Home / Articles / America Needs a Comprehensive Compellence Strategy Against Russia
The Biden administration has formulated an unprecedented response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The coordination of transatlantic diplomacy, including the condemnation of Russia at the United Nations and the implementation of a massive sanctions package, is truly impressive. The president’s recent request for an additional $33 billion from Congress in security, economic, and humanitarian aid for Ukraine demonstrates the seriousness of America’s commitment to European security.
While the White House should be applauded for its response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, this only tells part of the story. Indeed, none of these diplomatic initiatives would have been necessary had the United States and its allies successfully deterred Russia from attacking Ukraine in the first place. Deterrence failed because the United States and its allies signaled, in advance, that it was not prepared to apply direct military force in Ukraine. It did so because it was afraid of Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats. America’s risk calculus was framed by the fear of nuclear escalation and Washington’s overestimation of Russian military power.
While initial efforts to deter Russia have failed, the West should now pursue a different approach. Rather than deterrence, the United States should focus on compellence. A comprehensive compellence strategy toward Russia would entail the focused integration of covert and overt military power, as well as a greater efforts to conduct information operations inside Russia to weaken Putin’s fragile political control.
The goal of such a strategy could be to force Putin to stop the war, not merely help Ukraine stave off defeat. It strives to achieve this by raising costs to Moscow beyond sanctions and political isolation. The strategy would help the West coalesce around the objective of ending the war in the near term, but also forcing a negotiated conclusion to hostilities that would be more advantageous to Ukrainian and Western interests. The West’s aim should be to ensure Putin suffers an operational failure, not accede to Russia’s subjugation of Ukraine or some tortured negotiated compromise.
The Need for Compellence
Ukraine has, thus far, been brilliant in asymmetric tactics with creative applications of modern tools of warfare. Nevertheless, Russian forces have destroyed much of Ukraine’s infrastructure, while roughly 25 percent of the nation’s population is displaced and hungry. Without support from the United States and the West, Ukraine may still be unable to prevent Russia from achieving its new goals, which likely include seizing the entire southern coast of Ukraine, including Odessa.
With the opening of the new phase of the war in Donbas and the Black Sea coastline, both sides of the conflict are now engaged in a race of strategic and operational adaptation. The coming battles will be on different terrain, and require altered tactics and weapons than the initial fighting around Kyiv. This will be a very different battlefield and the results are not preordained. Which side learns faster and altered its strategy and force employment best will determine the course of this war in the second phase.
The Elements of Comprehensive Compellence
One month before the war started, FPRI’s Rob Lee argued that Moscow’s compellence strategy would include the use of military force directly against Kyiv or more likely by punitive raids deep into the eastern half of Ukraine. He argued, “By inflicting heavy losses on the Ukrainian military, taking prisoners of war, and degrading Kyiv’s defense capabilities, Russia could potentially alter Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s incentive structure sufficiently to induce painful concessions.” Despite Ukraine’s successful effort to turn back Russian forces around Kyiv, Russia’s compellence strategy has not yet failed. As a result, it needs to be undercut by NATO with a more comprehensive approach.
A robust U.S. counter to Moscow, what might be called comprehensive compellence, would build on the administration’s defense strategy concept of integrated deterrence to get Putin to alter his misguided effort in Ukraine. Compellence is normally a harder task historically than deterrence, but given Russia’s dysfunctional military effectiveness, the cost-benefit analysis for compellence in this case augurs for success.
Deterrence and compellence share some common elements but are conceptually distinct. Deterrence seeks to persuade an adversary to not to take some action that it is capable of. On the other hand, compellence is an effort to persuade the opponent to stop some behavior or change its course due to the threat of coercive force or via incentives. Compellence is often needed in the wake of deterrence failure.
While America’s efforts to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine failed, a compellence strategy would have a greater chance of success. After Russia’s inept military campaign and Ukraine’s effective resistance, the balance of power now favors the United States and its allies. Russian losses on the battlefield and degraded economic strength due to sanctions make the military components of a Western compellence strategy even more credible.
A strategy of comprehensive compellence in support of Ukraine would have five elements or lines of effort.
