This post was initially called “Global Blockade vs. Russia, China.” To shorten the read time and allow specialists and others to focus on each potential adversary, I have split it into two posts, this one and “Global Blockade vs. China.”
Each post now examines the possible nuclear implications of a successful blockade and includes a new section on war termination—a phase we don’t generally think about as much as we should. If analysis shows that blockade can deliver anything close to what the hypothesis underlying this post promises, then plausible conditions for war termination could well arise. However, because China and Russia would each seem certain to come to the aid of the other should it face defeat at the hands of a US blockade, even a “small” war could become quite prolonged and geographically expanded.
No one needs reminding that wars between the great powers can reshape the map of global politics and the internal politics of the warring parties. A war between the US and Russia—supported, if not joined by, China—would have a good chance of producing tectonic political change. I have used the term “war termination,” not “victory.” That’s because, with all the parties in possession of nuclear arsenals, the game will never be over. We need to plan accordingly.
To assess the potential of the historic practice of naval blockade in the current era. The departure point is recognition that the US and its allies possess global command of the sea. Students of sea power have long known that command of the sea cannot be an end in itself but can only take significance from the larger military and political objectives it may be used to achieve. Today the US and its allies can deny the use of the world ocean to all other nations. No nation can use it 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 depends. This last contention is the key to the West’s exploitation of its dominant advantage of the sea: economic blockade. Geoffrey Till has described it as “sea-based coercion,” or “more a form of naval diplomacy than acts of war.”*
As outlined here, economic blockade is a form of warfare that may be exactly suited to great power competition in the current era. While it has deep roots in history, today it would be carried out on a historically unprecedented scale with promise of unprecedented strategic results. As noted on Clio’s Welcome page, I am not drawing these recommendations from analysis of current Russian attitudes regarding possible blockades that Russia may face. I am arguing from the logic of today’s strategic situation as seen from the US point of view.
The assumption of Western naval dominance is based on a broad reading of current relative naval capabilities, which seem likely to shift further in favor of the West as US building programs are implemented, and the military budgets of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase. But Russia has a naval building program too, 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.
As a result of the globalization of the world economy, even great continental powers like Russia have become dependent on the sea for their prosperity and for the economic growth necessary to underwrite their military and international security designs. The threat of denying access to the world ocean through blockade might not prevent Russia from waging a ground war on its periphery where it enjoys local superiority. However, it could exact heavy economic costs and perhaps inflict debilitating, if not fatal, damage to Russia’s long-term plans to promote internal economic development through the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and to engage the world economy on behalf of its aspirations as a great power.
Blockade vs. Russia
As always, specifying the kind of war that planning must address is mandatory. The occasion for war with Russia today that is of greatest concern is the Russian threat to a NATO ally on Russia’s western periphery. One scenario is particularly troubling: combined military-political-cyber-economic action where Russia’s specific means and intentions are ambiguous. However, 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.
A blockade has promise in contributing to NATO’s responses in this case and, perhaps, in other scenarios. Western naval thought has been, and continues to be, strongly influenced by concern with the defense of US vulnerabilities at sea, above all the sea lines of communications (SLOC) linking the US to its allies. The possibility that Russia also may have exploitable vulnerabilities at sea—its own “SLOC defense” problem—may strike some as wishful thinking. However, viewed from the vantage point of the naval planner in Moscow, 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 own vulnerabilities, and Russia’s vulnerabilities at sea seem clear and growing.
The blockade concept is aimed at increasing the contribution that the 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 deterrence fails, 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.).
Proposed Actions vs. Russia
Blockade is not a substitute for action on the ground but is an additional, asymmetric measure. The US and its allies should make clear to Russia—through preparatory actions and declaratory policy—that aggression, specifically against NATO allies in the Baltic, will be met with blockade, regardless of the timing or shape of NATO’s response on the ground. All types of naval forces would be employed, including offensive mine warfare. The US Navy would also execute the blockade in other theaters, the Arctic, and especially the Pacific.
The West must credibly threaten to deprive Russia of the use of the world ocean to an extent and for a period of time that the US and its allies see as strategically valuable. Russia would face a choice between seeking or holding on to local gains on its periphery—specifically territory and/or the political compliance of NATO Baltic states—at the cost of being cut off from much of the world economy. The latter would mean a death knell for Russia’s LNG export designs.
