Russia and Ukraine: From sanctions to deterrence –– or war

Guest post by Aleksi Roinila. 7 August 2014. (Edited 7 Aug 8.17 pm GMT)

Aleksi RoinilaThe United States and the EU have a chance to stop further escalation in Ukraine and to avoid having to resort to military force themselves further down the line – but only if they act swiftly and resolutely enough. Sanctions that hit the Russian economy will only hinder Putin if they are turned from after-the-fact punishments to an actual deterrence, 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.

Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Russia is currently preparing the invasion and occupation of Eastern Ukraine. It has stationed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, some of which have for months been equipped with the insignias and markings of Russia’s “peacekeeping forces”. Russia will attempt to justify its invasion of Ukraine by mimicking the precedent set by the Kosovo War of 1999: It will cite the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ukraine – a crisis which it has itself both created and fabricated – pleading the UN Security Council to authorize a “humanitarian” intervention. Once it fails in acquiring a UN mandate, it will invoke the Kosovo precedent and invade anyway, under the guise of “peacekeeping”. The first phase of this operation is already being executed: Russia called the UNSC to an emergency session on Tuesday. The second phase, an open war against Ukrainian armed forces, may begin within hours, days or weeks, depending on the state of Russia’s own political, military and propaganda preparations and the tactical situation on the ground in Ukraine: the Russian separatist army in Eastern Ukraine is on the verge of collapse, and the window of opportunity for Putin to save them is rapidly closing. Given that the humanitarian crisis of Eastern Ukraine – the only available source of any legitimacy for an intervention – is over as soon as the separatists fold, Putin may have to act sooner rather than later.

Contrary to Russia’s best spin-doctoring to claim otherwise, in reality there are no grounds for invoking the Kosovo precedent in Ukraine. Unlike in Kosovo, where Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia tried to violently crush the autonomy of the country’s Albanian-majority province, there is no humanitarian crisis or ethnic conflict in Ukraine apart from the ‘shadow war’ started by none other than Russia itself. And unlike in Kosovo, where the NATO Allied Force and Kosovo Force operations enjoyed broad support from the international community – including from non-NATO members such as Sweden and Finland – no UN member state apart from Russia has yet supported a Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Russia is unfazed by the prospect of inflicting civilian casualties

It is true that Ukrainian civilians have been killed and injured in the crossfire between the separatists and Ukrainian armed forces. The separatists’ resistance stiffened considerably after Russia equipped them with surface-to-air missiles, multiple-rocket launchers and other heavy weaponry. When the Ukrainian forces still kept closing in on the last rebel strongholds, Russia launched artillery strikes across the border on Ukrainian troops. To overcome such resistance the fledgling Ukrainian armed forces have had to resort to heavy weaponry of their own, to include artillery, rocket and air strikes. The Ukrainian armed forces lack the GPS-guided precision munitions that we have become accustomed to seeing in the 21st century wars waged by the United States and its allies; munitions that would allow them to hit targets in or in close proximity to built-up areas with limited collateral damage.

Russia is well aware of this limitation, and so are the separatists, and they do not shy away from using it to their advantage.  Russia is unfazed by the prospect of inflicting civilian casualties even when it is directly responsible for causing them, as was the case with the shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 some three weeks ago. If Russia would truly care about the suffering of civilians as its propaganda suggests, it would have withdrawn its support from the separatists immediately after the downing of the MH17, at the very latest. If protection of civilians were a priority, Russia would have found no difficulty cooperating with the OSCE and the Ukrainian government to see peace restored and humanitarian aid delivered to the war zones of Donetsk and Luhansk. Instead, Russia’s reaction has been completely the opposite: Moscow has only increased its materiel and direct armed support to the separatists after the downing of MH17.

Ukraine became a proving ground for [Putin’s] strategy even before the invasion of Crimea.

