Now Hear This - Russia: Constrain, Not Contain

By Commander Daryk Zirkle, U.S. Navy

A clearly stated strategy of constraining the Russians to international norms will be easier to sell to our allies, the United Nations, and even Russia itself. This approach has begun to bear fruit with the Chinese and is far more likely to succeed. This does not mean we should rely on diplomacy and sanctions alone. The Russians have made it clear they understand hard power—and value it. But they seem to have forgotten how expensive it is. Now that sanctions are starting to bite, a more muscular posture designed to draw Russian responses will inflict costs they can ill afford. Refusing to respond could make Moscow look weak, especially to their domestic audience. Finally, we must reinvigorate the information instrument of national power to make our case to the world at large and counter Russian disinformation. Above all else, the Kremlin fears a population that understands exactly what its government is doing to maintain control.

Our new National Security Strategy mentions Russian aggression and acknowledges Dr. Joseph Nye’s “smart power” concept outlined in The Future of Power (Public Affairs, 2010) of blending hard and soft power to achieve desired outcomes. It also clearly states our commitment to international norms. It does not, however, articulate in terms Russia understands what we are willing to do to encourage compliance. By employing all the instruments of national power, we may be able to influence Russian decision-making. Through diplomacy we can reinforce the importance of all nations abiding by international norms, while information highlights Russian violations of these norms and actively counters disinformation. Additionally, military instruments can reassure our allies with forward presence and provide Ukraine the aid it needs to maintain its footing in the face of Russian aggression. Finally, economic measures to liberalize the oil market and sustain low oil prices along with moves to increase pressure with sector-focused and targeted sanctions could profoundly affect Russian options.

Only a firm, coordinated response employing all the elements of national power can constrain Russian behavior within international norms. Anything less will inevitably lead to more frozen conflicts and hybrid warfare in the former Soviet Union.

Commander Zirkle is deputy director of Intelligence and force cryptologist for Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, and Commander, U.S. 6th Fleet. He also served as an information-operations planner in Iraq.


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