Many of these objectives might conceivably be achieved through economic sanctions. Sanctions should undoubtedly be a part of the West’s response, and if sanctions alone were successful, this scenario would not arise. However, 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 5 war, commerce and other civil activities would cease in contested waters within the Baltic and Black Seas. These areas are not addressed here. In more distant waters, US and NATO forces would of course 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 cruise/passenger ships would be a special category to be safeguarded in all circumstances.)
This strategy is in the mold of allied blockades of Germany in the two world wars, but is tailored to deal with conflict on a lesser scale against a relatively weak Russia (compared with its Soviet predecessor). Blockade planning should be publicly discussed in US and NATO forums to enhance its deterrent effects. Public knowledge might well occur in any case because approval by NATO political councils will likely be required for such a departure from traditional NATO plans.
In this Article 5 war, the Danish and Turkish straits would be closed to Russian shipping by direct action. In a period of severe crisis—a period of neither 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 Western naval forces including land-based air. This would send a message that they could be seized or sunk when desired—an example of using the strategy to respond to ambiguous Russian threats. A capability ideally suited for blockade in this and later phases of conflict would be a propulsion disabling weapon. Propulsion disablers (PD) are small torpedo-like devices that destroy a ship’s screws and rudders. When they emerge, they are likely also to pose a serious threat to Western surface ships (see the post on PDs).
Once out on the world ocean Russian ships 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 organizing and 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 Pacific, possibly with Japanese and Korean support, and would deal with Russian maritime assets in other theaters, making the strategy global in scale. NATO’s maritime thinking—while focused on Europe—should not remain confined to European waters.
- Does not directly threaten Russian territory nor the regime. A blockade strategy seems in keeping with NATO’s definition of itself as a defensive alliance.
- Poses a threat that would be difficult if not impossible for Russia to answer in kind, except perhaps with mines, which it is likely to use in any case.
- Shows that the US and NATO are capable of asymmetric response to today’s ambiguous threats.
- Provides an important initial strategic task for the US carrier force: sweeping the seas of distant Russian naval and civil assets, while at the same time preserving the force as a fleet-in-being to compel the Russian navy to maintain a defensive stance (see the post “Fleet-in-Being“).
- Exploits NATO naval forces which, under current plans, are tailored mainly to protect transatlantic SLOCs. Whatever threat the Russians 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, whether or not blockade would actually produce the far-reaching strategic results that seem theoretically possible. In short, blockade adds offense to traditional SLOC defense (which can never be neglected, but should not remain 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 21st century sea power can play more than an ancillary role in war with a continental power.
In crisis, Russia would be forced to face painful choices. The Russians would be unlikely to shoot at sea before they are ready and willing to do so ashore because: 1) their planners’ top priority is war on the ground; and 2), they know they would face a massive response against all their civil and naval ships—a threat that the West will have made clear in advance. On the other hand, in crisis, US and allied surface ships and naval air would be free to shadow Russian civil ships in numbers likely calibrated in response to Russian actions ashore. The net effect would be unmistakable preparations for a global blockade. Such actions would be difficult for the Russians to respond to and can be presumed to have a deterrent effect. (Russia would doubtless protest that such Western actions violate international law—to which the obvious response would be that Russia cannot appeal to the protection of international law when Russia itself is in marked violation of such law. An all too real case in point: Russia’s recent blocking of the Kerch Strait against Ukraine.)
In war, Russian options to respond at sea at the conventional level would be limited. Naval escort of individual ships would be infeasible. Defended convoys might be conceivable for the Northern Sea Route. More likely, however, Russia would shut down the NSR because of the lack the assets to defend it, especially south of the Bering Strait. Russia’s other significant assets at sea include its large merchant marine. Russia ranks second—after China—in the number of nationally-flagged (i.e., not flag of convenience) merchant ships. They are largely older container ships and bulk carriers, and have relatively small intrinsic value. However, they, like the fishing fleet, are important earners of hard currency through service in cabotage and international hauling.
Seizing Russia’s assets at sea would starkly symbolize its impotence on the world stage. Seized assets might serve as bargaining chips in negotiations to terminate a conflict. Russian civil ships may be armed and resist seizure; however, Western forces would hold the tactical initiative and could enforce blockade at a pace commensurate with the course of the war elsewhere.
Whether loss of use of the world ocean would cause Russia to relinquish any NATO territory it may have gained is unknowable. The situation might become dangerously volatile if the leadership in Moscow should regard holding onto seized territory as a sine qua non of the regime’s survival.
