An institutional approach on a new European security architecture oversimplifies a complex problem and brings about untenable compromises that only Russia stands to gain from. Dealing with current challenges in the security environment requires both a long term strategic vision and a thorough understanding of the core causes of disagreements and conflict, writes Henri Vanhanen. Henri is an author for the Finnish Foreign Policy publication The Ulkopolitist and has written expert articles on Finnish Foreign and Security policy, international relations and analyses of the security environment. Currently Henri is finishing his master’s degree in contemporary history. He is also a student in the Versatile Expertise in Russian and Eastern European Studies (ExpREES) programme coordinated by the Aleksanteri Institute and has studied American history in the University of California Berkeley. Henri has worked for the US State Department and US Department of Defense as an intern. Henri’s writings represent his personal views.
Modern Russian symbolgy of the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война).
On May 9th Russia celebrated the 71st anniversary of victory over the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War. The Victory Day parade equipment lacked the white hubcaps and red stars of days past. Prominent were green battle dress uniforms and the trademark St. George orange-black stripes adorned with stars. Since 2014, the parade has featured units in combat gear, marching on foot wearing helmets with (silly-looking) goggles atop and riding matte green GAZ Tigr armored jeeps.
The Victory Day parade is becoming a spectacle for linking the new narrative of the Great Patriotic War with contemporary Russian national identity and integrating it to a new Russian patriotism. The parades also serve the Supreme Commander, the President of the Russian Federation, allowing him to cement new policy by declaring pravda. This falls well within the tasks and jurisdiction of the president as his annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly is regarded as guidance related to the internal and foreign policy of the State. Some of the provisions of the Russian Military Doctrine, National Security Strategy and the Foreign Policy Concept are specified in the Presidential Addresses. Therefore it is important to regard these speeches as more than just attempts to bolster spirit, national unity and panem et circenses. The speeches should be put in a context of policy and listened to very carefully. What is said is equally important as what is being left out, especially compared to earlier Victory Day speeches, since this gives insight to changes is Russian thinking and policy.
Since 2011, the Victory Day speeches have focused on the battle against fascism and Nazism by the Soviet people, the Red Army and the great sacrifices of the Soviet people to liberate Europe in World War II. There is a stark contrast between the speeches of 2010 and 2014; the latter lacks any mention of Allies. In 2010 military units from the CIS countries and the Allies Great Britain, the United States, France and Poland marched alongside Russian troops with the German chancellor Angela Merkel sitting beside Putin.
Below are word clouds of the Victory Day speeches along with key excerpts from the speeches illustrating a clear shift towards a more isolated Russian position. [Read more… 2049 words, 9 min]
Firstly, it is necessary to examine this in the context of the laws of war (jus in bello). Arto Pulkki, a military expert for the magazine Suomen Sotilas, wrote a very good piece on the case of flight MH17 titled Responsibility and Irresponsibility, considering intention and liability from a criminal law perspective. I warmly recommend this as a primer.
As it is easier to approach the subject of guilt or fault using legal principles, I will begin by considering criminal intent to begin with. Mens rea needs to be established in order to find out which principles of the laws of war are applicable in this case.
Intention as opposed to negligence or carelessness is easily established in this case; if the firing button was pressed with the express purpose of launching the missile, negligence or carelessness is ruled out. A negligent or careless act would require that, for example, an external event — say an explosion nearby – startled the launch operator or rocked the vehicle causing the operator to inadvertently launch the missile.
The issue left is to assess the level of intention. Assuming that there was no intent to down a civilian flight, then the degree of culpability of the operator is low. An obvious and possible outcome of firing a missile is for it to hit civilian aircraft or for the missile to stray and cause damage to civilians. Considering this from a jus in bello perspective, only one principle strictly applies to this case. When considering the prerequisite of targeting, distinction, the case is clear – military force was used on a civilian target. The debate on admissibility ends here; all other principles discussed in the case of MH17, such as proportionality and necessity, don’t even come into play.
Proportionality and necessity
A good example of applying these discussed principles not relevant in the case of MH17 — and the problems and dilemmas that arise — is the decision taken by NATO forces to target the Lužane bridge in Serbia during operation Allied Force (Kosovo, 1999). During that strike a bus was on the bridge resulting in the loss of life of 23-70 civilians.
