Defeating Putin’s Strategy of Ambiguity

November 6, 2014

Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, followed by its support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine, reveal a Russian strategy that seeks to leverage influence over its neighbors, via the ethnic Russian populations residing there. The strategy takes hold when the Kremlin encourages a nation’s disgruntled Russian populations to seek independence. Moscow then provides covert support to ensure that the separatists succeed. Russia’s next move is to deploy a large conventional force to the border to intimidate the neighboring country from taking decisive action against the separatists (for fear of triggering a Russian response). The key to success in Moscow’s strategic approach is ambiguity. Should things go awry, Moscow can simply pull its support from the separatists, denying any role in the crisis.

There is real potential for such a scenario to play out in a NATO member state. With a notoriously slow decision-making process, NATO may find itself out-foxed by a Kremlin employing this strategy. A phone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in September 2014 suggests such a change in Russian policy. In the conversation, Putin reportedly said, “If I wanted, Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but [also] in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, too.” Nowhere is Moscow’s threat felt more acutely than in the Baltics.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are NATO and EU members and naturally concerned by Russia’s aggressive actions. Latvia typifies the Baltic experience under Soviet control. The country suffered mass executions, imprisonment to anyone perceived as a threat, and the deportation of one-third of its population. The Soviet’s deportation of ethnic Latvians was complemented by a sinister attempt to replace them with ethnic Russians, whose numbers rose from 10 to 30 percent of the population during the Cold War. The goal was to populate the nation with enough Russians to keep it forever under Moscow’s influence. Roughly 13 percent of these Russians are considered “non-citizens” in Latvia today. The question is what portion of this population would be willing to emulate their ethnic cousins in Eastern Ukraine? NATO’s Article 5—that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all—is fitting as a response to a conventional attack. But how would NATO respond to an ethnic Russian uprising in a member state?

Putin’s Pan-Russian Grand Strategy?

On March 18, 2014, Vladimir Putin gave a lengthy speech in which he outlined a new Russian approach to foreign policy with regard to the specific case of Ukraine:

We expected Ukraine to remain our good neighbor, we hoped that Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Ukraine, especially its southeast and Crimea, would live in a friendly, democratic and civilized state that would protect their rights in line with the norms of international law… Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language and to subject them to forced assimilation… Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means.

Like Adolf Hitler and many European leaders across the centuries, Putin is implementing a foreign policy built around the idea of blood and ethnicity.

Ambiguity, surprise and flexibility: the key components of the Pan-Russian Strategy

The emerging Russian approach includes the following components:

  1. A sustained information operations (IO) campaign.
  2. Subversive activity to create instability.
  3. A large conventional force along the borders to dissuade effective action against the insurgents.
  4. Russian troops positioned to violate international borders in the name of humanitarian assistance and provide support to the Russian insurgents to maintain their momentum.
  5. Employ ambiguity to maintain strategic flexibility.
  6. Seize a region or area in this contested space to achieve a limited strategic end.

One ongoing aspect of this Russian approach is its sustained IO campaign. The campaign takes the form of high-quality Russian television, radio programming and internet pages, and exports Moscow’s strategic messaging across Europe, targeting various Russian populations. Up to 300 million Euros a year is spent by Moscow on this propaganda machine. One of the most fruitful tools developed thus far is the “Kontinental Hockey League (KHL),” which includes professional teams from the Baltics, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Underwritten extensively by regime supporters, the league isviewed as one of Putin’s “most successful soft power” schemes. With such an IO campaign, the groundwork is laid to manipulate ethnic Russians wherever Putin sets his gaze.

The next step to this strategy involves the application of surprise, deception, and ambiguity. Moscow need not confront NATO directly to get what it wants, and in fact would be unwise to do so. By leveraging deception, the Kremlin can retain strategic agility and gradually reassert influence over its neighbors without actually going to war with them (or NATO). With such an approach, Russia can secure limited strategic objectives with minimal risk. The ultimate goal, however, would be to discredit NATO, thereby threatening the security of all three Baltic States.

Despite Putin’s bombastic claims about being able to take the Baltic capitals in two days, a more likely tactic would be an attempt at a limited land grab, while using this approach of ambiguity. The region around Narva is a prime candidate for this. Located in the northeastern tip of Estonia, and on the Russian border, Narva’s population is 82.1% ethnic Russian. Ironically, Narva’s sister city in the Ukraine, Donetsk, is the epicenter of the ethnic Russian civil war there. One former Putin advisor asked how NATO would respond if “little green men turned up in Narva [Latvia].” The combination of ethnic Russian unrest in Narva and NATO sluggishness could allow Putin to restore order militarily and then feel obliged to stay after the local residents hold a referendum seeking independence. With relative ease, and little strategic risk, Moscow could undermine NATO and discredit Article 5. If NATO responds quickly – a scenario which seems unlikely — Putin can simply withdraw his support from the separatists and deny he had anything to do with it.

What can NATO do to negate the effects of Russia’s strategy of ambiguity?

