Eight Important Lessons on Deterrence from Ukraine

 

There’s nothing that complicated about deterrence theory. To successfully deter potential adversaries from doing bad things to you and your friends, they need to believe you are willing and able to do unacceptably bad things to them and their friends in response. The degree to which they believe this is the degree to which deterrence is effective. Hence, successful deterrence employs the tactic of ambiguity to create doubt in adversaries’ minds over how far you may be willing to go, which is where the phrase “all options are on the table” has often been employed through past conflicts and crises.

So, what lessons have we learned about deterrence over the past two months?

  1. To the extent it was tried, deterrence failed to keep Russia from invading Ukraine. Putin did not believe that Ukraine was able to thwart its invasion, or that its leaders were willing to stay and fight. He also did not believe that NATO nations would be willing to provide aid or endure prolonged risk and economic hardship.
  2. The shambolic withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan undermined deterrence by increasing Putin’s sense that NATO was unwilling to fight, and perhaps also that its forces were less able than previously believed.
  3.  Our pre-invasion messaging undermined deterrence, as the U.S. removed ambiguity about our willingness to fight by clearly stating the limits of how far we would go. In particular, President Biden’s repeated public announcements that the U.S. would not send troops worked directly against deterrence objectives.
  4. After the invasion NATO engaged in acts of self-deterrence, especially in its way-too-public debate over what to do with Poland’s MiG-29s. By labeling this action “too provocative”, we managed to communicate to both ourselves and Putin that we were afraid of him and drew the circle of our options tighter around ourselves.
  5. On the other hand, Russia’s own conventional deterrent has taken a huge hit by its abysmal performance on the field of battle. The world’s estimation of what Russia is able to do via conventional military means has been drastically reduced.
  6. This effect is marginally offset by Russia’s wanton destruction of Ukrainian cities and other war crimes, as its adversaries are vividly reminded of the extent to which Russia is willing to inflict pain on civilian targets.
  7. The failure of Russia’s conventional military gives vastly increased significance to its nuclear deterrent. NATO nations would almost certainly be debating a much more robust and even direct response against Russian forces in Ukraine were Putin not sitting on a pile of nukes; meaning that we believe he remains able to inflict unimaginable pain on us, and that we have some reason to believe he might be willing to use them (the now infamous “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine).
  8. The importance of nuclear weapons as a deterrent has thus been dramatically elevated as a result of this war–not only by #7 above, but recall that Ukraine gave up its nukes in ’94 for what turned out to be a sack of magic beans (worthless assurances of Russian non-aggression). This will severely undermine the case for nuclear non-proliferation across the globe, as any country with significant security concerns will now have to recalculate the risks and rewards of having its own nuclear deterrent.
Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Numbers 2 and 8 are the biggies to me . . .

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Nuclear deterrence will work until nuclear weapons are used in battle. Then it will drop off significantly as a means of deterrence.

    Why? There can be several reasons. One is the anticipation is almost always worse than the actual occurrence. But once it is used, people are going to realize you need the US and Russia expending most of their arsenal to really create the type of effects so feared during the Cold War. So, if there is a tactical use of nuclear weapons, and only a half-dozen or so warheads go off, many will think – afterwards – we can live with it. And more will be used next time. 

    However there is another scenario most people are overlooking. The situation I described is a best case use of nuclear weapons. What happens if Russia sends a bunch of nukes at Ukraine and only 40% arrive and of those only 20% detonate? Those things have been sitting around 40 years. A high failure rate can be expected.

    So, Russia fired off 10 nukes and only two go boom, and those don’t really do anything to degrade the Ukrainian military (because they were deployed with the intention of terrorizing Ukraine into surrender). Now what? You have a largely intact Ukrainian military, which is madder than ever and a Europe even more likely to support them. 

    Suddenly Russia’s nuclear deterrence goes out the window. China figures why buy oil from Russia when we can take Siberia. NATO decides the Russian nuclear threat is as overblown as their conventional military. 

    • #2
  3. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    Having a senile C in C, a pronoun-challenging Secy of Defense, and a bunch of woke Lt Col Bearclaws in evidence  kinda erodes the deterrence effect.

    • #3
  4. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    2. The shambolic withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan undermined deterrence by increasing Putin’s sense that NATO was unwilling to fight, and perhaps also that its forces were less able than previously believed.

    The US abandonment of Bagram, done without informing NATO allies that still had a military presence in Afghanistan was a huge error. I believe that it sent a message to Putin that NATO was no longer a cohesive alliance. Whether the Biden administration realizes it or not the Bagram bug-out also diminished the US role as the leader of NATO.