The underlying requirement in applying these principles is the call for precautions. The principles don’t suddenly become valid only in the moment of an attack or decision to attack. Or post-attack as in some cases… The requirement of protecting civilian life and property comes with a specific call for precautions in both planning and executing the use of force. The belligerents (Parties) must be able, to at all times and in all circumstances distinguish between civilians, civilian property, and military targets. Force may only be used on military targets. In practice this means that standards and mechanisms for identifying targets, assessing damage pre-strike, and choosing systems of engagement must be put in place, be upheld and controlled by responsible commanders.
In the case of MH17, for example, the relevant questions to be asked in order to assess the culpability of the launch operator and his superiors,
Did the operator take care to properly identify the target, i.e. did he positively identify the target as military?
Was the identification criteria such that by using them a reliable identification would be acquired? (identification by two or more systems, e.g. radar and visual, or a challenge-and-reply identification)
Did the higher command (superiors) make sure that no civilian aircraft were in the dangerous zone, for example by maintaining and distributing a recognized air picture?
If it was known that civilian air traffic was in the zone, were decisions taken to limit or cease the use of air defence forces?
Or was a deliberate decision taken to continue the use of force, disregarding the risks to civilian air traffic?
Russia, Syria and the return of total war
International political responsibility and state actor culpability are harder issues to address, but asking: ”Does Russia itself use or equip belligerents with effective long range weapons, without providing for the required situational awareness, intelligence, command and control (C2), and information systems to use those systems, thus creating a considerable risk of an indiscriminate and non-distinctive use of force?
Firstly, Russia and the actors is equips aren’t able to produce an adequate situational awareness and intelligence preparation needed for targeting. When strikes are conducted – outside a stand-off distance, without reconnaissance units on ground and in contact with the enemy, without continuous air recce, without situational awareness and with inadequate staffs – civilian casualties are likely to occur.
Secondly, Russia is testing and battle proving its weapons and C2 systems. The most important objective is to verify and ensure that the systems are reliable and give them a ”combat proven” certification, in order to further develop them to meet the criteria and requirements set for combat systems in the concept of sixth generation warfare. That said, there’s something positive in Russia’s combat activities in Syria. Russia is fielding UAVs in battle damage assessment (BDA) tasks, thus gaining reliable information on the effect of the strikes. However, no regard – or blatant disregard – is shown for the results of the BDA results. The choice of systems and methods of engagements are still based on effect-only thinking and a limited selection of weapons. Russia is using an array of platforms and weapons systems designed for conventional (and nuclear) warfare against capable NATO opponents. Russia has used heavy thermobaric charges against targets in the immediate vicinity of civilian infrastructure and population. The same weapons have been regularly tested in live fire exercises since the ”snap drill year” of 2013. These heavy ordnance strikes in Syria have resulted in loss of civilian life and property.
It seems that the proportionality and necessity of Russian strikes aren’t judged case-by-case in reference to specific rules of engagement, but are rather categorically justified based on political and strategic objectives and desired end states.
The patriotic media
The Russian ”war machine” receives a lot of help from the state controlled media. Russia Today and other news services have produced hours of high quality videos and informative articles on Russian armed forces’ combat activities in Syria. In my view this doesn’t reflect a media that’s a Kremlin puppet, but rather a media armed and anabled with a patriotic mission and purpose. The situation awkwardly resembles the rôle of the US media in the Iraqi War of 2003.
We were a propaganda arm of our governments. At the start the censors enforced that, but by the end we were our own censors. We were cheerleaders.
In 2003, US media was brought under military control by embedding journalists with combat units. This enabled a better control of the media and an increasingly short-sighted and narrow reporting on the bigger picture. Embedding journalists (”in-bedding”, derogatory) with soldiers also sparked criticism in Western media. [1, 2].
In Russia, the editorial staff and board members of many news agencies have been hand-picked by the current government. While some spectacular news about news anchor resignations in live shows following the annexation of Crimea were reported, most journalist are the same skilled people as before. Writing stories lauding Russia and its military prowess and might isn’t that disagreeable, but rather seen as a patriotic mission. This makes Russian media especially dangerous. It’s able to voluntarily, effectively, and timely produce high quality content to a large public. There is no need for state censorship or control. Regarding Finnish media I once stated that in some aspects the watchdogs have become lap dogs. In Russia, the media have been trained into bloodhounds of the powers that be.
