This post was formerly called Global Blockade vs. Russia. It has been revised, restructured, and retitled. It now recognizes that a naval blockade of Russia would be the leading component of a broader US-national/NATO strategy of military-economic warfare NATO and US-national defense strategies should be modified accordingly. This post shares language and logic with a parallel post on China, “Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China” but is set in a NATO context and is specific to the case of Russia. In keeping with the Clio blog’s philosophy, the aim of the ideas being advanced is not to win battles but to win wars.
The unprecedented changes in geopolitics brought by globalization have made Russia dependent on unfettered use of the sea and so vulnerable to coercion from the sea.
Plans to answer aggression by Russia against a NATO member should include a sea-centered strategy of military-economic warfare against Russia.
Its aims would be to put Russia on notice that 1) the West will impose a global naval blockade to prevent it from using the world ocean for any purpose; and 2) will attack Russia’s war and civil economy with all available commercial, financial, communications, and cyber means.
These measures will be imposed in proportion to the scale of Russia’s aggressive actions, and, if Russia invades the territory of a member, remain in place until Russia agrees to the restoration of the status quo ante.
Blockade at sea is not a substitute but is an asymmetrical complement to NATO actions taken on land, in cyberspace, and elsewhere.
Blockade would be robust across all scenarios from prewar deterrence and crisis management, to war itself, and would continue to provide the West a position of strength for dealing with Russia in a “postwar” world. It would be a key element in NATO’s war termination strategies.
Blockade exploits Russia’s geographic disadvantages in accessing the world ocean and would include waters like the Northern Sea Route, which it regards as domestic.
The US and its NATO allies should estimate 1) the likely effects on Russia’s behavior of a strategy of sea-centered military-economic warfare; 2) assess the feasibility of exploiting the civil dimensions of the strategy at acceptable costs; and 3) assess the operational feasibility of naval blockade.
If the strategy is judged likely to contribute to deterring Russian aggression or, in war, forcing Russia to terminate combat and restore the status quo, it 1) should be immediately incorporated into NATO and US plans; and 2) be quietly incorporated into a US twenty first-century Maritime Strategy, with the US National Defense and the National Security Strategies modified accordingly.
No authoritative estimates of the effect on Russia of a sea-based strategy of military-economic warfare exist in the public domain. Assessments of the desirability of global blockade cannot usefully go forward without them.
This post assesses the potential of a strategy of military-economic warfare in an Article V war vs. Russia. Such a war must be considered as an urgent practical matter. Russia frequently makes (usually ambiguous) threats against its neighbors, especially NATO members on the Baltic Sea. NATO has undertaken major actions to reassure its members, as well as nonmember states in the Baltic region, that it is steadfast in support of Article V and is demonstrably capable of responding to its strictures.
It will be argued that in addition to whatever military measures it may take in response to Russian aggression, NATO should mount a global sea-centered blockade. A key point: while blockade here is qualified as “sea-centered,” that is because the objective of military operations would be to deny the enemy the use of the sea. The “Joint” military forces of the US and its allies would execute such operations.
This essay will follow a traditional sequence but will insert a couple of new ideas (knowing there is rarely anything new under the strategy sun) and will address the problem of nuclear escalation. Thus, it will lay out its military and politico-military assumptions; then identify the kind of war with Russia that is to be deterred or fought and the kinds of Western responses that are implied; then address the pros and cons of those responses; and finish with remarks on war termination—without which any effort of this kind would be incomplete.
Our departure point is recognition that the US and its allies in Europe and elsewhere possess global command of the sea—in the sense that today and for the foreseeable future, no nation can use the global commons except at the West’s sufferance. Other nations may be capable of using their local waters—perhaps under contested circumstances—but not the world ocean on which international commerce, and much more, depends.
This assumption of the West’s military dominance is based on a broad reading of current relative naval and non-naval military capabilities, which seem in the near term likely to shift further in favor of the West, as near-term US naval building programs are implemented and the military budgets of the other US Services and those of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase.
However, Russia too has a naval building program, as well as an inherited knack for technological innovation that surprised many analysts of the Soviet navy during the Cold War. Thus, this assumption must be subjected to searching analysis, as do the politico-economic assumptions that follow.
