Managing miscalculation in relationship between UK and #Russia

| May 10, 2018

UK deterrence against Russia’s aggressive behaviour is vital but carries the risk of miscalculation. Clear signalling through bolder selective action undertaken jointly with NATO allies is the best way forward, writes Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.

Even before the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter on 4 March, heightened tension was the ‘new normal’ in the bilateral relationship between Russia and the UK. The Kremlin is constantly exploring the boundaries of this escalation and the UK is being tested.

This is especially relevant since Russia is often pursuing destabilization efforts that fall beneath the calibrated and tolerable Western ‘pain threshold’ of what constitutes an appropriate response.

However, the Skripal assassination attempt and the subsequent retaliatory measures on both sides have only increased the possibility of catastrophic miscalculation from both sides.

Defining miscalculation in practice

Policy errors, tactical errors, and the Russian government’s opacity are the key areas that could lead to a disastrous armed conflict with Russia. Miscalculation can be broken down into two main categories.

‘Soft miscalculation’ relates to day-to-day relations with Moscow, reciprocal expectations, and conceptual misunderstandings. They have to do with mutual interpretations of respective military doctrines, postures, and security perceptions as well as the respect of existing communication channels (if applicable in the current context).

‘Hard miscalculation’ encompasses military-to-military relations, deterrence and defence. This relates to managing Russian brinkmanship-prone behaviour such as unprofessional air interceptions, the unintentional danger posed by threat-reduction arrangements, and mitigating misunderstandings when protecting NATO allies and their vulnerabilities.

Deterrence, though vital, increases the potential for miscalculation. The UK needs to strengthen its resolve however, and provide clear signalling through bolder selective action. The constant aim should be to deter, defend, and contest in a calibrated and measured way. New approaches are needed to determine the level of risk and the ‘pain threshold’ of the Russian state. Several constructive measures are feasible.

Clarity is everything

There is now urgent need to prevent any such miscalculation as those described above from escalating. A dialled up UK response to Russia’s actions requires a clear posture on national security and NATO commitments, whilst not provoking the Kremlin into confrontation.

The UK must avoid inconsistency between rhetoric and action. This and a lack of Western clarity over what represents a threat increase Russia’s willingness to undertake aggressive posturing.

It is a fundamental mistake to assume that Russia is interested in cooperation or reducing tension, and to assume the West can improve the situation. Another problem is interpreting correctly what Moscow says: ‘cooperating’ has a different meaning in the West than it does in the Kremlin, which leads to misunderstandings. While the West wants to engage, Russia seeks to disrupt.

Open communication channels

In spite of UK and broader western efforts to the contrary, dialogue with Russia has deteriorated and channels of communications have narrowed. This has led to impasse, especially since the Kremlin understands current transparency measures and confidence- and security-building mechanisms as a Western-based approach that does not take so-called ‘Russian interests’ into consideration.

However, it is of paramount importance to keep channels of communication open with Russia – especially back-channels. Nevertheless, this has to be done without offering olive branches to Moscow or agreeing to co-operate on the Kremlin’s terms.

There is a stark difference between engaging with Russia and sacrificing Western values to accommodate the Kremlin. It should be clear what can be realistically achieved through dialogue with this regime.

Maintaining international support is also crucial to any UK response. As close to full and uncompromising unity as possible is needed at NATO and EU levels when addressing Russian actions.

Signalling bolder selective action

The UK should make it clear it has the capacity to stop Russia from crossing red lines and that the Kremlin will pay a heavy price for its actions. Moscow cannot be left to believe that the West will not respond to aggressive behaviour and take serious steps. One possible way forward is to take bolder selective action against Russia.

Since Russia is less averse to risk than the West, the UK should not feel constrained in its response. This applies not only to the nuclear and conventional realms but across full-spectrum warfare, keeping non-military means in mind. Any UK response should seek to change Russia’s cost/benefit analysis of active measures in the UK, while trying not to fuel Moscow’s encirclement syndrome and ‘besieged fortress’ mentality – although this is particularly hard at the present time and fraught with potential miscalculation.

In the military realm, Russia should not be allowed to believe is has superiority across the traditional and non-conventional domains of war – notably air defence capabilities, cyber and electronic warfare. This can be demonstrated in UK and NATO military exercises, with a focus on counter-electronic warfare, counter-cyber, counter-air defence, and counter-drone capabilities, etc. It would require more information-sharing activities among NATO Allies over Russian military activities and trends.

Russia should also be prevented from aggressively contesting the environment of the shared neighbourhood and hampering access to Allies. It is paramount for the UK to show it has freedom of operation in a contested environment.

Should deterrence falter and the potential for miscalculation increase, escalation management will be needed, especially with regards to Russia’s aim to secure a military advantage in the shared neighbourhood and beyond in what Russia considers an initial period of war.

The Kremlin has a clear incentive to continue on its path of military assertiveness and its pattern of sub-threshold destabilization activities such the attack on Sergei Skripal. Only coherent and united signalling through bolder selective action will assist with credible deterrence. In this, miscalculation in the UK-Russia relationship requires calculation in the first place.

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Category: A Frontpage, Chatham House, EU, Opinion, Russia, UK

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