Military analysis of what Russia really wants reveals nuclear dangers

March 10, 2015
Russian amphibious vehicles drive in formation during celebrations to mark Navy Day in the far eastern Russian port of Vladivostok

Russian amphibious vehicles drive in formation during celebrations to mark Navy Day in the far eastern Russian port of Vladivostok, July 27, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev

While it is immensely difficult to place oneself in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position and to see the world as he and Russia undoubtedly see it, there are things that we do know.

The first is that Russia has always seen itself as encircled and threatened, a condition exacerbated by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A simple exercise with a globe can help to demonstrate this. Rotate it until Moscow is in the center and then scan the points of the compass. To the north, over the pole, is the United States; to the east, China; to the south, Islam, and to the west, Europe, the European Union and NATO.

Second, over the past 20 years, Russia has shrunk, physically and conceptually. The Soviet Union was, in all but one way, a force to be reckoned with. It was able to hold the world hostage and force it to focus, above all, on the maintenance of an uneasy but mostly stable peace. The Soviet Union’s Achilles’ heel was its economy; NATO’s Cold War victory was essentially an economic one. The West defeated the Soviet Union by fielding more, and better, military technology with fewer, but infinitely better-trained personnel, funded by economies that worked.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, it shed a number of its republics, which functioned, in part, as buffers between mother Russia and the encircling threat. They also provided vital access to the sea. A sympathetic observer might note that Russia’s only guaranteed ports are on its north coast, all of which have, in recent human history, been accessible only in the Arctic summer months. Even now with the ice receding, the Northern Sea Route is a far from reliable route into either the Pacific or Atlantic and therefore strategically unsatisfactory. In the Baltic, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad serve well, though Russia must be concerned for the long-term stability of Kaliningrad because the city has a long German history as Koenigsberg. This stability should also concern Europe: arguably, as long as Kaliningrad is secure, the threat to the other Baltic ports and countries is reduced. To the east, Vladivostok serves the Pacific but, in extended living memory, has been directly threatened (and occupied) multiple times, by the Japanese and Americans in the early 20th century and throughout the Cold War by the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a welcoming ceremony as he inspects the Vice-Admiral Kulakov anti-submarine warfare ship in Novorossiysk

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a welcoming ceremony as he inspects the Vice-Admiral Kulakov anti-submarine warfare ship in Novorossiysk, Sept. 23, 2014. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

This brings us to the south and the Black Sea and the Russian ports on the Crimean peninsula. The southern access to the Mediterranean has always been problematic because of the Dardanelles, which has forced Russia to find staging posts in the Mediterranean from which to sortie. Throughout the Cold War, the Russian fleet could be found in anchorages all around the eastern Mediterranean, which helps to explain Russia’s interest in the Syrian port of Tartus. The port is now unavailable as a result of a civil war made infinitely more complicated by a West that had not taken the time to weigh the true factors and factions, which always included Russia (the leadership of which may, actually, have been right all along in siding with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad).

When Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean peninsula became a significant strategic problem and, almost certainly, the subject of contingency planning: The naval ports and other military bases had to be accessible. The matter of which way Ukraine faces is not simply, for Russia, a matter of either lost trade or a lost buffer state, both of which are important, but also of lost oceanic access.

If this is the case, the West needs to think, with great clarity and caution, about what is actually happening in Ukraine to understand the nature of Putin’s problem. The need for assured oceanic access at each point of the compass may be so deeply engrained in the Russian psyche as to significantly affect his decision-making and risk appetite.

So what? A Russia that prefers to believe that it is surrounded by enemies is one thing. A Russia denied what it believes to be its birthright unfettered oceanic access and secure land borders is another. The West has learned to live, uncomfortably, with the first, just as one learns to accommodate a paranoid neighbour. But it has also learned the consequence of unnecessary needling, which invariably ends in tears. Sometimes it is necessary, for the greater good, to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. The wrong thing, in this case, is to persuade Ukraine to cede the peninsula, and a land corridor, to Russia. Access to EU markets is a possible compensation but not, at any price, membership in NATO. Buffer states are a tragic necessity in an uncertain world – and as important for NATO as for Russia.