Russia’s indifference towards civilian casualties should not come as a surprise to anyone, however. Russia’s complete disregard of the fates of Ukrainian civilians is entirely consistent with Russia’s previous wars in Moldova, Chechnya and Georgia, as well as with its ever-increasing violent oppression of its own citizens. With both its ongoing ‘shadow war’ in Eastern Ukraine and its no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, launched since before its invasion of Crimea, Russia has tried to manufacture a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and to foster a conflict between Ukraine’s different language groups. Its aim has likely been from the start to use both to either justify a possible later military intervention, now drawing near, or to create a situation where it can achieve its objectives through negotiations rather than military force: Whichever the method, Russia’s most likely intention is to secure its continued influence over Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy and to force Ukraine to recognize the annexation of Crimea in return for peace in the East.

It is unlikely that Russia would seek to annex the East Ukrainian oblasts into Russia-proper as it did with Crimea. Instead, it likely considers it more beneficial to see the eastern provinces gain a measure of “autonomy” from the central government in Kiev, whether officially or through Russian occupation, thereby ensuring that Eastern Ukraine becomes a Russian vassal in a fashion similar to South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova. Unless Russia can make Ukraine and the Western powers to agree to a formal peace agreement to that effect, it is likely to be content with simply ‘freezing’ the conflict – with or without direct occupation. Any one of these outcomes guarantees that Ukraine cannot function as an independent, sovereign state, and cannot therefore defy Russia’s dominance of its “near abroad” by getting too close with either the European union or NATO.

While a plan to invade Eastern Ukraine may have been on the table from the start, it seems highly likely that Putin nevertheless hoped that his objectives in Ukraine could be met without an open invasion of Ukraine. However, Russia overestimated the willingness of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population to stand up in open revolt to Kiev led by Kremlin’s thugs, while simultaneously underestimating the morale and battle-readiness of the Ukrainian armed forces. Already on the path to defeat several weeks ago, Russia’s “special war” strategy was finally dealt a self-inflicted lethal blow with the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: The separatists can no longer win or even hope to stabilize the situation in Eastern Ukraine without direct and overt Russian intervention. However, despite the separatists’ looming defeat Russia’s objectives in Ukraine haven’t yet escaped its reach.

Having succeeded first in manufacturing a one-part real, one-part imaginary humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and then in convincing its own public at home, as well some portion of the Western audience, that the crisis is not of its own doing, Russia can now invoke both the Kosovo precedent and the UN-approved “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle to legitimize its invasion of Ukraine as a “humanitarian intervention”. In addition to serving its primary geopolitical objectives, the operation will also serve Russia’s domestic, ultra-nationalist and anti-Western propaganda-drive by “saving” the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine. Putin has made “protecting” the ‘Sudeten Russians’ living beyond the borders of Mother Russia a cornerstone of his expansionist, nationalist ideology, and Ukraine became a proving ground for his strategy even before the invasion of Crimea. Unless the European Union and the United States succeed in stopping Putin with measures strong and clear enough to deter Russia’s aggression, Putin will win a propaganda victory in Ukraine matched only by the victory given to Adolf Hitler with the Münich Agreement of 1938 which, together with the subsequent invasion and occupation of the actual Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, sealed Hitler’s rule at the helm of the Third Reich. After such a victory no economic sanctions will hold Putin back.

The West is left with either accepting the situation, intervening militarily, or a prolonged trade-war

For now, though, the United States and the EU still have a chance to stop further escalation in Ukraine and to avoid having to resort to military force themselves further down the line – but only if they act swiftly and resolutely enough. Sanctions that hit the Russian economy will only hinder Putin if they are turned from after-the-fact punishments to an actual deterrence. Like a nuclear deterrent, an economic deterrent is only effective if its contents are known in advance, their effect is sufficiently immediate and powerful, and they will be triggered automatically should Putin invade Ukraine. To function as an effective deterrent, the sanctions must, if triggered, be so prohibitively expensive for Russia that Putin’s backers cannot even begin to contemplate accepting them.

