A Strategy for Containing Putin’s Russia
The United States, Europe, and their global partners need to design a broad and well-coordinated strategy against the regime in Moscow in order to thwart Vladimir Putin’s ambitions now and in the future.
More than two months after Russia launched its military campaign against Ukraine, it is obvious that there will be no rapid and redemptive awakening from this nightmare. On the contrary, after its failed northern offensive against Kyiv, Russia is using brutal force to try to conquer the economically vital Donbas region and large parts of southern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to believe that he is on the road to victory. He is not showing any signs of abandoning his sick fantasies of subjugating the Ukrainian state; nor has he altered his strategic goal of changing Europe’s political map with military force. Despite the Russian forces’ immense losses, the Kremlin is continuing to pursue its course of action. Even a military stalemate would not be too disastrous for Putin, since it would allow him to further fuel his narrative of NATO allegedly posing an existential threat to Russian security at home and to negotiate with Kyiv from a position of military strength. Above all, Putin appears confident that the West will not be able to politically sustain a prolonged, indirect military conflict with Moscow and that solidarity with Kyiv will crumble sooner or later.
Global Coalition in Support of Ukraine
The creation of a US-led global coalition in support of Ukraine has been a truly positive sign in these otherwise messy recent weeks. The meeting that took place at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on April 26 was aimed at assessing the current Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine and discussing how to ensure the continuous flow of security assistance for Ukraine and to meet the country’s longer-term security and military needs.
A total of 40 countries attended the meeting, including Israel, Australia, Kenya, Tunisia, South Korea, and Japan. All the European Union and NATO members participated. According to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the new global contact group will continue to meet on a monthly basis.
The creation of a permanent international structure could not be timelier. While individual NATO allies continue to send lethal and non-lethal equipment of all kinds across Ukraine’s borders, and since NATO allies could not agree to serve as the main coordinating body for the flow of military assistance, it was essential that Washington took the lead.
Already in March, the US European Command created a new unit called the European Control Center Ukraine (ECCU), to coordinate and synchronize equipment deliveries from Washington and its partners. Fifteen other partner nations—including NATO and non-NATO members—have provided the center with staff. Lifting the issue from a tactical to a senior political level now is a crucially important step to help the Ukrainians establish a much-needed overview of military supplies received and improve their military-operational planning and training.
Roll Back Russia
Undoubtedly, Russia’s reckless aggression has created a new reality for European security, where fundamental principles are contested through the use of force. The Kremlin’s ambition to recreate a sphere of influence and deny other countries the right to choose their own path is set to persist for a long time. Designing a broader and internationally well-coordinated strategy against the regime in Moscow appears to be the next logical step for the West and its partners.
Going beyond the mere coordination of arms supplies and training requirements for Ukraine is important for at least three reasons: First, to sketch out the core elements of a political end-state that Western allies, their likeminded global partners, and the Ukrainian leadership can all support. Second, to use such a strategy as a key communication vehicle in NATO member states in order to maintain public support for Ukraine’s existential battle against Russia. It is not only in Germany that this support has already started to erode. And third, to synchronize all available tools that the international coalition partners deem useful to reduce Russia’s room for maneuver in Europe.
Defining the End Game
Clearly, choosing the right words is key. The statement by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that "We must simply do everything we can collectively to ensure that Vladimir Putin fails, and fails comprehensively,” is problematic, because he did not say what “fail” means. The same applies for calls to “defeat Russia” and statements such as “Ukraine must win” or “Ukraine must prevail.” Unless defeat and victory are clearly defined in political and military terms, these words confuse more than provide clarity in the current debate.
The core objective of a dedicated “Roll Back Russia” strategy should first and foremost be to insist on the preservation of Ukraine’s full and unconditional state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Only Ukrainians, through their elected political leaders, should freely decide about their future form of governance, security status, and external relations. Ukrainian refugees, and in particular those thousands of Ukrainians that have been deported to Russian “filtration camps,” must be allowed to return to their homes. War crimes committed by Russian forces must be prosecuted through the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. These and other related key objectives should be clearly spelt out by the members of the “contact group” for Ukraine.
In practical and military terms, this means preventing Russia from forcibly reducing Ukraine to a rump state, which, without its industrial base in the east and free access to the Black Sea, would suffer the fate of permanent political and economic degradation. Of course, other open questions related to a potential political settlement between Kyiv and Moscow and the future of Ukrainian territories that Moscow occupied illegally in 2014 (Donbas and Crimea) will also remain of crucial importance; but the political discussion on these issues is in flux. Keeping Ukraine’s sovereignty within the 2014 borders should be the minimum objective for Ukraine and its supporters.
