You are on page 1of 4

The New Long War with Russia

Commodore Philip Thicknesse is


a Falklands War veteran and career
warfare officer and aviator, Philip
Thicknesse is an international adviser at
the Project for Study of the 21st Century
(PS21). He previously directed the UK
Defence Crisis Management Centre,
Maritime Warfare Centre and commanded
British Forces South Atlantic Islands.
While it is immensely difficult to place oneself in Russian President
Vladimir Putins position and to see the world as he and Russia
undoubtedly see it, there are things that we do know.
The first is that Russia has always seen itself as encircled and
threatened, a condition exacerbated by the West since the collapse of
the Soviet Union and subsequent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization. A simple exercise with a globe can help to demonstrate
this. Rotate it until Moscow is in the center and then scan the points of
the compass. To the north, over the pole, is the United States; to the
east, China; to the south, Islam, and to the west, Europe, the European
Union and NATO.
Second, over the past 20 years, Russia has shrunk, physically and
conceptually. The Soviet Union was, in all but one way, a force to be
reckoned with. It was able to hold the world hostage and force it to
focus, above all, on the maintenance of an uneasy but mostly stable
peace. The Soviet Unions Achilles heel was its economy; NATOs Cold
War victory was essentially an economic one. The West defeated the
Soviet Union by fielding more, and better, military technology with
fewer, but infinitely better-trained personnel, funded by economies
that worked.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, it shed a number of its republics, which
functioned, in part, as buffers between mother Russia and the
encircling threat. They also provided vital access to the sea. A
sympathetic observer might note that Russias only guaranteed ports
are on its north coast, all of which have, in recent human history, been
accessible only in the Arctic summer months. Even now with the ice
receding, the Northern Sea Route is a far from reliable route into either
the Pacific or Atlantic and therefore strategically unsatisfactory. In the
Baltic, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad serve well, though Russia must
be concerned for the long-term stability of Kaliningrad because the city
has a long German history as Koenigsberg. This stability should also

concern Europe: arguably, as long as Kaliningrad is secure, the threat


to the other Baltic ports and countries is reduced. To the east,
Vladivostok serves the Pacific but, in extended living memory, has
been directly threatened (and occupied) multiple times, by the
Japanese in the early 20th century and throughout the Cold War by the
United States.
This brings us to the south and the Black Sea and the Russian ports on
the Crimean peninsula. The southern access to the Mediterranean has
always been problematic because of the Dardanelles, which has forced
Russia to find staging posts in the Mediterranean from which to sortie.
Throughout the Cold War, the Russian fleet could be found in
anchorages all around the eastern Mediterranean, which helps to
explain Russias interest in the Syrian port of Tartus. The port is now
unavailable as a result of a civil war made infinitely more complicated
by a West that had not taken the time to weigh the true factors and
factions, which always included Russia (the leadership of which may,
actually, have been right all along in siding with Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad).
When Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, the
Crimean peninsula became a significant strategic problem and, almost
certainly, the subject of contingency planning: The naval ports and
other military bases had to be accessible. The matter of which way
Ukraine faces is not simply, for Russia, a matter of either lost trade or a
lost buffer state, both of which are important, but also of lost oceanic
access.
If this is the case, the West needs to think, with great clarity and
caution, about what is actually happening in Ukraine to understand the
nature of Putins problem. The need for assured oceanic access at each
point of the compass may be so deeply engrained in the Russian
psyche as to significantly affect his decision-making and risk appetite.
So what? A Russia that prefers to believe that it is surrounded by
enemies is one thing. A Russia denied what it believes to be its
birthright unfettered oceanic access and secure land borders is
another. The West has learned to live, uncomfortably, with the first,
just as one learns to accommodate a paranoid neighbour. But it has
also learned the consequence of unnecessary needling, which
invariably ends in tears. Sometimes it is necessary, for the greater
good, to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. The wrong thing, in
this case, is to persuade Ukraine to cede the peninsula, and a land
corridor, to Russia. Access to EU markets is a possible compensation
but not, at any price, membership in NATO. Buffer states are a tragic

