Russia and the West: Russia's Recent Assertiveness, Western Response, and What the Future May Hold

Russia and the West: Russia's Recent Assertiveness, Western Response, and What the Future May Hold

. 12 min read

Lukasz Kulesa is Research Director at the European Leadership Network, having previously served on Poland’s National Security Bureau and as Head of the Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Project at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. Kulesa’s areas of focus include nuclear nonproliferation, NATO and Russian security policy, nuclear deterrence, and the future of arms control. Originally appeared in Fall 2016.

In late February 2014, when the Kalashnikov-wielding “little green men” appeared—apparently out of thin air—and started the takeover of government buildings, airports, and other strategic locations in the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, the rest of the world watched with a mixture of surprise and fear. Even though soldiers were dressed in uniforms without insignias, their identification as Russian special forces was very much a no-brainer. In March, after a sham spectacle of a “referendum,” Crimea was annexed into the Russian Federation. Next month, another group of well-trained and well-armed masked militants attacked police stations in eastern Ukraine, starting what has become a prolonged and bloody conflict in the Donbass area.

For some of the West’s readers, these events in a far-away corner of the world may have been long overshadowed by the subsequent developments in the international arena. The continued carnage of the Syrian civil war, new odious acts of terrorism, Europe’s migration crisis, and—most recently—the UK referendum over its membership in the European Union and the Turkish military coup have pushed Ukraine out of front-page news. Yet, it is important to recall the events of early 2014 to remind ourselves why the West has found itself in a confrontation with Russia. Moscow’s military takeover and incorporation of a piece of its neighbor’s territory constituted an unprecedented and grave violation of international law and the rules of European security systems. Its support for the local rebel forces in eastern Ukraine has remained the main cause for the continuation of the conflict to the present day.

Western reactions to Russian actions involved the introduction of a set of sanctions, substantial limits on cooperation with Moscow on a range of security-related issues, and the measures taken by individual countries and the NATO alliance to bolster deterrence against Russia. Even the European Union (EU), a traditionally weak actor in the realm of security, moved beyond the economic sanctions and started bolstering its resilience against the so-called hybrid threats, including those originating from Russia. The West’s response has been sometimes characterized as weak or inadequate to the challenge, but it nevertheless constituted a significant departure from the pre-Crimea “business as usual” approach with Moscow.

However, two and a half years after the dramatic beginning of the crisis in relations with Russia, it is high time to assess the question of the effectiveness of the Western response. Have the Western actions made an impact on Russia’s foreign and security policy? Has Moscow been successfully deterred from taking an even more aggressive stance towards Ukraine or other countries? Or perhaps, if the results so far have been unsatisfactory, are there any alternatives to the current Russian policy which could bring better results?

An Increasingly Troubled Relationship

In order to provide an answer to those questions, it is crucial to grasp the nature of the disagreement between Russia and the Western countries, which pre-dated the Ukraine crisis. After all, the Crimea takeover did not destroy a perfectly functioning relationship, but rather brought down an edifice of Western-Russian relations which had already been badly damaged. Most importantly, even before the Maidan revolution started in Kiev, there had been a rapidly growing gap regarding Russian and Western views on the nature of the regional security order in Europe.

According to Western countries, the European security order, formulated in the early years after the end of the Cold War, was based on the premise of Russia subscribing to the international rules of behavior inspired by democratic ideals, including the freedom of all countries in the area to shape their foreign policy choices and alliances. For the West, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the principles of the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, and the “Europe whole and free and at peace” vision remained an uncontested foundation of security in Europe and its peripheries.

A competing narrative about the regional order gained recognition in Russia. According to the Russian version of history, the post-Cold War order in Europe was built according to a Western design, and imposed on Moscow during the period of its weakness in the 1990s. From the Russian viewpoint, NATO and EU enlargement, as well as the development of cooperation between Western countries and former parts of the Soviet Union neighboring Russia, amounted to an encroachment on Russia’s legitimate security interests. Moscow considered the Western discourse about principles and values underpinning the European security order as a cynical cover for pursuing Western interests, with interventions in Kosovo and Libya, as well as support for the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, seen as examples of Western duplicity.