The assumption underlying this argument is that, as a result of the globalization of the world economy, even great continental powers like Russia (and China) have become dependent on the sea for their prosperity and for the economic growth that underwrites their military and international security designs.
The threat of denying access to the world ocean thus carries powerful strategic leverage. It might not deter Russia from aggressive action on its periphery. Indeed, as Michael Kofman has observed (email to the writer and others 27 August 2020), the threat of economic loss has not been a primary consideration shaping Russia’s recent security policy. If it had been, Russia would not have annexed Crimea, fought a war in eastern Ukraine, nor perhaps intervened in Syria. In response to these actions the West has imposed (more or less predictable) economic sanctions, and Russia has shown itself willing and able to absorb the resulting losses in trade and constraints on its financial transactions.
However, it is an open question whether this experience in itself can be extrapolated to the case of a global blockade imposed in an Article V war. The threat of economic loss might loom much larger in Russia’s strategic calculations. After all, a global blockade, coupled with civil attacks on Russia’s economy, would cause serious damage to its functioning today and to its promise for growth in the future.
Such damage would be orders of magnitude greater than that heretofore caused by economic sanctions. Russia would be forced to forgo completely payoff from its heavy investments in LNG export infrastructure. Its plans to promote economic development through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) would be thwarted. It could not engage the world economy on behalf of its aspirations as a great power.
As noted, this assumption is based on a broad body of plausible evidence. However, it must be assessed in detail by experts in Russia’s politics, the functioning of its civil and war economy, and in international trade to gauge the likely consequences for Russia’s economy of being completely cut off from seaborne trade. Of equal importance would be assessments of the measures (including receipt of support from China), that Russia might take to compensate for the effects of blockade/economic warfare.
These kinds of expert assessments from the China and Russia maritime specialists at authoritative institutions like CNA or the Naval War College do not exist as far as is publicly known. The same is true of National Intelligence Estimates or other official assessments. Without them, the desirability (or not) of naval blockade cannot be judged.
What Kind of War with Russia? What Kind of Western Response?
The occasion for war with Russia that is of greatest concern is the threat to NATO allies on Russia’s western periphery. One scenario is particularly troubling: combined military-political-cyber-economic action where Russia’s specific means and immediate intentions appear ambiguous. At the same time, Russia’s overall objectives are nonetheless clear: to intimidate a NATO ally, neutralize it, loosen its ties to NATO, or drive it out of the Alliance entirely.
If war should come, the geographic extent of combat in defense of a NATO Baltic member would be for NATO to decide. It seems likely that Russia would wish to confine operations to the narrowest possible band along its (including Belarus’s) western borders while reinforcing defenses vs Ukraine and in the Caucasus. In these areas it enjoys local superiority on the ground arising from interior lines of communications and the ability to marshal reserves.
Russia would have no incentive (and little capability) to fight elsewhere. This is particularly the case at sea where Russia is obviously inferior to NATO today and for the foreseeable future. On the contrary, it is Russia’s weakness at sea that makes Western blockade, a priori, an attractive option.
Thus, planning for a war in defense of a NATO Baltic ally should include global blockade as part of a larger military-economic campaign against Russia. The latter would be both an Alliance and a US national strategy. It would employ all elements of Alliance and US national power. The immediate aim would be to deprive Russia of any external economic activity except from the parts of the world economy it can reach across its land borders (and these would be inhibited as much as possible). A larger aim would be to disrupt the functioning of Russia’s economy and reduce close to zero Russia’s willingness (if not its ability) to wage war. The ultimate objective would be to exploit the resulting coercive effects in negotiations for war termination.
Naval and Civil Actions
Military-economic warfare requires that military blockade and the non-military, civil aspects be assessed in tandem. The civil elements are primarily economic in nature—commerce, finance, global manufacturing, global agriculture/fisheries, and the cyber-economic realm. Their exploitation aims at crippling the adversary’s economy while defending that of the US, its allies, and, importantly, minimizing damage to neutrals. Diplomatic-information actions are equally important. Their aim is to inhibit blockade-busting states, cement and enlarge the pro-US coalition of allies and friends, and maintain popular support, both at home and abroad, for military blockade and civil war efforts.
