sticks and carrots to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table, with the United Nations in place to keep the peace.

At the beginning of the year, the United Kingdom commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, a man widely seen as the greatest Englishman in all history. He would have seen the strategic need to treat with the new tsar, whether we like him or not.

It is much better to have Putin if not actually inside the Western tent then at least not outside it pulling out the guy ropes and causing chaos. Russia ultimately has a far greater problem with militant Islam than the West, it understands Iran and Syria better than the West and has to deal with China in quite a different way. For all concerned, better a messy peace than a nasty descent into a wider and wholly avoidable conflict, be it long and ambiguous or short and horrific.

This piece was originally published on on March 10, 2015. 

PS21 is a non-ideological, non-national, nonpartisan institution. Any opinions are the author’s own.

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