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Russia: war and punishment

Successive punishments on Russia have not curtailed transgressions. To avoid a standoff reminiscent of the Cold War, John Raine considers a strategy centred on weakening Russian capabilities and engaging in dialogue with Putin.

13 April 2018

By John Raine, Senior Adviser for Geopolitical Due Diligence

In the past two weeks the West has punished Russia with surprising severity for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The United States has also imposed damaging sanctions on Russian plutocrats and their companies, which have knocked on hard to the Russian economy. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s protégé in the Middle East, is about to be punished for the use of chemical weapons. Russia is defending the Assad regime and will be punished indirectly at least.

These are only the latest in a long line of punishments dealt out to Russia over the past decade: for the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, the invasion of Crimea, interference in other states’ democratic processes and human rights abuses. Along with war (either in prospect or current), punishment has come to define the diplomatic agenda concerning Russia. Even business and cultural activities now fall within the scope of sanctions. There is a frequency and fierceness to the punishments which is reminiscent of the tensest passages of the Cold War.

The punishments are all more than justified by the egregiousness of Russia’s breaches of international law and norms. They reaffirm states’ commitment to the international order, deter smaller players from similar transgressions and send the strongest possible signal to Moscow on where the red lines still lie. But the frequency of the need to discipline Russia suggests that what enforcing penalties do not achieve is reform or deter Moscow’s behaviour (or indeed President Assad’s). What then would break this cycle of misdemeanour and punishment?

Do punishments work on Russia?

Two features of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule are notable. First, he has been consistent in his rejection of the current international order as appropriate to Russia. From his speech in Munich in 2007 to his more recent abandonment of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty, he has signalled clearly that the order does not apply to him or his country. Moreover, the vision of a strong, nationalist Russia that Putin has consistently sought to realise has provided the material proof that he does not intend to play by the rules of an order based on Western values and presided over by the US. He is not looking for a way back in.

Second, Putin has made central to his repertoire domestically and overseas the use of what the late John Kenneth Galbraith called ‘condign power’. He has repeatedly shown himself willing to punish those who betray him. Russian traitors will, he said, ‘choke on their thirty pieces of silver’. When Turkey downed a Russian fighter plane near the Turkey–Syria border in 2015, Putin described it as ‘a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists’. He does punishments, too. He uses fear and retribution routinely as tools of statecraft. That puts him fundamentally outside the international system as it currently stands and makes him a dangerous adversary or negotiating partner.

With these features in play it is worth distinguishing between punishment, which is unlikely to work, and containment, which just might. The West can and should continue to punish outrageous breaches of human rights and international law. But that will not on its own contain Russian activities to the point where normal relations can be restored.

Attacking Russian capabilities

To do that, a strategy must include a steady focus on the degradation of the capabilities that Russia uses in addition to prompt and consistent punishments for transgressions. In the case of hybrid warfare (from informational warfare to assassination) Russia’s strategy relies on sophisticated and carefully nurtured capabilities, some of which are technical, some human. These are developed covertly and deployed deniably. That is where they should be confronted and neutralised. This requires a sustained and scaled up  effort in the West, a political and legal framework to allow for active and material disruptions and a commitment to hold and extend the international consensus in the wake of the attack on the Skripals.

There is a risk that this could be seen as another tit-for-tat episode rather than the beginning of a new international effort to disrupt Russia’s covert reach. That would be a rare opportunity wasted. Coordinating the timing and nature of responses to Russian activity has been very challenging, not least because Russia has moved quickly to erode international consensus. This time, Western diplomacy was swift and effective and it deserves to be capitalised on with a sustained effort.

In the case of chemical weapons, there is a similar need to attack the capabilities themselves and not settle for demonstration airstrikes. The use of the Novichok nerve agent on a target overseas was an astonishingly bold and risky operation that could only have been carried out with a sophisticated clandestine capability. That capability needs to be tackled with the same assiduity as terrorist networks.

In the case of the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield in Syria, a similar focus on the individual operatives should accompany any kinetic action. The individuals within the chains of command need to be identified and held personally accountable. That will require painstaking analysis of data and a commitment similar to that shown by the West to hold perpetrators of war crimes in the Balkans war legally accountable. It must be clear that there is an international effort underpinning an enduring, steady commitment to bring individual offenders to justice.

Dialogue with Russia

At some point the conversation about the future of Russia will have to include Russia itself. Its current ‘unboundaried’ behaviour is deeply menacing for neighbours, competitors and partners alike, and damaging for the West in the long term. As the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations reminded Russia, the country has benefited from the international order it is now undermining.

But to put in place boundaries on the use of Moscow’s power and to design an order which, without compromising the hard-won principles of the last sixty years, includes Russia will require dialogue, as it did in the construction of the post-Second Word War order and during the crises of the Cold War and in its final days.

The timing and scope of that conversation with the Kremlin would in normal times be the subject of careful consideration and fine judgement. But US President Donald Trump has shown a preference for sudden counter-instinctive moves towards adversaries he is busily punishing. He may surprise us again.

The only person who can speak for Russia is Putin. Unlike those of Trump and Russian officials, his comments always deserve to be taken both seriously and literally. Talking past him or not to him at all sets the conditions for a Cold War combination of standoffs and proxy conflicts for which, like a Russian winter, he is better equipped than the West. How that dialogue is initiated and conducted is the greater diplomatic challenge that lies beyond the current crisis.


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