On the purely military side blockade is an offensive action. NATO naval plans, however, have long been mainly defensive. They have centered on defending the sea lines of communications (SLOC) linking the US to its allies.The possibility that Russia also may have its own “SLOC defense” problem may strike some as contrarian, even wishful, thinking.
Viewed from the vantage point of the naval planner in Moscow, however, it is not the West’s defensive potential at sea but its offensive potential that is likely the greater concern. The first obligation of the strategic planner, regardless of nationality, is to defend his/her own vulnerabilities, and Russia’s vulnerabilities at sea seem clear and growing.
The blockade concept is aimed at increasing the contribution that US and allied naval power can make to achieve national and Alliance defense goals, specifically: 1) to deter Russian aggression against a NATO member; 2) if necessary, to fight and terminate war on acceptable terms; and, 3) to provide the US NCA and NATO authorities with additional options to respond to crises where Russia’s threats and intentions may be ambiguous (e.g., hybrid warfare, “little green men,” etc.). Blockade is not a substitute for action on the ground but is an additional, asymmetric measure.
Proposed Actions vs. Russia
The US and its allies should make clear to Russia—through action and declaratory policy—that aggression will be met with blockade, regardless of the timing or shape of NATO’s response on the ground and its military and civil actions elsewhere.
All types of naval forces would be employed, including offensive mine warfare. The carrier forces of Britain and France (whose missions in an Article V war currently seem ill defined) would play a prominent role in European-Atlantic waters. They would be supported by the US Navy which would also execute blockade in other theaters, the Arctic, and especially the Indo-Pacific. There, it would likely be supported by Japan and Korea and possibly others.
The West must credibly threaten to deprive Russia of the use the world ocean for a strategically meaningful period of time. It is difficult to suggest whether the duration of that period might be measured in weeks, months, or years. Historical experience suggests years may be more likely. To strategists who find that the prospect of such a lengthy period disqualifies blockade from further consideration, the question must be posed: What planning horizon is appropriate for war with a great, nuclear armed, continental power? What other offensive (or even defensive) force employment plans seem likely to produce desirable results more quickly? In any case, blockade would be an organic concomitant of almost any other Western action at sea in an Article V war. (See the upcoming post “Ignoring Blockade: Consequences for the US National Defense Strategy” for more discussion of the historical and theoretical roots of blockade.)
Many of blockade’s effects on Russia might conceivably be achieved through peacetime economic sanctions. But if sanctions alone were successful, this war scenario would not arise. In addition, international economic sanctions would have no effect on the NSR, though sanctions would likely make use of the NSR yet more important to the Russians.
In an Article V war, commerce and other civil activities would cease in contested waters of the Baltic and Black Seas. These areas are not addressed here. In more distant waters, US and NATO forces and those of other allies would attack Russian naval ships wherever they are found, but they would be secondary targets. The main focus would be on non-military, economic assets: all ships of the merchant fleet, LNG carriers, fish factory ships and other fishers, and scientific research ships. (Russian ferries/cruise/passenger ships would be a special category to be safeguarded in all circumstances.)
Planning for blockade in the context of a strategy of military-economic warfare should be publicly discussed in US and NATO forums to enhance deterrent effects. Public knowledge will occur in any case because approval by NATO political councils will likely be required for such a departure from traditional NATO naval plans.
Further, the threat of blockade can produce desirable effects in times of crisis. It’s long been obvious that, if there should be an Article V war, NATO would close the Danish and Turkish straits to Russian ships by direct action. What is new is that in a period of severe crisis—a period of a fragile peace but not yet war—Russian civil ships would be permitted to exit the Baltic and Black Seas but would be marked and shadowed by NATO naval forces including land-based air. (Similar action would take place in other theaters.) This would send a message that they could be seized, sunk, or disabled if/when NATO chooses—an example of using blockade to make a calibrated response to ambiguous Russian threats.
If war breaks out, Russian ships out on the world ocean would obviously not be permitted to return to Russia. For reasons advanced below, seizure would be superior to sinking them. The US Navy would take the lead in backing up NATO operations in European waters and in synchronizing NATO and US-national plans, including for operations, operational security, and geographic deconfliction. The USN would also take the lead in the Arctic and the Indo-Pacific.
NATO’s maritime thinking—while focused on Europe and the Atlantic—should not remain confined to traditional waters but should become globalized.