Diplomatic and political
This element is already being aggressively pursued by the Biden administration in its political and economic isolation of Russia and its leaders. It has successfully made Putin a pariah in most circles, although China, India, and some other states are taking a different approach. The European Union and NATO have been energized and coordinated brilliantly. Efforts similar to the removal of Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council should be pursued, including the forthcoming G20 meeting this year. In any event, after a year or two of sanctions, Russia may be functionally dismissed from the G20 entirely depending upon the price of oil and natural gas.
In terms of a new initiative, Finland and Sweden should be offered swift approval of their applications for membership in NATO. While their applications are under consideration by NATO’s 30 member states, the United Kingdom and United States should offer Finland and Sweden immediate security guarantees to protect them from Russian threats. The application process has historically taken over a year, and Russia will undoubtedly apply coercive pressure against the applicants. Additionally, former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb should be made a NATO official with a chance to become the next secretary general when Jens Stoltenberg’s term ends in 2023. The North Atlantic Council might consider Amb. (ret.) Ivo Daldler’s proposal to admit Ukraine now. However, this would be resisted by key NATO members, and should be left to the final negotiations.
The ongoing war has stressed the importance of strategic communications, and Zelensky has proven to be extremely effective in the battle of narratives.
Moscow has employed its usual playbook of disinformation and propaganda, but to little discernable effect in Europe and North America. Russia continues to apply its concept of information confrontation against NATO and Ukraine. It persistently seeks to exploit identified vulnerabilities of democratic societies using cyber and information operations. Russia’s goal is to exacerbate existing societal, political, and military divisions. Key targets of this approach are the legitimacy of Ukraine’s government and NATO cohesion. Putin has been outdone by the determined and savvy Zelenskyy in this dimension of the conflict. However, Putin’s efforts gain more purchase in China, in democratic states like India, and parts of Africa.
Efforts to pierce the fog of disinformation inside Russia should be intensified. There are few sources for independent news inside the country, but a few techniques seem to still be working. Ukraine has taken a macabre approach with facial recognition technology to identify and contact the families of fallen Russian soldiers to inform them of the fate of their loved one. They have also constructed websites for families to gain information on the status of their family members fighting against Ukraine, and at the same time receive some perspective on the scale of the war that Moscow hides from its own citizens. In Kyiv, the Information Strategies Council of Ukraine, a coalition of activists and think tanks, sent emails and social media messages directly to 15 million Russian men of draft age. It has also targeted older Russians with different tailored messages, using historical references to stimulate a questioning of Moscow-generated news reports and propaganda.
Other methods to project factual narratives to more Russians from Russians outside the Kremlin’s control would probably be more effective. NATO and the European Union need to create the capacity to design and conduct an information offensive into Russia and overwhelm Putin’s control of information. Putin seems to be afraid of “fifth columns” at home. That vulnerability should be exploited more.
The U.S. Global Engagement Center has the mission to ‘‘lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government in countering foreign state and foreign non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts.” It may be a model to build upon, but it will take a collective effort from European states to establish an ability to project truth into Russia, and penetrate Putin’s dominance of his domestic information ecosystem.
Russian cyber attacks against Ukraine have not been effective so far. However, Russian intelligence, particularly the GRU-supported Sandworm team, are persistently threatening Ukraine’s electricity generation capacity and its power grid. The Zelensky government is facing an ongoing surge in cyber activity at present. The West can do more to support the Ukrainians in this battlespace with both technical and intelligence support to ensure that their critical infrastructure is preserved and functional. The Ukrainians seem to be holding their own despite Russia’s presumed cyber dominance.
The principal military stick in this strategy is supplied by the Ukrainians themselves, abetted by Western arms. This will have to be both accelerated and sustained during the next phase which is likely to involve intensive artillery and missile consumption. It will also require mass quantities of supplies, and enough drones to supplement the limited assets now flown by the Ukrainians. Recently, aid was increased by another increment. This new tranche of $800 million sounds enormous and the material is being delivered at an unprecedented timeline. Even with the recent presidential request of $33 billion in aid from Congress, it may be both inadequate and too late.
