“What is to Be Done” about Russia?

23. September 2018

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In the four years since Russia violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity by illegally annexing Crimea and committing aggressive military actions aimed at destabilizing Ukraine, tensions along historic Cold War lines have grown. Russia has repeatedly proven its intent to undermine Western institutions and governments as well as to re-establish Russian interests in former Soviet satellite states and republics. It is pursuing those interests in Eastern Europe not only through military actions, but primarily through hybrid warfare, including subtle tactics such as disinformation campaigns.  Not surprisingly, fuelled by Russian propaganda about prior lackluster NATO and EU actions, the Baltic States and Poland are growing increasingly concerned that the West may not look out for their best interests in the event of Russian aggression.

Vladimir Lenin once devised a forceful call-to-action, «Что делать?» or “What is to Be Done?”. The same question can be echoed today in the context of Ukraine: “What is to be done to counter the destabilizing influence of Russian actions in Eastern Europe and to deter Russia from taking military action in the Baltics akin to those in Ukraine?”  Simply put, the answer is more credible deterrence, and more effective sanctions.

Effective Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank 

Evidence continues to mount that NATO capabilities and readiness in the Baltics are inadequate to counter potential Russian incursion. For example, a 2016 RAND study found that NATO’s existing force posture would be able to defend capital cities of the Baltic states for no more than 60 hours were Russia to undertake an action similar to what happened in Ukraine.[i]Internal reports by NATO’s leading military contributor countries are echoing these grave concerns.

Alarmingly, experts estimate it would take NATO’s most militarily capable European allies (France, Germany, and the UK) between seven and 90 days to muster one full-armoured brigade apiece for reinforcements in the Baltics.[ii]   War gaming and military analyses have indicated that seven additional, readily available, brigade-sized forces (three of which must be full-armoured) – and the accompanying airpower, land-based fire power, and air defences – are needed to close NATO’s capability gap in the Baltics.[iii]  Addressing this gap requires a sufficient resource commitment by leading European NATO allies, namely France, Germany, and the UK, in addition to a renewed US commitment to NATO. However, numerous political and security crises over the past decade have left the European NATO allies’ forces over-stretched in the case of France,[iv]underfunded in the case of Great Britain,[v]and lacking clear direction in the case of Germany.[vi]

More Effective Sanctions on Russia

In response to the Ukraine crisis, the EU recently extended retaliatory sanctions on Russia through 15 September 2018.[vii]These economic sanctions and restrictive measures against 150 Russian persons and 38 Russian entities are intended to change Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine.[viii]During the six-month extension of the sanctions, the EU should take two further actions: First, ascertain the degree to which Russia is complying with key aspects of the Minsk Agreements[a]. Second, depending on the level of compliance found, expand the sanctions as needed to include additional Russian persons and entities identified as susceptible to such pressure.[b]

There are high risks to relying solely on one form of action. On the one hand, taking only military steps without further sanctions risks a deterioration of the situation without any feasible expectation that Russia would change its behavior. It could also potentially spark a Russian military response, against which NATO is not currently prepared to defend itself. On the other hand, continually extending the timeframe and expanding the scope of economic sanctions will be difficult for EU member states to absorb as they have already lost more than €100 billion in trade since the sanctions began.[ix]  A policy of no military action and lifting sanctions in the absence of Russia compliance with the Minsk Agreements would be the highest risk of all. It would send a poor signal concerning respect for sovereignty, could embolden Russia to undertake similar behavior elsewhere, and would likely be interpreted by EU eastern member states as a sign their concerns are less important than are other members’ economic motives. Thus, the question remains: What is to be done?


Taking a combined and proactive approach to respond to Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the region is necessary both to address growing tensions between Central and Eastern European member states and to achieve the desired behavior from Russia. Russia’s compliance with the Minsk Agreements would be a critical first step for Putin’s renewed administration to signal to the EU and NATO that Russia will pursue further destabilizing actions in neither the Ukraine nor vulnerable NATO and EU member states. The time is now to encourage Russia to do so by implementing policies that ensure credible conventional deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank and by continuing to exert economic pressure on Russia.

This article was awarded the 3rd place of our 2018 Policy Corner Essay Competition “Meeting Future Security Challenges“.


Picture by NATO.

[a]Set of measures agreed by the government of Ukraine, the government of Russia and the separatists aiming at de-escalating and pacifying the war in Eastern Ukraine.

[b]It should be noted that the UK has already imposed additional sanctions on Russia in March 2018 following the poisoning of a former Russian agent and his daughter on British soil.


[i]David Shlapak and Michael Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, RR-1253-A, 2016.https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html.


[ii]Micahel Shurkin, The Abilities of the British, French, and German Armies to Generate and Sustain Armored Brigades in the Baltics.Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, RR-1629-A, 2017. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1629.html.


[iii]David Shlapak and Michael Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, RR-1253-A, 2016.https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html.


[iv]Paul Taylor, Crunch Time: France and the Future of European Defence. Brussels: Friends of Europe, 2017. http://friendsofeurope.org/sites/default/files/media/uploads/2017/04/FSR_v9_18042017_Final.pdf.


[v]General Sir Nicholas Carter, “Dynamic Security Threats and the British Army,” RUSI, January 22, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2018, https://rusi.org/event/dynamic-security-threats-and-british-army; Reality Check Team, “Reality Check: What’s happening to defence spending?” BBC News, January 22, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42774738; “Army Chief calls for investment to keep up with Russia,” BBC News, January 22, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42770208.


[vi]Paul Taylor, Jumping Over Its Shadow: Germany and the Future of European Defence.Brussels:Friends of Europe, 2017. http://www.friendsofeurope.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/GermanReport_v7_web_0.pdf..

[vii]European Council, “EU prolongs sanctions over actions against Ukraine’s territorial integrity until 15 September 2018,” Press Release of the Council of the European Union, March 12, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2018, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2018/03/12/eu-prolongs-sanctions-over-actions-against-ukraine-s-territorial-integrity-until-15-september-2018/?utm_source=dsms-auto&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=EU%20prolongs%20sanctions%20over%20actions%20against%20Ukraine%27s%20territorial%20integrity%20until%2015%20September%202018.


[viii]European External Action Service, “EU Sanctions against Russia over Ukraine crisis,” European Union Newsroom, last updated March 19, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2018, https://europa.eu/newsroom/highlights/special-coverage/eu-sanctions-against-russia-over-ukraine-crisis_en.


[ix]Simond de Galbert, A Year of Sanctions Against Russia – Now What? London: Center for Strategic and International Studies Europe, October 1, 2015. https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/150929_deGalbert_SanctionsRussia_Web.pdf.


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Leanne Iorio

At Sciences Po Paris, Leanne Iorio is a Master’s student in International Security. She holds an MA in International Relations from St Andrews University, and completed an internship with the RAND Corporation, focusing on NATO deterrence and defense issues. Her interests include US & European defense, military strategy, and wargaming.