    A second US failure was a strategic error in the decision to cripple the US production of petroleum. The US was in a position of being one of the largest producers of petroleum in the world. Add to that the approval of the Russian Nord Stream pipeline which created two problems. The first was a Europe dependent on Russian natural gas and the second, giving the Russians reason to increase their military presence in the Baltic region to protect that pipeline.

    • #4
  5. DonG (CAGW is a Hoax) Coolidge
    DonG (CAGW is a Hoax)
    @DonG

    energy security=national security.   Do *not* base your energy policy on the rantings of a Swedish teenager.  

    food security=national security.   Do *not* base your agricultural policy on the rantings of a Swedish teenager.

    • #5
  6. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I think that the most important lesson, by far, is to not attempt deterrence when it is not feasible.

    It’s not our job to solve everybody else’s problems.  This does not require isolationism, just prudence and an understanding of interests.

    • #6
  7. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    “There’s nothing that complicated about deterrence theory. To successfully deter potential adversaries from doing bad things to you and your friends, they need to believe you are willing and able to do unacceptably bad things them and their friends in response.”

    This is the heart of the matter.  The problem for the US is that the Commander in Chief would have to make the US citizens believe the same thing, and that would frighten them, especially the women and children.  Can you imagine if Putin’s aggression occurred during the Trump administration?  I think he would have the adversary believe the US would do bad things, horrifying the more timid half of America.

    • #7
  8. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Jailer: To the extent it was tried, deterrence failed to keep Russia from invading Ukraine. Putin did not believe that Ukraine was able to thwart its invasion, or that its leaders were willing to stay and fight. He also did not believe that NATO nations would be willing to provide aid or endure prolonged risk and economic hardship.

    At the end of the day Russia was willing to spend its own citizens’ lives and NATO/the US were not.

    Sanctions etc. are deterrance done cheaply – or at least more safely – but they’re far less effective than boots on the ground when the other side sees the issue as existential.  And with the world economy (especially Europe) so dependent on Russian oil, and Russian (and Ukrainian) wheat (a lot of the Middle East and Africa) I’m not that confident about the sanctions lasting either.

    For example:

    The Biden administration is holding off for now on sanctions against Russia that could disrupt global aluminum supplies, according to people familiar with the matter, as the market grapples with already severe shortages of the metal.

    Sanctions are sold as only cutting one way, but I don’t think that’s the case.

    • #8
  9. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Jailer: After the invasion NATO engaged in acts of self-deterrence, especially in its way-too-public debate over what to do with Poland’s MiG-29s. By labeling this action “too provocative”, we managed to communicate to both ourselves and Putin that we were afraid of him and drew the circle of our options tighter around ourselves.

    I believe this is a mis-analysis of what happened. Someone in the US State Department was pressuring Poland, which shares a border with Russia (via Kaliningrad), Belarus, and Ukraine to give their Mig 29’s to Ukraine.

    Poland responded by publicly declaring that they would turn over those aircraft to the US (for free) in Germany, the US could then give them to the Ukrainians on our own, and they requested that the US backfill Polish Air Power needs.

    Those MIG 29’s are useless to Ukrainians, because they had been upgraded to NATO standards – thus the Ukrainians would need training before flying them in combat.

    Poland did not want to be flying aircraft from their territory into the combat zone (this would rightly be interpreted as an act of war).

    If the US wanted to fly them from Germany into Ukraine and thus commit the act of war from a territory not adjacent to Russia, Belarus, or Ukraine, they were free to do so.

    Cooler heads prevailed and the good idea fairy in the State Department was told to STHU.

    In other words, to stop a dunderhead who would not stop, Poland had to make the person look like a fool on the world stage.

    • #9
  10. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Jailer: The failure of Russia’s conventional military gives vastly increased significance to its nuclear deterrent. NATO nations would almost certainly be debating a much more robust and even direct response against Russian forces in Ukraine were Putin not sitting on a pile of nukes; meaning that we believe he remains able to inflict unimaginable pain on us, and that we have some reason to believe he might be willing to use them (the now infamous “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine).

    Give his lack of readiness in his conventional forces, what makes you believe his nukes are better off?

    Yes, it is strategically ambiguous, but he thought his tanks would be in Kyiv in a day.

    He also believed his guided missile cruiser was safe.

    Given these failures, some creedence has to be given to perhaps his strategic forces are no more ready than his conventional forces.

    • #10
  11. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Zafar (View Comment):
    At the end of the day Russia was willing to spend its own citizens’ lives and NATO/the US were not.