In a September 2014 speech, President Obama made clear that the United States would defend the Baltics, saying, “The NATO Alliance, including the Armed Forces of the United States of America… we’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”

NATO leadership is concerned by Moscow’s actions in the Ukraine and announced during the Wales Summit that they would create a force able to respond quickly to a crisis, saying, “we will establish a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a new Allied joint force that will be able to deploy within a few days to respond to challenges that arise, particularly at the periphery of NATO’s territory.”

The VJTF ground force should comprise at least a brigade, and have all relevant air and naval components necessary for a credible joint multinational force. However, when deploying the VJTF in an unstable area, NATO nations may ask that the forces they contribute not deploy until their respective parliaments approve putting their military members in harm’s way. This plays precisely into Putin’s strategic ambiguity. A way to avoid such a scenario is for a portion of the VJTF to be American. The Supreme Allied Commander of Europe is dual-hatted also as the Commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM). In this capacity, he would be able to quickly deploy his forces to a threatened area. The remainder of the VJTF should be comprised of all NATO nations. They would then integrate into the advance force package as their nations approve forward movement. The VJTF will only be viable if it can deploy rapidly, meaning that the U.S. should spearhead the effort to prevent Moscow from retaining its edge, should other NATO members hesitate. This is not to suggest that the VJTF would be dominated by the Americans. The force should, however, be designed in the context of European political realities.

There are other concrete measures that NATO can take to prevent Moscow from destabilizing the Baltics. The Baltics States should have a ground force large enough to respond to Moscow-induced unrest in its Russian ethnic regions. These forces should be able to bolster domestic police forces in maintaining security, provide border defense, and be able to transition rapidly to conventional operations. They should also be able to work effectively with special forces teams dispatched to the region and play a complementary role in providing humanitarian support to deprive Moscow of an excuse to intervene.

The Baltic states ought also do more to address the economic grievances these enclaves may have and seek EU aid to improve the quality of life and economic opportunity in these areas. This would reduce Moscow‘s ability to manipulate the populations, while helping to also forge a national, non-Russian identity. Additionally, the EU should assist the Baltic States in providing a high-quality Russian language entertainment alternative to these services provided by Moscow.

NATO should also have an enduring ground presence in the Baltics with soldiers from all of the Alliance nations. There is no greater way to demonstrate resolve than with credible strategic land power permanently postured in the region in the form of a battalion task force. This force should train in both conventional tactics as well as low-level counter insurgency operations; the most likely form of fighting they would see in the Baltics. Additionally, forward-deployed equipment sets (known as Prepositioning of Materiel Configured in Unit Sets (POMCUS) should be established in the Baltics for rapid deployment of additional forces in the region. These equipment sets should be exercised several times a year, in concert with the VJTF to demonstrate NATO’s resolve.

Yet perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Alliance is its reliance on Russian energy. Russia supplies 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas and 35 percent of its oil. A disruption of this energy flow would have catastrophic consequences for the European economy. Russia’s monopoly on energy is even higher in the Baltics, where 100 percent of natural gas is supplied by Russia. Europe is overly reliant on Russian energy, which explains the tepid response from Germany and other NATO members to Putin’s actions in the Ukraine even after the tragic shoot down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 317. The EU should establish an alternative energy infrastructure, especially in the Baltics, to move it away from complete reliance on Russia.


Putin’s emerging doctrine – manipulating neighboring Russian populations to stir instability and thereby attain limited strategic objectives – poses a threat to the NATO Alliance. Putin’s actions in Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine demonstrate that he is willing to trample international law to advance his strategy. NATO has an opportunity to implement concerted measures to avert future trouble in the Baltics. Its message to Russia must be that any cross-border activity into the Baltics will categorically result in confrontation with all twenty-eight nations of the Alliance, period. Whether in Narva or Riga, the Kremlin must understand that the cost of meddling with the Baltic’s Russian populations is too high.

The Baltics should also reconsider their citizenship policies and address the grievances of their ethnic Russian populations. The region has inherited a complex ethnic dilemma from the Soviet era. Yet disenfranchising people who have lived in these nations their entire lives provides Putin an opportunity to meddle.

There are no easy solutions to the challenge that Moscow poses to European stability. This threat contradicts the drastic reductions in NATO defense spending. The nearly seventy years of peace that most of Europe has enjoyed is unprecedented in its history. The United States provided this stability during the Cold War, but it’s not clear that Europe has forged a similar model in its stead. Clearly, the nations of Europe must do more to maintain this peace and security. The United States should not make its deterrence posture unconvincing by so reducing its presence in Europe. Although maintaining such a credible force is costly, the rewards of such a commitment are well worth it.


COL Douglas Mastriano, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, began his career in the 1980s, serving along the Iron Curtain with the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment. Since then, he has served at tactical, operation and strategic levels of command ranging from the 3rd Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne), to the Pentagon and with NATO. COL Mastriano is currently teaching strategy at the U.S. Army War College.


Photo credit: ShadowNinja1080