Why would the West, and especially Ukraine, do this? Because Russia is on its knees, for three reasons. The first, and most immediate, is the price of oil, which is far below what Putin requires to make the country function. Second is that Russia’s political system looks unlikely to survive in the long term. Only a North Korean or a young Saudi would see Russia as a political paradise. One suspects that many Russians, if they had the economic wherewithal, would choose to live in a liberal democracy, for all its faults. The third, and most telling, reason is that the population is in long-term, possibly accelerating decline, with a birthrate way below replacement levels and falling life expectancy in the ethnic Russian population. Current predictions put Russia’s population, in 2050, at 118 million, a loss of 16 percent to 19 percent in 50 years.

At the moment, it would appear that Putin has the upper hand because he is able to take a longer view than any of his fellow leaders, almost all of whom are time-limited, or time expired, and most of whom are, at best, tacticians, not strategists. The evidence seems to indicate that the West could regain the upper hand by opting to play a very long game: Russia, as currently constituted, is itself time-limited. Yet the personalization of politics and leadership in the West has increasingly led to tactical behavior driven by short personal horizons — as short as 60 days in the case of the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is facing a serious reelection challenge. Maybe proper statesmanship requires strong and enduring institutions, rather than individuals, capable of thinking beyond an opponent’s horizon?

The alternative approach is to learn to deal with the nuisance and uncertainty of continued ambiguity. Airspace incursions make for good photographs and alarmist tabloid headlines but are mostly an expensive inconvenience. Submarine incursions, such as those off Scotland’s coast, designed to test Britain’s resolve to protect the submarines carrying Britain’s nuclear deterrent may be of a different order. During the Cold War, there were well- established protocols for close encounters, which by and large worked well. But they required well-practiced and well-equipped military services that, through their actions, acquired a familiarity with their opponents and an understanding not just of their capabilities and limitations but also their methods.

What does this mean for the NATO Baltic States, which are seen as being as vulnerable as Ukraine? First, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad provide access to the Baltic Sea, so there is no pressure on Russia to find another port. Why would Putin test NATO’s resolve through an action against one of the Baltic States? Protecting the Russian minorities was a convenient lie used in Ukraine to cover the real reason for intervening — to secure the naval and military bases in Crimea.

Russian warships are seen during a naval parade rehearsal in the Crimean port of Sevastopol

Russian warships are seen during a naval parade rehearsal in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, July 25, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

And what of the barely veiled threats of lowered thresholds before involving nuclear weapons? Most Cold War veterans were at least passingly familiar with Herman Kahn and his ladder of escalation. He described advancement on the ladder toward war as a series of deliberate choices, the results of which determined the direction of travel. We practiced at every level, from decision-making in Whitehall to the delivery of the weapons and then the whole grim business of operating in an environment partly demolished by biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. I think we came to appreciate that the conduct of nuclear deterrence was a deeply skilled and intelligent business; it demanded very high levels of familiarity. The current risk seems obvious: an oversupply of unpractised tacticians in power in Western capitals, and an absence of strategists.

Finally, then, what should the West do in Ukraine? To fuel a proxy war by supplying materiel and trainers would be foolish, naïve and wilfully escalatory. Surely the better approach is to use proper, powerful economic sticks and carrots to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table, with the United Nations in place to keep the peace.

At the beginning of the year, the United Kingdom commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, a man widely seen as the greatest Englishman in all history. He would have seen the strategic need to treat with the new tsar, whether we like him or not.

It is much better to have Putin if not actually inside the Western tent then at least not outside it pulling out the guy ropes and causing chaos. Russia ultimately has a far greater problem with militant Islam than the West, it understands Iran and Syria better than the West and has to deal with China in quite a different way. For all concerned, better a messy peace than a nasty descent into a wider and wholly avoidable conflict, be it long and ambiguous or short and horrific.


The piece appears here courtesy of Project for Study of the 21st Century. You can find more information about the group, as well as other commentaries at


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A very good article, well thought and reasoned, well documented. Add to this, the ending including Syria: Russia already occupies Syria with a military base and force, equipment and training. Russia owns Assad.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

Well said. We need more minds like this in key, decision making positions around the western world if we want to prove that humankind has matured somewhat.

Posted by TheBlendInOne | Report as abusive

I most state that Putin is in deep Water over his head’ His calculations at starting this process during the Winter games at Sochi was a mask for his gathering of troops to the Border. They have Crimea but as we can tell so far they have been weakened for further abuse and take over.