    Why should we spend our citizen’s lives? The Ukrainians are doing a good job by themselves.

    Maybe Australia could close their concentration camps and release the political prisoners to fight in Ukraine.

    • #11
  12. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    At the end of the day Russia was willing to spend its own citizens’ lives and NATO/the US were not.

    Why should we spend our citizen’s lives? The Ukrainians are doing a good job by themselves.

    Maybe Australia could close their concentration camps and release the political prisoners to fight in Ukraine.

    Wait, what?

    • #12
  13. Tyrion Lannister Member
    Tyrion Lannister
    @TyrionLannister

    We should quietly give nukes to Taiwan.  A dozen or so.  Taiwan can announce they are a nuclear power if China gets frisky, and China would then have to decide if losing some major cities is worth it.  

    • #13
  14. Tyrion Lannister Member
    Tyrion Lannister
    @TyrionLannister

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I think that the most important lesson, by far, is to not attempt deterrence when it is not feasible.

    It’s not our job to solve everybody else’s problems. This does not require isolationism, just prudence and an understanding of interests.

    I’d argue keeping Russia in its borders is in our best interest.  World stability is in our economic interest.    

    • #14
  15. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Jailer (View Comment):

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    At the end of the day Russia was willing to spend its own citizens’ lives and NATO/the US were not.

    Why should we spend our citizen’s lives? The Ukrainians are doing a good job by themselves.

    Maybe Australia could close their concentration camps and release the political prisoners to fight in Ukraine.

    Wait, what?

    Ve haff vays off makink you I have no idea.

    • #15
  16. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I thought we had nothing to do with the invasion? 

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Jailer: After the invasion NATO engaged in acts of self-deterrence, especially in its way-too-public debate over what to do with Poland’s MiG-29s. By labeling this action “too provocative”, we managed to communicate to both ourselves and Putin that we were afraid of him and drew the circle of our options tighter around ourselves.

    I believe this is a mis-analysis of what happened. Someone in the US State Department was pressuring Poland, which shares a border with Russia (via Kaliningrad), Belarus, and Ukraine to give their Mig 29’s to Ukraine.

    Poland responded by publicly declaring that they would turn over those aircraft to the US (for free) in Germany, the US could then give them to the Ukrainians on our own, and they requested that the US backfill Polish Air Power needs.

    Those MIG 29’s are useless to Ukrainians, because they had been upgraded to NATO standards – thus the Ukrainians would need training before flying them in combat.

    Poland did not want to be flying aircraft from their territory into the combat zone (this would rightly be interpreted as an act of war).

    If the US wanted to fly them from Germany into Ukraine and thus commit the act of war from a territory not adjacent to Russia, Belarus, or Ukraine, they were free to do so.

    Cooler heads prevailed and the good idea fairy in the State Department was told to STHU.

    In other words, to stop a dunderhead who would not stop, Poland had to make the person look like a fool on the world stage.

    How could “somebody in the State Department” put pressure on Poland?  Why wouldn’t Poland give the President of the U.S. a call and ask if this guy is for real and really represents U.S. policy? 

    • #17
  18. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I think that the most important lesson, by far, is to not attempt deterrence when it is not feasible.

    It’s not our job to solve everybody else’s problems. This does not require isolationism, just prudence and an understanding of interests.

    Including ours.

    • #18
  19. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I think that the most important lesson, by far, is to not attempt deterrence when it is not feasible.

    It’s not our job to solve everybody else’s problems. This does not require isolationism, just prudence and an understanding of interests.

    Exactly. This is why we should supply Ukraine the weapons it needs to defend itself, but not get involved in combat ourselves. 

    • #19
  20. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Jailer (View Comment):

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    At the end of the day Russia was willing to spend its own citizens’ lives and NATO/the US were not.

    Why should we spend our citizen’s lives? The Ukrainians are doing a good job by themselves.

    Maybe Australia could close their concentration camps and release the political prisoners to fight in Ukraine.

    Wait, what?

    He’s talking about the Covid camps.

    • #20
  21. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    How could “somebody in the State Department” put pressure on Poland?  Why wouldn’t Poland give the President of the U.S. a call and ask if this guy is for real and really represents U.S. policy? 

    Which is what happened when Poland went public with the ridiculous offer and the Pentagon was given the job of politely declining the offer.

    • #21
  22. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    I thought we had nothing to do with the invasion?

    We don’t.

    • #22
  23. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Nicely done, Jailer, but you forgot one.

    9. One should not take deliberate actions to enrich the adversary one intends to deter.  In this case, closing American energy production increased Russia’s leverage over the nations of Europe which might otherwise oppose them.