The EU, struggling with its own economic woes, is understandably wary of enacting sanctions that would be hard-hitting enough to actually act as a deterrent. But both the European and the American leaders must re-learn the vital lesson of the Cold War that a successful deterrence is cheaper than any after-the-fact sanction imposed upon Russia to this date. Sanctions decided upon and enacted only after Russia’s transgressions do nothing to stop further aggression – as they haven’t – but end up being far more expensive to both their target and their source than a successful deterrence.

If the European Union and the United States fail to create a sufficiently strong deterrence against Russia in the next hours or days, the result will very likely be an open invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces. If that happens, Eastern Ukraine and Crimea will fall under a permanent Russian occupation – no amount of sanctions will force Putin to back down from positions already occupied. The West is left with either accepting the situation, intervening militarily, or a prolonged trade-war costly to all sides. A trade-war will not change the situation in Ukraine nor will it make Putin to change course after having just won one of his greatest victories in Ukraine. It would be folly to expect that after seizing his objectives in Ukraine, Putin would simply return to a peaceful and constructive cooperation with the West. Russia’s propaganda war against the West and its liberal values has already become a self-reinforcing phenomenon, requiring Putin to take new action both at home and abroad. Should Russia succeed in Ukraine, one can only guess which country Putin will target next. However, countries in the highest risk category include with certainty at least Moldova, Georgia and Belarus – should anyone rock the boat in the latter, as happened in Ukraine this spring. The threat hangs over all of Russia’s neighbors, however – including the Baltic States and Finland. Russia has already launched preparatory propaganda campaigns against all of them.

//Aleksi Roinila

You can follow Aleksi (@aleroi) on Twitter.

War admissible – a view on Russian Military Doctrine and Clausewitz

Karl von Clausewitz. Oil on canvacs.
Karl von Clausewitz.

You can’t talk Clausewitz without quoting.

War is the continuation of policy by other means

Clausewitz, Karl von. On War.

If you belong to those who use this quote light-handedly, please stop reading now. I’ve tried to write as popularly as possible, but this is still rather heavy and perhaps not even all that coherent. I will, however, try to go a bit beyond the famous quote.

Policy and war

The Clausewitzian view of war as subject to policy is quite comforting. From it follows that war – if not being a continuation of a rational policy that will shape the manner and methods of warfare and be traceable and evident in activities, objectives and the smallest of operational details – is futile and ill-advised and thus not admissible from a moral point of view or applicable as an effective instrument of policy. Irrational policy – often too far-reaching, ideological or mismatched in purpose and objectives – will only create an ineffective and open-ended application of the ultimate instrument of policy. The Gulf War, by some considered the acme of Airland Battle; The Iraqi War, with a long mission creep after Bush’s ”The war is over” announcement; and the Campaign on Terror in Afghanistan and globally, winding down to a stalemate at best; are all excellent showcases of wars where military activities did not push towards objectives or result in desired end states — or did so by creating an even more complex environment, often tackled with an instrument rendered useless. On the Russian side the two Chechen wars demonstrate how a diffuse policy, but ready application of a disintegrating, functionally corrupt military machine did not lead to any measurable success.

Crimea and Russian Military Doctrine

The Russian blitz deployment to Crimea (and the Russo-Georgian War) can be viewed from the perspectives of contemporary Russian military doctrine and the legacy of Soviet military doctrine. I chose to omit the short Post Cold War period of Russian realism manifested in a defensive doctrine as it should ascribed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In local wars, such as the Ukraine crisis, the principles of the use of Armed Forces, according to Russian Military Doctrine (2010), are to localize the seat of tension, to create the prerequisites for ending the war or armed conflict or for bringing it to an end at an early stage. This rhymes well with the Frunze doctrine of energetically, decisively, and bravely conducted offensive operations and subsequent Soviet military doctrine on conventional warfare. Appraising the events leading up to Russian operations in Georgia and Crimea, the ”new” Russian rationale for utilizing military force seems to be a deterministic belief in that a rational policy, clearly defined and limited in aim and scope may effectively be pursued by war. Thus, the instrument of war is prescribed to conflicts, where threats and conditions restricting other policy tools are identified. The external military dangers in the case of Crimea and Ukraine were (are):