Posted by Buddyroe | Report as abusive


Read Anna Politkovskaya for what Putin wants.

The summary of the article is Putin pushes and the West must give in.

Posted by IanCa | Report as abusive

One can ponder how many forces and how much momentum there is in the USA for developing confrontation with Russia. There is not much “buffer” left between Russia and NATO, so they tend to “contain” each other with “red lines”, with the obvious exception in Ukraine and maybe Moldova.
But most days, the US is more occupied with the Middle East … Israel, Iran, Islamic State, Saudi, Iraq, Egypt, … and things can go from bad to worse and worser.
In the wider sense, China is more of a competitor than Russia, in many aspects including basic research, patents, advanced manufacturing technology, …
So as before, the British can worry about developments in Europe, but also where the Americans are at. Not many “better dead than Red” cold warriors left.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Great article and good dissemination of Russia vs. the West. What the West doesn’t seem to understand is that they are as much of the problem as Russia albeit the West having more “tunnel vision” than Russia and I find the West, Europe, America and NATO throwing their weight around far more than Russia is which in my opinion is much smaller in scope.

Posted by cynical175 | Report as abusive

>but also of lost oceanic access.
Not sure what author is talking about. Have he ever looked on the map?
What about Novorosyisk port and hundreds of kilometers of Black see cost which belongs to Russia?

Posted by PetrKamen | Report as abusive

This is just Russia trying to remain relevant in a world that does not really need them any more. Russia has had open markets for 25 years now, and their chief exports are orphans and herpes.

Now the investors are pulling out and Russia is left playing Putin chest-thump at the Chernobyl waste site. It’s sad and silly.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Yes, a very good article with some sound advice. The soundest of them all is for Ukraine to formally cede its land already occupied and to relinquish more territory just to make sure the occupier doesn’t get upset about spending too much on supplying the annexed Crimea. As a compensation for that he suggests an access to the EU markets. Nice idea. We thought you get to access them because of some economical reasons, not as a dubious reward for kowtowing to an invader. Any other country joined the EU on that condition? Not to mention, the EU is a bunch of cowards and Putin’s puppets. I’m surprised such advice comes from a Falklands War veteran. Did he discuss any land concessions to Argentina with his commanders in 1982? Was he prepared to advocate funding the Scotland’s efforts to function as an independent country had its referendum brought independence? Such strategists were in charge of Europe when Hitler occurred. I wonder why he praises Churchill, not Chamberlain which would have been more fitting. Shame, shame, shame!

Posted by PukingPutin | Report as abusive

There is excessive acquiescence here to Russia’s interests and Russia’s needs. The vantage point is entirely that of what Russia and Putin want, what is in Russia’s interests, as if every other state in the region has to placate the aggression coming out of the Kremlin – and serve as a “buffer”. And as if those “buffer” states which experienced terror and mass killing at the hands of both the Soviets and the Nazis – the Baltic States, Ukraine, Poland – have no legitimate rights or interests of their own. But they do and that should be recognized. And understandably most have joined NATO for collective security.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

“Maybe proper statesmanship requires strong and enduring institutions, rather than individuals, capable of thinking beyond an opponent’s horizon?” What does that mean? What institutions are more amenable to long-term strategic thinking than the current institutions of liberal democracy excluding autocracy?

Posted by Sewblon | Report as abusive

The author refers to Churchil in one of the last paragraphs. He however proposes a strategy more closely assiciated with Neville Chamberlain. This strategy was directly responsible for emboldening Hitler to start the second world war, and will do the same for Putin.
The author assumes Putin is a powerpolitician in control of his actions, and able to be measured by western standards. These are both false assumptions. Seceding Crimea to Putin will encourage him to attack a NATO state (or more accurately, the popular sentiment that this will encourage will force his hand as looking weak is something he cannot afford or survive). This will force NATO into a military confrotation with Russia. Therefore the strategy proposed by the author is one of the most assured ways to a nuclear war.

Posted by Niegol | Report as abusive

Churchill sold the Baltics to the russians after WWII. No. Thanks, but no. There is no economic stick big enough to stop russian tanks in Donbass. Only plentiful supplies of anti-tank weapons can hope to do that. 1500+ ukrainian soldiers already died trying to stop this bloodshed and many more will die unless the west helps to stop the tanks and close the border between Ukraine and Russia. If Putin is brave and stupid enough to start a real war, let him do that and then respond with full international isolation and confiscation of all international property of both Russian state and of all its highest level officials. At this point Ukraine is being bled daily while Putin escapes with barely a condemnation.

