Why Deterrence Failed With Russia

A credible deterrent designed to alter a potential invader’s calculus of risk and reward. Vladimir Putin determined that the potential cost of invading Ukraine was relatively low, and on 24 February he attacked. The task of historians is to try to understand why containment failed.

Deterrence consists of two elements: capacity and will. Capability means having the military power to inflict unbearable damage on the enemy. Will is the determination to use that power and cause that damage.

The United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year on strengthening its military capabilities, and they are formidable. Resolving costs nothing, but it is invaluable when it comes to stopping aggression. By signaling that the US has no intention of using its capabilities, the Biden administration has severely undermined its deterrent value.

The White House has consistently broadcast what it won’t, removing a key component of deterrence: the ability to amplify risk through ambiguity. Mr. Putin now knows exactly how much to escalate the conflict because US officials have told him exactly what the maximum US response will be.

In early December, President Biden ruled out the possibility of using US military power, stating that any consideration of US troops entering the war in Ukraine was “off the table”. In January, even when trying to explain his remark that “a small intrusion” would not warrant a strong response, Mr Biden repeated what he would not do. “There will not be any US forces entering Ukraine,” he said. In February, he did it again, explaining that the US actions were “totally defensive” and that we had “no intention against Russia.”

What is especially puzzling is that these messages were broadcast amid growing intelligence that Russia was preparing for war. While the White House clearly has a strategy of “active disclosure” of intelligence, it has also made it clear that it will not act on this intelligence to dissuade Putin.

Most recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reduced the possibility of deploying North Atlantic Treaty Organization fighters to support the Ukrainian resistance. He publicly explained that he was worried such a deal could drag the US and NATO into open conflict with Russia. This view has been echoed by top military leaders. The commander of US European Command announced that the US intelligence community had assessed that “the delivery of MiG-29 aircraft to Ukraine could be mistaken for an escalation”. In case this wasn’t clear, the command further clarified that it had no plans to “facilitate a third party or indirectly transfer Polish aircraft.”

Such statements repeatedly undermine America’s will. The Biden administration’s repeated statements that it is not prepared to escalate under any circumstances increases the risk of unintended escalation. Mr. Putin and his military are calculating America’s will based on what they see and hear. This may be why they are acting as if there is little threat of resistance from any force stronger than the Ukrainian army.

This does not necessarily mean that the US should deploy its troops to Ukraine or establish a no-fly zone by attacking Russian planes. The current bipartisan consensus is that such actions do not benefit Americans. But there is no point in promoting our reservations and revealing our weakness of will.

Why share discussions of internal policy and military considerations with an adversary? One possible explanation is that the White House decided to give preference to the domestic audience in the United States, as opposed to gesturing to Russia. But by openly removing options from the table, the administration not only reduces its operational flexibility, but also makes the enemy more visible. Ambiguity is valuable — especially since Russia is the master at it.

The Russians, with their vivid history against better-equipped armies from the Swedish, French, and German empires, well understood the importance of will. It is an important component of their military doctrine and is embodied in the concept of “escalating to de-escalating”. It means that the Russian military has declared its readiness to increase the intensity of violence to end the war on favorable terms. Few observers doubt Putin’s ability or willingness.

Could this conflict be averted with a more convincing demonstration of American resolve? We will never know for sure. Deterrence is an art, not a science. But the United States almost certainly faces a challenge if it is to keep the peace in the future. Ironically, restoring an awareness of America’s will to prevent conflict may require an even stronger display of that will on the battlefield. In a world with less deterrence, a desire for peace can make conflict more certain.

Ms. Schadlow is a member of the Hoover Institute and the Hudson Institute.

Report of the Journal Editor: But will the US President lead NATO? Image: AFP / Getty Images Synthesis: Mark Kelly

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