A second unknowable is whether, in response to a successful Western blockade, Russia might escalate to the nuclear level. This possibility must be taken seriously in light of the exaggerated prominence of nuclear weapons in Russia declaratory policy and propaganda – hardly unexpected from the party that sees itself inferior at the conventional level – but also because of Russia’s concrete development/deployment of weapons to deliver them. Because blockade’s effects come the sea and because nuclear weapons fired at sea produce no immediate collateral damage, a possible Russian nuclear answer would first be at sea. Russia would likely proclaim that Western interdiction of its Northern Sea Route was little different from attacking the Transiberian Railway. A most likely target would be one or more US CVSGs at sea, with missiles launched by submarine(s) well outside Russian territorial waters.
Lacking symmetrical Russian targets at sea, the US would face extremely difficult decisions about its response. 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, Russia could not prevent it from continuing to enforce the blockade. Thus, Russia’s strategic position would be essentially unchanged, and it would face the possibility that the US might answer its nuclear strikes in kind – widening a now-nuclear war to its own territory. At a minimum, Russia would face world opprobrium (perhaps a bit muted from its Chinese near-ally) as a consequence of its nuclear actions.
Thus, 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. Rather than accepting what it regards as defeat, 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 of the broader question of how the US and its allies would deal with Russian nuclear threats. These issues will have to be addressed, but they lie outside the scope of this post.
We need to remind ourselves that the first purpose of blockade is to contribute to deterrence of war. War might nonetheless come and be fought at the conventional level. If so, blockade, pursued with strategic prudence, may be among the better 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.
- Immediate Russian reactions 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, severity of Russia’s reaction might intensify as Russian planners reckon the harmful effects on Russia’s economy of being cut off from world ocean-borne trade.
- 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. (See the post “Strategic ASW” for why that is an astonishingly bad idea). Every possible precaution should be taken to keep intercontinental nuclear forces out of play.
- Gobal blockade may be viewed as too radical or grandiose to be implemented by a fractious NATO and might be blocked by those NATO members who could see it as overly 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 of Russia’s shipping. (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 “Global Blockade vs. China“). US plans for blockading Russia should take full account of possible Chinese responses, which are taken up below.
- 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—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. It may be argued 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 be a temptation to further exploit it vs. Russia or others. This prospect doubtless will have occurred to leaders in China.
War Termination and the Critical Role of China
If a NATO blockade proved a growing military success, would war termination be on the horizon? A series of interrelated questions must be answered. First, would the Russian economy in general face sharply negative growth? How specifically would its war economy be affected? Could autarkical measures show prospect of providing relief? Could external aid, especially from China (see below) permit Russia to fight on for a considerable period?
Second, to the degree there is economic distress, would that distress translate into internal political instability and/or external military vulnerability? Specialists in Russian economic and Russian security affairs, inside and outside the US government, must address these questions to determine the desirability of a blockade strategy. Not all appear answerable, but the range of uncertainty can probably be narrowed considerably. Russia specialists will need deep liaison with specialists on China. China is the critical variable in the war termination equation vs. Russia.
China, whatever its interests in any particular Russia-West conflict, 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 at the hands of the West. It would then find itself alone facing a powerful and perhaps emboldened US superpower supported by allies in the Pacific who are neutral, if not hostile, vis-à-vis China.
Thus, China would almost certainly come to Russia’s aid. At a minimum it could easily provide a market and overland conduit for Russian grain and other exports. Obviously it could be an overland supplier of needed goods and raw materials. (Iran might play similar roles through the Caspian.) Supplying Russia military equipment and advanced military technologies are well within China’s capabilities.
The likely three-way interaction between the West, Russia, and China raises a most important issue confronting strategic planners in the US: If neither Russia nor China would wish to allow the other to face defeat in a war with the West, US plans may have to encompass war, though not necessarily combat, with both parties simultaneously. This topic is taken up in more detail in the post “Global Blockade vs. China.”
More generally, blockade against Russia shows substantial potential to augment deterrence of war with Russia, help manage a (probably) ambiguous crisis that threatens a Baltic state, and improve the chances that a war could be terminated on satisfactory terms.
Given these possibilities, the immediate task is to analyze the likelihood that blockade could produce conditions leading to these promised results.
*Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 203.
Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, August 27, 2019