Containing and deterring Russia: can Europe act strategically?

The condemnation of the annexation of the Crimea was unified and strong, but the sanctions that followed lacked any real bite.

A section of an art project dedicated to celebrating the annexation of Crimea in Moscow. The caption reads: 'Crimea and Russia together forever', 2014.
A section of an art project dedicated to celebrating the annexation of Crimea in Moscow. The caption reads: 'Crimea and Russia together forever', 2014. Credit: Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay was originally published in War: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation in 2015.

Europe faces the twin strategic challenges of global terrorism and old fashioned state power rivalry. Great power politics, especially as represented by Russia and strategic terrorism, descended on Europe at the same time; 2014 marked a turning point for both. During that year, Putin annexed the Crimea and heavy fighting unfolded in the rest of the Ukraine. The same year, Islamic State and other terrorist actors stepped up their activities, launching attacks in Europe and elsewhere. The killing of almost the entire staff at Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 marked a turning point. The values of liberal democracy were under fire. In this setting, Europe was all of a sudden put in a situation where it had to act strategically, dealing with very severe security challenges. It was — and is — the protagonist in a strategic game with both Russia and terrorism. What one actor in such a game does has implications for the other actor. This is the essence of strategic interaction, of strategy itself. If one chooses passivity — doing nothing — that is also strategically relevant. Does it mean appeasement? Is it mere reaction, without any plan, or the opposite? Or is it a rejection of the agenda that the opponent is trying to set and, as such, a true strategic move from a position of strength?

These questions are essential to assessing how Europe responds. This paper analyses what strategic interaction, thinking and action require, given the challenges at hand. It argues that European leaders have largely forgotten what this entails and that their learning curve needs to be extremely steep. Politicians who do not recall the Cold War, much less the Second World War, are not likely to entertain much interest in security and defence issues. Although strategy is essential to statesmanship, it is difficult and often unpleasant to deal with adversaries. ‘Fair weather’ politics are much nicer and more politically correct. When European politicians use force, they primarily do so in so-called ‘humanitarian interventions’ where they can claim that military power is a force for good. The language of deterrence and coercion has been far from a common vocabulary. Only with the rise of a resurgent Russia has deterrence again become a key word in NATO debates. It is still an awkward subject to discuss in political circles in most European states. The familiar political model of the Western world is incentives-based: so-called ‘win-win’ diplomacy. For instance, after Crimea was occupied, Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende said that Vladimir Putin simply had not understood that the world is a ‘win-win’ place, where dialogue and cooperation would resolve problems. He was not alone among Western leaders. They have been very reluctant to accept that Putin is seemingly serious in not wanting a win-win modus operandi and, even though sanctions are in place, these are designed more as a general form of punishment to express moral outrage than as an effective instrument for putting pressure on Putin to change his behaviour.

Strategy: deterrence, containment, coercion, and confrontation

What is strategy? This concept is often overused in general political discourse. If everything is termed a strategy, it is emptied of meaning. Strategic studies came into being as an academic field after the Second World War. Military strategy is, of course, as old as war itself. The study of strategic interaction in the Cold War was completely dominated by game theory models of rationality. Balance-of-power theory — the essence of political realism — shared the same notion of rationality and the assumption of the centrality of the state as actor. The Cold War framed rationality with clear definitions of actors and interests. The various doctrines developed by NATO in this period were premised on a picture of clear existential threat and a clear structure of actors, consisting of the two superpowers. Strategic options can be termed deterrence, coercion, containment and confrontation. Deterrence combined with containment was the strategy pursued by the West towards the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. NATO deterred the Soviet Union militarily with a combination of nuclear and conventional weapons and, politically, it chose a long-term strategy of containment. The famous ‘Long Telegram’, written by George Kennan in 1946 when he was a diplomat in the US embassy in Moscow, recommended containing the Soviet Union and waiting for results in the long run, while being fully concentrated on deterrence. Coercion is directed at someone, trying to make him stop his undertaking. Both economic and military tools can be coercive, but the military tool is the most credible, assuming the willingness to use it. In the Western reaction to Russia, we see a certain degree of coercion in the use of sanctions, yet the demands made are not very clear, as we will see later. There is no willingness to engage in direct confrontation in Ukraine, using military deployment as a kind of ‘chicken’ game, where one party has to yield. This option was discussed and remains on the table in the US, but has no political support in Europe.

