Although the response of Western capitals to Russia’s aggressive military posture on its border with Ukraine has been framed in clear diplomatic terms, military contingency planning has gone up a notch in recent weeks. The intent of these measures, at least judging by the rhetoric of US and NATO leaders and respected commentators, is to enhance deterrence.
Deterrence, as the Nobel Prize-winning American scientist Thomas Schelling explained in his seminal 1966 book, “Arms and Influence,” aims to prevent an adversary from taking future action. Schelling distinguished it from a second strategy of coercion, coercion, which aims to modify an adversary’s existing behavior. Neither is foolproof, and both carry risks. But unless the West is clear about what strategy to pursue against Russia’s aggressive postures, diplomacy is likely to fail.
The West’s attempts to deter the current impasse have so far taken two forms. First, there are the immediate steps to prevent further Russian military incursions into Ukraine, however minor they may appear. The measures under threat range from potentially devastating economic consequences as the first “Russian tip” crosses the border, to military assistance to Ukraine and massive reinforcements on NATO’s eastern flank. The US and UK have also used a form of ‘disclosure as a deterrent’, exposing alleged Russian plots – such as plans to install pro-Russian leaders in Kiev or launch a false flag or even an attack made in eastern Ukraine – before they took place to prevent Moscow from going all the way. Second, more general deterrence measures, ranging from increased Allied defense spending to consultations with Sweden and Finland on closer cooperation with NATO, have enhanced NATO readiness, strength and solidarity. alliance since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
These are worthy actions in themselves. But they overlook the fact that deterrence as a strategy against Russia has already failed many times over the past 15 years – most recently in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Europe. Ukraine, but also in 2008 with the military incursion into Georgia and in 2007 with large-scale cyberattacks in Estonia. It seems clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a mission to revise the regional and global security architecture. It’s no surprise, then, that deterrence is once again failing, with Ukraine surrounded by Russian forces and Putin writing down his sphere of influence demands.
An important but limited deterrent objective remained intact: that of an armed attack against any NATO ally. But even the record here is mixed. Even though NATO added cyberattacks and hybrid warfare to its Article V security assurance in 2014 and 2016, respectively, NATO allies have experienced persistent hybrid attacks outside of warfare, election interference in the United States to the use of chemical weapons banned on British soil. . Putin is already deploying the same playbook against Ukraine, including cyberattacks.
This record suggests that it will take more than deterrence to stop Russian revisionism. For its part, Moscow has long moved from deterrence to coercion in its efforts to force NATO to return its forces to their positions before the alliance’s expansion to former Soviet bloc countries in 1997. In fact, the whole manufactured crisis around Ukraine is an exercise in coercion: Gathering an invasion force and issuing maximalist demands, Putin is playing a game of “chicken” designed to get NATO to change tack. cap.
“If the West wants to not only simply prevent the next incursion, but also change Russian behavior, the strategic challenge becomes primarily one of restraint, not deterrence.”
As such, if the West not only simply wants to prevent the next incursion, but also halts or reverses this established trajectory of Russian behavior, the strategic challenge becomes primarily one of coercion, not deterrence.
The difference between the two goes beyond semantics. Schelling’s distinction is based on the initiative being tested. Deterrence puts the ball in the aggressor’s court. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated, Russia “can choose the path of diplomacy…or the path that will lead to conflict.”
The skill requires regaining the initiative by taking the ball and placing it in your own court. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has now declared: “If the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures.” This is what coercion looks like. It’s a game the Russians are familiar with, in part because their broader conception of deterrence includes coercion.
In such a scenario, however, using the language of deterrence only compounds the problem, as each new commitment to deterring Russia’s next encroachment signals de facto acceptance of the previous one. This is why Schelling, in “Arms and Influence”, saw the challenge of ambiguous “low-level” aggression – as the gray area or the hybrid threats and “salami tactics” at which Russia excels – as a challenge of constraint, not of deterrence because it consists in preventing the “continuation” of something that the adversary is already doing.
One of the reasons for the current reluctance of the West to go beyond deterrence may be the assumption that it is a passive strategy, a strategy that preserves the status quo while avoiding unnecessary provocation. But this logic is flawed on two fronts. First, despite NATO’s assurances that it is a “defensive alliance” that “poses no threat to Russia”, the “security dilemma” – in which measures taken to strengthen security on one side urge the other to take countermeasures to close the gap – suggests that Russia has no choice but to take what it sees as alliance encroachment seriously. Second, deterrence is no longer a viable strategy as Russia is already forcibly changing the status quo.
Of course, coercion is more difficult to put into practice than deterrence. On the one hand, it forces the other side to lose face, although skillful use of carrots and diplomacy can soften this blow. And according to “prospect theory,” players already facing losses are likely to have higher risk tolerance. In this case, because Putin is convinced that Ukraine is “moving away” from Russia’s sphere of influence, he is increasingly willing to up the ante to hang on to it. Moreover, the historical record of the use of military coercion to constrain behavior is uneven. One study suggests it was only successful about half the time.
Certain factors are associated with success, such as demonstrating a consistent pattern of engagement, understanding an adversary’s perceptions, and linking clear and specific demands to compelling threats – when it comes to coercion , ambiguity is generally not helpful. Other tactics can undermine coercion. For example, mixing threats of economic sanctions with threats of military action can give the impression that sanctions may follow anyway, leading the adversary to conclude that he is “damned if he does, damned if he does.” ‘he doesn’t’. US opposition to preventive or binding sanctions, which Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky has called for, might therefore be wise.
Sanctions aside, many of the measures the US and NATO are now taking seem designed to constrain them. In addition to moving 3,000 troops to Poland and Romania, the United States canceled plans to sail the USS Harry S. Truman carrier battle group to the Indo-Pacific, keeping it in the Mediterranean and placing it under the command of NATO for the first time since the cold. War. European military units are being reassigned from other duties to NATO’s eastern flank, while the British aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is already on its way to the Arctic. France is preparing to deploy a new NATO Enhanced Forward Presence, or EFP, battlegroup to Romania, another “triggering” force to demonstrate NATO allies’ commitment to frontline member states. line by putting “the skin in the game”. Next week’s meeting of NATO defense ministers could lead to further deployments.
These movements point to another factor contributing to the success of military coercion: the movement of forces “from outside to inside” the theater of concern – see the effect of Russian forces moving west, for example. In this light, NATO’s actions offer serious potential for collective strength. But framing them as meant to “ensure and deter” undermines the constraint and leaves the important ball of initiative in Putin’s court.
Of course, compulsion isn’t just about hard power. Seen from Moscow, the West’s continued support for Ukrainian democracy and the path to Western integration is a powerful strategy of coercion in itself. That’s basically how we got here.
It is important to note the risks of coercion, which can push the other side “to the brink”. This is on purpose, in order to change the opponent’s calculation. As Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, puts it, “Without the prospect of confrontation… [Putin] would have no reason to abandon its goal of controlling Ukraine and undermining NATO. Yet there are also risks in pursuing a deterrence strategy that is already failing. These are the hard choices facing leaders in times of crisis.
Now is the time for the United States and NATO to decide whether they are trying to deter Putin from further incursions or force him to change course. This is not to say that duress is necessarily the wisest course in this case, given the risks of escalation. It is a judgment that belongs to the rulers and to history. What is essential, however, is strategic clarity. In particular, talking about deterrence while seeking coercion is the worst of both worlds: costly, confusing, and counterproductive.
Russia’s recent actions are the latest in a long campaign of determined revisionism. Changing this trajectory requires coercion, not deterrence. It will be more difficult and riskier, but diplomacy has a better chance of success if the strategy behind it is aligned with the desired outcome.
Sean Monaghan is a visiting scholar in the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he focuses on European security and defence. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMonaghanCSIS.