Crisis, settlement, or containment — what is to be done on Russia?

The West’s Russia problem is going to be protracted; now is the time for a strategic decision as to what ends to pursue.
A burning building after bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3
A burning building after bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, 3rd of March 2022. Credit: manhhai via Flickr
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Russian foreign policy has for over a decade been animated by confrontation with the ‘West’. President Vladimir Putin’s desire to rebuild Russia as a great power has consistently been framed as succeeding at the expense of America. The Russian desire for an interests based international order has been pursued by seeking to subvert the rules-based international order that in Moscow is perceived to structurally favour western power. But perhaps the most difficult aspect for Western leaders to understand is the belief — pervasive among Putin’s inner circle— that since 2011 the West has been conspiring to bring about a ‘colour revolution’ in Moscow using everything from funding LGBT civil society organisations to disparaging the reputation of Ivan the Terrible.

Western leaders have struggled to grasp the latter pathology because it ascribes to them a policy that they have never pursued. Western policy towards Russia has remained the hope that increasing economic interdependence and the promise of material prosperity would convince Putin, and if not him then his eventual successors, that it is in Russia’s interest to embrace collaboration over confrontation. The events of 2014 may have awoken Western security establishments to the threat emanating from Moscow, but from Nordstream 2, to Londongrad, western policy has remained carrot without the stick. The tragedy is that Putin has felt himself locked into an existential struggle with an adversary that was determined to remain unaware that it was in a fight. Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine however cannot be ignored. Now that the West has woken up, the question arises as to what is to be done?

The response in Western capitals to Russia’s invasion was swift and surpassed the expectations of many western leaders. The EU, for example, went beyond breaking trade ties and sanctioning individuals, to freezing Russia’s central bank reserves. There is now a self-tightening political rachet in the West to see who can show they are taking the hardest line. The effect being sought with these actions is consistent: to impose costs on Russia for its behaviour. However, the ends being sought are less clear. Imposing costs without a clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve risks the application of contradictory pressures.

What ends could Western governments pursue as regards to the shape of their longer terms relations with Russia? Three plausible objectives stand out: to stalemate Russia in Ukraine to de-escalate through a settlement; to bring about a domestic crisis for the Russian state to compel a shift in Russian behaviour; or a policy of sustained and strategic containment. Each objective has a range of associated short-, medium- and long-term policies necessary to achieve success. Therefore, a decision on the objective being sought needs to be discussed now. All options also have corresponding costs and risks.

Settlement

Both the human tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, and the global economic repercussions of the war on the cost of living, create strong incentives to achieve a negotiated settlement. The war had barely started before western officials were debating what ‘off-ramps’ might be offered. At present negotiation is extremely difficult. The Kremlin is negotiating directly with Ukraine, hoping to bring about Kyiv’s capitulation, but globally Russian diplomats are busy burning their reputations and channels for dialogue. 

The prerequisite for a settlement is to convince the Kremlin that they can gain more through negotiation than by a continued military offensive. To that end it is necessary to supply the Ukrainian military with as much anti-tank, anti-air, and asymmetric weapons like loitering munitions as possible, to force the Russians into a mutually hurting stalemate. Economic pressure, from sanctions, remains critical to limit Russia’s ability to fund the war, to resupply its forces, and to shield its population from the costs of the conflict.

Bringing Russia to the negotiating table, however, is fraught with risk. Russia may, for example, come forward with a seemingly reasonable proposal for a settlement subject to the immediate lifting of sanctions. If the sanctions are lifted Russia could then manufacture Ukrainian ceasefire violations to justify continuing the conflict having broken the cohesion of western sanctions policy. If the sanctions are not lifted Russia may cast the west as prolonging the war for its own ends, and thereby break wider international support for Ukraine.

A settlement brings longer-term strategic risks too. The exact contours of a Russian withdrawal and a package of face-saving measures for Putin to sell domestically depend upon Ukrainian agreement. But such a policy cannot avoid the rehabilitation of Putin. Given the war crimes he has directed against Ukraine – and been publicly accused of by western leaders – this would necessarily diminish the West’s authority and clearly signal a return to great power competition at the expense of a rules based international order. As a nuclear armed state the West cannot expect to dictate terms as it did to Saddam Hussein in 1991 and any settlement would consequently involve concessions to Russia. This would reward the waging of an aggressive war.

Ukraine is justifiably concerned that after prolonging the war to the detriment of its citizens, Kyiv may be sold out by its allies in a backroom deal. A settlement would not remove the potential that Russia would undertake further aggression in the future, with promises of Ukrainian ‘neutrality’ in any settlement having the effect of isolating Ukraine in subsequent rounds of fighting. If a settlement is to be achieved therefore it requires a united negotiating position among NATO states and between NATO and Kyiv. It also requires an acknowledgement by Western leaders that a ceasefire is not in and of itself progress unless it is brought about under appropriate conditions.

Crisis

With extensive evidence of war crimes being committed by Russian troops, and western leaders ascribing responsibility for these to Putin personally, along with personal sanctions on Putin and Lavrov, it may be that the present Russian leadership is irredeemable. Furthermore, Putin’s paranoia over foreign subversion means that it is impossible to negotiate with any degree of trust. Good will gestures are perceived to have exterior motives while punishment simply reinforces existing prejudices. The question therefore arises whether the West should seize the opportunity to do what they are in any case believed to be doing and seek to provoke a domestic crisis in Russia to facilitate a change in power.

Any discussion of provoking crisis is usually cut short by the assertion that the West lacks the means to bring about such an outcome, with states like North Korea being held up as an example of the limits of western action. It is certainly true that Putin has highly developed means for repressing opposition and that the Russian state has considerable resilience against external economic and political pressure. Nevertheless, previous discussion of means has often assumed limited western cohesion and has not been based on a full assessment of the tools available.  

The pursuit of a domestic crisis in Russia would require several parallel lines of effort. First, it would require sanctions and economic policies intended to collapse, rather than contain, the Russian economy. Second, it would require personal sanctions to target the current leadership with a clear and consistent message that Russia will not be allowed to re-engage with the global economy so long as the current leadership remains in place. The message would need to be clearly stated that if Russian elites want to travel and do business beyond their borders again then they cannot support the current leadership. The pursuit of active measures in Russia is difficult, but not impossible. It is possible to fracture Putin’s narrative for his nationalist base by flooding Russia with the message that far from resurrecting the state as a great power Putin’s incompetence has simply rendered the country subservient to Beijing. 

Such a course carries short and long-term risks. Although the Kremlin would be unlikely to initially escalate over the West doing what it believes to already be Western policy, this may change if the measures begin to have a felt effect. There is little prospect of a quiet retirement for Putin and desperation may produce unpredictable results. The inevitable escalation of repression inside Russia – already underway – and the economic predations unleashed, would have serious humanitarian implications too.

It is also important to recognise that this policy is not one of ‘regime-change’, because the West could exert almost no control over what replaced Putin if the policy succeeded. A successor to Putin may be more radical, more nationalistic, and comparably aggressive. Subsequent Russian governments would have little reason to trust the West knowing full well what it could do to them one day. Finally, there is simply the possibility that such a policy would fail, dragging down much hope of a negotiated settlement with it.

Containment

Containment is likely the reversionary policy if the pursuit of a crisis in Russia or a settlement fail. Alternatively, if stoking a crisis in Russia is considered impracticable and a settlement impossible then the West may pursue a policy of strategic containment from the start. Containment varies by degrees, from a maximalist attempt to marginalise Russia politically and economically, to a more limited attempt to contain its malign influence. If the policy is to be pursued there is little merit in pursuing it half-heartedly, and so if containment is settled upon then it should be extensive. 

Containment differs from both the pursuit of a settlement or the attempt to stimulate a political crisis in Russia in that it is to be an indefinite posture without an associated theory of change. It suggests a view that the threat from Russia must be managed rather than overcome. The anticipated longevity of the policy therefore produces different imperatives as to the nature of sanctions and associated diplomacy.

Economically, containment would involve two lines of effort. The first would be the use of sanctions to increase the frictions and risks for any exports from or imports to Russia. The threat of secondary sanctions and severing of transfer mechanisms can prove highly effective. Even where other governments may want to engage with Russia this can be limited by targeting the companies undertaking the activities, imposing risk upon such operations and thereby deterring investment. Although China and other states will facilitate sanctions evasion, experience with North Korea and Iran show that there are practical limits to such the scale of evasion mechanisms. 

The second line of effort would be to replace Russia as a supplier and to restructure the market to obviate dependency upon Russian supply. In the short term this would involve encouraging allies in the Middle East and elsewhere to increase production of critical resources – especially in the energy sector. In the long term it demands significant investment in renewables and alternative energy sources. Similarly, it demands a short term solution to alleviate shortages of grain supplies to the middle East, alongside investment in planting to make up that shortfall in future years.

Diplomatically containment would require efforts to diminish Russian influence among key partners. A good example would be India, which is heavily dependent upon Russian arms supplies. Much of the Soviet era equipment that India fights with however can be provided by alternative suppliers, and so a mixture of imposed frictions and incentives and subsidies would need to be used to replace Russia as the source for spares and reloads. The wider process of economic containment may make this easier because one of the major risks of containment is to make Russia highly dependent upon China for investment and as an outlet for exports. This would put India in the position of being dependent upon a state for the assurance of its arms over which China has significant influence. Given that China is one of the primary adversaries against whom India must defend itself, this would place Indian defence plans in a precarious position.

Although Russia’s options for countering a policy of strategic containment are limited and there is a reduced threat of escalation, making Russia dependent upon China carries significant risks. As tensions mount in the South China Sea, Beijing has a significant interest in being able to fix US forces in Europe, meaning that Russian dependence is unlikely to be used to restrain Moscow. Furthermore, a policy of containment necessarily diminishes Russia’s diplomatic and economic levers, leading to a likely emphasis on the military instrument. Finally, if the next generation of Russian officials perceive the West as hostile over the long term, with little prospect of rapprochement, then relations may be soured for another generation.

None of the options articulated above are risk free. Nor are they certain to succeed. But if western capitals do not cohere around a unified approach there is a serious risk that different alliance members will pursue competing objectives, fouling one another’s diplomacy, and incurring escalation risks without pursuing gains at a scale likely to bring about success. Irrespective of how the fighting develops in Ukraine the West’s confrontation with Russia looks to be protracted. It is time allies begin a strategic discussion as to their long-term objectives.

Jack Watling

Dr Jack Watling is Research Fellow for Land Warfare at RUSI.

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