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Looking around at the array of threats, actors, and interests now playing out across the globe, today’s policymakers could be forgiven for thinking that modern deterrence seems an impossible task.
Western planners, long accustomed to contingency scenarios focused on a single issue (Russia), have grudgingly accepted the new reality – diverse threats, multiple actors, and evolving technologies. The simple fact is that deterrence has become more complicated. Core principles still apply (change the calculus of adversaries by raising the cost of aggression; demonstrate resilience to deny hostile actors any advantage in attacking you), but their application has changed, and will change further.
To put it simply, deterring Russia is not the same as, say, deterring China – or Iran, or Daesh. The UK, our Allies, and our partners must distinguish between specific regimes and decision-makers, identifying the right audiences and interests – whether personal, organisational, or national – as appropriate targets for deterrence. These will vary, with both the object and the means of deterrence obliged to shift. By any measure, this is no mean feat.
From a UK perspective, the most important efficiencies – in deployment of expertise, budgetary planning, and resource expenditure – will come from coordination with Allies and partners. In an age of deniable, fast-moving ‘hybrid’ attacks, the UK must leverage diverse friends – spanning the US, Europe, our Five-Eyes relationships, and further afield – to maximise deterrent impact. As threats proliferate, we need joint responses at short notice, sometimes based on limited public evidence. This necessitates strong, durable relationships, sufficient to persuade our adversaries that aggression against the UK will prompt an international reply.
The good news is that recent events have obliged a focus on how the UK, our Allies, and our partners can work together. Last year’s Russian Novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury expedited thinking on deterrence below armed conflict. Following that incident, a conscious effort was made to highlight the transnational character of contemporary ‘hybrid’ threats – Salisbury and the waves of disinformation from Russia were rightly depicted as events that could have happened elsewhere. Reminding partners of their own vulnerabilities – and corresponding interest in collective deterrence – goes a long way in encouraging others to support a strong position.
The Salisbury experience showed that partners will see value in a strong response when something important is at stake. It mattered, of course, that Russia’s actions in Salisbury – and subsequent hacking attempt against Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) headquarters in The Hague – were an assault on the Chemical Weapons Convention. These incidents showed Russia’s willingness not only to violate the Convention, but also to attack the organisation tasked with implementing it.
This is not uncommon. When a powerful actor decides to break the rules, it is often multilateral institutions that find themselves in the firing line. In many cases, these institutions are actually targeted because they play a vital role in deterrence, manifesting international opinion in the threat of punitive action. Even before Salisbury, Russia knew that the OPCW had exposed the failure of its client in Syria – President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime – to declare and destroy all of its chemical weapons programme. Thereafter, the OPCW had a role in independently verifying the UK’s findings in Salisbury, confirming use of a Novichok nerve agent. From a Kremlin perspective, the OPCW increasingly looked like a threat to Russian impunity, imposing cost by embarrassing the Russian state.
If this example shows how multilateral accountability can impose cost, the OPCW is by no means the only relevant forum. Another is the G7’s new Rapid Response Mechanism, conceived in 2018 and described by Canada, last year’s G7 host, as ‘an initiative to strengthen coordination across the G7 in identifying, preventing, and responding to threats to G7 democracies’. In the EU, complementary initiatives include the new Rapid Alert System for countering disinformation, which offers a data-sharing platform and brings together points of contact in EU member states. From the G7 and the EU, these measures send a clear message – attempts to threaten trust, cohesion, and democratic ways of life will be met with a coordinated response.
International sanctions, a familiar instrument in deterrence, are also evolving. In addition to established measures that respond to Russian actions in Ukraine, the EU has successfully adopted thematic frameworks that can be used to sanction those responsible for chemical weapons use and malign cyber activity. Suitable for use against individuals or entities around the world, these measures signal that all relevant activity is in scope. As the UK considers its own autonomous sanctions after Brexit, when and where to employ these tools will be a point for discussion, posing the question of how we should use our own measures in the UK national interest. The communication of the UK’s decision will have important implications for national deterrence.
The UK’s more traditional security alliances are also responding to the pace of change. NATO’s 2018 approval for counter-hybrid support teams – designed to provide Allies with timely, whole-of-society expertise against evolving threats – supports a suite of new transatlantic measures. Another supporting factor is enhanced interaction between the national security advisers of NATO countries. This unique grouping first came together in May 2019. Given NATO’s important role in responding to recent grey-zone and hybrid provocations – including via expulsion of personnel from Russia’s mission to NATO after Salisbury – the Alliance must be considered a crucial vector in deterrence against malign activity.
Of course, simply having a range of tools is not the same as knowing how to use them. To be effective, the UK and partners must develop excellence across several areas:
- Practice makes perfect: A benefit of exercising and simulation activity is learning more about the avenues to success – with so many tools and mechanisms out there, countries need to practise how different measures can be deployed in tandem. Is it possible to convene the UN Security Council while simultaneously pushing for new EU sanctions and publicising the disinformation efforts of a hostile actor? The answer is yes, but not without sufficient planning and joined-up, cross-government expertise.
- Division of labour: NATO’s Article V deterrence rests upon the principle of collective defence, with Allies contributing respective areas of strength to create a potent, dynamic overall force. The same should be true of UK, NATO, and partner approaches to deterrence below armed conflict. Different partners have more or less to offer on the various aspects of threat perception and response planning. Want to understand and build resilience against Russian disinformation? Try the Baltic and Scandinavian countries – they live in proximity and have been doing it for years. Keen to practise freedom-of-navigation at sea, deterring interference with shipping? The US builds coalitions to do just that, and is keen to talk about it. Similarly, the UK and our Allies must create space for partners outside of familiar groupings to lobby for our solidarity and support.
- Breaking down the silos: This challenge comes in many forms – we need to keep information flowing between governments, international institutions, and wider societies, using accurate threat assessments to inform a common approach. As we consider joint responses, it should be apparent that those responsible for hostile activity vary widely, with a corresponding range of diverse interests. To hold these sufficiently at risk, the UK will need cohesion with industries, civil societies, and private sectors, working together with Allies and partners to internationalise this holistic approach.
Success in these areas will position the UK, our Allies, and our international partners to deter the broad range of threats we face. As the security environment becomes more complicated, we have an obligation to act, laying the groundwork for a secure and prosperous future.
Tom Burge leads on Modern Deterrence for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
BANNER IMAGE: Main office building of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague. Courtesy of Szilas/Wikimedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI, Her Majesty’s Government or any other institution.