Sanctions and Security: Stabilizing Russia-US Deterrence

Russia is discussing how to respond to US sanctions. However, sanctions and the response to them should hardly be considered a technical issue – what to ban, when and on what scale. Rather, the technical details should follow from the answer to the question of what we want from relations with the United States and the West in general. How do we see the future of the relationship? What scenario is best for us? As the source for the sanctions and the response to them lies in the realm of security, that is where we should seek our answers.

In Russia there have traditionally been two extremes on the issue of engaging with the United States. The first view is that rivalry is inevitable, the West’s historical desire has been to neutralize Russia as a dangerous rival, and the country’s main internal development problems and problems abroad are directly related to the purposefully destructive policies of Washington and its vassals in Europe. Following this logic, Russia must always stand ready to respond to the West by force, keep it under threat of nuclear strike, and prepare for color revolutions and other scheming. The second view is the polar opposite: the West has no choice but to respond to Russia’s aggressive actions as the driving force for justice and global development. Russia needs allied relations with the West and integration in its structures even if this requires concessions on all key issues of our relations – from Ukraine to NATO’s expansion.

I believe the extent of people’s commitment to these extremes is inversely proportional to their expertise on the issues. Specialists tend to hold much more balanced views. And these are the views that informed the drafting of the Valdai Club’s regular report on relations between Russia and the West in the area of security. The report’s distinctive feature is its focus on the future over the past or questions like “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?” The report reviews five potential scenarios of Russia-NATO relations and analyzes the key factors that make these scenarios possible.

The Euro-Atlantic Security Formula: Stable Deterrence and Its Alternatives Report
An asymmetric and unbalanced system of security has developed in the Euro-Atlantic region. It is based on a major gap in capabilities between Russia and NATO. Although that asymmetry was not of critical concern prior to the Ukrainian crisis, it has become a source of serious risks under current conditions capabilities between Russia and NATO.

There is little to no hope for a return to partnership on the previous or even bigger scale. There is no critical mass of common interests, goals or even values for this. The rut our relations are in has been cemented in place for a long time to come by sanctions, stereotypes, mutual grievances and unresolved conflicts. Wishful thinking and partnership for the sake of partnership are counterproductive in these conditions. We must acknowledge that mutual deterrence is here to stay for now. 

However, there are different kinds of deterrence. It would seem the atmosphere of competition should encourage maximum unpredictability to rattle your rival with sudden moves and surprises, get in his head and up the ante across the board – in the air, on the ground, at sea and in cyberspace, not to mention in the conflicts smoldering around the world…

It is this scenario of unstable deterrence that both sides should avoid. Chaotic efforts will only escalate fear, compel both sides to waste already scarce resources, destroy the last remainders of trust, and sharply increase the risk of descending into a real armed conflict.

The generations of the 2000s and of the Cold War do not perceive an open conflict between Russia and NATO as a realistic scenario. We have no experience of it, and so it seems like a campfire story designed to scare up more funding for the military. But in reality, unstable deterrence may lead to conflict despite the nuclear stick and the threat of mutual destruction.

After the Sanctions: The Foreign Policy Establishment Consolidated Alan W. Cafruny
Seven months into Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency the world is drifting closer to military conflict. At the end of June, Trump approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. He threatened nuclear-armed North Korea with a preemptive strike and on August 21 the United States and South Korea began annual joint live-fire exercises. Trump has also threatened to impose sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry while “not ruling out” military intervention against Caracas. Throughout the summer NATO has carried out-scale military and naval exercises in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. In September, Russia will conduct its own large-scale exercises, albeit (with the exception of Belarus) within the territory of the Russian Federation.

Let’s imagine that a conflict is unfolding very quickly in a limited theater and with the use of high-tech conventional arms. The goal is to inflict a quick and scathing defeat on your opponent, demonstrate his inadequacy and force him to back down. Will nuclear weapons be used in such a conflict? Will politicians dare risk millions of lives rather than back down? Not knowing the answer to these questions means that limited war scenarios are possible. The problem is that “quick wars” run the risk of dragging on and escalating into full-scale wars, at which point a nuclear exchange might not be far off. The prospect of conflict is real and should be taken seriously on both sides, and measures should be taken by both sides to reduce the risk of such developments.

Stable deterrence seems the best option in these conditions. Russia and the West may engage in hostile rhetoric in the media as much as they want, but the military should maintain communication channels and mutual predictability, especially in zones where NATO and Russia are operating in close proximity. It is necessary to sustain adequate nuclear and conventional capabilities. Sharp spikes in military spending and troop levels will be counterproductive and even destructive on both sides.

The world has changed dramatically since the Cold War. Many analysts are still under the illusion that global politics amounts to Moscow-Washington relations. This has not been the case for a long time. New threats have emerged and Russian-Western relations long since ceased to generate expanding hotbeds of instability. Both Russia and many Western countries are going through a difficult period. This is a reason to think about reducing deterrence. We believe even a partial resolution of the Donbass conflict would be a major step in this direction, given the understanding that unilateral concessions on this and other issues are unacceptable.

Reduced deterrence may revive the question of partnership. We realize that prospect is highly unlikely because it requires a revision of the entire idea of Euro-Atlantic security. Probably, it would be necessary to discuss a security space from Vancouver to Shanghai. China may play a major role in building this system. Closer military-political relations between Moscow and Beijing may facilitate such developments. In any event the partnership system will be completely different and will hardly repeat the experience of 20 years ago, all the more so since Russia rightly considers this experience to be negative. Progress toward reduced deterrence and partnership should start with stabilized deterrence.

It is important to understand that security factors have become much more complicated. It is commonly believed that the balance of power is the driving force of international relations. Problems emerge when it is disrupted and crises are preceded by military buildups. But the current crisis is exactly the opposite. The West had reduced its defense spending consistently for several years leading up to 2014 and has had trouble changing course since then. The Ukrainian army posed no danger either to the West or Russia. Despite a successful military reform, the Russian army cannot even compare to the Soviet army or the aggregate NATO might. Yet, we faced the worst crisis in the past quarter century.

The factor of political identity – perceptions on both sides of one’s own country and others – has become much more important. The military might has long ceased to be what it once was but the mentality remains the same – conflict-prone, conservative and hostile. The problem is exacerbated by a new media environment that is driving the official positions of governments to absurd places. New spaces of rivalry and vulnerability are opening up. Nobody bothers to confirm with facts high-profile accusations of election interference. At the same time databases, infrastructure and communications facilities may come under real cyberattack. It could come from anywhere, and there are no agreed upon rules for countering this threat, which makes cyber provocations so easy to pull off.

It is high time to stabilize deterrence and make it predictable. It is vital to preserve the existing mechanisms of mutual arms control, adapt them to the new reality and discuss new approaches at least on the second track. This is a feasible goal regardless of the political situation and the latest round of sanction and counter-sanction. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.