Strategic action involves ‘shaping’ the political environment through various means. Such shaping is also a result of deterrence. A state, or group of states, must act strategically to prevent developments viewed as unacceptable from happening. Thus, deterring other powers from putting pressure on one’s own state is a primary form of strategic action in peacetime. This entails the ability to define so-called ‘red lines’ and to act if they are crossed. The use of force in deployments can be said to constitute the failure of the other two forms of strategic action, either because the adversary will not be deterred or coerced, or because the acting state or group of states is unwilling and unable to act strategically to begin with.

However, in Europe, the political focus has been on operations that have avoided the use of force, favouring instead deterrence and/or coercion. This is point that Emile Simpson makes in his book War from the Ground Up: twenty-first-century combat as politics: there is ample use of force in Europe, but it is used like a fire brigade. When things become too awful and finally ‘something must be done’, a dash of military force is thrown at the problem. This is not a strategic use of force and, therefore, not a political use of force in Clausewitz’s sense. There is no plan for the political effect of the use of force in such operations because there is no strategy in the first place. Deterrence and coercion must logically be based on a political strategy, but military operations need not. In the fire-brigade scenario, they are not.

While deterrence is a general policy of instilling fear in other states, aimed at dissuading them from doing something undesirable, coercion aims at stopping a specific policy that has already been undertaken. If deterrence works, coercion may be unnecessary. But the opposite is not true: coercion cannot substitute for deterrence; rather, effective deterrence makes coercion more likely to succeed because it sends a general message of credible threat to adversaries. In Europe, coercion has been employed many times, but has not often been successful. The main reason for this is the lack of credible threat. If deterrence had been a developed policy, this might have improved the prospects of success in the case of coercive diplomacy.

Christopher Coker, in his essay ‘A Farewell to Arms’, argues that Europe has developed a culture of peaceful diplomacy that excludes the use of force and that force has become illegitimate as an instrument of state power:

The demilitarisation of Europe is pre-eminently a cultural phenomenon. The calculation about threats and future risks is interesting enough, but the organising currents are cultural. The political class has… for a long time not had to think about [war] seriously, with the US always leading from the front.

NATO, the EU and the Great European Powers

The EU and NATO, like all international organisations, are not actors in their own right. They do not have supranational powers in the field of security and defence. The EU is largely intergovernmental. This means that the EU, by and large, functions as an arena not an actor in this area. When it comes to economic sanctions, this is also the case: all 28 states must agree to them. But EU institutions play a role — agenda-setting, framing policy proposals, timing decisions and so on.

NATO is also an arena, but it possesses major common tools of warfare and deterrence, in the form of an integrated military command. A state in Europe today can hardly function without using NATO standards. Thus, on the military side, there is no equal to NATO in Europe or beyond.

This is also true of the political commitment to mutual solidarity in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the very cornerstone of the Alliance. Yet Article 5 has been invoked only once in the history of NATO, on the day after 9/11. This did not lead to an Article 5 operation, yet it remains the glue of NATO and the key factor in deterrence. The problem for NATO since 1990 has been the lack of a common strategic vision. There are some states that are both willing to take risks and militarily capable, but also very many that are neither. Today, NATO is an arena for coalitions of the willing more than ever before.

The great powers in Europe are Britain, France and Germany. In military terms, only the first two possess strategic and military cultures. Germany is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Despite being the major economic power of Europe and leader of the EU, Germany still lacks a strategic culture and is only slowly coming back as a Grossmacht. Yet change is under way. German leaders have signalled that the country intends to undertake a leading role. The economic problems of the EU have propelled Germany into a position of European leadership, but its weakness remains a lack of strategic culture in terms of using military force, either as coercion or deterrence.