Information warfare holds a key rôle. The fileds of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria have provided Russia with the proving grounds, where it has demonstrated its ability to obfuscate information, events, cause and effect by producing disinformation, thus effectively destabilizing and disorienting Western decision making processes and decision makers.
This effect has also been multiplied by the Western need to see a logical rationale and sustainable reasons behind Russia’s actions. This may very well be a mirror imaging fallacy, where Western comprehensive crisis response strategies are ascribed to Russia by association. The Russian game in Crimea, as well as Eastern Ukraine and Syria is an unscrupulous deterrence policy, relying on opportunities presented – both offered by the adversary and created by own forces – and the basic principles of warfare – surprise, aggressiveness and initiative. Especially the principle exploiting the initiative and opportunities seized is done at a political-strategic level. Russia will continue this policy as long as the win-win offered and created persists. Russia has already reached strategic objectives in Syria. Its presence is permanent. The use of Iraqi air space has become a de facto permanent arrangement and there is no more debate on Russian participation in Middle Eastern crisis management, but rather the focus lies on deconflicting some issues such as airspace control that may in worst case scenarios lead to a permafrost in superpower [sic!] political relations.
For European security the failure of nuclear deterrence to deter conventional war may not be any better than the deterrence that has so far prevented the EU and NATO from giving direct lethal aid to Ukraine in its war against an unmarked Russian expeditionary force. It is therefore imperative that further Russian aggression is deterred primarily with other means, whether political, economic or conventional military force. Failing to do so may have disastrous consequences for everyone involved, writes Aleksi Roinila.
Aleksi is a Master of Social Sciences from the University of Tampere and has studied Strategy and Defence at the Finnish National Defence University, International Relations at Aberystwyth University, and served as an analyst with the Finnish Defence Forces in the ISAF and KFOR operations for nearly three years.
During the past weekend Russia reportedly flew several sorties with its nuclear-capable Tu-95 ”Bear” strategic bombers over the Baltic sea, alerting the countries in the region. It was but one signal on a months-long continuum of Russian saber-rattling incidents along NATO’s borders following the revolution and war in Ukraine. But is Russia truly a threat to NATO or the European Union?
Last week the Finnish parliament was presented with a report that sought to analyze Russia’s future attitudes towards its neighbors. The report entirely omitted the possibility of Russia using military force against any of its neighbors, stating that any attack against Finland (or supposedly any other EU member) would “in practice mean the start of a third world war”.
It’s unlikely that military planners anywhere in Europe would believe such a ridiculous proposition, but politicians, pundits, and scholars sometimes do. Therefore it is important to make two things absolutely clear to shake away the false comfort:
Russia using military force against Finland, Sweden, the Baltics or even the European Union and NATO at large does not automatically mean the start of a Third World War;
A major war, even a World War, is by no means impossible even today – but it does not necessarily mean the start of an all-out nuclear war.
Our understandable desire to close our eyes from the possibility of war in Europe is not merely harmless naivety. It is also dangerous. If we refuse to accept the possibility and fail to prepare ourselves both to fight it and to prevent it, we will have inadvertently increased its likelihood with our own willful denial: It’s hard to get serious about prevention if the danger itself is not taken seriously.
Examples of such good-willed negligence are plentiful across Western Europe, from Sweden’s decision to effectively scrub its national defence to Finland’s ambivalence towards sanctioning Russia for the war in Ukraine. Even in NATO many countries persist in the hubris of the 1990s, thinking that major wars in Europe are a thing of the past, not of the future: Even before the highly controversial decision to sell Russia two modern Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, France was happy to supply Russian tanks with advanced thermal optics which it was incapable of producing itself – a decision which robbed NATO of a major tactical and operational battlefield advantage in any future conflict. Others, like the Netherlands, have simply sold of much of their heavy weaponry – much of which has fortunately ended in the arsenals of a number of Eastern European countries, including Poland, Finland and Estonia.
