Western Complacency and Russian Pragmatism.
The SAS have a motto: Who Dares Wins. However, the West is not daring, and it certainly is not winning. The West today has a problem, as it disregards the potential of future hostilities as far-fetched. For some reason, the possibility of an inter-state conflict just doesn’t seem possible. This can perhaps be attributed to the seeming prevalence of liberal norms following the Second World War, a kind of utopian reliance on the United Nations to act as an umbrella against otherwise very realist threats. It is far too easy for Western commentators and the public to sit back and brush aside conflicts happening far away as mere blips in the system, an anomaly in the otherwise perfect shield of international law. This is incorrect, and crucially a dangerous position to hold. Russia recognises this: America and Europe do not.
For years, Vladimir Putin has been exploiting Western weakness. The Kremlin clearly desires to shift the international order in its favour. Thus far, sanctions and the continued stationing of US air forces in Europe have proved ineffective at curtailing Russian interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. This article will highlight the ways in which the West (particularly Europe) is weak, and how Putin is exploiting this. Finally, some rudimentary advice is given on how to counter Moscow.
Just like every military around the world, Russia’s defence spending is linked to its economic performance. For this reason, it is tempting to dismiss Russia as militarily irrelevant, as many onlookers do. The Russian GDP is about half the United Kingdom and is barely 15% of the United States. However, Russian defence spending comprises around 4% of its GDP: double the proportion spent by the UK. Further, with a growing economy seemingly unhindered by Western sanctions, defence expenditure will likely continue to rise. To some, this indicates that Russia is a threat worth addressing in the future, that it is not currently worth confronting. Though this is somewhat correct, it is possible that, even today, Russia poses a threat to Western security beyond traditional hard power capabilities in three ways: leadership, energy and subversion.
Firstly, European and American leadership has been relatively weak for the last two decades. Regardless of domestic achievements, foreign policy has largely been constrained. In the US, President Bush spearheaded the Invasion of Iraq, which led to a destabilised Middle-East, and fractured defence commitments from traditional European allies. President Obama proved little better with half-hearted attempts to withdraw as well as a slow approach to international crises, such as the incident in which Ukrainian separatists were armed by Russia. In this case, the White House waited months before intervening (and even then, only providing a handful of military advisors). European leaders have been short-sighted in their foreign policies. There has been a tangible lop-sided obsession with internal integration as opposed to countering external threats in real-time. All this considered, European militaries have little ability to project anywhere regardless, with only France and the United Kingdom fielding any form of expeditionary capabilities. European complacency beggars belief. Even when flight Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a Russian missile and 193 innocent Dutch civilians were killed (alongside 10 British citizens and a handful of others), there was no meaningful backlash from European governments.
At the other end of the table sits Vladimir Putin. He has been able to pursue a true Russian revival over the last two decades through opportune interventions; Syria is the key example. Where the West has failed to meaningfully back the rebel movements despite vastly greater economic and military resources, Putin has achieved all his objectives. As Douglas Schoen puts it, “Obama and his advisors had been certain that Syria would turn into Putin’s Vietnam, but instead it became his Granada: a surgically precise military action with limited goals that were accomplished swiftly, and with little loss” *. Russia’s campaign in the Middle East not only advanced its political and commercial interests, but served to announce Russia’s resurgence to the world. Deterrence relies on not just comparable or greater resources, but also outspoken and acknowledged inclination to utilise these resources in times of crisis. For this reason, the West may have greater capability but is strangled by its own noose of timidity reinforced by international norms. Putin’s weaker military is swelled far beyond its own ranks by Moscow’s willingness to engage targets and manipulate international law when questioned.
Intrinsically connected to weak leadership is the Russian trump card: energy control. According to the European Commission, around 39% of natural gas imports come from Russia. However, this is higher in countries such as Germany (40% according to Wingas gas distributors). Edward Lucas writes of this type of Russian political leverage: “the big strategic worry used to be the Soviet navy’s capacity to blockade Europe’s sea lanes. Now it is Gazprom’s ability to blockade its gas pipelines” **. Russia can cripple Europe’s already-unstable economy, and although the stalling of energy payments would consequently affect Russia, the effects would be more damaging in the West. After all, Moscow would see a hit to their energy incomes, but at least the central heating would stay on. In January 2006 Russia completely cut off all gas supply to Ukraine; it is absolutely feasible this could happen again.
Furthermore, the Kremlin has a world-class ability to subvert and deceive. One key part of Putin’s strategy is the destabilisation of Europe. Some commentators have said that Moscow purposefully prolonged the campaign in Syria to exacerbate the refugee crisis into Europe. Putin also backs Eurosceptic parties across the continent, though claims of Russian funding remain inconclusive. Equally, doubts over NATO obligations cloud the seriousness of the organisation and invite Russian instigation. For instance, according to a Global Attitudes Survey in early 2017, the majority of Germans did not think that Germany should get involved in a conflict if an Eastern European NATO member was attacked by Russia. Claims that the Russian ground interventions in Georgia and Ukraine only occurred because both countries were not in NATO indicate that if the NATO groundwork begins to look shaky and unreliable then Russia may be more inclined to press into the Baltic states. Additionally, if this were to happen, analysts like Mark Urban believe that not even the United States has the current military and logistical capacity to efficiently prevent this. *** The Center for Strategic & International Studies calls this form of strategy ‘Grey Coercion’ where state or non-state actors achieve their security objectives without considerable use of force. Among these tactics being used are bribery, proxy forces, corruption, hacking and active eroding of democratic institutions abroad.
Such concerns highlight the necessity for a response from the West. Firstly, it is necessary for the United States to strengthen its presence in Europe. This may seem difficult at a time of rising Pacific tensions, but this article stresses the often-overlooked importance of Europe to Washington. Perhaps it would be a sensible strategy for Washington to rely on their Asian allies more – such as Japan, South Korea and even India – and thereby reaffirm a strong military presence in Europe. Put simply, the White House needs to be reminded of the importance of NATO. Further, greater defence spending should be encouraged across the board in Europe even if this results in cuts to domestic welfare programs. It would equally be wise for the EU to utilise its considerable economic power to inflict targeted and precise sanctions on high-ranking Russian oligarchs. Further, the EU should actively promote greater renewable energy projects such as solar and wind energy in order to move away from a reliance on Russian energy. Finally, and perhaps most controversial, is the need for a confrontation where necessary. Looking back, Putin has pursued territorial acquisitions because he did not feel he would be challenged. A swift and targeted military strike by NATO with limited, defensive objectives must be used in the event of Russian aggression in the future lest the credibility of the Western alliance crumbles, and further opportunistic strikes from Russia become the norm.
*From Douglas Schoen’s book “Putin’s Master Plan” (2016)
** From Edward Lucas’ book “The New Cold War” (2009)
*** From Mark Urban’s book “The Edge: Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End?” (2015)
At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying Modern History and International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.