    Oh, and,

    10. One should not choose leaders who have been bought off by both sides in a conflict.  Res ipsa loquitur.

    • #23
  24. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    Instugator (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    How could “somebody in the State Department” put pressure on Poland? Why wouldn’t Poland give the President of the U.S. a call and ask if this guy is for real and really represents U.S. policy?

    Which is what happened when Poland went public with the ridiculous offer and the Pentagon was given the job of politely declining the offer.

    As I said: “Way Too Public”. There was a way to do this, even given the NATO upgrades in the jets. It would have involved some quiet phone calls between leaders (of US, Ukraine, Poland, maybe Germany) then quietly moving the jets and quietly training the pilots (which could be done to a minimum, wartime standard in a couple of weeks).

    But because everything played out in the headlines we tied ourselves in knots and engaged in a protracted game of self-deterrence theater.

    • #24
  25. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Excellent.  My question about the situation, not the article which is dead on;  Biden is obviously not capable at this point of projecting deterrence, not in the Ukraine and not in China which is the real issue as it is strong, growing and threatening while Russia is weak declining and while dangerous would not have been a real threat had Trump remained as President.  China was.   So what do we do to restrain China, create some hesitation on their part, and create some perception of power and will on our part because the absence of response and perceived power and will to have a credible response is going to, unambiguously destroy us.   My view is not credible to most and is radical, but I’d like to hear a credible alternative.  Let’s say the powers that be actually allow a reasonable election and we take both Senate and House.  Then what deters China? Nothing because Biden is still president.  The worse scenario is that they arrange a fraudulent election which they’re going full steam toward.  Then what?   Do we wait, or do we prepare for likely scenarios?

    • #25
  26. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Tyrion Lannister (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I think that the most important lesson, by far, is to not attempt deterrence when it is not feasible.

    It’s not our job to solve everybody else’s problems. This does not require isolationism, just prudence and an understanding of interests.

    I’d argue keeping Russia in its borders is in our best interest. World stability is in our economic interest.

    Russia was staying within its borders, before we provoked it by promising NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia (in 2008).  We — meaning both the Europeans and the Americans — destabilized the world by seeking to turn a reasonably Russia-friendly, neutral Ukraine into a military ally, and to wrest it away from its trade arrangements with Russia into the EU.  That was unwise, in my view.

    Even if you disagree, though, I think that it makes no difference to us whether Russia extends its borders somewhat into Ukraine or other places (like the Caucasus).  What difference does it make to us?

    And please, don’t claim that we have to uphold some international norm against invasion.  We’ve invaded so many countries that I have a hard time keeping track.  Israel does the same, quite regularly.  I have difficulty understanding why the hypocrisy of this argument doesn’t bother people.

    • #26
  27. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    I think it’s way too early to declare Russia the loser on this one.  Just because Russia didn’t go as fast as we’d prefer and has lost a lot of equipment and people, they are still there and controlling large parts of the country.  

    A guerrilla campaign won’t work against them. Russia correctly understands that the people are legitimate targets and will have no compuction against killing everyone it wants.  Russia won’t be bothered by losses of people or equipment.  That’s how dictatorships work.

    The Ukraine has done better than expected, but it’s not over yet.  The problem is that it can’t really end well.  Either Putin will win and Zelenski will be murdered, or Putin will use nukes and Zelenski will be murdered.  The only part that really matters is if we get drawn into this.  I’m sure China is counting on that to make their grab for Taiwan easier.

    I don’t see how The Ukraine can win.  They gave all their nukes away, if they start to win, they will be nuked.  If they get nuked, either we will ignore it, which is very dangerous, or we will retaliate with our own nukes, which is very dangerous.  

    No matter what, our weakness encouraged this to happen and there’s no turning back from really awful results.

    Weak men make for hard times.

    • #27
  28. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Tyrion Lannister (View Comment):

    We should quietly give nukes to Taiwan. A dozen or so. Taiwan can announce they are a nuclear power if China gets frisky, and China would then have to decide if losing some major cities is worth it.

    And China wouldn’t respond with a lot more nukes landing in Taiwan?  

    It’s almost too late to prevent them from trying to take Taiwan, but giving nukes to Taiwan would only make it worse.  

    • #28
  29. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    This is a fantastic post.  Great work, @jailer.  I believe a great statesman from the past described this as “peace through strength.”

    • #29
  30. MiMac Thatcher
    MiMac
    @MiMac

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    I thought we had nothing to do with the invasion?

    We don’t.

    Only with stopping it……by aiding the Ukrainians

    • #30
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