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Be the Unexpected

Western responses to Russian meddling have been all too symmetrical. It's time to shake things up.

Photo: White House Flickr

This January, the New America Weekly's writers are proposing a series of policy resolutions. These are actions that policy makers and ordinary citizens can take to make the world a better place in 2017.

Russian troops foment and support adventures in Ukraine and Syria, and the US variously gives arms and aid to beleaguered forces in those regions. Hackers undermine the integrity of US elections—possibly even their results—and the US government expels a few Russian diplomats. Russian influence operations flood Western media with disinformation, and the US responds by creating a website called “Polygraph” charged with debunking all that misleading content.

When it comes to dealing with Russian provocations against US and Western interests, US responses have generally been painfully symmetric. Moscow makes a move, Washington issues a proportional counter-move—often to little practical effect. Drip-drop. Rinse and repeat.

It’s time for the US and its Western allies to revisit this policy habit. As we enter 2017, it has likely never been more important to refine our way of responding to the provocations and adventures of our adversaries. While there is certainly room in the US toolkit for responses that are symmetric to foreign offenses, neither is it writ that that must be the only way we respond. If anything, it has only meant that the US has become all too predictable, making it easier for our competitors, adversaries, and enemies to probe for Western weaknesses and calibrate their policies to the expected proportion of the Western reprisal.

When Russian troops seized Crimea in early 2014, the US and its Euro-Atlantic partners scrambled for a concrete response, managing to deploy a few assets to shore up the NATO Eastern Flank. But it was not long before the Russian annexation was compounded by Moscow’s cultivation of an irregular war in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas. New strategies were developed, and Western aid began to pour into Ukraine to help the new Kyiv government deal with this so-called “hybrid” threat. Ukraine, though racked with economic, social, and political upheaval, managed to stanch some of the bleeding with Western support. But not before the Moscow-backed separatist statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk had effectively inoculated Ukraine from any near- or medium-term prospect of NATO membership, or other means of significant Euro-Atlantic integration.

By late 2014, NATO had identified Russia as a major threat, and plans and policies were unveiled to counter it: international sanctions, the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, the US European Reassurance Initiative, and a higher tempo rotation of US and allied forces across the NATO Eastern Flank and around the Black Sea. And yet, Moscow responded not merely by beefing up its border forces in Europe, but also by playing a larger and increasingly overt role in Syria. Mostly the stuff of rumor and supposition at first, Russian involvement in Syria became incontrovertible by the summer of 2015, and official only months later. Russian supplies, materiel, air support, and special forces helped drag the embattled Syrian regime from the edge of capitulation to a series of victories—almost exclusively at the expense of Syrian Kurdish and rebel forces. Despite their “war on terror” mantra, Moscow generally avoided confronting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, saving its attacks for Western-and Turkish-backed rebel and Islamist groups—true to the longtime Damascus playbook. By the end of 2015, Russia had established a constellation of anti-access/area denial radii along the Eastern Mediterranean, and any Western hopes for the upper hand in any negotiation process were accordingly crushed as navalized S-300 and ground based S-400 air defense systems came online. In the scramble for crisis management, the US and its Western partners managed to implement proportional responses to Russian provocations, but were consistently surprised when Russian counter-moves breached yet another theater or domain: Ukraine, Syria, the Black Sea, Turkey, the cyber and information domains, etc.  

The US and its allies need to stop playing the game by Moscow’s handbook. US and Western diplomatic norms towards Russia lead us to to compartmentalize areas of mutual enmity to preserve pockets of cooperation, such as international space cooperation; peace efforts in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict; or various cultural or scientific initiatives. But this is not a practice to which Moscow generally adheres. Sometimes, the best response to Russian (or other adversarial) provocations is not direct, proportional, or symmetric. Instead, Moscow needs to be put on its heels for a change. The best defense, to paraphrase the maxim, is not always defense.

That doesn’t mean Russia’s opponents should go on the attack: What if Russia’s march into Ukraine was met with a milestone-driven, concrete pathway to NATO membership for aspirant states with outstanding territorial problems like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia? Such a policy would have breathed new life into Euro-Atlantic integration hopes in those countries—which all suffer from Russia-carved separatist conflicts—while undermining Moscow’s longstanding policy of fomenting local insurrections to stave off Western integration in its so-called “near abroad.”

What if the response to Russia’s push into Syria was not just more of the same? One strategic counter-move might have been a more robust and capitalized Arctic strategy that made Washington (or our allies in Canada) the premier player in this increasingly strategic—and highly coveted—region. Currently, Western attentions and focus on the Arctic are fragmented, variously resourced (the US only has one operating polar ice breaker), and even sometimes mutually competitive.

None of this is to say that direct responses are unnecessary or incorrect, but they are oftentimes only a first step. Russia, and revisionist actors like it, depend on the Western-crafted global system for their economic and political survival—and as a rule expect the consequences of flouting norms to be contained in one area. As long as the West plays by these self-imposed rules, Russia may be able to subsist on its current path indefinitely. But if Washington wants the upper hand, we could do with a strategy that no longer gifts Moscow with a sense of easy predictability.


Michael Cecire is an international relations analyst and an International Security program fellow at New America. A Black Sea regional specialist, he has worked in a variety of political risk and public policy roles supporting U.S. national security, international economic development, and democracy promotion.