But even though the war in Ukraine has clearly and at long last put an end to the fantasy that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a reliable partner for the European Union and NATO and never again a threat to European peace and security, the idea still persists that the renewed confrontation between Russia and the West cannot escalate to the use of deadly military force because of the nuclear deterrent that both Russia and NATO possesses.
The myth of nuclear weapons preventing major wars between nuclear powers
The conventional wisdom regarding nuclear deterrence is that states possessing nuclear weapons will avoid fighting each other directly, even in limited conflicts, out of fear of uncontrolled escalation that could lead to a nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction (MAD). Indeed so far they have: To date no two nuclear powers have ever fought each other directly. While this rule has remained true from Korea to Ukraine, nuclear powers have at the same time fought several wars by proxy, most famously in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and they have also come dangerously close to breaking the rule during the Cold War crises over Berlin and Cuba. We can be cautiously optimistic that nuclear deterrence will continue to make cooler heads prevail in the future as well – if for no other reason than for all sides’ desire for self-preservation – but there is no ironclad guarantee that it will.
Even if a major war against another nuclear power or alliance is something that no nuclear power is willing to risk, it still does not preclude them from using limited, conventional military force. Russia in particular has demonstrated that it has many tried-and-tested ways to apply military force against its neighbors that carry a virtual certainty of not triggering a major mar. Think, for instance, about the Baltic Sea region and consider which of these actions would reliably trigger a major war: A Crimea-like occupation of islands in the Finnish Gulf or the Baltic Sea? Blocking the vessels of other Baltic Sea navies in their ports like was done to the Ukrainian Navy in Crimea? Covertly or accidentally sinking merchant vessels in the Baltic Sea similarly to the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine? Covert sabotage against ports, airports or energy infrastructure?
The above are all actions that Russia could realistically use to pressure Finland, Sweden, or the Baltics and which would not, even in the wildest of imaginations, automatically trigger a major war between NATO and Russia.
This logic is what the 1980s satirical British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister parodied as “salami tactics”: Unlike a sudden large-scale invasion, a “slice-by-slice” escalation will at no point trigger an all-out response that would risk nuclear war, as the other side likely hopes to avoid further escalation every step of the way – and is, in any case, motivated by its own survival to avoid escalating a minor conflict into nuclear war.
Even if limited military force is employed against a NATO country such as Estonia, it does not automatically lead to a major war, let alone a nuclear one. That applies even if NATO would decide to invoke the Article 5 of its Charter, mandating collective defense: Neither the NATO Charter nor the EU Lisbon Treaty obligations require members to declare war or to even respond with military force if a member invokes the collective defence articles of either organization. Both NATO and EU countries could respond to Russia’s limited military force in kind with only limited force, or even just by boosting their military readiness and presence. Russia’s nuclear deterrence practically guarantees that its limited military incursions will not be met with the full force at NATO’s disposal, but instead by a measured response of gradual escalation that permits negotiations and other attempts to contain the conflict.
Russia knows this. Its leaders also know that even though Russia is not alone with its nuclear deterrence, the leaders of the West will never respond to a limited use of conventional force with nuclear weapons. As long as Russia’s nuclear deterrence is intact, no Western leader will willfully sacrifice London, Paris or Washington, D.C. to defend Kiev, Narva or Åland. It is precisely for that reason that Putin can confidently play high-stakes poker against the West with his conventional forces.
This tendency has only been exacerbated by the West’s reluctance to oppose Russia’s invasions in Georgia and Ukraine in any meaningful fashion, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by Putin. Every time the West has shown restraint or willingness to reconcile or appease Russia during or after its aggressions, Putin has become even more confident and daring in both his rhetoric and actions. This success may encourage Putin, much like Hitler before him, to take even greater risks – perhaps eventually making an overconfident miscalculation that none of us can afford.
The madness of cold logic: Controlling escalation with nuclear weapons
Putin’s miscalculations carry a much greater risk that any miscalculation by any Western leaders not only because he is more reckless (that is not to say he would be irrational or crazy – he isn’t), but because Russia’s military strategy, like so many things in Russia these days, has in recent years turned back to the Cold War era mindset of the Soviet Union: Prioritizing outcomes with callous indifference towards the number of lives it takes to achieve them. The doctrine of de-escalation serves as a prime example.
