Putin’s Ukraine Invasion Showed Biden’s Failure at Deterrence

13 April 2022 12:00:00 - Last updated: 13 April 2022 14:38:04

By Hal Brands

Foreign policy suddenly has a very retro feel. A US president visits Europe to give a soaring speech on the fate of human freedom. An adversary is threatening nuclear war to intimidate the West. The dream of a fully integrated global system is crashing as geopolitical tensions break the world into rival blocs. It all seems so Cold War.

Not the least of these historical echoes is that America’s chief strategic task is once again deterring aggression by hostile, well-armed great powers.

Deterrence is coercion, pure and simple: It is the craft of preventing harm by threatening harm. That technique was a vital part of Cold War statecraft, when the US sought to keep the peace by threatening to inflict appalling destruction on the Soviet Union in the event of war. And following an anomalous quarter century in which the threat of great-power conflict receded dramatically, the war in Ukraine has given the dilemmas of deterrence immediacy anew.

President Joe Biden’s administration has offered its answer to this problem: “integrated deterrence.” That concept has many facets, but its key tenet is that deterrence requires synchronizing all tools of American power — military, economic, diplomatic and otherwise — into a package of pain that no rival wants to suffer. The Ukraine crisis shows that integrated deterrence has potential — but also that it has real drawbacks, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not, in fact, deterred.

After a generation of great-power peace, the US is relearning one of the Cold War’s dark arts. Given the way the world is trending, Washington had better be a quick study.

Deterrence Is Coercion

Deterrence requires both the capability and the will to make an adversary pay for aggression. Yet the perception is arguably more important than the reality. What the enemy thinks one can and will do matters most. Deterrence is principally about the threat of action rather than action itself: Once you are implementing the threat you have made, deterrence has failed.

Experts typically distinguish between two different, but not mutually exclusive, forms of deterrence. “Deterrence by denial” seeks to prevent an adversary from attacking by convincing him that he will fail. “Deterrence by punishment” seeks to prevent an adversary from attacking by promising that, even if he succeeds, he will pay an intolerable price.

As I write in “The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today,” the US-Soviet contest gave Americans a decades-long education in deterrence. It forced them to master so-called extended deterrence — how to prevent Moscow from attacking vulnerable countries located thousands of miles from the US.

America’s answer was a three-part package made up of alliances such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization, supported by forward-stationed forces in Cold War hot spots like West Germany and South Korea, all backed up by threats of nuclear escalation.

In essence, Washington erected an elaborate global security system and crafted intricate theories of nuclear statecraft to deter a potentially catastrophic war. It also developed a cadre of strategists who devoted their lives to understanding these issues. One of the greatest, the economist Thomas Schelling, coined the idea of deterrence as a “competition in risk-taking” — a game of who could use credible threats of escalation to force the adversary into restraint.

After the Cold War, deterrence fell from this intellectual and policy prominence. One reason was that America’s military dominance meant that deterrence by denial seemed easy, even automatic: There was no question Washington could defeat China or Russia, let alone Iraq or Iran, in a major war. And deterrence got little thought in the war on terrorism because it seemed impossible: How does one deter a suicide bomber who is willing to die for his beliefs?

This atrophy is no longer acceptable. Long-term military buildups by Russia and especially China have made wars in Eastern Europe or the Western Pacific a more frightening prospect. Moscow and Beijing appear to be laying plans to use nuclear weapons as tools of geopolitical revisionism, by threatening the US and its allies with limited nuclear strikes if they intervene in wars of regional conquest. The inescapable challenge of this era is preventing autocratic powers from reordering the regions around them by force.

In 2018, President Donald Trump’s administration warned that a shifting military balance would “challenge our ability to deter aggression.” Biden’s team has taken matters a step further, making integrated deterrence the centerpiece of its National Defense Strategy, which was sent to Congress last week along with the White House’s budget proposal.

Deterrence for the 21st Century

To proponents, integrated deterrence is about bringing deterrence into the 21st century. The Pentagon concedes that the US won’t recover the degree of outright military overmatch it had in the 1990s. So Washington must strengthen its deterrent punch by pulling together a wider range of capabilities.