More covert but direct kinetic means will be necessary as this is a war of considerable attrition. Indirect modes of conflict via proxy forces are nothing new (e.g., El Salvador, Angola, and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon). The use of proxy forces has a long history but also a growing salience in an era of strategic competition. One of the evolving modes of warfare that is suited for comprehensive compellence is “surrogate warfare.” In this mode of warfare, state’s avoid the use of their own soldiers as the primary bearer of warfare’s grave costs, and delegate it to proxy forces and the use of remotely fielded technological surrogates to better enable the state to manage the risks of modern conflict. They may also employ paramilitary forces for intelligence support for targeting critical nodes of the attacking force. For this conflict, this would mean the a greater use of allied tools for cyber warfare, greater intelligence sharing, and more unmanned precision strikes on key Russian operational centers and critical supply links inside Ukraine.
Finally, NATO’s posture has been prudently enhanced with the deployment of four new NATO battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. More needs to be done to prepare for cross-border contingencies. NATO should posture one or two division-plus sized forces outside Ukraine in case peacekeeping or armed humanitarian intervention is needed. One can anticipate that human security and disaster relief operations may be needed in short order given the scale of the destruction of Ukrainian energy, medical, and water supplies.
America and its allies have implemented a massive sanctions package against Russia. As a result, Russian finances may soon be in default and its economy could nosedive. More attention should be paid to Russia’s energy exports. As FPRI’s Chris Miller notes “if you want to hit Russia hard, you’ve got to go after energy. Everything else is really pretty small by comparison.” Since there is little support in some capitals for more intensive sanctions, there may be value in defining their duration and the conditions for tempering them.
Some have proposed that the West continue sanctions for as long as Putin remains in power. In essence, this is a call for regime change. Such a threat may not achieve much in real terms but it carries some risk since it directly challenges the Kremlin’s principal power center. It is highly unlikely to be accepted by German or French leaders. A more strategic approach would be to keep sanctions remain in place until Russian forces have departed all agreed territories and military commanders are turned in to appropriate authorities.
Comprehensive compellence should also include funding for Ukraine’s restoration. The Economist estimates the reconstruction tab for Ukraine at $200–520 billion. As some scholars have recently written, rather than simply freeze Russia’s hard currency reserves in Western banks, those currency reserves should be liquidated and put to use. These assets should be collected and transferred to the International Criminal Court in escrow for reparations.
The West should start proceedings to allot reparations to Kyiv from those funds. This would communicate to the Russian leadership that every day of destruction in Ukraine is simply another day of reconstruction in its future, which Moscow will pay for. Ideally, this might induce them to stop attacking and terrorizing civilians and operate within the law of armed conflict.
The West should purse indictments at the International Criminal Court for each division and Army commander whose area of responsibility is shown to have committed crimes against humanity and other violations of international law. Washington should also do the same for corporate and unit leaders of the Wagner Group, the mercenaries purportedly behind the Bucha massacre. Judicial proceedings may be far off, but the intent to prosecute needs to be clear now.
Now Is the Time for Compellence
The U.S. government should build on the opportunities that Ukraine’s tenacious defense has created, but with greater urgency and more force. Putin understands force, not nuance or the incremental allotments of weapons the West is providing. The initial strategy from the United States and its allies has been applied slowly and incrementally, and not as coherently messaged as a strategy of compellence. It has not forced Putin to recalculate expected benefits and evident costs. To date, the United States is reacting, and putting the onus of fighting all on the Ukrainians. NATO is explicitly not well postured to inject any significant combat power or humanitarian aid, it is only postured to defend NATO’s frontier and airspace.
The West needs to craft a comprehensive strategy with the explicit goal of compelling Putin to stop his aggression, not just merely keep Ukraine at the survival level. To date, U.S. statecraft has helped Ukraine buy time, but it has to be expanded to include the marshalling of greater military power in collaboration with its key allies. Ukraine can still be saved from protracted devastation, mass casualties, and an ignoble capitulation that merely extends Putin’s influence and weakens Europe. Russia can be compelled to limit its objectives and to stop its egregious violations of international law and return to diplomacy. It may be time for the United States and its democratic states to take Biden’s impressive speech in Warsaw to heart, and “Be not afraid.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Likewise, the views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the position of the Department of Defense.