The Russian Case in 2014: European reactions

The Economist argued in an editorial (September 6, 2014) that the West is in for a lengthy confrontation, in which Putin has shown his willingness to use force and this is the main point: ‘He has sown fear – and, for Mr Putin, fear is the basic currency of politics.’ The role that military power plays in Russian policy is crucial, not only because it instils fear in the Western adversary in this strategic interaction, but because the West does not and will not use force according to realpolitik rules of old, as a normal tool of statecraft. Since Western and UN norms — the peaceful resolution of conflict, the prohibition of military threats and the use of force against another state — are so central to Europe, such use of force is all the more effective in terms of instilling fear, which may in turn lead to appeasement rather than strategy.


Deterring Russia was and remains the key priority of NATO. After twenty-five years of ‘peace dividends’ in Europe, state-to-state rivalry is back and therefore also the risk of state-to-state war. The risk ranges from ‘high end’ war to the more likely ‘hybrid’ mode. The ‘high end’ could result from increased tension between the US and Russia, with Russia choosing to escalate. Putin’s mention of Russia’s nuclear weapons serves as a threat and reminder of the importance of these weapons and, in a scenario of increased tension, it cannot be ruled out.

In a ‘hybrid’ scenario, like that in Crimea, however, the problem is not one of large-scale troop movements and follow-on forces, but determining what is really going on and attributing events to causes. The cat-and-mouse game played in Ukraine throughout 2014 and 2015 shows that Russia is capable of being an actor but denying it, creating the absurd situation in which the non-actor Russia becomes the major diplomatic player in Minsk, while also meddling in Ukrainian politics (telling Ukrainian troops to surrender in Debaltseve in February 2015; ‘accepting’ the 2014 national elections in Ukraine, while also recognising the separatists of Luhansk and Donetsk.)

The NATO summit in Cardiff in September 2014 agreed to speed up the Rapid Action Plan (RAP) with its very high readiness joint task force (VHRJT), and deploy a ‘pilot’ force to Latvia consisting of British, Dutch and Norwegian troops. Company-size deployments will rotate in the Baltic states and take part in much larger exercises. Further, command and control nodes will be stationed in other East and Central European states, as well as in the Baltics. It is a major political deterrent that these deployments contain American and other key NATO states’ nationals — should they fail, these states would already be involved in the conflict. Military deterrence requires more than a token presence, especially given the very short lead times of military operations today. Even if air power can be deployed very fast and there is Baltic air surveillance, aircraft need plans for bases, shelters and air defence. If the adversary establishes air supremacy, there will no opportunity for ground troops to fight effectively or even deploy in theatre. If effective military deterrence is to be established in these states, much more needs to be done. Yet here we see the twin problems of lack of military capability in these states and political caution or, rather, fear of escalation. The hybrid choice is a reflection of strategy. It is the best way of avoiding serious countermeasures, in this case from NATO.

NATO would probably be capable — given enough military hardware and planning — of deterring Russia in a conventional operation. This is the normal way we think about deterrence. Yet there is another way, that of gradual loss of confidence in NATO’s deterrence, a kind of ‘salami slicing’, where the leading guarantors of deterrence lose credibility in terms of their political and military will to act. This is the likely consequence of Europe’s diminishing defence budgets and post-national political mindset.

The EU

In response to the annexation of the Crimea, the EU and US decided on sanctions against Russia in various stages — first, in March right after the fact, Russia was excluded from the G8 meeting, then on June 23, further measures were agreed. EU and US sanctions have been upgraded to a more serious level, and may go even farther after the failure of the Minsk II ceasefire in February 2015. The sanctions regime is graduated and can therefore threaten new levels. This in itself is an intelligent design.

The EU sanctions were initially targeted at specific persons. They have since been extended to economic sectors and comprise freezing the assets of both private companies and individuals; targeting financial markets (banning long-term loans to five state-owned banks in Russia); and restricting the activities of energy companies — Rosneft, Transneft and Gazprom Neft — as well as those of the defence sector, where all ‘dual-use’ manufacturers have been boycotted. The EU also boycotts all contact and trade with the Crimea because it does not recognise the annexation.

