Sep 29, 2022

Elements of Containing Russia

A robust containment policy vis-à-vis Moscow is needed; the most important element of which is continued support for Ukraine. But a completely isolated Russia should not be the other aim.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a military parade on Victory Day, which marks the 76th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2021.
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With the announced “partial mobilization” and sham referenda in occupied territories, Russia’s war against Ukraine is entering a new phase—with no end in sight. From Moscow’s point of view, there could have been a moment for a ceasefire agreement in early summer, when the Russian army controlled significant parts of southern Ukraine and had come close to conquering all of Donbas in the east of the country. But after the Ukrainian forces managed to liberate the Kharkiv region in September and are slowly but steadily pushing back the Russian army in the Kherson region and parts of the Donbas, the Russian leadership took some consequential steps on September 21: there is now a “partial mobilization” in Russia to recruit up to 300,000 new troops, and there will be sham referenda in the occupied territories to provide a pretext for annexing them. An upgraded nuclear messaging is part of this escalation policy.

For Ukraine’s backers in the West this means that the sanctions against Russia will be kept up, as will the supply of weapons for Ukraine. It also means that increased investments in defense as an element of a containment policy vis-à-vis Russia will become ever more important for the West. It is now clear that the hardliners in Moscow are calling the shots. They want a full mobilization and a war economy as the next steps. A “victory” in Ukraine, whatever it means in concrete terms, is now even more closely linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal and political survival. The West needs to take the consequences of this into account to develop a middle and long-term policy for Ukraine and Russia.

A key element of the containment policy that is now needed is to agree on a plan for how Ukraine can be supplied with weapons for conducting a long-term war with Russia and for deterring any Russian aggression in future. The West needs to decide now what Ukraine will need in terms of weapons in the months and years to come to win back its territories and to protect itself. This is the question that lies at the heart of the future of European security.

At the same time, long-term economic support, help with stabilizing the Ukrainian state and its institutions as well as its integration into the European Union are also all part of containing Russia. It needs to be made clear rhetorically, but much more importantly with action, that Ukraine will not be given up and that the country is part of democratic Europe.

Decoupling from Russia

A further key element is that Europe in particular is decoupling from Russian oil and gas as soon as possible. The West also needs to keep up the sanctions it has agreed to weaken the Russian economy, including against its military-industrial complex as well as its finance and banking system, and close loopholes. Even if the sanctions will only have an effect in the medium term, the pressure on the regime will grow, especially if Russia is also further weakened on the battlefield.

In terms of military deterrence, NATO also has nuclear weapons at its disposal; they will prevent any nuclear attack on the alliance by the Russian side. Any other nuclear message from Moscow should not be underestimated, especially since Putin is raising the stakes with further escalation. But it is important not to draw the wrong conclusions, because less support for Ukraine will not stop the Kremlin. Nuclear threats should neither lead to compromises that weakens Ukraine nor to withholding the weapons from Ukraine it needs for a military victory. To Putin it should be made very clear what price there would be to pay were Russia to use chemical or tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

The capabilities to defend NATO territory need to be further enhanced, especially in the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania. But whether or not Russia will be able to attack NATO members will be decided in Ukraine. Therefore, a long-term approach to strengthen Ukraine’s military capabilities so that it is able to deter Russia is a crucial element in any military and defense planning of NATO members. In Europe, Germany should lead the way. Its €100 billion “special fund” (Sondervermögen) can only be a start, though. More spending will be required to create an integrated security system with the Central European as well as the Nordic countries, especially after Finland and Sweden join NATO. Berlin should make it clear to Moscow that Germany is not only willing and able to protect its territory together with its NATO partners, but also will defend its allies in the east.

The West vs. the Rest?

On the international level it is obvious that only very few countries will follow the sanctions that the United States, the EU, and Asian partners like Japan and Australia have enacted. Many countries even benefit economically from a weakened Russia, for instance by enjoying lower prices for oil and gas. The leaders of China, India, and Turkey made clear at the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Samarkand that they do not support Western sanctions; however, they also do not support Russia in its war against Ukraine.

None of them wants to be dragged into the war or fall foul of Western sanctions; they all support the territorial integrity of states, which refers to Ukraine, but also to Kazakhstan. Russia is getting some technology from China like semiconductors, but Beijing is being very careful not to circumvent sanctions, in particular the US technology sanctions, in a more comprehensive way; China itself depends on Western technology to a large extent. Chinese companies even coordinate their exports with the US State Department. The more Russia is weakened in Ukraine, the less its image as a strong autocratic global player will work. That will also impact its “allies” in the SCO. 

Limits of Containment

But a new containment policy does not mean the complete isolation of Russia, because that is not in the Western interest. A visa ban for Russian tourists, pushed for by the Baltic States, would also hit Russians who want to leave the country because of repression, for political reasons, or because they just do not support this war and want to escape the draft. Humanitarian visas with their long lead times are no solution. Such a policy change would only play into the hands of the Russian hardliner who have an interest in their country being isolated.

Also, a complete ban on technology exports to Russia would not be in the Western interest. It would mean that Chinese technology will dominate all spheres of the Russian economy and the IT sector, and Western intelligence services would have less access to information about what is going on in Russia. A complete isolation of such a big country with key resources for international markets in a globalized world is simply impossible, anyway.

As the criticism by local politicians in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and some other Russian cities of the war and demands for Putin to step down show, there are people in Russia who are against the invasion. They also exist within the bureaucratic apparatus, as leaks from the inner circle to news outlets like Meduza show. Therefore, containment policy should be augmented with one that supports change in Russia. For that, a conceptional debate about the future of a different Russia in Europe is required.

To work with the new diaspora of think tankers, academics, IT specialists, business people, opposition figures, and others German and European institutions should create platforms to network and develop concepts for a different Russia. Such efforts can have an impact on the domestic debate in Russia; the diaspora can reach it through social media, and their contacts can help to better understand what is going on in the country. With a completely isolated Russia, including its information sphere, this would not be possible.

Signs of Weakness

Putin’s reaction to the loss of territory in Ukraine has been to double down. He is not willing to make any compromises. Announcing a partial mobilization, however, is an expression of weakness; it will put Putin under even more pressure domestically, as the move is highly unpopular among Putin’s core electorate. It will take months and will not create the conditions for a quick success. There is also the question of whether the “reservists,” who often have bribed their way out of military service in the first place, and whose morale will be low, can really make a difference fighting the highly motivated Ukrainian forces, who are defending their homeland.

Therefore, the more Ukraine is able to put the Russian armed forces under pressure, the more the pressure inside of Russia will grow. It is a success of the Western weapons deliveries and training, and of the ability of the Ukrainian army, that the Putin regime is under pressure like it has never been before. To keep this pressure up is crucial. Russian rhetoric should make no one nervous. The West should hold the line.

Stefan Meister is head of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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