Staunton, April 26 – There is an old Soviet joke that the West sends diplomats to Moscow and Moscow treats them like spies while Moscow dispatches spies to Western capitals and Western governments treat them like diplomats, a joke that had more than a little basis in fact and that resonates now because of what Moscow is doing and how the West is responding.
In eastern Ukraine, the Russian government of Vladimir Putin is engaging in subversion, that is, the use of its own agents and disaffected elements on the ground to undermine and ultimately destroy the legitimate governments on the ground. One advantage of subversion is that it provides plausible deniability, allowing a regime to engage in it and lie about it in the expectation that many will decide that it is unclear just what is going on.
But there is another advantage of subversion about which less has been said: it is relatively cheap for those who engage in it. Governments who employ this strategy do not have to spend a great deal of money, and just how little is highlighted when they actually seize or annex territory when the costs go up astronomically.
That difference has been underscored in the last several weeks by discussions in Russia itself of just how much money the Russian Federation is going to have to spend on its illegal annexation of Crimea and by the lack of such discussions about the price of the subversive activities Moscow is employing in eastern Ukraine.
The cost of Crimea is already forcing Moscow to take money from other programs and other regions, sparking complaints from those who will lose funds, suggestions that Moscow may have to raise taxes, and concerns that both these moves will drive the already weak Russian economy into recession or worse.
But no one in Russia is yet talking about the price tag on subversive activities. On the one hand, of course, this simply reflects the fact that Moscow continues to deny that it is doing anything — even though the evidence available is overwhelming and compelling. On the other, it is because the costs involved are relatively small and not affecting very many Russians.
The West, in the format of the G7, has chosen to counter Russia’s moves by sanctions. The announcement today of a Western commitment to a new round of sanctions against the Putin regime can only be welcomed. It is critically important to signal just how appalled the West is by the Kremlin’s actions by imposing a cost on Moscow.
(It is even more important that the G7 expressed its support for Ukraine whose government has lived up to its commitments, praising its approach and thereby drawing a sharp contrast between Kyiv and Moscow, given that the latter has violated every agreement it has made on Ukraine and continues to do so.)
But as has been widely reported, at least some Western leaders concede that sanctions by themselves will not lead Putin to alter or reverse course. In fact, he is certain now blame any economic problems in Russia on the West thus deflecting the attention of Russia’s away from his own mismanagement of that country’s wealth and generating support for new aggression.
If a new sanctions regime dissuades Putin from his drive to annex additional territories at the expense of Ukraine, that will be real victory, but it could come with some costs few appear to be focusing on: It could lead Putin to conclude that in order to get the political benefits he believes he won with the Crimean Anschluss, he must launch an even broader program of inexpensive subversion elsewhere.
Given that risk, the West needs to consider other steps if it hopes to contain the aggressor in the Kremlin by building pressure inside Russia against him. Among these should be the freezing of Russian assets abroad, the reduction in the size of Russian diplomatic posts abroad by cutting our own in Russia, a more restrictive visa regime, enhanced international broadcasting, and a radically new kind of security assistance to the countries Putin is threatening.
Most of the Western institutions such as NATO that have worked and continue to work to block overt military aggression are not designed to cope with subversion. That requires different arrangements and programs, and they need to be quickly examined and put in place so that Putin will not be able to exploit what is a chink in the West’s armor.
Western countries have had experience in dealing with subversion before – for the classic study of this, see Paul W. Blackstock’s The Strategy of Subversion (Quadrangle Books, 1964) – but what is needed now is for the West to institutionalize this knowledge and to provide it to those who need it.
Sanctions are an important step, but combatting and ultimately defeating Putin’s subversive strategy will require more.