  • ”the desire to endow the force potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with global functions carried out in violation of the norms of international law and to move the military infrastructure of NATO member countries closer to the borders of the Russian Federation, including by expanding the bloc;”
    • Commentary: Russia doesn’t view Nato expansion as resulting from decisions of sovereign states, but rather as a unified effort to curb Russian legitimate interest and influence.
  • ”the attempts to destabilize the situation in individual states and regions and to undermine strategic stability;”
    • Commentary: From a Russian perspective, ”attempts to destabilize” is not limited political means (diplomacy) or military force, but may also include economic support, subversion, information-technical (cyber) and information-psychological operations. The very broad scope of ”attempts to destabilize” is evident in the military doctrine.
  • ”the deployment (build-up) of troop contingents of foreign states (groups of states) on the territories of states contiguous with the Russian Federation and its allies and also in adjacent waters;”
    • Commentary: This danger still applies to the state of affairs in the Baltic regions. NATO exercises, expanded in both scope and aim, with recently announced contributions of strategic forces [B-52s,B-2s], will most likely be perceived as a military threat requiring a clear and unequivocal response.
  • ”the use of military force on the territories of states contiguous with the Russian Federation in violation of the UN Charter and other norms of international law;”
  • ”the emergence of seats of interethnic (interfaith) tension, the activity  of international armed radical groupings in areas adjacent to the state border of the Russian Federation and the borders of its allies, the presence of territorial contradictions and the growth of separatism and violent (religious) extremism in individual parts of the world.”
    • Commentary: The Russian depiction of the new Ukraine government, its supporters and armed forces as ‘illegitimate’ and ‘fascist’ with massive information operations is an attempt to clarify this very broadly described danger.

These dangers create the following clear and present military threats to the Russian Federation:

  • ”a drastic deterioration in the military-political situation (interstate relations) and the creation of the conditions for the utilization of military force;”
  • ”the creation and training of illegal armed formations and their activity on the territory of the Russian Federation or on the territories of its allies;”
  • ”a show of military force with provocative objectives in the course of exercises on the territories of states contiguous with the Russian Federation or its allies;”
  • ”a stepping up of the activity of the Armed Forces of individual states (groups of states) involving partial or complete mobilization and the transitioning of these states’ organs of state and military command and control to wartime operating conditions.”

The lists above, where quoted, are excerpts from the Russian Military Doctrine (2010). Not exhaustive, but the most obvious external military dangers and military threats arising from the current situation. This perception of danger and threat also matches well with the Russian narrative of its legitimate concerns regarding the crisis.

Applying military force

In order to counter these threats, Russia has acted in accordance with its doctrine, and utilized its Armed Forces. A prerequisite of the use of armed force is readiness. Russian doctrine states as a main task for the Russian Federation:

  • ”to maintain the Armed Forces and other troops at the prescribed level of readiness for combat utilization;”

This task has been emphasized during the last one and a half year of recurring snap drills increasing in volume and conducted on all levels from ”Ставка” to units. The aim of these drills is simple — to prepare for a more rapid utilization of the Armed Forces in quick, decisive, high-tempo operations. The utilization of military force is governed by the following principal tasks. ”The principal tasks of the Armed Forces and other troops in peacetime, during a period of an immediate threat of aggression, and in wartime”