However, there are serious weaknesses in EU sanctions. First of all, it was the US and not EU states themselves that proposed sanctions and, indeed, put the EU under heavy pressure to follow suit. For the Europeans, sanctions and counter-sanctions have much greater consequences than for the Americans. For some members, the issue is of vital economic importance. (For example, Finland, which experiences Russian influence as renewed ‘Finlandisation’, depends on Russia for all its gas and 70 per cent of its oil imports.) Secondly, the EU states are divided: Hungary, also dependent on Russia for gas imports and the renewal of its Paks nuclear power plant, wants a careful balancing, as do Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. Yet on June 25, 2015 EU sanctions were extended for another six months.

They have an economic impact, especially on trade. Yet there is no discernible political effect on President Putin. The long-term economic effect is real, but sanctions seem to reinforce the political message that the West is seeking regime change, thus fostering a siege mentality, which is easy to exploit in a dictatorship.

The French reaction

Looking at France, we should expect it to take a leading strategic role. It is, perhaps, the European country with the most established tradition of strategic thinking, where politics and ideology do not change much. Whether the president is a socialist or a conservative does not seem to matter. When President Hollande used force in Mali, his low ratings at home changed for the better. The same happened to President Sarkozy when he started the Libya campaign in 2011. The French are proud of their great power status and take it for granted that military power must support such a role. The theme of retaining the grandeur of France was key to de Gaulle, as it has been for every subsequent French president.

France only entered into the military structure of NATO in 2008. The country has been very much appreciated there and French generals lead and have led the Allied Command Transformation (ACT), one of two strategic commands at the head of NATO’s military command structure under the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Saceur). French military contributions are key in all UN and NATO operations and France has cut its defence budget less than Britain has. Yet France has strong economic ties and a traditionally close relationship with Russia.

The decision to sell warships (Mistral helicopter carriers) to Russia was heavily criticised in NATO when France entered into the contract some years back. But France decided to go ahead nonetheless. This contract, for €1.4 billion, secures more than 1,000 jobs in St Nazaire and remains very important in a country with high unemployment and major economic problems. After the Ukraine crisis erupted, the contract came under renewed and much heavier criticism. The US and other allies asked France to postpone or cancel delivery of the first warship, the Vladivostok, but France resisted. Only later, in 2014, when it became clear that the fighting in Ukraine was continuing, did France yield.

It should be recalled that Ukraine and Russia are not among the key strategic priorities of France. Those priorities are failed states, terrorism and its Middle East and African policy: Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Islamic State, Iran, Libya — and, only then, Ukraine. The French reaction to the Ukraine crisis should thus be understood as a consequence of strategic priorities that lie elsewhere and a long-standing relationship with Russia.

The British Reaction

‘Where is Britain?’ asked recently retired general and deputy Saceur Sir Robert Shirreff, as events in Ukraine unfolded and President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel went to Moscow to negotiate with President Putin on February 6, 2015. Their move came in response to American pressure to arm Ukraine in order to improve the country’s bargaining position with Russia. This trip was undertaken by the two European leaders on their own initiative and the meeting with Putin lasted for five hours, but nothing came of it.

It was surprising that the British prime minister did not join the duo that went to Moscow. In fact, Hollande as a partner to Merkel in these matters was a less likely choice than David Cameron, but the reason may have been that only France has the necessary rapport with Russia and that Hollande could, therefore, negotiate better with Putin. Yet this argument does not preclude the presence of Cameron. Indeed, a trio consisting of the leaders of all three major powers in Europe would have made eminent sense and strengthened the cause, by showing Putin that there was solidarity in the European camp. Even if Britain had merely been close to the emerging position in the US for arming Ukraine, it would have added weight to the negotiations. Indeed, the absence of Cameron from the delegation is strange and unusual for Britain, which prides itself on being in the lead in all matters of hard power, sometimes alongside France in their now long-standing bilateral cooperation.

The criticism of British passivity fanned out from the military to wider public debate. ‘Britain’s strategic ambition has shrivelled even more than its defence budget’ ran an Economist headline of February 14, 2015, over an article that described Britain as ‘little more than a backseat driver’ in the Ukraine crisis, despite polling which shows that two-thirds of the public want the country to remain a great power.