And Baltics and other NATO countries look at this as a demonstration of the Wests inability to act in the fact of blatant lies and aggression.

Posted by aigarius | Report as abusive

Kennan was right.

Containment during 1967, when he published the first volume of his memoirs, involved something other than the use of military “counterforce”. He was never pleased that the policy he influenced was associated with the arms build-up of the Cold War. In his memoirs, Kennan argued that containment did not demand a militarized U.S. foreign policy. “Counterforce” implied the political and economic defense of Western Europe against the disruptive effect of the war on European society. Exhausted by war, the Soviet Union posed no serious military threat to the United States or its allies at the beginning of the Cold War but rather an ideological and political rival.
During the 1960s, Kennan criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam, arguing that the United States had little vital interest in the region. Kennan believed that the USSR, Britain, Germany, Japan, and North America remained the areas of vital U.S. interests. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was a major critic of the renewed arms race as détente was ended.
During 1989 President George H. W. Bush awarded Kennan the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s greatest civilian honor. Yet he remained a realist critic of recent U.S. presidents, urging the U.S. government to “withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights”, saying that the “tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable”. These ideas were particularly applicable to U.S. relations with China and Russia. Kennan opposed the Clinton administration’s war in Kosovo and its expansion of NATO (the establishment of which he had also opposed half a century earlier), expressing fears that both policies would worsen relations with Russia. He described NATO enlargement as a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions”.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

First the US superpower with its NATO/EU coalition have failed in two wars that have been going on for longer than a decade. Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of these two forays have cost the United States. 4,487 American lives, 32,223 wounded for Iraqi Operation Freedom, Operation New Dawn another 66 deaths, and 301 wounded. 2343 deaths in Afghanistan, and wounded 17,674. The financial cost is at about $5 Trillion, plus interest borrowed on the War debt is still to be calculated, and Afghanistan isn’t over in lives and cost. With a debt in the US approaching $18 Trillion.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Russia’s economy is not on its knees. It will outperform the EU’s this year and next. Its population is growing, not shrinking. Its people are the most politically sophisticated on earth (Czarism, Communism, oligarchs, capitalism, democracy in once lifetime) and their support for Dr. Putin is overwhelming. Putin is the best leader Russia has ever had and the only real threat to US terrorism. That’s why hit jobs like this article are so numerous: he is winning.

Posted by godfree | Report as abusive

Very interesting article, Im hoping that Mr Putin is put in his place

Posted by JoKidd | Report as abusive

Great piece. Very enlightening insight of a man who understands why Britain went to war for those far away little Falklands.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

Russia can deploy 50 Borei class submarines , each can carry 16 Bulava SLBM’s with 10 individual nuclear warheads of 150 Kt and simply dissolve its army and be protected for the next 100 years. That would be 8000 deployed nuclear warheads at a price of some 80 billion USD. Then nuke Warsaw for not buying Russian salted sunflower seeds just for the rest of the world to get them serious.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Why publication of BS allowed?
British admiral can not read chart? Russia have own Black Sea coast and ports, no need Crimea. Novorosisk biggest Russian port already on Black Sea. Putin move Black Sea Flot to Novorosisk in 2008, spend 12 billion rubles to make port good for navy ships. He spend time play on jetski in Novorosisk harbor while submarine Kursk sink. Black Sea Flot good for nothing anyway, Turkey stop boats at Dardanell

Posted by Sibyriak | Report as abusive

A well-reasoned military point of view that does not consider the ramifications of a carve-out of Ukrainian territory. What fascinates me is how history seems to be repeating itself. First, the annexation of Crimea parallels the annexation of Austria by Hitler. Second, the incursion into Eastern Ukraine with its Russian-speaking minority is in parallel with Hitler’s move into the Sudetenland. Hitler’s “Lebensraum” is Putin’s nostalgia for the breadth and extent of the USSR recast as a Neo-Imperial Russian Empire that cures the population demographic by sweeping up those former Soviet Republics, all with a Russian minority.