  • ”The Russian Federation considers it legitimate to utilize the Armed Forces and other troops in order to […] ensure the protection of its citizens located beyond the borders of the Russian Federation in accordance with generally recognized principles and norms of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation.”
  • ”With a view to protecting the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens and maintaining international peace and security, formations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces may be used operationally outside the Russian Federation in accordance with the generally recognized principles and norms of international law, the international treaties of the Russian Federation, and federal legislation.”
    • Commentary: The protection of citizens is not limited to the risk of severe physical harm, but is rather defined as the ”discrimination and the suppression of the rights, freedoms, and legitimate interests of the citizens of the Russian Federation in foreign states.” The use of Armed Forces outside the territory of the Russian Federation in this task is explicitly stated in the main tasks of the Armed Forces and other troops in peacetime:
    • ”to protect citizens of the Russian Federation outside the Russian Federation from armed attack;”
    • ”to participate in operations in the maintenance (restoration) of international peace and security, to adopt measures to avert (eliminate) a threat to peace, and to suppress acts of aggression (violation of the peace) on the basis of decisions of the UN Security Council or other bodies authorized to adopt such decisions in accordance with international law;”
  • ”In the context of the implementation by the Russia Federation of strategic deterrence measures of a forceful nature, provision is made for the utilization of precision weapons. The Russian Federation reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons in response to the utilization of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.”
    • Commentary: This provision is not relevant regarding the situation in Ukraine, but most relevant regarding NATO exercises and exercises of strategic forces. While NATO exercises including strategic forces should rather be viewed as a response to the recent increase in Russian strategic forces exercises, Russia will most likely attribute the build-up to NATO expansionism and aggression, and respond in kind by scheduling more exercises of its strategic forces.


The Russian use of military force in Crimea and non-military force in Ukraine is well within the scope and purpose stated in the doctrine. From a policy point of view, war has become an admissible instrument – almost a prescription drug for sores and blisters – and the threshold for utilizing Armed Forces has lowered. This is development is evident since the Russo-Georgian War. The main reason for the restraint in utilizing military force has been the low readiness and fighting potential of the Russian Armed Forces. Now, military force is readily applied long before the possibilities to resolve crises by other means have been exhausted. The threshold of utilizing military force will lower further, as military potential and fighting potential increase. The core capabilities of the Armed Forces, increasing in volume, projection power, strike reach, precision and economy of force, will increase the latitude of the Russian government and permit it to apply rapid, decisive force against states with organized conventional fighting potential. The implications for non-aligned countries like Finland and Sweden are obvious. Finland is a state with contiguous borders and adjacent waters with Russia. While Finnish security policy and the emphasis on good neighbourly relations may keep us out of direct conflict with Russia, Finland will be part of any conflict in the Baltic. As non-aligned European Union members the assumptions regarding Finland and Sweden are quite clear — in a crisis, the countries will align with the bloc opposing Russia, lending support as implied by statements of solidarity and required by the treaty of EU. As non-aligned EU members not supported by any military structure, but rather non-military policy instruments, the possibilities for the future defence solutions of Finland and Sweden, if intended to be independent, credible and create a deterrence against aggression are very limited. The most obvious defence solution is to create and maintain an extremely high defensive readiness, in order to counter blitz operations by maintaining a conventional parity up to a level of uncontrollable escalation requiring intervention of the international community. Appraising Crimea and Ukraine, this requires the immediate readiness (0-7 days) of 3-5 army battalions and the rapid reaction (7-14 days) of 2-3 army brigades. The cost of maintaining such readiness would require a substantial increase in defence budgets. The number of army units required can be decreased by increasing a long-range strike capability, but this in turn would require a more offensive doctrine allowing for the early and aggressive use of joint fires. Like said twice before:

Nothing is as expensive as a fully independent credible defence.

The era of fully independent defence solutions in states with contiguous borders with Russia is coming to an end. As Russia’s fighting potential, readiness and willingness to use military force at early stages of crises increases two choices remain: to seek security together or quietly prepare to acquiesce to ”legitimate claims and concerns.” The sovereignty of non-aligned countries is like honey for the bear.