As a result, the existing formats of interactions between the EU and Russia, or between NATO and Russia, started to crumble down. The West was increasingly uneasy about internal developments in Russia and about Moscow’s increased criticism of its actions in the common neighborhood, yet continued with its Eastern policy and hoped for Russia to change. The Russians were bitterly disillusioned, and decided that the only way to change the rules of the game to the ones more beneficial to Moscow was through radical actions. That included, as one Russian expert put it, responding to the West in the language of force.

A New, More Militarized Russia

The actions of the Kremlin in 2014 and beyond should be seen in the context of Russian domestic and foreign policy developments of the “late” Putin era, including increased authoritarian tendencies and the consolidation of the power structure with the Kremlin indisputably at its center. Importantly, the Russian leadership was also mindful of the potential for internal unrest, manifested in the 2011-12 mass protests after the rigged parliamentary election. Hence, the harassment of regime critics intensified, and Russia embraced nationalism and positioned itself as the protector of the so-called “Russian world” beyond its borders (including ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the former Soviet Union) and of the Orthodox faith.

In the area of international relations, the Russian leadership subscribed to a Hobbesian worldview in which military strength guarantees the survival of states, and force can be used — just like any other state instrument — to fulfill the policy objectives. The lesson learned from Russian and general history was that weakness invites foreign interference, whereas strength is respected.

Given this context, it does not come as a surprise that the role of the military in Russian foreign and internal policy has increased significantly. For President Vladimir Putin, the armed forces have become instrumental in supporting Russia’s emergence as an independent center of power, as well as in securing Moscow’s influence in the immediate neighborhood and beyond.

The Russian army emerged from the 1990s seriously weakened, and its performance in Chechnya and in the 2008 war with Georgia proved that it was ill-prepared to fight even weak opponents. Consequently, the so-called “new look” reform of the Russian military was announced in October 2008, and the ambitious, costly, and wide-ranging State Armament Program for 2011-2020 was unveiled in 2010. To facilitate this change, the Russian defense budget increased by 97 percent between 2005 and 2014.

Potent nuclear forces remain at the core of Russian deterrence policy. Investments continue in the strategic and sub-strategic systems, as well as in early warning and command and control. In terms of the hardware for conventional forces, there is a constant influx of new weaponry into Russian units, especially to the air forces, air and missile defence units, and artillery and ballistic missile regiments. Changes have been slower with the navy and ground forces. Still, according to official Russian data from late 2015, the armed forces have reached the overall level of 47 percent of modern weapons and other equipment.

The Russian armed forces have also stepped up their combat training, focused increasingly on large scale, state-on-state warfare. The unannounced snap-exercises, regarded by Russian leadership as a particularly useful tool for testing the combat readiness of the military, became more frequent. During 2015, approximately 300,000 troops, 1,100 aircraft, and 280 ships took part in major snap exercises organized throughout Russian territory.

As a result, in the last few years Russian leadership has had enough confidence in the abilities of its military to undertake some risks with the deployment of military forces, from the Crimea’s “little green men” and covert engagement in eastern Ukraine, all the way to the highly visible air campaign in Syria. Russia has also displayed readiness to engage in military brinksmanship activities, including military incidents and close encounters with Western ships and aircraft, clearly aimed at testing the capabilities of the other side.

The Western Military Response

From the very beginning of the Crimea crisis, it was clear that the United States and other NATO and EU countries would strive to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia. At the same time, the Western states considered the sudden deterioration of the situation in the East to have a negative impact on their own security. After Crimea, all options have been put on the table. The previously unthinkable scenarios, such as a direct or ‘hybrid’ Russian attack against a NATO or EU country, or even a nuclear conflict, suddenly became more plausible.