If Mariupol is ceded to a Donetsk oblast that becomes a buffer state rather than an extension of the Russian Empire there might be a workable deal in theory. However, in practice Putin can’t be trusted to stop there.

It should be noted that the majority of oblasts (administrative regions) came under Soviet control in 1919 but in the West, only in WWII was the remainder of the country occupied by the Soviets. Maybe the time will come for a split, but that should mean NATO membership for Western Ukraine and buffer state status for the rest. That is compromising and a check on Putin’s ambitions.

Posted by JimVan | Report as abusive

The author makes an excellent argument for continuing economic pressures on Russia. However, his argument that supplying weapons and trainers would be “wilfully escalatory” is nonsense. Russia already has weapons, trainers and actual Russian troops on the ground in Crimea. We would not be escalating at all to supply weapons and training. In fact, making Crimea as expensive as possible for Russia could make supplying weaponry a valuable adjunct to the economic pressures. There are, however, many valid arguments against putting U.S. or NATO troops on the ground, but the author’s is not one of them.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

@godfree Was your comment meant to be sarcastic?

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

A thoughtful and balanced article echoing the methodology of enquiry I was taught when studying history. Applying this to strategic diplomacy instead of drawing short term headlines and political gains would bring far greater benefits for all concerned.

Posted by LloydJ | Report as abusive

Quietthinker thinks: “We would not be escalating at all to supply weapons and training. In fact, making Crimea as expensive as possible for Russia could make supplying weaponry a valuable adjunct to the economic pressures…”

Uhhhh yeah. You just described escalation. Think harder.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

It’s rather impossible not to be encircled when country is located at 1/6 of Earth landmass and 1/2 of Eurasia. Russian encircling paranoia has deep roots in small (only 140 mill) and dwindling population, what significantly hinders management of such behemoth country. One can assume, that recent revival of Soviet Union is conducted in order to acquire some number of skilled labor force.

Posted by bagart | Report as abusive

The conclusion is correct, the solution is for Ukraine to cede East Ukraine to Russia in the guise of independent Republics with West Ukraine being neutral for the medium term. The West needs to play a long game and focus on applying economic pressure if Russia decides to expand in regions of other neighboring countries with populations of ethnic Russians. The West only has economic escalation dominance. Arming Ukraine with lethal weapons takes the West into the domain of military/nuclear escalation, where the Russians escalation dominance.
Appeasement is the right approach for the West if Russia only has modest regional expansion goals. Liberal democracy is the long term future for Russia and Ukraine, the west just needs to be patient and wait for the Russian masses to cotton on they are being hoodwinked !

Posted by archimedes2 | Report as abusive

Britain firmly sticks to (pro)British minorities’ statehoods in Ireland, Spain and Argentina while denying the same right for (pro)Russian minorities in Ukraine, Baltic states and Caucasus. Great empire mentality
syndrome as usual or anti-Putin stance as a palliative?

Posted by Kondra | Report as abusive

Probably one of the better articles penned in recent memory. Leaving the usual U.S.-centric garbage and taking in a larger view makes this enjoyable to read.

It helps understanding when you consider the U.S. has somewhere around 600-700 miltary bases across the globe.
I would think the Cubans would probably like to have their Guantonomo Bay returned at some point.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Great article, omly I am confused about the picture of Russian warships on parade, they are clearly flying a British flag. Hmmm

Posted by GarinH | Report as abusive

I wish you to do “for the greater good, to do the wrong thing for the right reasons” – cede Scotland to Russia, for instance.
Be damned…

Posted by Mykola_Chyslin | Report as abusive

the writer if this article lives on another planet, what a delusional article, baseless and factless…all is written is just hopes and wishes, nothing logical or scientific, just hoping this and that.

keep on dreaming

Posted by Noproxy | Report as abusive

Ridiculous apologist for the Russian regime.

1) All countries are surrounded if they choose to see themselves that way.
2) Appeasement does not work
3) Other countries are not our to disect.
4) The moment we allow such a vivisection of another nation we have followed a time worn path to failure having already suffered a moral collapse and will bear the long term consequences for such apathy.
5) The choices before us are all bad and that is by design, Putin’s design. The only response is to make Putin’s choices less palatable, no more so.

Posted by DLNY | Report as abusive

world will not be safe as long as he breathes.

Posted by thoma | Report as abusive