Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

Soldiers drill for the Victory Day parade in front of a portrait of Vladimir Putin. Photo: Getty Images.

The Kremlin famously demands ‘respect’ from the world’s leading powers and international organizations. But it shows little respect itself for the rules-based international order. Indeed, it rejects the very notion that such an order exists.

Where most Western governments see an imperfect liberal capitalist system – even one in retreat – Moscow’s ruling elites see the slow passing of a hegemonic, US-led world order in which the ‘rules’ are slanted in the West’s favour and Russia’s ‘natural rights’ have been ignored.

In this context, the Russian leadership does not consider its interests to lie in following others’ rules. This presents a number of practical challenges for those in the West who nonetheless need to deter or respond to Russian aggression.

Russia has been perfectly clear that it wants a different international settlement, one in which no major decisions may be taken without its consent. Seeing itself (despite all evidence to the contrary) as an indispensable world power, Russia pursues a goal in the West that consists of re-achieving the uncoupling of western Europe from eastern and central Europe in order to restore a historic sphere of influence.

This inevitably means that the Kremlin’s ambition is a threat to all those European countries that subscribe to the current order, police it, or aspire to be a part of it. The material extent of that threat can be seen in the 13,000 deaths in Ukraine since the start of the conflict in 2014(opens in new window), and in the tens of thousands more casualties in Syria, not to mention the unknown number of victims of covert Russian operations in the UK.

All can be interpreted as collateral damage from Moscow expressing its dissatisfaction with how the West thinks the world should be organized. A key point here is the importance of taking the consequences of Russia’s foreign policy positioning seriously, rather than reducing it to a simple negotiable difficulty. Failure to respond appropriately to Moscow’s declared ambitions will mean further assaults on Western societies, populations and democratic institutions.

The co-operation illusion

The seductive myth that there must be common ground for cooperation with Russia must be rebutted. Whereas the West may be able to cooperate artfully with China to strengthen the rules-based international order when mutual interests align, this will not work with Russia. China profited from the end of the Cold War, Russia lost everything. China wants to use the system to rise up within it. Russia’s leadership, as mentioned, wants a different system altogether.

Facing structural economic decline, Russia cannot fulfil its supposed great power destiny by any means that are acceptable to the West. The Kremlin has correctly deduced that Russia’s developmental prospects are so poor that the country cannot rise within the established rules of the international order.

In this context, the Kremlin understands ‘co-operation’ simply as a means to extract compromise and concession. In rare instances where Russia’s interests coincide with those of the West, any mutual gains are entirely context-limited: the confluence of factors cannot be leveraged to achieve cooperation elsewhere.

In fact, the reverse mechanism applies, with Moscow exploiting any supposed magnanimity on a particular issue to advance its agenda in other areas. There are ample illustrations of how, when the West weakens or concedes, Moscow entrenches, reinforces tactical gains, and pushes further.

Above all, the search for common interests is of no help to those seeking to deter Russia’s worst excesses. This is because those actions – from military interventions in Ukraine and Syria to digital interference in Western democratic processes – are designed to ensure that Russia’s place at the top table is maintained. They are a fundamental element of state policy.

Dual options for response

Defence of the West, its societies, institutions and populations, relies now as it long has done on strong but calibrated resistance to Moscow through a mixture of deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial means closing off the possibility of easy wins for Russia.

This entails a number of actions: investment in stronger financial regulation; political funding for transparency initiatives; continued vigilance against Russian malign-influence operations; the observation of cyber hygiene; policies to ensure energy security and protect critical infrastructure (which should include legal systems); and a robust military posture. None of these steps definitively eliminate the Russian threat, but they incrementally diminish the country’s ability to do harm.

Deterrence by punishment requires the West to impose costs and consequences where Russia violates international rules or norms. There is evidence (where information exists in the public domain) that holding at risk what Vladimir Putin cares about has worked on occasions. Economic sanctions are the most obvious example.

While there is debate over the precise extent of their effects – largely from people who dispute the justification for such measures in the first place – their symbolic value as an admonishment should not be understated. If in no other way, the effectiveness of sanctions can be measured by the urgency of the Russian elite’s desire to have them removed.

However, sanctions are insufficient on their own, and in any event are not the only option for responding to Russian actions. Western commercial diplomacy could exploit Russia’s friendly, if unequal, relationship with China to drive a wedge between the two countries. Cautious and appropriate Western engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which bypasses Russia, could provide a clear example to Russia that the latter’s interests lie in genuine cooperation not isolation.

A more forceful option includes proper enforcement of laws and regulations on responsible media behaviour. These laws, which already exist in most European countries, offer the potential to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation more effectively.

Outright bans of RT (formerly ‘Russia Today’) and Sputnik, the Kremlin’s chief information outlets in the West, would likely be counterproductive: not only prompting tit-for-tat retaliation against Western broadcasters but also reflecting poorly on free-speech protections.

However, appropriate regulatory penalties could still induce both media organizations to substantially adjust their output and behaviour. Regulators could bar Western advertisers from buying space on Russian channels. And temporary (but repeated) removal of broadcasts from the airwaves – as and when Russian news reporting breaches official standards of impartiality – would have some impact as a punishment and could boost conformity.

This should not be confused with ‘winning’ in the information warfare space, where Russia’s authoritarian machinery gives it the edge. However, the West doesn’t have to let Russia win quite so easily.

When they go low…

When resisting Russia, it is critical that the West not depart from its values to do so, since this would be self-defeating. One positive model is the package of legislation recently passed in Australia against subversive Chinese activity. Far from representing a departure from Western norms and values, many of the measures are aimed at increasing transparency.

Education is also a fundamental part of the long-term answer. Threat perception is critical: populations need to understand that their countries have a Russia problem – or, more accurately, a problem with Russia’s leadership. As ever, we can learn from the front-line states. Poland has ensured that its domestic Russia expertise has not faded away, unlike in so many other Western countries where capacity and language skills have been eroded. In the Nordic states, children are schooled to identify disinformation (fake news) from an early age.

Above all, Western policymakers must be clear-sighted in recognizing that dealing with Russia requires persistence, a willingness to play the long game, and an appetite for bearing short-term economic and diplomatic retaliation and the domestic political fallout from it.

It also requires recognition that a firm response cannot and should not be reliant on full Western unity, which is unrealistic. This, too, underlines the need for sturdier EU diplomacy, not always a strong point under the current High Representative. While the immediate impacts of resisting Russia’s ambition are likely to be uncomfortable, the long-term consequences – both for Europe and for the rules-based international order as a whole – of not doing so would be devastating.