The doctrine is problematic because the ”de-escalation” it seeks is supposed to be achieved by the means of a nuclear first-strike against the adversary’s major military or civilian target, such as a capital city. Yes, you read that right.
To someone who is not familiar with the logic of nuclear deterrence, the idea may sound barking mad. However, behind it is a frighteningly rational logic: As long as Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are intact and ready to retaliate in case of any attack against Russia itself, no other nuclear weapons state will respond to Russia’s limited first-strike against a non-nuclear state with their own nukes.
In the event of a Russian “de-escalation” attack on a EU or NATO member, the Western nuclear weapon states would have to re-assess the value and likely cost of defending their allies. There is a strong likelihood, as Russian military planners have estimated, that the Western nuclear weapons states would not only not launch a nuclear attack on Russia, but would also reconsider the risk of using conventional force to defend their allies against a ‘mad’, nuke-wielding Russia; Would Estonia or Latvia truly be worth risking a nuclear war with Russia?
After all, the leaders of Western democracies have their voters to consider, and their always demonstration-prone populations are not likely to want to perish in a nuclear Armageddon just to save Eastern Europe from being drawn back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia’s authoritarian rulers, exerting tight control of the media and always ready to crush civil unrest with deadly force, on the other hand have no reason to care what their subjects think of their nuclear gambles.
Unless Russia’s calculations prove to be in error, Russia’s limited nuclear first-strike would achieve a ”de-escalation” that is highly favorable to Russia. If the strike would target a NATO or an EU country, it would also have a substantial likelihood of achieving another one of Putin’s objectives: To break apart NATO and the EU. It is, after all, hard to see how either organization could retain any credibility in a world where they did not protect their members from a Russian nuclear attack or retaliate in full. In a post-de-escalation world the nuclear deterrence of nuclear weapon states would not reach beyond their own borders, and the non-nuclear-weapon-states of Europe would likely accommodate Russia’s “reasonable” interest before risk becoming a target for another nuclear strike. In such a world Russia could redraw the borders of Eastern Europe as it sees fit – just as it did after the Second World War.
Far fetched? Unfortunately the doctrine is not just an exercise in the mad logic of nuclear strategy. Russia has already practiced the execution of the doctrine against NATO-member Poland’s capital, Warsaw. Sending Tu-95s to exercise over the Baltic Sea may be in preparation for just such an eventuality.
Paradoxically, the more rational and more dependent on their electorate the Russian leadership thinks the Western leaders are, the more likely it is to assess that it’s doctrine of a limited first-strike will work. Even if Russia would never seriously consider executing such an attack, its mere confidence in “de-escalation” as a viable option makes the risks associated with conventional military operations seem smaller and far more controllable. That lowers the bar for the use of military force and increases the likelihood of war – both conventional and nuclear.
A successful deterrent may be a failed deterrent
Fortunately, while Russia appears to have mastered the logic of ”salami tactics” in Ukraine, they can also be made to work against its de-escalation doctrine: Russia won’t resort to its nuclear option if its use of conventional military force is met with gradually escalating conventional force that at no point threatens Russia with such a defeat that the risks of “de-escalation” would start to seem smaller than the risks of not executing it.
If both sides escalate their conventional operations gradually, they may end up in a situation where they are fighting a limited, but comparatively large-scale conventional war somewhere in Europe under the umbrella of a mutual nuclear deterrent. The nuclear deterrent of mutually assured destruction would then succeed only in deterring the use of nuclear weapons themselves, but not much else. It would not be without precedent, as it is exactly what happened to chemical weapons during the Second World War; although all sides of the war had significant stockpiles of deadly chemical weapons, the weapons ended up only deterring their own use – despite the fact that the war was more total and unlimited than any war fought before or since.
For European security the failure of nuclear deterrence to deter conventional war may not be any better than the deterrence that has so far prevented the EU and NATO from giving direct lethal aid to Ukraine in its war against an unmarked Russian expeditionary force. It is therefore imperative that further Russian aggression is deterred primarily with other means, whether political, economic or conventional military force. Failing to do so may have disastrous consequences for everyone involved.