For now, Russia is continuing to reap benefits from its military deployments. It’s not just citizens and embassy staff that western countries are pulling out of Ukraine. Training missions by US, British and Canadian troops have also been withdrawn – with the specific aim of preventing them getting in the line of fire in the event of a Russian attack. This approach is the polar opposite of the way the west protects the Baltic states, where small contingents from multiple Nato member states are embedded in national militaries precisely to ensure that, in the event of Russian aggression, they are directly and immediately involved. That strategy has proved a striking success. Where in 2016 there was much public discussion of how the Baltic states were potential prime candidates for the next Russian intervention, some people now consider these three countries the safest they have been in centuries.
It’s too late to take that approach with Ukraine. As the crisis unfolded, the US and UK almost immediately ruled out direct military support on the ground to Kyiv. Moscow will have been delighted, as once again the west helpfully took Russia’s greatest fears off the table. The extent of support to Ukraine is supposedly limited by the fact that it isn’t a member of Nato, but there’s no shortage of precedents for western powers offering protection from aggression beyond the borders of the alliance. There’s been startlingly little discussion of reducing Russia’s options by declaring no-fly zones and maritime exclusion zones over and around Ukraine, and being visibly ready to enforce them – presenting Russia with the risk of direct clashes with Nato nations if it supports an attack by use of air or sea power.
Russia is demanding the withdrawal of Nato from eastern Europe precisely because it presents a deterrent and a constraining factor on its ambitions. Military experts talk of Moscow employing a “compellence strategy” to achieve this – a shorthand for Russia using the threat of force to extract sweeping concessions from the west like a street criminal. But the west is only a helpless victim of this mugging through its own choice.
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Five months ago, Chatham House published a survey of past successes and failures in dissuading Russia from aggression, titled What deters Russia. The case studies taken from incidents and confrontations over the decades show striking consistency: Russia achieves success when stronger adversaries back down in the face of threats, but retreats if those same adversaries demonstrate the will and determination to protect themselves, their allies or partners.
Russia’s network of propagandists, mouthpieces and influencers has been insistently pushing the idea that confronting Moscow risks almost inevitable escalation to nuclear war. That’s obscured the fact that a clash with the US and its allies is the worst-case scenario for Russia, and the prospect is one of the few genuine deterrents for Putin. The possibility of western direct support for Ukraine carries a far more immediate, direct and palpable risk for Russia than repeated warnings of further sanctions. While warning of Russia’s plans to attack, the US and its allies should also be letting Putin believe they might just do something about it.
Keir Giles works with the Russia and Eurasia programme of Chatham House. He is the author of Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West