Authoritarians wage all-effects warfare that democracies don’t regard as “real war.” The problem is that many so-called peacetime operations are information warfare and narrative strategies designed to shape conditions for “real warfare.” Such as inducing local support of a follow-on invasion force (Ukraine, 2014). Note: “warfare” refers to methods of war, whereas “war” is a state of relations often contrasted with peace. If the shaping operations are successful, authoritarians can achieve various destructive behavioral effects, such as getting a head of state to attack ethnic Russians (Georgia, 2008). Both cases involved the RF creating pretexts for conventional military invasions.
Rather than declare victory in Ukraine prematurely, this paper focuses on how Putin’s Russia exploits democracies’ “when deterrence fails” approach to warfare. Putin’s all-effects warfare and “Russians are victimized” narrative are not likely to stop because of failures in Ukraine. Moreover, democracies remain restrained by legal permissions and authorities critical to representative government and core values such as individual rights.
We begin with a strategy vocabulary of eight basic effects (see figure below). This framework compares to just three effects in the prevailing paradigm, coercion theory (coercive compellence, coercive deterrence, and brute force).
Our three distinctions are the essential domains of strategy.
First, half of the effects are preventive, and the other half causative (PREVENT CAUSE below).
Second, half are psychological, and half are physical (PSYCH PHYS below).
Third, half are cooperative (italicized effects below) and half confrontational (normal case effects below).
These three domains of strategy enable us to design combinations of effects across the three basic elements of strategy (ends, ways, and means). Combined effects can be synergistic compared to single effects. They are broader than combined arms. Like combined arms, they impose dilemmas on opponents such as deterring intervention while coercing compliance.
To encourage a whole of government approach, I categorize these effects according to basic functions: diplomatic (d), informational (i), military (m), economic (e), and social (s).
Let’s apply this language of combined effect strategy to Ukraine in 2014 and 2021. I identify and break down the Russian Federation (RF) combined effect for each case, followed by the RF concept of influence. Then I present the US, NATO, and Ukrainian responses in terms of combined effects and concepts of influence. As explained in previous papers, a “concept of influence” is how ways and means affect will and capability to achieve effects. Concepts of influence are broader than concepts of operations.
Following decades of disinformation claiming Ukraine as Russian territory and mobilizing anti-West sentiment, Vladimir Putin pressured President Viktor Yanukovich to reject integration with the European Union, prompting demonstrations in Kyiv. As Yanukovich lost domestic support and fled Ukraine, pro-EU opposition parties stepped in. Eying the domestic divisiveness and disagreements over European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund loans, RF forces staged exercises and activated pro-Russia separatists.
Ukrainian forces could not stop separatists’ gains during initial operations but regrouped and maneuvered to contain them. Separatists began to receive Russian armor and artillery support. A scarcely concealed RF military invasion and occupation reversed Ukrainian government gains, recognized the separatists’ declarations of independence in Luhansk and Donestk provinces, and deterred NATO from responding in kind or in time.
The subsequent 2015 Minsk agreement required Ukraine to grant autonomy to the separatist regions. The RF’s strategy was to sustain coercive and compellent influence on Ukraine’s government while deterring NATO intervention and Ukraine membership in NATO or the EU. As long as Russian troops remained on the annexed territory (a fact the RF denied), the Ukraine government refused to comply with the Minsk agreement.
The RF combined effect was to Coerce Ukrainian armed forces, Compel ethnic Russians, and Deter direct NATO military intervention in order to annex the Crimean Peninsula.
Coercive compellence and deterrence combined causative military, social, and political effects (physical coercion and psychological compellence) with a preventive military effect (psychological deterrence). These particular effects fit into the prevailing paradigm of coercion theory but democracies still failed to deter them, for two reasons. First, coercion theory, as practiced in many democracies, applied deterrence only to the use of deadly force. Second, economic sanctions against Russia were not sufficient to deter the use of force or other forms of warfare against Ukraine.
As a result, the RF waged cyber, disinformation, and election interference attacks without being deterred. Democracies were not united in compelling the RF to recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty while also deterring RF cyber and disinformation attacks on Ukraine.
Democracies failed to wage real warfare—that is, warfare as it is being conducted.
In contrast, the RF applied a synergistic cause-prevent (compel-deter) dynamic among the targeted audience. The RF’s victimization narrative reinforced the dynamic among ethnic Russians. This condition created a dilemma for Kyiv. The dilemma was not being able to stop Russian Ukrainians in Crimea from “requesting” RF annexation without calling for NATO intervention. The latter did not come, which reinforced the RF’s narrative in Crimea.
From 2014-15, the coercive compellent effect in eastern Ukraine amplified deterring direct NATO military intervention and timely assistance to counter the RF’s combined effect. NATO avoided providing lethal weaponry to Ukraine due to the fears of Russian retaliation in Ukraine.