The British reaction to Putin’s manoeuvres of 2014 and 2015 must be judged as surprisingly passive. Britain has a global military presence and a strong strategic culture. Yet in this case, the political class seemed to be preoccupied with the May general election to an almost alarming extent.

David Cameron was absent from the Munich Security Conference in February, in itself remarkable as most other political leaders from Europe and the US were present, and he was also absent from the usual foreign policy troika in Europe in its negotiations with Putin. It is strange indeed that Cameron let the German-French duo deal with President Obama over the Ukraine crisis, without British participation.

Britain has not, thus far, been a leader in devising strategy for containing and deterring Russia, choosing instead a passive diplomatic role. One may speculate about why a national election should mean that international strategic leadership is a problem; it ought to be the opposite: statesmen of international stature should be celebrated and reelected, but in Europe today this does not seem realistic. This insight, if true, is yet another indicator of the lack of a strategic culture in Europe.

The German Reaction

In Germany, we immediately see the discrepancy between its political role as the leader, vis-à-vis Russia, in Europe and its almost pacifist culture. Given that military power is the ‘weapon of choice’ on Russia’s part, this presents a problem. Can Germany put sufficient weight behind its diplomacy with economic power alone?

Germany did not take the lead when Putin started to act on Ukraine. Its tradition of Ostpolitik, developed by the Social Democrats under Willy Brandt, seeks dialogue and understanding between the two countries. Military power had no place in this and still does not. This is one of the paradoxes and possible problems in the strategic interaction — Germany opposes arming Ukraine or paying much attention to deterrence. Germany is still strangely foreign to the military option as a tool of statecraft. This may leave it impotent when trying to put pressure on an adversary that is willing to use military power.

The American political scientist George Friedman has written that Germany has ‘disproportionate strength overlying genuine weakness’, because its economic power cannot substitute for military power in the situations where the adversary will use such power. Ukraine is a good case in point: no actor can ‘win’ there in a confrontation with Putin, as long as he is the only actor who is willing to use military force. He may be put under pressure effectively and choose to back off, but if the issue is confined to a game over who prevails in Ukraine and one actor is willing to use force, he can dictate the political endgame. The common rule in endgame negotiations is exactly this — the actor with the greatest territorial gains will get the most out of the result, as President Milosevic did over Bosnia at Dayton, and as we see in the Minsk II agreement, where some sort of autonomy has been granted to the Donbass region. Facts on the ground cannot be ignored and that is why military force is unsurpassed as a tool of statecraft, when the stakes are very high. The power of economic might presupposes that some order and some existential security obtain.

Germany therefore leads for Europe in the conflict with Russia with one hand tied behind its back, its lack of a normal strategic or military culture an obstacle to developing leadership and statesmanship. It is driven by the actions of the adversary, as Berlin finally realised in 2015 when the defence minister announced a new White Paper on defence, replacing the 2006 version, in which Russia was seen as a partner. The aim is to bolster national defence and develop deterrence.

Putin does not fear German military force. Inside Germany, the fragile consensus on Russian sanctions remains in place because of external shocks — but we cannot expect this to last very long. The united front behind Merkel is a direct result of the emergency situation that obtained at the time and does not represent a change in German foreign policy thinking. It is a superficial change, not a deep one. Large parts of the political spectrum prefer the old middle way, the Ostpolitik. This is also the preference of the business community, whose influence on foreign policy is much greater than in France or Britain, and this also holds for the German-Russian trade relationship.

Pressures on the domestic front therefore point in the direction of a return to normal diplomatic and economic ties between the two states. As Hans Kundnani, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2015: although the annexation of the Crimea was a strategic shock to Germany, the major trend has been a ‘long-term weakening of the so-called Westbindung’.


The Western response to Russia has been largely reactive and reluctant. Again, it is the non-European state, the US, which has led. It has led in terms of both deterrence and sanctions. European leaders were unwilling to do so. One major empirical indicator of this unwillingness is the fact that reductions in national defence budgets continued throughout 2014, in spite of the Russian crisis. This has been combined with broader political reticence. The condemnation of the annexation of the Crimea was unified and strong, but the sanctions that followed were not very biting.


Janne Haaland Matláry