Deterring Russian Aggression

Russia is determined to reclaim its place in the limelight. NATO knows this will happen at its expense. Enter Russia, stage right.

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be JFK? Tricky Dick Nixon, or Jimmy Carter? Or indeed Leonid Brezhnev, Vasili Kuznetsov, or Gorbachev?

How did they face down the other global superpower? How did they, in short, pursue their national objectives in the face of a belligerent opponent? How did they plan for WWIII?

Some in the defence industry will know very well how. I started my career working with people who, when they started their careers, would walk through the plains of West Germany to plan out likely Warsaw Pact axes of advance and model the probable victors. Much of the industry however inevitably consists of those who joined, like me, much later.

In today’s climate of potential US draw-down from NATO and Russian belligerence it’s worth thinking about again – even governmental forecasting papers expect future uncertainty from Russia. Skip to the bottom if you want a refresher on the Cold War.

In the meantime I’ll talk about:

  1. Deterrence and the lessons we can learn from the Cold War;
  2. What is the current context:
    • The difference Trump makes – good and bad,
    • The other levers of governmental power,
    • The power of friendship, and
    • Anti-Access and Area Denial;
  3. How we can apply our learned lessons.


Noun: the act of discouraging (someone) from doing something by instilling doubt or fear of the consequences.

The Cold War was a war exclusively of deterrence. Each side attempted to convince the other that it could not successfully win a conflict – whether nuclear or conventional. The USSR stockpiled everything: nuclear weapons, tanks (believed to have built 140,000+ from the 1950s to 1990), and soldiers [1]. Their purpose was to show that, no matter the expected casualties in the first few days, they had so many more units at readiness to fight, that they could blow around and through exhausted NATO forces. There’s a reason Stalin is often (probably wrongly) quoted as saying: “Quantity has a quality all of its own”, and (when questioning the value of non-military support) actually did say “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” [2]. In the end some consider the joint US economic power and Papal rapport with ending the Soviet Union.

As well as piling on the forces each side exaggerated the effectiveness of their equipment (and probably continue to do so) so that the other would take pause before thinking they would come out ahead.

NATO, when it saw that it could not win the conventional stockpile race, pursued technology as the answer. By the 1980s the proliferation of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, cluster munitions and scatterable mines, quieter submarines and better aircraft (arguably, certainly better systems onboard) allowed NATO to convincingly suggest that they might stop the Soviet Horde. The Warsaw Pact forces were respected as being capable in their own right as well.

Examples of Soviet capability well into the 1980s. Though ultimately eclipsed by NATO capabilities the vehicles above could be fielded in far larger numbers and the majority were battle tested with strengths and weaknesses learned. Facing down this capable horde made many in NATO question whether they could stop even the conventional Soviet invasion in the event of war.

In the end deterrence was successful. Neither side did invade the other, or kick off any kind of conventional or nuclear conflict, despite some very close calls. Instead the USSR collapsed under the weight of its economic and political issues. What lessons can we learn from history?

Deterring Continued Russian Belligerence

The past decade has really seen Russia rise from its post-1990s slump economically, and it now is trying to retake its position on the world stage. It doesn’t have the economic or diplomatic clout to do that entirely peacefully, as China has been (mostly) doing this century, but it does still have a significant military. And Russia has been waving that military around: in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Baltic, in Syria. So what does the West / NATO do about a Russia that wants back into the top table and doesn’t mind playing hardball to get there?

The Trump Card

A 1995 paper called Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence points out that a key element of deterrence is the real belief in a credible threat of escalation if the deteree does what the deterrer doesn’t want them to do. An element of unpredictability, of being organisationally slight unhinged (or at least having a “powerful faction” that is) maintains a credible threat. Calling Mr Trump.

If he tells you not to do something then you have no idea what his response will be. Is he all bluff? Who knows. That is a credible threat. It does however make brinkmanship easy, but détente difficult – as long as the adversary also engages in brinkmanship the world becomes a more dangerous place. Is this likely? Yes. Yes it is. Oh well, 2016 has gone fine so far hasn’t it…

Levers of Power

The military is but one lever of political power. Economic levers, e.g. sanctions and targeted tariffs are another, and Russia is already being heavily sanctioned at a state and individual level. But there are lots of others as well that Russia is currently flexing a lot better than those in the West.

Propaganda never really disappeared. It’s often now more subtle than it used to be (in these Cold War, or earlier, classics for example), though fringe groups of distrustful people are quickly reverting. The bias of news sources is readily known: the Daily Mail is right-wing, the Guardian is left-wing, the internet is increasingly polarising with people choosing news sources that align to their world views. But what about state-sponsored bias?

An example of this is Russia Today. Now branded as “RT“, it’s an international news organisation that is funded by the Russian state, and is widely recognised as a propaganda / disinformation outlet, but it’s well disguised as a normal news channel. If you didn’t know what it was, and it releases an ongoing narrative explaining something you suspected is in fact true (e.g. questioning the legitimacy of the US election, or an excessive focus on US race relations over the past year to show that it is a corrupt society) then you may not think about provenance. Some action is now happening (the irony of the link is not lost).