Over the next five years, NATO and Ukrainian military training, exercises, and joint operations contained the scope of Russia’s synergistic effect on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
The RF concept of influence was multifaceted and threefold: militarily deny and informationally neutralize Ukraine’s capability to defeat a Russian Federation invasion while socially, militarily, informationally, and diplomatically intimidating NATO’s will to intervene.
RF ways and means that influenced Western and Ukrainian capability and will include the following dimes-wide activities:
The US, NATO, and EU diplomatically condemned the RF annexation, and the US began military deployments to Poland and the Baltic states. Ukrainian forces began to participate as an “enhanced opportunities partner” in NATO exercises. Kyiv received training, non-lethal assistance, and some lethal weaponry from the US. The US, Canada, EU, and other partners imposed economic sanctions on Russia. These effects did not persuade the RF from occupying and annexing Crimea, nor did they secure or defend Ukraine when Ukraine needed it.
The US and NATO basically assured Ukraine of their will to defend NATO members (the European Reassurance Initiative), but not Ukraine directly. They did, however, militarily exercise the capability to strengthen Ukrainian defense and economically deny Russia some capability to sustain combat operations over the long term.
The combined effect and concept of influence were not competitive against Russia’s broad-based coercive compellence and deterrence. Ukraine’s lack of NATO membership status prevented NATO from responding to Russia in kind (coercive compellence and deterrence).
NATO remained reluctant to station substantial forces in former Soviet states due to a promise made in the 1990s. This fear caused NATO to avoid providing direct lethal aid to Ukraine. While economic compellence was in place with sanctions, the lack of extended nuclear or conventional deterrence for Ukraine weakened the overall combined effect.
However, subsequent military training and a limited number of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons increased the professionalism and interoperability of Ukrainian forces. NATO summits and a refocus on collective defense (Article 5) marginally increased defense spending among some NATO members. At the same time, Russia increased NATO’s dependence on Russian oil and natural gas.
Since the 2014 invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea, Russia mobilized Russian Ukrainian proxies, disseminated anti-West disinformation, and leveraged energy resources to influence anti-NATO EU politicians. Six months after the US abandoned its allies in Afghanistan, Russian forces invaded Ukraine from the north, east, and south while deterring direct NATO intervention. Poor Russian logistical planning and staunch Ukrainian defense, aided by NATO-led indirect assistance and sanctions, stalled the RF’s encirclement of Ukrainian forces and reversed some territorial gains.
The RF combined effect is quite ambitious compared to 2014: socially Compel Russian identity among Ukrainians, informationally Persuade Russians of injustices committed by Ukrainians, economically Induce Western dependence on Russian energy, and informationally and militarily Coerce the Ukraine armed forces and government to surrender and Deter NATO military intervention.
The RF concept of influence also is ambitious compared to 2014 and has three main parts.
First, socially and militarily intimidate eastern Ukrainian will from expressing a Ukrainian identity while assuring ethnic Russian Ukrainians’ will to believe the RF narrative of anti-West grievances.
Second, exercise the economic capability to induce pro-Russian behavior.
Third, punish western Ukrainian will and deny their military capability to resist while intimidating NATO’s will to fight Russians in Ukraine.
The RF disinformation and narrative are failing to intimidate Ukrainian will, but in Russia, they are assuring enough domestic support to continue the war without unacceptable unrest. RF security forces exercise Putin’s will to spread his de-Nazification justification for the operation by punishing and denying anti-war activities. The personal economic costs of turning against Putin currently are high enough to sustain support for the war.
The Ukrainian resistance to the RF invasion is producing the following effects:
The US, NATO, and other actors form a coalition of sorts producing various effects that empower and complement Ukraine’s fight:
Coalition information operations are influential in several ways. They intimidate the will of some Russians to remain silent about the war, demonstrate the will to speak the truth and neutralize RF diplomatic capability to deny war crimes. If sustained, that influence can punish the will of the Russian populace and neutralize the capability of elites to support the war. However, to be effective, those efforts need to combine with two others: (1) denying RF forces the capability to maneuver and destroy Ukrainian infrastructure and (2) denying the RF finances to fund the war.
Putin’s attempt to invade all of Ukraine in 2022 and change Ukrainian identity was a colossal miscalculation that the coalition can exploit with an all-effects, real warfare strategy. To secure a lasting relative peace, we must compete with information that includes a meaningful, identity-based narrative. The strategy’s narrative is, that Putin’s Russia poses an existential threat to Ukrainian culture. The meaning of this threat is Putin-centric fascism that erases Ukrainian identity. This narrative may provide the democratic coalition with a values-based unity to maintain its combined effect: persuasive inducement and compellence, and defensive coercion.