necessity in an uncertain world and as important for NATO as for


Russia.
Why would the West, and especially Ukraine, do this? Because Russia is
on its knees, for three reasons. The first, and most immediate, is the
price of oil, which is far below what Putin requires to make the country
function. Second is that Russias political system looks unlikely to
survive in the long term. Only a North Korean or a young Saudi would
see Russia as a political paradise. One suspects that many Russians, if
they had the economic wherewithal, would choose to live in a liberal
democracy, for all its faults. The third, and most telling, reason is that
the population is in long-term, possibly accelerating decline, with a
birthrate way below replacement levels and falling life expectancy in
the ethnic Russian population. Current predictions put Russias
population, in 2050, at 118 million, a loss of 16 percent to 19 percent
in 50 years.
At the moment, it would appear that Putin has the upper hand because
he is able to take a longer view than any of his fellow leaders, almost
all of whom are time-limited, or time expired, and most of whom are, at
best, tacticians, not strategists. The evidence seems to indicate that
the West could regain the upper hand by opting to play a very long
game: Russia, as currently constituted, is itself time-limited. Yet the
personalization of politics and leadership in the West has increasingly
led to tactical behavior driven by short personal horizons as short as
60 days in the case of the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is
facing a serious reelection challenge. Maybe proper statesmanship
requires strong and enduring institutions, rather than individuals,
capable of thinking beyond an opponents horizon?
The alternative approach is to learn to deal with the nuisance and
uncertainty of continued ambiguity. Airspace incursions make for good
photographs and alarmist tabloid headlines but are mostly an
expensive inconvenience. Submarine incursions, such as those off
Scotlands coast, designed to test Britains resolve to protect the
submarines carrying Britains nuclear deterrent may be of a different
order. During the Cold War, there were well- established protocols for
close encounters, which by and large worked well. But they required
well-practiced and well-equipped military services that, through their
actions, acquired a familiarity with their opponents and an
understanding not just of their capabilities and limitations but also
their methods.
What does this mean for the NATO Baltic States, which are seen as
being as vulnerable as Ukraine? First, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad
provide access to the Baltic Sea, so there is no pressure on Russia to
find another port. Why would Putin test NATOs resolve through an

action against one of the Baltic States? Protecting the Russian


minorities was a convenient lie used in Ukraine to cover the real reason
for intervening to secure the naval and military bases in Crimea.
And what of the barely veiled threats of lowered thresholds before
involving nuclear weapons? Most Cold War veterans were at least
passingly familiar with Herman Kahn and his ladder of escalation. He
described advancement on the ladder toward war as a series of
deliberate choices, the results of which determined the direction of
travel. We practiced at every level, from decision-making in Whitehall
to the delivery of the weapons and then the whole grim business of
operating in an environment partly demolished by biological, chemical
or nuclear weapons. I think we came to appreciate that the conduct of
nuclear deterrence was a deeply skilled and intelligent business; it
demanded very high levels of familiarity. The current risk seems
obvious: an oversupply of unpractised tacticians in power in Western
capitals, and an absence of strategists.
Finally, then, what should the West do in Ukraine? To fuel a proxy war
by supplying materiel and trainers would be foolish, nave and wilfully
escalatory. Surely the better approach is to use proper, powerful
economic sticks and carrots to bring Ukraine and Russia to the
negotiating table, with the United Nations in place to keep the peace.
At the beginning of the year, the United Kingdom commemorated the
50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, a man widely seen
as the greatest Englishman in all history. He would have seen the
strategic need to treat with the new tsar, whether we like him or not.
It is much better to have Putin if not actually inside the Western tent
then at least not outside it pulling out the guy ropes and causing
chaos. Russia ultimately has a far greater problem with militant Islam
than the West, it understands Iran and Syria better than the West and
has to deal with China in quite a different way. For all concerned, better
a messy peace than a nasty descent into a wider and wholly avoidable
conflict, be it long and ambiguous or short and horrific.
This piece was originally published on Reuters.com on March 10,
2015.
PS21 is a non-ideological, non-national, nonpartisan institution. Any
opinions are the author's own.