Calling Moscow’s bluff

By Stephen Blank, Opinion Contributor — 02/17/21 05:00 PM EST The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

On Feb. 12 Russia threatened to sever ties with the European Union (EU) if it continues to impose sanctions on Russia for its criminal actions at home and abroad and continues to intervene in Russian affairs. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov justified this move by invoking the hoary adage that if you want peace prepare for war, thus confirming Russia’s fundamentally warlike foreign and defense policy. 

Russia’s threat presents a heaven-sent opportunity to both the EU and the Biden administration to call Moscow’s bluff and impose the sanctions Russia and its government merit, not least going after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s money and Russia’s energy trade. An inventory of Russia’s policies justifies imposing more sanctions and also intervening further against Russian policy while expanding Western influence throughout the former Soviet Union in cooperation with states that clearly want greater ties to the West.

Russia has invaded and annexed Ukrainian territory while waging a multi-dimensional undeclared war against Ukraine. Now high officials advocate annexing more Ukrainian territory, undoubtedly with Putin’s assent.

Russia has launched a worldwide information and cyberwar, primarily against the U.S. and every European state to corrupt, subvert and unhinge these states. Clearly Moscow arrogantly believes it has an unlimited right to interfere in their domestic politics while demanding that its repressive, criminalized and aggressive policies remain beyond foreign scrutiny. This campaign also includes the systematic state deployment of organized crime throughout Europe to these ends while enriching Putin and his fellow plutocrats. 

Concurrently Russia has broken solemn arms control treaties such as the INF and the Chemical Weapons Convention. In breaking the latter, it has implemented a systematic policy of targeted assassinations, using chemicals and other weapons against dissidents and former citizens abroad, again acting in the belief of its untrammeled right of intervention in these states. 

Meanwhile, it is building at least 20 new nuclear weapons, many of which circumvent the New START Treaty. These weapons comprise short-intermediate and long-range nuclear weapons that can attack other weapons (counterforce) or civilian populations (countervalue). Thus, Russia is already de facto waging a multi-dimensional war against the West, albeit an undeclared one. Many, if not all of these operations are being funded by the deployment of a systematic energy policy to corrupt Western elites, influence their governments and systematically transfer wealth back to the Russian government.

Consequently, the demand that Western governments not hold Moscow to account equates to the demand of a crime syndicate to civilian authorities to refrain from interfering in the syndicate’s activities lest that provoke a violent reply. Putin and his entourage may assume that Russia is sufficiently strong to isolate itself from Europe.  But while Moscow tries to show strength, it has only shown its fear and weakness of dissent. The turn towards ever greater repression as the defining attribute of Russian domestic policy betrays a regime with no ideas beyond enriching itself at the population’s expense and arrogant posturing towards the West.

Thus, the West should call Putin’s arrogant but empty bluff. Not only should we impose the sanctions that our elites are advocating, we also should go directly after Putin and his entourage’s money abroad. Furthermore, as I have previously written, unleash our informational capabilities across Russia to reveal what Russian policy really is. Beyond imposing sanctions, Russia’s behavior should lead Washington and Brussels acting together to undertake a series of moves to counter Russia’s war. NATO members should enhance their collective conventional defense capability to deter Moscow from the Arctic to the Black Sea at the lowest level of deterrence to deter it from provoking new crises and wars.

We should also upgrade our military support for Ukraine along with our encouragement of the Ukrainian government to undertake the necessary reforms to qualify for EU and NATO membership, and promote Ukraine’s affiliation with European integration platforms. We should also drop our silence on the revolution and repression in Belarus.  Moscow appears to be launching a slow-motion and partly covert takeover of Belarus against the will of the population while propping up the hated dictator Alexander Lukashenko. This also entails policies to fracture his support among Belarus’s forces of repression.

Brussels and Washington should also intensify their efforts to increase their influence in the Caucasus to bring about a genuine peace where all states can live freely and prosper by virtue of their growing integration with Europe. Finally, this also means continuing to keep the pressure and sanctions on Moscow’s showcase energy programs, Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream. 

Moscow’s high-handed treatment of the EU should be exploited to drive home the point that economic-political cooperation with Russia is a mirage for German and EU businessmen. Therefore, buying Russian gas when other alternatives are available merely corrupts and weakens the consuming country. 

Finally, neither Germany nor anyone else owes Putin free gifts due to Nazi atrocities while Russia wages a multi-domain war against them. Thus, we should pay Putin back in his own coin as he has now given us the opportunity and justification for doing so.  

While Lavrov invoked the Latin proverb of preparing for war to keep the peace, we should remind him of the French proverb “A la guerre comme a’ la guerre” (“In war act as if its wartime”). It’s not like Russia does not deserve this kind of riposte. 

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is also a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.

(c) The Hill


  1. “Finally, neither Germany nor anyone else owes Putin free gifts due to Nazi atrocities while Russia wages a multi-domain war against them. Thus, we should pay Putin back in his own coin as he has now given us the opportunity and justification for doing so.”

    One of the best articles I have read in a long time regarding Russia. Now we will wait for the excuses from the spineless bastards why they won’t implement the authors suggestions.

    • Agreed. Except for the flannel about ‘the necessary reforms to qualify for EU and NATO membership….’
      No nation on Earth is more qualified, or more deserving of Nato membership. Nato bosses are just torturing Ukraine. Look at the most recent members: Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia. The latter two joined after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. How the fuck can they justify prioritising those two over Georgia and Ukraine?

Enter comments here: