Interview with Edward Hunter Christie from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs on the situation in Ukraine
Which scenarios of Russian aggression are plausible now?
It is best not to try to make a single point estimate of the most likely Russian Course of Action. One of the key characteristics of how the Kremlin acts is the maintenance of several possible options, and the maintenance of elements of surprise and of pre-emption of the opponent’s reactions, until the very last minute – as well as later in the process.
What we can ascertain in general terms is a Russian practice of entrapment, such that the most predictable Ukrainian and Western Courses of Action are already taken into account by the Russian leadership and, crucially, the scope of feasible Courses of Action for the opponent are being ground down to a small set of choices, all unwinnable.
To get the better of them, we would need to complexify their decision-making scheme. They cannot entrap Ukraine and the West if we start to do strange things they don’t know how to interpret. For example, what if we used naval assets not just in the Black Sea area but also elsewhere. They might fear we have something in mind and might not know what it is. It seems to me there might be small elements of that happening, but maybe more could be done.
Can diplomacy still avert a catastrophe? Is the Minsk II process a credible way out – or can it at least serve to gain time?
The very notion of dialogue has become a mantra of Western European governments in particular, but it is at present a dangerously underspecified concept which puts too much weight on meetings and verbal communications as such. Talking is genuinely important in how the West does business. It is genuinely unimportant when dealing with Russia. With Russia, it is action and credible signals of future actions that are important. And the reality is that our nations have very little to offer to Russia because we do so little to inconvenience them to begin with. We need to re-learn the art of leverage. We need to go out of our way to create difficulties and irritants for the Putin regime. At a more fundamental level, we need political will. Let us recall the spirit of Ronald Reagan. We have to want to confront the Putin regime and win. We will need our best thinkers and our best brains to get the better of the Putin regime. We may have to use counterintuitive approaches, threats, bluff, bluster, surprises; actions both overt and covert; occasionally carrots, often sticks. But we have to take a fundamental decision about our general policy towards the Russian Federation. It may be some kind of containment, or some kind of roll-back, or something in between those two broad orientations. One perspective that must be banished, however, is engagement. It is unacceptable for any power to threaten war – let alone wage it – against a fellow European nation. This, we must decide, we shall never tolerate. We must do everything within our power to protect our Continent and to lift these unacceptable threats from our lives.
What can the West do now to support Ukraine?
At a minimum we should continue with what we’re already doing – financial assistance, intelligence sharing, military assistance – while sending strong signals to Moscow in terms of sanctions and also enhancing our deterrence and defence posture on our Eastern Flank. We should also position forces and offensive weapons that are not strictly needed in order to create discomfort in Moscow. Such deployments would give us more to talk about during possible future arms control negotiations, which we could then link to behavioural improvements regarding Ukraine.
We should also take preparatory steps for the worst-case scenario, which would be a Russian occupation of substantial additional Ukrainian territory. For that, we should stand prepared to support whatever kind of insurgency our Ukrainian friends would wish to pursue against the occupiers. The choice should always be theirs – if they fold for the sake of saving lives, so be it. If they continue the fight, we shall help them – with supplies, weapons, explosives, intelligence, information operations, whatever they need. And of course a safe location for a government-in-exile that would be the only Ukrainian authority we would consider lawful. We should also decide now that whichever allied nations provide support and rear bases for our Ukrainian friends, those nations shall be protected by all of us from all and any Kremlin pressures, operations, or threats. We should also prepare to wage a long campaign of information warfare and subversion inside the Russian Federation, through whatever means we can muster, in order to impress upon the Russian people the criminal nature of their government’s actions. We know that the Putin regime goes to great lengths to conceal the costs of war from its population. Let us make sure such concealment fails.
There are a variety of third way solutions which will undoubtedly be considered, deals that involve some concessions to Moscow. All such options should be subject to the principle of nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. The ultimate risk, and the ultimate choice to fight or not to fight, is Ukraine’s and Ukraine’s alone. As friends of Ukraine, we have a moral duty to help, as well as a moral duty never to promise more help than what we have the courage to deliver.
Will EU and NATO stay united?
A great lesson of developments so far is that Western unity is forged in tension. It was good that there was an element of rudeness and pressure towards Berlin and Paris in recent weeks, it was necessary. In spite of decades of alliance, our respective nations are still somewhat insular and parochial when formulating their foreign policies. That is a reality that will probably not change. But peer pressure among allies is the healthy corrective mechanism we need to nurture, along with coalitions of the willing.
Another important action we should consider is the creation of new legislation to prohibit former public officials and elected officials from our nations from receiving any remuneration from, or from representing the interests of, state entities, state-owned enterprises, or strategic industries of the Russian Federation. To be clear: what Mr. Gerhard Schroeder or Ms. Karin Kneissl are currently doing should become illegal, meaning they would be legally forced to stop doing it. That should be our goal, across all EU and NATO nations.
Additional measures to undermine Russian networks of influence inside our nations should also be considered. Overall, we should develop something like an “Operation Clean Hands” across the Western world.
How can Russia be successfully deterred? Sanctions, military assistance etc.?
In the broader picture, we must recognise that our attempts to use positive engagement to elicit a socialisation of the Russian Federation with international norms of civilised behaviour have been a complete failure. We are unquestionably back to a much harsher reality, which is that our neighbour is an aggressive imperialist enterprise that violates our norms and rules on a regular basis. We know, from bitter experience in the Cold War, that the correct approach is Peace through Strength. Credible military deterrence, therefore, will now become the most important approach underpinning our diplomacy with the Russian Federation. To ensure this works, it is of the utmost priority that we increase our defence spending levels and develop a complete set of military means for our deterrence and defence posture. It must be the case that we become fully confident once again that any Russian attack against any of our Allies would result in a devastating military response on our part.
In parallel, we should also return to Cold War frames of reference in terms of our economic and industrial exchanges with the Russian Federation. We should deny Russia the means to more easily develop any means of aggression or leverage against us. This means dismantling unfavourable dependencies we have on them – including in the area of energy supplies – as well as denying them access to advanced technologies (this latter issue is on the table in the sanctions). An additional proposal would be to introduce a decoupling mechanism, in the form of a tax on imports of Russian energy and raw materials. This could be used to finance the sourcing of supplies from nations that do not threaten us, while imposing large costs on Russia as they would have to redirect their export business towards other destinations. Such decoupling would also support the goal of reducing Russian influence within our political and business elites.