Should it become a more regular occurrence, how can Britain mitigate this challenge and how should it reshape its foreign policy to overcome a belligerent Putin? I argue that its foreign policy should be about military deterrence. There are limits to this approach, however. A robust foreign policy to deter Putin from future military aggression and one which overcomes the prospect of nuclear posturing will need to fundamentally disrupt his ability to carry out actions on his own terms. This includes a targeted information campaign that exploits the cleavages within Russian society, to shift his attention away from war-making and instead to his own domestic stability. Just as the previous cold war was won by Western soft power and the belief that liberal democratic capitalism trumped communism, today’s cold war with Russia can only be won in the information space.
Putin’s discourse on Ukraine demonstrates that he is more likely to act aggressively against those he believes that have no “traditions of genuine statehood”. Hence, Baltic states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are particularly at threat from some form of Russian aggression. Especially as each of those countries has an ethnic-Russian population, which Russia has been seeking to exploit and influence to sow internal discord. Britan can and has already been offering military support to the Baltic states by conducting joint-military operations and providing weapons – though this has primarily been symbolic and a signalling tactic. Estonia for example, has recently approved increased defence spending amounting to $523 million, to enhance its air defence systems; such weapons systems however can only be delivered by 2025 at the soonest. This seems to be an area in which Britain and other Nato members can help with to enhance military deterrence in the Baltics against potential Russian aggression. Given that Russia has still yet to achieve air superiority in Ukraine, in-part preventing a swift takeover of the country, suggests that this should be an immediate priority.
This by itself will not deter Russia aggression or address the issue of nuclear posturing. Going forward, Britain must increase its conventional military capabilities so it can adequately provide meaningful assistance to vulnerable countries without its military becoming stretched. Already we have heard Tory MPs such as Tobias Ellwood call for an increase in spending from 2 to 3% of GDP. Shadow State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, David Lammy, has recently claimed that a “future Labour government would spend more” on defence and has implied that troop numbers should increase. Germany’s recent announcement of its commitment to spend more on defence, is a sign of further militarisation amongst European states. To some extent, this will signal to Russia that Nato is committed to European security and the rules-based international order Russia has shown contempt for.
They may be an effective deterrence to future Russian aggression in the short-term, but it does not address the long-term threat Putin poses. In conjunction to military deterrence measures, Britain and its army of communicative influencers needs to appeal to the Russian people, the business and political elite that their interests are best served without Putin (without an overt call for regime change). If Britain and Nato is to effectively deter Russia, then this step is paramount, and there are good reasons for doing so. First, Putin is a peculiar dictator, in that he perceives himself to be constrained by his own people. To some extent this anxiety surrounding popular opinion is explained by his experience as a KGB officer in East Germany prior to unification. His U-turns on pension reform are evidence that he can and is receptive to popular opinion – especially when it undermines his beloved poll-rating. Boris Johnson’s troubles with the ‘party gate’ inquiry and the prospect of a no-confidence vote is evidence of how much domestic pressure can impact a leaders’ ability to address other issues effectively. Contrary to popular belief, the Russian people are not gullible subjects that are totally manipulated by the government. In fact, there is a huge distrust in the state and low vaccine uptake during the coronavirus crisis is evidence of that. Now is the time to appeal to Russians and urge them to apply pressure on their leader to shift his attention and effort away from war-making in Europe.
This appeal needs to evoke trauma and anger – both of which are already brewing within Russian society. The loss of military life can be a source of national pride and national identity making, or it can represent a trauma that negatively taints how politics is done. Military sacrifice is a discursive stream that an information campaign needs to tap into. Russian mothers’ grief of their dead sons has historically led to strong activism during the Soviet Union. They represented an additional threat to the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan and influenced the governments’ actions to an extent. Harnessing this maternal grief vis-à-vis Ukraine is paramount because it can mobilise a substantive portion of people to scrutinise and delegitimise Putin’s unilateral decision-making.
Anger generated from grief can be powerful. However, Putin’s corruption is a second discursive stream that needs to be exploited, because its association with the Ukraine war can have a revitalising effect on the political opposition in Russia. Alexei Navalny’s political activism has found success in exposing the rampant corruption in Russia’s political elite; many Russians have mobilised to support his anti-regime politics because of it. An effective information campaign needs to tie the futility of Russia’s war in Ukraine to the broader issue of political corruption. It would communicate to Russian people that their dead sons died in vein because of a leader that is inherently corrupt and focused his own delusional ambitions.
Many Russians supportive of Putin, defend his record as President because of his purported success in improving the economy and raising living standards. They believe that he brought order to a once lawless and conflagrating Russia during the 1990’s. An effective information campaign should undermine this perception, by communicating the complete absurdity of Putin’s actions and how it has unnecessarily weakened Russia’s economy. One example that could be deployed to substantiate this point is the impact of the Ukraine war on Nord Stream 2. The pipeline has cost $11 billion and Putin seems to have decided overnight to waste years of planning, investment and potential economic gains. His disregard for the Russian economy and its future, is further evidence of an isolated and irresponsible leader that does not care about ordinary Russians struggling with the cost of living.
In tandem, both these discourses can be a powerful tool in constraining Putin’s adventurous foreign policy. As millions of Russians from various age-groups, religions and socio-economic backgrounds will have reason to act collectively to seek change for their country. On 9th May, Putin faces an awkward and somewhat challenging speech to give during the Russian Victory Day parade – an event he uses to annually legitimate his foreign policy and reinforce Russia’s national identity as a saviour force in world politics. But Britain, along with other Nato countries, need to disrupt events such as this by communicating the futile loss that Putin has inflicted on Russia. This may not confer regime-change, as President Joe Biden wishes for, but it will go some way in making Putin’s political life miserable. A Russian president that must fight for his political livelihood and counter protests on a perpetual basis will find it more difficult to launch attacks on foreign states.
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