The West needs to tailor an effective deterrence strategy against Kremlin 
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The West needs to tailor an effective deterrence strategy against Kremlin 

Monday, 21 September 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Poison is the Kremlins weapon of choice to silence opponents. The attempt on Alexei Navalnys life, using a chemical nerve agent, has not been an isolated case, but the tipping point of a series of (attempted) assassinations, and more generally, symbolic for the Kremlins contestation of the international order.

The transatlantic foreign policy community beat the drum of punishing the Kremlin where it hurts most. By way of illustration, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen promised “to come forward with a proposal for a European Magnitsky Act,“ which so far has been enacted among others, in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, proposed a “Navalny sanctions regime“. Besides, European Union member states, such as Poland, and the Baltics, but also the United States, exert pressure on Germany to cancel North Stream II, thus depriving Moscow of hard currency to finance its aggressive impulses.

However, establishing an effective strategy for a stable deterrence regime requires a reflection and understanding of what strategy is and what different forms of strategies can be used in this specific context. An effective strategy would not only hurt the Kremlin momentarily, but also deter it in the future, signaling that the cost of any aggressive action will outweigh the benefits.

Deterrence theory became an integral part of international relations scholarship in the context of nuclear superpower confrontation during the Cold War. The most recent literature, epitomized by the fourth wave of deterrence, shifted from universal “one-size-fits-all“ concepts of deterrence towards tailored approaches – tailored deterrence – integrating the specific context and strategic culture of the adversary.

Today, the Kremlin operates subversively, disguising who is behind an attack or frames an attack as a benign activity which makes it complicated to deal with threats. Nevertheless, a thorough understanding of the Kremlin‘s strategic fears could turn the tide in our favor.

Scholarship on strategic culture suggests at least three conditions in which understanding of a respective security culture may be helpful in tailoring deterrence – strong national cultural identities, elite allegiance to tradition, and a strong military organizational culture, respectively.

The idiosyncratic nature of the Russian regime, that is, its strategic culture, and threat perceptions, shape the security policy decision-making apparatus in Moscow. In 2014, and against the backdrop of the Russian occupation and illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, in a phone call with former U.S. President Barack Obama, Chancellor Merkel of Germany said, that she was not sure whether Putin still had “contact with reality” at all, and that he lived “in another world”. In fact, to examine this “other world“ is the key to meet the challenge of confronting Moscow. 

The Kremlin‘s strategic culture appears to be rooted in history and rivalries. Its beliefs are the product of common experiences, universal narratives, and geopolitical realities. Russian experiences of the 20th century, including sacrifices in World War II, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the associated loss of an empire, the chaos and crime that erupted in the 1990s, and “color revolutions“ in what the Kremlin calls “near abroad“ seem to account for more recent experiences. However, the seemingly distant Russian tsarist past, notorious for instance, for its penchant toward authoritarianism, perhaps best epitomized by Ilya Repins painting “Barge Haulers on the Volga“ shouldn’t be discounted.

The strategic culture is significant in Russia’s case, as it’s leaders, the agents of the shared historical narrative, ally themselves closely with these narratives and traditions. Hence, tailoring deterrence toward Russia involves the identification of political leaders, elites, and the military command. When their interests are threatened, they will either block external pressures on the regime, or otherwise, if their interests are better served by compliance, they will put pressure on the regime to comply. In Russia, Putin‘s inner circle, the so-called siloviki (people with power), most of them with a background in the KGB, are ultimately pulling the strings. 

Likewise, any tailored deterrence approach should take into account the Russian military organizational culture, such as institutional orientations, prevailing cultures, and organizational frames. To name but a few insights, Stephen R. Covington, the Strategic and International Affairs Advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe contends that “there is no Western equivalent to Russian strategic culture“ and that “Russian military leadership is very conscious of its culture of strategic thought.“ Likewise in his latest contribution, in “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy“, international relations scholar, Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky identifies the “monumental restoration of military church relations,“ where the Russian Orthodox Church plays a dominant role within the armed forces, in particular, the nuclear weapons community, and legitimizes and influences the Kremlins aggressive impulses.

While a strategy to change Russia’s calculus might sound reasonable, limitations of deterrence must be addressed. 

Methodological issues such as historiographic reasons and intelligence difficulties affect the deterrence calculus. Additionally, while second-wave theory of deterrence was based on assumptions about actor’s rationality, third-wave deterrence theory contended that rational deterrence theory failed to incorporate critical  variables, such as variations in risk-taking. Likewise, third-wave theorists  showed that psychological factors often cause decision-makers to act in ways that contradict second-wave theory, such as misperceptions, where the defender may misunderstand the threat, and the aggressor may fail to appreciate the defender’s determination to retaliate. 

Other limitations include “group-think”, where individuals go along with ideas the group supports, without assessing risks; “mental short-cuts”, concentrating on some aspects of an issue, while ignoring others, as well as “wishful thinking”, overestimating the chances of an outcome.

Then again, hormonal factors, such as a high level of testosterone and its effect on physiological function and cognition, as well as the physical condition, stress and the mental state of leaders drive their decision making process. Similarly, cognitive biases affect both sides of the relationship of deterrence. As people prefer consistency, actors are likely to interpret new information according to pre-existing beliefs. Besides, cognitive biases also result in serious attribution errors. Thus, people exaggerate the likelihood that actions of others result from their own prior behavior and overestimate to what extent they are the target of those actions. 

Still further, many decisions appear to be the result of neurological preconscious processes. Although the brain can absorb millions of pieces of  information a second, it consciously handles only a very small fraction – the rest is handled by the unconscious brain. Perception of motion comes first, followed by the conscious awareness of a decision to move. By the same token, many decisions seem to be the product of emotional responses, where emotions precede choice. 

Complementarily, betrayal, disappointment, shame, or humiliation are likely to affect the state of deterrence. For example, research suggests paying more attention to avoiding humiliation and shame, particularly in those cultures where honour and status matter a lot. 

On top of that, the structure of the international system is another variable affecting deterrence in theory and practice. In a global system that is both structurally complex and uncertain, deterrence becomes much more unpredictable. For instance, the attitudes of other centers of power, such as China, Japan or India, makes it an overwhelming task. 

Lastly, it is important not to cross the “culminating point of deterrence“, a term coined by Adamsky, after “which additional threats or use of force become counterproductive”.

Artiom Hildebrandt