Instead of being deterred – it is time to deter Russia

August 23, 2023


For months, probably since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the FOUN and our individual members have been pointing out in many ways that in military conflict one wants to deter the opponent not be deterred. Yet, Washington has consistently been deterred by Russia.

Putin talks about and threatens nuclear “this-and-that,” and Washington publicly and consistently wrings its hands over the possibility that Putin will escalate.

Very publicly, Washington hesitates to do what it should to provide Ukraine what it needs to win this war. Thousands die as a result of Russia’s indiscriminate shelling, mostly from sanctuaries afforded Russia by the United States’ refusal to provide weapons that could reach those sanctuaries.

That we must act to deter Putin has been a consistent refrain from FOUN and others.

Today, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Sorin Adam Matel discussing Deterrence Theory. While it is consistent with our FOUN message, Matel directs his criticism at NATO rather than directly at Washington - but the points remain the same. Matel makes the case well, and it deserves to be read.

The enemy is not going to respect the deterred and will continue accordingly. It is long past time for the United States and NATO to act like the military power(s) they claim to be. Give Ukraine what it needs to win – now!


Ukraine War Calls for a Revival

of Deterrence Theory

Fear of Russian Escalation has Paralyzed the West. What’s Needed is Forceful Localized Countermoves.

By Sorin Adam Matei

Aug. 22, 2023 2:31 pm ET

The Wall Street Journal included here a photo of damaged port infrastructure on the Danube River in the Odesa region, Ukraine. Due to firms that photo troll and try to extract money I eliminated the photo and insert here a Council on Foreign Relations map relevant, I believe, to the discussion in the article.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year came as no surprise to the West. But the Kremlin’s recent ability to escalate without pushback is surprising. Last month Russian jet fighters in Syria harassed U.S. drones and damaged one. Russia’s attack on a Ukrainian grain warehouse in Reni damaged a Romanian commercial ship 600 feet from its North Atlantic Treaty Organization border. NATO has been asleep at the wheel as Russia abuses and provokes its members. A new twist to deterrence theory demands that this aggression be met with sharp, consistent and measured force.

Principles of deterrence inspired by game theory—a mathematical model used to predict the actions of hostile actors—governed the delicate dance between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, helping stave off nuclear armageddon. For every major action, there was a commensurate reaction. Yet American neglect after 1989 of the simple and familiar game-theory rule—immediate response to any pushback—prepared the ground for Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. NATO and the U.S. failed to respond commensurately to the savaging of Moldova in 1992, of Georgia in 1993 and 2008 and of Crimea and Donbas in 2014. As a result, the U.S. and its allies continue to trail as Russia improves its hand and increases the stakes each round.

Russia has followed a “zero determinant” strategy against Ukraine. While classical mathematical theories call for players to mirror each other’s moves with grand “tit for tat” countermoves, the aim of zero determinant is to confuse your opponent. You may strike first, offer cooperation, and then refuse to compromise. In Russia’s case, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and immediately opened negotiations, only to launch missiles intended to destroy Kyiv’s energy infrastructure, while characterizing Ukraine’s responses to aggression as acts of terror. This approach relies on cheating, and it works well against those who believe in following rules—like the U.S.

Cheating in the global security competition has been successful for Russia. The sudden high stakes of its opening moves leave opponents with only one choice: put up or shut up. When NATO fails to respond forcefully, Russia maintains its advantage by dangling the threat of using nuclear weapons after each escalation. Common sense improperly understood has convinced NATO allies to comply for fear that the alternative was the end of the world.

These rules have been engineered by Russia, and NATO shouldn’t accept them anymore. Luckily, a recent iteration of great-power deterrence theory offers an out. Instead of big, bold moves that have lately left the U.S. struggling to catch up, a new deterrence-theory principle that relies on unbending and localized responses might be more effective in combating current Russian aggression.

To understand that strategy, let’s examine how we arrived at a situation in which Russia—once the subject of NATO’s deterrence—has ended up deterring NATO in the conflict with Ukraine.

For the six months prior to the invasion, the U.S. and U.K. tried to deter Russia by direct warning. In November 2021 William J. Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, traveled to Moscow in a bid to reveal NATO’s knowledge of Russian invasion plans. Mr. Burns warned Vladimir Putin that there would be a “huge price” should he continue in his plans to invade Ukraine. Yet the declaration fell flat since it wasn’t followed by military substantiation. Instead, the U.S. and U.K published Russia’s future attack plan, even at the risk of tipping their intelligence hands—an act without precedent. The NATO powers failed because they didn’t heed the doctrine of materially reminding the opponent of the risk of mutual assured destruction, which prevented a nuclear exchange throughout the Cold War.

When the U.S. government grudgingly acknowledged the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba in October 1962, President John F. Kennedy decided against direct air strikes, which would have neutralized Soviet missiles but risked full-blown war. Yet he remained steadfast in his intentions to push back the Soviets. Over 13 days, both Washington and Moscow incrementally beefed up their positions abroad and created a stalemate whereby one aggressive move from either party would ensure the destruction of both. This deadlock permitted negotiations and effectively prevented nuclear war. It was an early example of an unbending localized response.

After the Cold War, NATO allies felt their mere presence, regardless of military preparedness, would deter Russia from future belligerence. But NATO is mistaken in its assessment of Russia’s abilities and interests.

Since its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russia has bombed targets close to Romania’s border on the Danube, fired missiles over neutral countries, mined the Black Sea lanes, and downed NATO members’ drones. NATO has done little more than provide inadequate aid to Ukraine and stomp its feet in protest. Rather than fall for another Russian trick, NATO needs to employ an “unbending collective answer” to any Russian aggression.

How would this work? On hearing news of missile attacks against a port that shares a border with a NATO member, NATO should have declared an air-defense buffer zone within 100 miles of all NATO borders. After a NATO drone was intercepted and damaged over the Black Sea, NATO should have instituted a regular armed patrol of the zone where the drone was drowned. When Russia instituted a blockade of Ukrainian ports, NATO should have responded with a counterblockade on all points of entry and exit on the Black Sea. These are local, specific and immediate responses to Russian aggression.

Many would argue that such aggression would provoke Russia and cause another world war. But playing tit for tat—when done specifically—against a bully is rooted in cold math and has worked in the past. Bringing in old games might remind Russia of how things unfolded last time it threatened NATO.

Mr. Matei is associate dean of research at Purdue University’s Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy.