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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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.