Historical Precedent and a Needed Weapon
Using actions at sea to signal resolve ashore has a solid precedent in NATO’s history. During the Cold War NATO planned to do exactly that—under the rubric “Live Oak”—in response to Soviet pressure on the West’s enclave in Berlin. The figure below, a page from a declassified Live Oak document from 1965, shows the plan: If the Soviets made a serious but still low-level provocation against the city, SACLANT planned to declare “Marcon One” in which Bloc merchant ships would be closely shadowed.
If the Soviets escalated, “Marcon Two” would add shadowing Bloc naval ships to the action, with additional “Marcons” leading upwards toward a shooting war.
NATO plans during the Cold War obviously had no reason to envision a naval blockade vs the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. But there were elements in those plans with meaning for today. NATO should reach back into its history and revive Live Oak in the twenty-first century—call it Live Oak 2.0—plans that could prove highly useful in a crisis vs. Russia.
Implementing blockade is not cost- or risk-free. If NATO does plan a blockade vs. Russia, it will face one of the great problems that blockaders have faced in earlier eras: the moral, legal, and political damage that arise when the ships of third parties are sunk. This problem can be sharply reduced, if not completely eliminated, by the development of a new weapon ideally suited for blockade: the propulsion disabler (PD). PDs are small, smart torpedo-like devices that destroy a ship’s screws and rudders without human casualties or significant damage to the rest of the ship. They deprive a ship of its mobility, rendering it a useless helpless burden on its owner. (See the post Propulsion Disablers.)
In a severe crisis, PDs would provide the US NCA and NATO decision makers with options lying between the binary choice of sinking the adversary’s ship or letting it sail on unimpeded. Existing technologies would seem to put PDs within reach. Their appearance would be provide an important advantage to blockade enforcement. (Perhaps equally important, when PDs emerge in the hands of adversaries, they will almost certainly also pose a serious threat to the surface ships that play an out-sized role in the navies of the West.)
Blockade – Pros
- Does not threaten Russian territory nor the regime; is consistent with NATO’s self-definition as a defensive alliance.
- Builds on Russia’s immutable geographic disadvantages in access to the world ocean.
- Exploits the vulnerability of the large investments Russia has made in LNG processing and transportation facilities and its merchant and fishing fleets, none of which Russia could successfully defend.
- Poses a threat impossible for Russia to answer in kind, except with mines, likely to be used in any case.
- Uses seizure of Russian (propulsion-disabled) civil ships to symbolize Russia’s impotence. These might be put into service by the West, and could serve as bargaining chips in negotiations to terminate combat.
- Provides an important strategic task for the carrier forces of the US, Britain, and France: sweeping the seas of distant Russian civil assets and their naval defenders, if any.
- Preserves the carriers as fleets-in-being that can compel the Russian navy to maintain a defensive stance, enforce Western terms for war termination, and be available to deal with the postwar world (see the post Fleet-in-Being).
- Exploits NATO naval forces likely to be underused because they currently are tailored mainly to protect transatlantic SLOCs. Whatever threat Russia might pose to the SLOCs of the North Atlantic—almost certainly small today and for the foreseeable future—would be deflected by further tying up Russian forces on the defense. This effect alone may well justify adopting blockade. In short, blockade adds offense to traditional SLOC defense (which can never be neglected, but should not constitute the be-all, end-all of NATO plans).
- Gives NATO’s new Joint Commands additional, strategically meaningful tasks.
- Shows that NATO is a military alliance of navies just as much as of armies and land-based air, that in the twenty-first century seapower can play more than an ancillary role in war with a continental power.
Blockade – Cons
- Executing blockade may not be feasible because of the large size and broad dispersal of Russia’s civil fleets and, as of today, possible unreadiness of Western navies for the task.
- The civil dimensions of a strategy of military-economic warfare may lie beyond the capacity of the West to control; negative international and domestic consequences may combine to render naval blockade nugatory, as they did for Britain in the initial months of the First World War. This topic is in earnest need of expert assessment.
- Immediate Russian reactions to blockade might be severe because of the humiliation the regime would face from being shown unable to defend sovereign Russian assets at sea. This effect would likely attenuate as the warring parties concentrate on the war on the ground.
- In the longer term, however, the severity of Russia’s reaction might intensify as Russian planners reckon the mounting harmful effects on Russia’s economy of being cut off from world ocean-borne trade.
- Global blockade may be viewed as too radical or grandiose to be implemented by a fractious NATO; it might be blocked by those NATO members who might see the horizontal escalation that it represents as unacceptably aggressive.
- Some may see US freedom of action as constrained by a closer linkage of US and NATO plans on a global scale. The USN may fear that operational security might become compromised.
- Third parties, especially the Chinese, may become involved if their commerce is interfered with or their ships become accidental targets. China cannot be allowed to negate the effects of a blockade. (A propulsion disabler weapon would be an ideal means to deal with blockade runners, under the Chinese or any other flag.) At the same time, China’s interests in unfettered seaborne commerce cannot be ignored entirely. Whatever the case, China can be expected to strongly denounce a global blockade against Russia not least because of its implications for a similar Chinese vulnerability. (See the post Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China.)
- The potency and ease of implementation of a global blockade may be misunderstood or “oversold” in US national planning processes perhaps within the Navy/JCS/OSD, but more likely outside it. This could lead to its premature use in an unfolding crisis. Preparations for global blockade should be recognized as a significant step toward war—to be taken only in extremis.
- Success (and perhaps sacrifice) at sea may lead some in the US to escalate the political terms demanded of Russia for ending the war. Some may argue that restoration of the status quo ante is insufficient. Having just demonstrated that global command of the sea can produce major strategic payoff, there may develop a temptation to exploit it further vs. Russia and expand its use to others. This prospect doubtless will have occurred to leaders in China.
- Russian SSBNs might be sunk accidentally. This could cause Russia’s leaders to fear that the US intended to engage in strategic ASW to try to shift the intercontinental nuclear balance in its favor, possibly in preparations for a nuclear first strike. (See the post Strategic ASW in 2021 – A Stunningly Bad Idea for why this would be an astonishingly bad idea). Every possible precaution should be taken to keep intercontinental nuclear forces out of play.
Blockade’s biggest con(tra) is that success in blockade’s implementation could push the conflict toward nuclear war. Russia’s declaratory policy, its propaganda, and its armaments, taken together, require that we address the question of nuclear escalation.
Whether damage to its economy brought about by combined Western civil means and global blockade would cause Russia to relinquish any NATO territory gained may ultimately be unknowable (though expert analysis can obviously reduce important uncertainties). Expectations for blockade’s influence on Russia’s behavior should not be exaggerated. But its negative effects on Russia would seem likely to grow with time.
The situation might become dangerously volatile if the leadership in Moscow should regard holding onto seized territory as necessary for the regime’s survival and so turn toward escalation to the nuclear level. This possibility must be taken seriously. Russia recently announced that it reserves the right to answer conventional strikes with nuclear weapons, further confirming their prominence in Russian defense plans. (Vladimir Isachenkov, “New Russian Policy Allows Use Of Atomic Weapons Against Non-Nuclear Strike” (Associated Press 02 JUN 20)
Because blockade’s effects arise from the sea and because nuclear weapons fired at sea produce no immediate collateral damage, a Russian nuclear answer to blockade would very likely first be at sea. Russia might well proclaim that Western interdiction of its Northern Sea Route was little different from attacking the Transiberian Railway—both viewed as sovereign entities.
Because they are such a potent symbols of naval and national power, US Navy Strike Groups would be the likely targets of nuclear-armed cruise missiles launched by Russian submarine(s) from positions well outside territorial waters. (French and British carriers might be subject to similar Russian calculations.) Lacking symmetrical Russian targets at sea, the US would face extremely difficult decisions about how to respond.
Russia would probably recognize that it could not (nuclear) bomb its way out of blockade. That is, though it might inflict horrendous losses on the US Navy and navies of Allies, Russia could not prevent continuing enforcement of blockade via submarine and mine warfare. So, Russia’s strategic position would be essentially unchanged, and it would face the possibility that the US might answer its nuclear strikes with strikes against Russian military, likely naval, targets ashore—widening to its own territory a war Russia itself has made nuclear.
