How Russia Is Beating the West at Deterrence

In the Ukraine crisis, deterrence has been effective but it is not working for the right party. In this tragedy’s most catastrophic blunder, the United States and its allies failed to deter Russia from invading. President Joe Biden’s plan to create deterrence relied almost exclusively on threats that would be executed only after Russian forces crossed Ukraine’s borders. Unfortunately, the West’s credibility in threatening after-the-fact punishments was shredded by its earlier failures to impose stringent sanctions following the Kremlin’s assaults on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan only increased Russian President Vladimir Putin’s doubts about our resolve.

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Even beyond this yawning credibility gap, Biden’s total deterrence package was palpably inadequate. He stated in December 2021 and repeated thereafter that the U.S. military force would not be on the table. It was an unforced unilateral concession without Russian reciprocity. Biden could simply have said nothing, hiding his intentions, and let the ambiguity weigh on Putin’s mind. He instead gave Putin an offer of a freebie.

That wasn’t all. Russia did not suffer any damage prior to invasion. Had appreciable costs been imposed before Moscow’s forces crossed an international border—damages felt in real time—they might have changed Putin’s cost-benefit calculus. For example, there was no push to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, let alone economically cripple Russia’s broader energy sector, unless and until all Russian forces were withdrawn from European countries which did not consent to their presence, not just Ukraine, but also Moldova, Georgia and others. Russian financial assets, including those of prominent oligarchs, could have been seized or frozen until Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders was reversed, and the troops returned to their regular barracks. It is important that sanctions are enforced swiftly, effectively, and with a lot of force. In the Ukraine case, that didn’t before—or after—Russia invaded.

America and NATO could have deployed more forces to Ukraine to train and assist Ukraine’s military, joining those already there. Russian Generals could see across Ukraine border and wonder what new American flags are. It is possible that Ukraine could have received significantly more ammunition and weapons at an even faster pace than it was.

This did not happen. Instead, counter-productively, White House officials spoke frequently about imposing negative consequences for a “further invasion” of Ukraine, thinking themselves quite clever in not ignoring the 2014 attack. Ironically, however, their rhetorical flourish did just that, revealing critical deficiencies in their thinking, and confirming to Putin that there was no risk Russia’s actions in 2014 would be reversed. Opponents of raising Russia’s pre-invasion costs said so doing would actually provoke a Russian attack, as if that isn’t exactly what happened anyway. As Donald Rumsfeld observed, it’s not American strength that’s provocative, it’s American weakness.

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Western deterrence didn’t work, but Russian deterrence seems to be enjoying a shockingly high level of success. Building on Biden’s earlier voluntary rejection of U.S. military involvement, Russia has convinced the West that even a whisper of NATO military action in Ukraine would bring disastrous consequences. Putin’s directive enhancing the alert status of Russia’s nuclear forces brought on something approaching panic in the West, although there is no publicly-available evidence that Russia’s forces have operationally changed anything. The battle for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power facility produced near-hysteria as well, although neither the IAEA and the Pentagon identified any radiation leaked or damaged to the complex.

Desperate Ukrainian requests to NATO for a no-fly area over Ukraine were flatly denied. On Friday, Secretary of State Blinken said, “to actually implement something like a no-fly zone…could lead to a full-fledged war in Europe,” and “the only thing worse than a war that’s contained to Ukraine is one that escalates even further and goes beyond it.”

Civilians fleeing from Irpin, near Kyiv
Diego Herrera Carcedo-Anadolu Agency One woman walks across the bridge that was destroyed. Civilians continue to flee Irpin because of ongoing Russian aggressions in Irpin (Ukraine), March 8, 2022.

This logic is false. It’s a classic. non sequitur. The tacit assumption, though clearly false, that even one hostile encounter among Russian and Western forces can escalate into all-out, nuclear war is the basis of this. There are obviously risks associated with any NATO military role. It is wrong to state that there are risks in any NATO military role. SomeThere are risks. EverywhereRisk leads inexorably towards massive escalation. The West must therefore be cautious Please enter noMilitary action. It is possible to maneuver between Step Alpha & Step Omega with great distance.

But, Putin gets much more from NATO than he needs. He threatens, he blusters, he used the word “nuclear,” and the West wilts. Effective deterrence is based on this paradigm. Although there are difficult and potentially dangerous decisions to make, complete military surrender also means that you will have to pay the strategic and humanitarian costs now being experienced.

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Predictably, hesitant Westerners are fearful of giving Russia a “pretext” for attacking NATO members. It is just too weak. Moscow already has a pretext if it needs one. Washington has long, and quite rightly, provided intelligence to Ukraine at a “frenetic” pace. The White House boasts that “this includes information that should help them inform and develop their military response to Russia’s invasion.” This intelligence may not, strictly speaking, insert the U.S. into Ukraine’s military “kill chain” (find, fix, track, target, engage, assess), but if Russia is merely looking for a pretext, it surely would suffice.

Further “pretexts” include the White House boasting to favored media outlets about the massive provision of anti-tank weapons and cyberwarfare assistance. Putin already made clear that economic sanctions are akin in nature to war declarations, so hesitant Westerners won’t be able resist any further attempts at deterrence.

America and Europe are enjoying a lot of self-satisfaction over the economic sanctions against Russia. We should not be content with the fact that our sanctions against Russia have failed and Ukraine is under siege, but we shouldn’t feel smug. Washington did not succeed in preventing the conflict. Worse, Russia’s prospects of prevailing against Ukraine are enhanced by its successful deterrence against NATO acting in ways that could effectively counter its aggression. This isn’t something to cheer about.


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