Heavy-handed and slightly obvious propaganda like this is not available to Western governments anymore – evidence of a government lying and controlling narratives overseas would lead to a public backlash here. However, efforts could be made to link together and provide a voice to (and communities for) those willing to go against the Russian Governmental narrative and provide the truth (e.g. pulling together and publicising private and open source intelligence, such as showing Russian forces in Ukraine). The main challenge is to make your desired news source the most interesting and exciting. Sadly that trumps truth most days.

Other potential levers include economic (e.g. working behind the scenes to keep the price of oil low), cultural (e.g. ensuring Russians see the West as the better place, with an implicitly better moral stance – whether true or not), and prestige. On that last point it was good to see the Olympic crackdown on Russian doping!

The Power of Friendship

The main Western lever of power that would effectively de-fang the Russian government is just to be nice. Help out the people, really get involved in making people’s lives better in Russia. Build up support for Russia’s old enemies and control the narratives. That would stop the perceived credibility of the Russian government’s statements that everything bad that happens is because the West (particularly the US) has it out for Russia.

Not going to happen any time soon though is it.


Anti-Access and Area Denial is a new buzz-word as of 3-4 years ago, and may be dying already. It’s the set of actions and policies that make it difficult for a military force to get to the theatre of operations, and to reduce their freedom of manoeuvre. Historically that would have been done militarily by mines, long-range air defences, or chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

The US has been worried about China’s new “carrier-killer” ballistic missiles denying their carrier battle groups the ability to get near to the South China Sea, thereby reducing the effectiveness of aircraft on board. Well Russia has just deployed anti-ship and long-range anti-air missiles in the Kaliningrad Oblast and Crimea, potentially preventing access to the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia except by land. In the event of a similar action as Ukraine – where Russia foments a civil crisis that it can deniably supply with training, equipment, and troops ultimately leading to annexation (now known as ‘hybrid’ warfare) – these states would be cut off from outside support.

Russian air defences as at August 2016

Indeed the strongest A2AD action that Russia has is to break down the political coherence of NATO – reducing the credibility of a multinational NATO response if the situation above did occur. By cultivating links with Germany and Italy, Turkey and France, Norway and more, by changing narratives in voting populaces, that is slowly happening.

Lessons Learned

So what do we do about it?

  1. Make sure that unpredictability is backed up by credible effect – if Mr Trump is not shown to ever follow-through with his threats then that weakens everyone;
  2. Counter Russian propaganda, not by showing it as false but by engaging with the viewer-base through other platforms and narratives. Don’t dispute; distract;
  3. Use all political levers of power to influence towards a peaceful and friendly solution. We are not at war, nor do we need to be. We do not need a return of the Cold War. Global prosperity is not a zero-sum game;
  4. Engage with the current Russian government’s political backers. Target Mr. Putin’s ability to say that all bad things are Western aggression. Be kind and help Russian growth and development. Do not say that there has been any kind of ‘victory’, or say one thing but allow focus and emphasis to shift without delivering on promises;
  5. If all else fails, make sure that the Baltic states are a very difficult morsel to bite off and swallow. RAND recommends doing this by pre-positioning seven brigades in Lithuania – not enough to prevent Russian annexation, but enough to change the geo-political picture and delay the Russian advance.  Another suggestion is to provide the Baltic States with key pieces of equipment and training needed to hold out longer against Russian invasion: longer-range anti-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, anti-ballistic missile systems, etc.

But a far more viable strategy aims to show that even if Russia does manage to take the Baltic states in 2-6 days, as currently projected, it doesn’t end there. Lithuania is restarting conscription to create a strategic reserve of manpower that is trained and can be called up, and providing manuals on how to run an effective sabotage and resistance campaign. Based on the Swiss model this could provide the kind of deterrent to make Russian leaders think about whether plans to invade are in fact worth it or not.

But as we all know, when facing a black bear you don’t play dead.

The Cold War

The Cold War is generally agreed to have lasted from 1947 to 1991, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact (generally – I’ll explain that in a minute).

At the end of WWII Germany ended up occupied by the Allies. The US / UK / Canadian (+ others) force that landed in France in 1944 fought through France, Belgium and the Netherlands into Germany. The Soviet forces that had been advancing through Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany since holding the line at Stalingrad and Kursk. In the end both forces held Germany, with a brief scramble for territory in the closing days of the war, splitting Germany in two temporarily.

Eventually it became apparent that the USSR wasn’t actually leaving. The US in 1947 pledged to help all peoples from subjugation by the USSR (lending aid to threatened Greece and Turkey, becoming the Truman Doctrine), and in 1949 NATO began “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down“. In 1955 West Germany joined NATO, prompting the USSR and its satellite states to create a counter organisation: the Warsaw Pact, both to counter US / NATO dominance and in fear of West German rearmament (in the cases of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland).

The ensuing face-off across the East / West German border lasted until 1989, when the wall came down.

More on this to come in the next post.

*N.B.: Wikipedia references abound. This is a conscious decision, because though better / more respectable references are out there, Wikipedia provides good summaries of things and is accurate enough for the purposes of this. You could always look for yourself.

I assume that you have no background knowledge of this, so I apologise if it's a little noddy at times.

[1] William E. Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 39
[2] Winston Churchill, The Second World War  vol. 1, ch. 8, p. 105, 1948

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