A decision to be the first to fire nuclear weapons would hardly be an easy one. Still, reckless, Hitlerian behavior by the leadership in Moscow cannot be ruled out. Indeed, rather than accepting what it regards as regime-threatening defeat from blockade, or any other Western actions, Russia might choose to fire tactical nuclear weapons at sea against Western naval forces for political reasons not related to military purpose. Russia could hope for a demonstration effect that might fracture the Alliance, causing some members to withdraw rather than face the prospect of further nuclear escalation.
These subjects are special—and probably the most likely—cases in the broader question of how the US and its allies would deal with Russian nuclear escalation in war. These issues will have to be addressed, but they lie outside the scope of this post.
Planning for conventional war is always made in the shadow of nuclear escalation. We need to remind ourselves that the first purpose of blockade is to contribute to deterrence of war. War might nonetheless come and still be fought at the conventional level. In any case, blockade is among the better, probably the most robust, of the options open to the West to strengthen its negotiating position for the restoration of the status quo ante. This last would define the minimal condition for “successful” war termination—and, because of nuclear arsenals—the likely maximal condition as well.
War Termination and the Critical Role of China
If a global NATO blockade proved a growing success, would war termination be on the horizon? As noted, specialists in Russian economic and Russian security affairs, inside and outside the US government, must address these questions to determine the desirability of a military-economic strategy based on naval blockade.
A priori, China appears to be a, if not the, critical variable in the war termination equation vs. Russia. Whatever its specific interests in any Russia-West conflict, China would be almost certain to follow classic balance-of-power practice: support Russia, and oppose the West. China would not wish to see Russia’s defeat. It would then find itself alone facing a powerful and perhaps emboldened US superpower supported by allies in the Indo-Pacific who are neutral, if not hostile today, vis-à-vis China.
Thus, China would almost certainly come to Russia’s aid. At a minimum it could provide a market and overland conduit for Russian grain and other exports. The remarkable development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) railroads, internal cargo handling “ports” like Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan border, pipelines, fiberoptic cables, electrical power grids, etc.—make terrestrial commerce on a continental scale increasingly easy. Obviously China could be an overland supplier of needed goods and raw materials. (Iran might play similar roles through the Caspian. Turkey might do the same over land.) Supplying Russia military equipment and advanced military technologies are well within China’s capabilities.
In sum, planning for blockade or other actions vs Russia must include China’s likely malign role—possibly extending to covert or even overt military action. A US-Russia war would open opportunities for China to move against Taiwan, North Korea to invade the South, and other anti-US states and non-state actors to advance toward their security goals.
Blockade can no longer be ignored. Outdated historical attitudes need to be revised. Systematic analysis—much needed but not yet in hand—is likely to show a strategy of military-economic warfare, based on global blockade, has substantial potential to augment deterrence of war with Russia, help manage a crisis threatening Baltic states, and improve the chances that, should war come, it could be terminated on satisfactory terms.
Blockade exploits Western superiority at sea including heretofore underused elements—for example, British and French carriers—and adds offense to traditional defense to protect sea lines of communication. It might be implemented at relatively low risk, at likely low economic costs, and with existing forces (assuming their training and readiness are made equal to the task).
It is imperative to recognize that planning for blockade must be made in tandem with parallel plans for the civil components of the strategy. These would attack Russia’s war and civil economy, defend that of the US and its allies, and minimize damage to important neutrals. Coordinated US and NATO commercial, financial, diplomatic and cyber actions are necessary, possibly decisive, determinants of the strategy’s success.
Blockade would face a daunting roster of cons—starting with uncertainty about the feasibility of both its naval and civil components and ending with the possibility it might trigger nuclear escalation.
In any case, it remains to be seen whether the US Navy and the US National Defense Strategy will continue to ignore blockade today as they have in the past. I respectfully suggest that would be a great mistake.
The strategic promise of the strategy should be carefully assessed—should we do it? The operational feasibility of global naval blockade should be similarly scrutinized—can we do it—and also do the other things we may want naval forces to do?
If sea-centered military-economic warfare is judged likely to produce success vs. Russia, NATO should immediately and publicly revive the maritime component of Live Oak and the broader strategy it supports. That strategy should be incorporated into DOD’s National Defense Strategy and the US National Security Strategy, and blockade made a part of a twenty-first century Maritime Strategy—slowly, deliberately, with minimal fanfare.
Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, March 18, 2021