Both the nuclear “balance of terror” and conventional balance of power have made a direct attack on NATO forces a highly unpalatable option, writes HCSS Geopolitics & Modeling Expert Collin Meisel in a new op-ed for War On The Rocks.
In reflecting on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine over the past year, some observers have drawn a clear conclusion: deterrence failed.
It is unequivocally true that the United States failed to deter President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine despite clear threats of a “swift, severe and united response” in the form of sanctions and “moving a pipeline” of defensive equipment through to Ukraine’s military in advance of the invasion. But this failure has come with a laudable deterrence success: preventing a wider war. Focusing only on the former at the expense of the latter muddies conversations about deterrence and risks drawing the wrong lessons for policymakers seeking to deter future aggression.
Consider Nadia Schadlow’s recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal, which argues, “The White House has consistently broadcast what it won’t do, removing a crucial component of deterrence: the ability to amplify risk through ambiguity.” True, this weakened deterrence of an invasion of Ukraine — but it did so in the context of maintaining strategic stability and providing an assurance (which must be paired with deterrence) that a wider war was not in Putin’s interest.
Too often, recent conversations around “deterrence failure” have been used to argue for a more muscular American foreign policy, including a beefed-up U.S. military presence on the European continent and an “even more forceful manifestation of [the will to deter conflict] on the battlefield.” By ignoring deterrence success, namely the deterrence of a wider war in Europe, these conversations fail to acknowledge the significant, high-stakes tradeoffs that would come with many of the strident, even aggressive, policy prescriptions that have been put forth in the present “deterrence failure” dialogue.
History as a Guide
It is understandably difficult to see the invasion of Ukraine as any form of success. But to appreciate how much worse things could have been, consider the attack on Pearl Harbor.
When leaders consider whether to initiate a war, they also face the question of what type of war and with whom. Imperial Japanese leaders, who determined that peace was an unacceptable option, opted to directly initiate a wider war with the United States and its allies rather than attempting to keep its war limited to Southeast Asia. In contrast, Putin has thus far opted to keep his war limited to conventional means on Ukrainian territory. By recognizing that he has been deterred from pursuing other more severe options, we can better appreciate the nuances of deterrence, allowing for continued success at the strategic and global levels even among failures at the conventional and local levels.
Leading up to Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese leaders faced a dilemma. Amid Japan’s war in China and its preparations for a wider war after signing the Tripartite Act with Germany and Italy, Japan’s military faced a shortage of natural resources that threatened to reduce its empire to “empty shadows.” Matters were made worse by a U.S. embargo on exports to Japan. In order to save the empire, Japan’s leaders determined that they must “secure the raw materials of the South Seas” through an attack on the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya. Yet, this risked conflict with the United States.
According to an equation proposed by political scientist Bruce Russett, Japanese leaders were forced to consider several factors: the utility of war as a result of an attack on the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya; the utility of an attack not resulting in war, weighted by the probability of a lack of meaningful resistance; and the utility of not attacking in the first place. If the sum of the utilities of war and attack were greater than the utility of peace, then attack would be the best course of action. Japan’s leaders were certain that an attack on the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya would lead to a war with the United States (thus a high likelihood of facing meaningful resistance) and that the costs of war would be high. However, their belief was also that the costs imposed by peacewere effectively infinitely negative: “disintegration as a nation,” in historian Roberta Wohlstetter’s words.
Fast forward to 2022 and consider Putin’s calculus in the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine. Any such assessment is of course speculative, but we can begin to make sense of his seemingly nonsensical decision to attack. If Putin’s ruminations on “Ancient Rus” and the centrality of Kyiv to Russia’s identity are to be taken as sincere, then an independent Ukraine poses a serious — perhaps even existential — threat to Russia’s “rightful” place in the world in his eyes. In Russett’s formulation, the utility of peace would be a large negative value.Meanwhile, systematically “overreporting one’s successes and concealing weaknesses to superiors” among Russian intelligence created the illusion of ample support from within Ukraine for their prospective invasion. Thus, Russian leaders may have expected a lack of meaningful resistance. In Russett’s equation — where the utilities of war and attack, weighted by the probability of meaningful resistance, are compared against the utility of peace — the benefits of war could be fairly small and still outweigh the perceived costs of peace.
As we know, Putin opted for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in his campaign to resist Western dominance. And yet Japan chose an even more extreme option — attacking the United States directly. What explains the difference?
The lessons of Japanese leaders’ well-documented decisions are revealing. Deep interdependence between the Dutch, the British, and the Americans dramatically increased the likelihood of staunch resistance to Japanese attacks on the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya and thus made them less likely. And yet, paradoxically, it made the likelihood of a direct attack on the United States more likely. Faced with the unacceptably high costs of peace, Japanese leaders had in their mind no acceptable choice but war — the only question was how to wage it. In their estimation, it was better to attack the fleet at Pearl Harbor — the most threatening element of their future collective enemy — first, while surprise was still on their side.
Ultimately, the decision to attack in a personalized authoritarian regime such as Putin’s Russia rests with one person alone — and, as any parent of a toddler knows, some actions are evidently undeterrable. Yet, the West’s approach to deterrence with respect to Ukraine should not be considered a total failure. Desiring to eliminate the supposed Western threat in Ukraine and knowing that an even more threatening United States might get involved directly and impose high costs on Russia, Putin could have opted to attack the West directly. He was deterred from doing so.
Implications for Policy
Both the nuclear “balance of terror” and conventional balance of power have made a direct attack on NATO forces — the supposed true threat to Russia — a highly unpalatable option. Meanwhile, Putin may have thought that the West would react mildly, much as it did when his forces took Crimea in 2014. A deeper interdependence between Ukraine and the West might have signaled otherwise — although, as Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor reveals, perhaps at a devastating cost.
In light of the United States and Russia’s possession of strategic nuclear forces, this trade-off will be familiar to many international relations scholars. It is the stability-instability paradox, where stability at the nuclear level allows for instability at the conventional level because, for example, Putin understands that the West is unlikely to risk a general nuclear war over a conflict waged by Russia on a non-allied state. In other words, Putin’s willingness to attack Ukraine is symptomatic of a deterrence success at the strategic level, where there is relative stability.
Nuclear war aside, stability can be understood at the local and global levels. The present war in Ukraine is arguably a case of severe instability at the local level but general stability at the global level. Despite incidents that might have led to a wider war, such as the confusion following a missile strike in Poland last November and material support from third countries for belligerents on both sides, the conflict has remained within Ukrainian borders and between Russian and Ukrainian troops. As Jeffrey Lewis and Aaron Stein wrote in these pages last year, both the United States and Russia are deterring and are being deterred by one another at the strategic and global levels.
In an effort to translate successes at the strategic level to the conventional and local level in Ukraine, some have called for an accelerated admission of Ukraine into NATO. Once Ukraine was part of NATO, would that substantially increase deterrence of further Russian aggression against Ukraine? It is highly plausible, given the protection that NATO membership appears to provide from kinetic — if not cyber — attacks. However, the risk of a Russian attack would be substantially increased during the potentially lengthy wait between Ukraine’s application for NATO membership and its admission into the alliance. It would effectively be Putin’s last chance to subjugate Ukraine.
Ukraine deserves Western support while also acknowledging that deterrence is not simply a two-way street. Deterrence is a multiway intersection — one that exists not only before but also during war. And as Russett puts it, “one should avoid presenting an opponent with options which are all highly unpalatable to him.”
This point has implications for the future of the war in Ukraine. Moving forward, even while ensuring that Putin’s forces suffer greatly in Ukraine, he should also be led to believe that an expansion of the conflict, whether in severity or geography, is not the most palatable of his highly unpalatable options. The International Criminal Court’s warrant for Putin’s arrest makes this task more difficult. In the event of the collapse of his forces and the prospect of a one-way ticket to The Hague — which would mean an end to Putin’s survival as he knows it — a set of perfectly rational calculations could lead to mutual extinction. This would be the ultimate deterrence failure.
Meanwhile, recent successes bear reflection and merit additional attention in the ongoing public dialogue on deterrence. The successful deterrence of a wider war in Europe hasn’t required a Cold War-level U.S. troop presence on the continent. It hasn’t required a missile defense shield. And it hasn’t required any “forceful manifestations on the battlefield.” In fact, these are provocative steps that could undermine the deterrence successes that the West has enjoyed thus far. Each would instead be akin to a large, literal step toward deterrence theorist Thomas Schelling’s brink: an uneven slope along which the point of no return is unclear to all.
This op-ed was first published in War On The Rocks, on May 8th, 2023.
Collin Meisel is associate director of geopolitical analysis at the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is also a geopolitics and modeling expert at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a Netherlands-based security and defense think tank.