The brazenness of the Russian actions in Ukraine and the continuation of its assertiveness over a prolonged period made the achievement of the consensus at NATO over the strategy towards Russia relatively easy. While there have been differences of opinions over tactical details, the main principles have remained largely unchanged.

First, NATO countries decided that the Russian actions effectively ended the era in which the alliance treated Moscow as a (prospective) partner willing to initiate a number of cooperative projects. The practical cooperation in the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was suspended and its political activities were severely restrained, with “no return to business as usual” as the new catchphrase.

Second, Russia reappeared as an object of NATO’s deterrence and defence mission. Russia has positioned itself as a strategic adversary for NATO. Its beefed-up military capabilities could thus become a major challenge for the alliance during any conflict or confrontation, however unlikely. As a consequence, NATO defense planning, exercises, deployments, and plans for future development of military capabilities had to be adjusted to take into account the Russian factor.

Third, NATO made it clear that it wanted to avoid any military escalation with Russia following an incident or accident. It frequently expressed readiness to discuss confidence-building and transparency measures with Russia, as well as upgrading the existing military channels of communication.

In terms of practical responses, NATO embarked on what was described by its secretary general as “the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.” It started as a series of ad hoc emergency deployments of aircraft, ships, and land forces along the alliance’s eastern borders, especially in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. Later in 2014, these emergency measures were developed into the Readiness Action Plan that focused on providing “continuous presence and military activity” in the East and on further adaptation of NATO’s command and military structures. The size of the rapid-reaction NATO Response Force (NRF) was more than doubled to 40,000 troops, and a 4-5,000-strong “spearhead force” was created within the NRF, with some elements capable of being deployed within hours. New mini-headquarters were created in all countries along the Eastern European flank. Finally, the July 2016 Warsaw summit brought an agreement on the creation of multilateral NATO battalions to be deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Between 2014 and 2016, the alliance also more than doubled the number of exercises taking place along its eastern flank.

The Policy Choices Ahead

As the decisions of the Warsaw summit will be implemented in late 2016 and early 2017, it may seem that the alliance will have successfully addressed the challenge of limiting the chance of Russia miscalculating the alliance’s resolve, and thus deterring Russia from taking aggressive actions against NATO-protected areas. Any hostilities in the Baltic or Black Sea region would, from an early phase, involve the military personnel from the United States and a number of major Western NATO allies. While Russia could still achieve early military victory in certain scenarios (for instance, with a surprise incursion into the territory of Estonia or Poland), in a wider conflict with NATO it would face either a humiliating withdrawal or escalation to the nuclear level.

Yet, frankly, securing NATO territory against possible Russian aggression has been the easy part of the Western response. Now comes the hard part: deciding the future of the broader Western policy towards Russia.

Did the current policy towards Russia fulfil its goals and expectations set in 2014? Here, one needs to make a distinction between the end-goals and intermediate aims. The overarching end goal seems to be for Russia to return to the pre-Crimea (or even pre-2008 Georgia war) mode of conducting foreign and security policy, with a renewed sense of respect for the main principles of European security such as the territorial integrity of states, non-interference, and the freedom to choose political and military alliances. In practice, that would be demonstrated through the return of Crimea to Ukraine or — at the very least — through a major change of policy towards eastern Ukraine allowing its full return under Kiev’s control. None of these goals are any closer to being achieved now than they were in 2014.

Yet, there are also some intermediate goals where the current policy has arguably fared better. These include the clear rejection of the Russian approach to power politics as a “new normal” in international relations, the demonstration of Western support for the rule-based international order, and the imperative of maintaining trans-Atlantic unity and demonstrating the cohesion of NATO and the EU. There has also been an expectation that the pressure of sanctions can cause Russia to freeze the conflict in Donbass in line with the Minsk agreements, by using its influence on the local “separatists.”