With a view to the Kremlin's broader strategic ambitions in Europe, and notably its coercive actions in Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkans region, the global coalition’s aim should be to reduce Russia's instruments of statecraft, and notably its military and hybrid posture, in a sustained way in order to prevent Moscow from continuing to pursue its aggressive policies against NATO members and their partners.
Connecting the Dots
Synchronizing all the instruments to achieve these goals means connecting a broad spectrum of measures: economic and financial sanctions, enhanced resilience, civil emergency and cyber defense activities, dedicated strategic communications efforts, humanitarian relief and refugee assistance, the prosecution of Russian war crimes, and targeted diplomatic engagement with those states that still eye Russia as a close partner, chiefly India and China as well several countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Clearly, all this is a herculean task requiring time, will, and focus but there is no alternative.
Sanctions, for example, should be geared to the longer term, and particularly target Russia’s military-industrial and technology base that the Kremlin needs to maintain and re-build its military posture. Sanctions enforcement must be planned and closely coordinated among coalition members. Generally, the effect of Western sanctions on Russia would have to be systematically monitored and, where necessary, adjusted. In order to better anticipate and mitigate the effects for European and global economic development, key economic actors and institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank should be closely linked to the political decision-making process, both at the national and EU level, and in the “contact group,” through regular dialogue and exchanges. And, of course, it is extremely important for the European partners, above all Germany, to systematically reduce their dependence on energy supplies and vital raw materials coming from Russia.
NATO Makes a Start
Militarily, NATO remains the only organization capable of credibly demonstrating increased levels of deterrence and defense across the full spectrum of potential Russian threats against its members. At their extraordinary summit meeting in March, NATO leaders already agreed to reset the alliance’s deterrence and defense for the longer term. At their next regular summit meeting at the end of June in Madrid, they will have the opportunity to translate their ambition into concrete actions. NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which the 30 allies are set to adopt in Madrid, can be expected to make crystal clear that the alliance’s future main task is to work toward a significantly higher level of collective defense and deterrence in all operational domains.
In response to Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine, NATO has already mobilized its high-readiness Response Force (NRF) and has decided to establish four new multinational battalions in the Black Sea region. Thus far, most of these deployments are on a temporary basis but the receiving allies would understandably like them to stay longer and for NATO to commit to permanent stationed forces. This would oblige the alliance to break formally from the pledge it made to Moscow in 1997 not to station substantial combat forces or nuclear weapons or build military infrastructure on the territory of its new member states in Eastern Europe. Given Russia’s reckless military campaign against Ukraine, there is no reason why the allies should still stick to their former pledge. Moreover, NATO will need to revise its exercises to prepare and train for the new threats. The new exercise program must first and foremost ensure that NATO’s forward deployed forces are fully integrated with the local forces, police, and border guards to anticipate and respond to any Russian hybrid war tactics.
While Finland and Sweden have not yet submitted their applications to join the alliance, their future membership is not in doubt. It will strengthen NATO in various ways, strategically, militarily, and politically. But when it comes to NATO’s “partner states with special risks,” i.e., Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the issue is much more complicated. It will not be sufficient to further ramp up NATO-funded training and equipment programs in these countries. In particular with regard to Moldova, which is being openly threatened and destabilized by Moscow, the allies will have to do some hard thinking. If Russian forces were to succeed in using the small pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria as a military springboard to attack Odessa from the West, too, Moldova’s security would be seriously threatened. To prevent such a scenario, the alliance should think about offering some form of security guarantees for Moldova.
If the NATO summit in Madrid is to be more than a political ritual, but instead a genuine signal for a new strategic departure, the allies should also muster the courage to rethink their previous division of labor with the EU and merge their respective force planning processes and arms procurement projects. Two largely parallel bureaucratic processes will likely remain dysfunctional and increase Europe's military weight only at a snail's pace.
Finally, an intelligent division of labor between NATO and the EU could also include the latter embarking on developing something akin to a Marshall Plan for Ukraine, and NATO focusing on the rapid implementation of a military roll back strategy toward Russia.
Designing the military dimension of a comprehensive strategy against Russia is crucial. But equally crucial is to sketch out the other components of such a strategy. The message to President Putin should be direct and forceful: We are determined to thwart his sinister plans. Now and in the future.
Stefanie Babst, a former Deputy NATO Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Head of the Secretary General‘s Strategic Foresight Team, is a Principal and Global Policy Advisor at Brooch Associates, London, and a member of the DGAP Advisory Board (Präsidium).