Unfortunately, the likelihood that the current approach will produce significant results — in terms of a change in Russian policy — remains low. Most importantly, it requires the modification of Russian behavior going beyond tactical concessions, and involving the re-definition of the whole state-building project of Putin’s ‘new Russia’. The only likely way for this to happen would be through a period of significant internal disturbances or a change of leadership in Russia. In addition, the Russian leadership currently has few incentives to adjust its policy. On the contrary, it may be tempted to raise the stakes further to overcome its predicament.

From the Western perspective, a major weakness of the current strategy is its vulnerability to the gradual erosion of the Western resolve, or to a sudden policy change in any of the major Western countries. A number of states have already started to implement their own variation of the Russia policy, with some broadening the scope of contact despite the sanctions while others are sticking to a tougher policy line. The United States itself has increasingly engaged in discussions with Russia on a closer coordination of the policy and actions on Syria, and it is likely that the EU sanctions policy can be challenged ‘from within’ by some of the members interested in the resumption of economic cooperation with Russia. Further questions are connected with the change of administration in the United States and with the coming elections in France and Germany.

What could be the alternative options of modifying the Western response to Russia’s behavior?

The first possibility would be to simply seek a new settlement with Moscow: accepting the Russian position on the dangers of EU and NATO expansion, and accepting the broader notion that Moscow is entitled to a special place in the European security system and to its own zone of privileged interests. In practical terms, such a settlement would mean some sort of an arrangement leaving Ukraine, Georgia, and other parts of the common neighborhood as a buffer zone, or a joint European-American-Russian “condominium” with neutral status. It would also mean a “reset” and a new opening in relations with Russia. It is clearly the favorite way out of the crisis for Russia, yet the West is highly unlikely to take such a route. Accepting a logic of settlement would run counter to the entire post-Cold War Western concept of a Europe “one, whole and free.” It would also run counter to the basic principles of European security and amount to the abandonment of pro-Western forces in Eastern Europe.

The second option would involve bringing the confrontation to Russia’s doorsteps and stepping up the efforts to force it to change its policy course. Such a policy would require US leadership and would need to involve a substantial broadening and “deepening” of sanctions. This option would include sanctioning Russian oil and gas imports, fast-tracking NATO membership for Georgia, making a NATO membership offer to Sweden and Finland, and massively supporting Ukraine economically as well as militarily — all backed up by a more muscular presence of NATO forces along the eastern flank as a back-up. While such an option would certainly appeal to the fans of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the implementation problems are rather obvious — the escalation of military tensions and initiation of high-risk military build-up, the challenge of maintaining Western cohesion, and the possibility of brutal Russian counter-action.

Finally, the third option would borrow heavily from the Cold War containment doctrine, and focus on agreeing on the rules of a stable co-existence. It could involve the establishment of a new military equilibrium between NATO and Russia, with restraint on both sides and increased military transparency and predictability, a ‘solid’ and durable freeze of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, case-by-case cooperation on specific global challenges such as terrorism or the Syrian civil war, and an effort to remove some of the economic sanctions by the two sides. Such a stabilization of the confrontation would not amount to full normalization of the relationship: some of the sanctions would still be in force (including the arms embargo against Russia); Crimea’s occupation would still be considered illegal by the West; and overall relations would still be characterized by mistrust and tensions. Given the problems with the other options, this may be a scenario worth exploring further.

Where do we go from here?

In the immediate aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, the West has shown resolve to oppose the Russian actions. Between 2014 and 2016, it managed to reinforce the red lines regarding aggression against NATO territory. However, the last two years have also demonstrated the limits of the current approach. This is unlikely to bring about a major change in Russian policy. Keeping Russia as an outsider to the European security system can be dangerous. If Moscow has no interest in the stability of Europe, it can be tempted to broaden the territories under its control, stir problems, or challenge NATO and the neighboring countries even more openly. With Russia inside the system, despite its potential for mischief, there will be more ways to influence and moderate its behavior.

We should not fuel the illusions that sometime soon a “reset” button will be pushed again and everything will go back to normal in our relationship. Yet, we can initiate changes which will at least ensure that the Russia-West confrontation is managed better, costs less, and does not devour additional lives, in Ukraine and beyond.