This means multilateralizing deterrence — for example, tying Washington more closely to key allies in the Indo-Pacific so that Chinese aggression would result in a big, regional war that Beijing cannot easily control. It involves integrating capabilities across different domains, such as better synchronizing the use of air power and sea power with the ability to defend and attack in cyberspace. Integrated deterrence is meant to span the spectrum of conflict, by focusing the US on threats ranging from incremental coercion to high-intensity warfare.

Deterrence must also be integrated across theaters. The US can use its global reach to punish China, perhaps by cutting off its energy supplies, if Beijing attacks Taiwan.

Most important, integrated deterrence involves using many tools of national power. There may be scenarios — the seizure by China of one of the offshore islands claimed by Taiwan — where a military response is infeasible and financial or technological threats must suffice. To deter major war, the US must complement a military response with all the devastating nonmilitary pain it can inflict. Integrated deterrence headlines America’s defense strategy, but it can’t be carried out by the Pentagon alone.

There is little to object to here, in theory. The US will indeed need global strengths to beat back aggression by rivals engaged in local aggression. The more tightly Washington is coupled to Japan and Australia, the less tempted China will be to try to pick off rivals one by one. The global dominance of the dollar, US power over key technological supply chains, and other non-military strengths offer tremendous coercive leverage that US officials must exploit.

In practice, however, implementation has been rocky. Integrated deterrence was devised mostly with China and peace in the Pacific in mind. But it has been first tested by Russia, in a crisis that has reminded us that nonmilitary punishment works best as a complement to military denial, not a substitute for it.

The Putin Paradox

When it became clear, in late 2021, that Putin was mobilizing for a potential invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration faced a dilemma. America has a compelling interest in preventing revisionist powers from destabilizing the global system through large-scale aggression — and in preventing Russia from overrunning Ukraine and threatening NATO’s entire eastern periphery.

Yet Ukraine is not a US treaty ally. It is located on the wrong side of the world for a superpower hoping to focus on China. It was being threatened by a dictator with a penchant for risk-taking and thousands of nuclear weapons. And America’s military posture in Europe was so minimal that the Pentagon might have anticipated great difficulty defending Ukraine even had Biden wanted to. The result was a deep, and obvious, ambivalence in US policy.

US officials repeatedly stated that they sought to deter Putin from invading. Yet Biden simultaneously took the use of force off the table early in the crisis. This left the administration relying on a form of deterrence that was very creative but not very integrated.

The administration began with “deterrence by disclosure” — the release of detailed intelligence to reveal Putin’s plans, frustrate his deceptions and rally an international coalition. This enabled Washington and its allies to threaten Russia with sharp, multilateral economic sanctions.

The administration also promised that Moscow would suffer adverse strategic consequences, such as additional US and NATO force deployments in Eastern Europe. Finally, the West rapidly bolstered Ukrainian military capabilities, raising the price Russia would pay if Putin pounced.

This was classic deterrence by punishment. The US was not threatening to prevent Russia from conquering Ukraine — the military element of integrated deterrence was absent. Biden was threatening Putin with a bundle of penalties that would leave Russia weaker even if it accomplished its military objectives.

When Putin attacked, in late February, the democratic world showed, as one US official put it, that the US and its allies could indeed use their economic power to “absolutely pummel aggressors.” Official and private-sector sanctions are causing shortages of basic goods and a degree of financial and technological isolation Moscow clearly did not expect. The US has pursued a “new kind of economic statecraft with the power to inflict damage that rivals military might,” Biden has said. Meanwhile, Ukrainian resistance, bolstered by Western weapons, has put Moscow in a military vise.

Yet it is hard to take seriously the Pentagon’s boast that “integrated deterrence comes out smelling pretty good,” because Putin — in invading Ukraine — did exactly what America tried to prevent him from doing. And had Putin been less greedy, ordered only a limited operation in Donbas or elsewhere, he might have succeeded in grabbing Ukrainian territory without suffering global blowback. So why did integrated deterrence fail?

Biden Said Too Much

One answer involves an inherent problem with deterrence-by-punishment — it can be hard to signal, before an act of aggression, how bad the eventual punishment will be. Had the West credibly and explicitly threatened to do what it actually did — killing the Nord Stream II pipeline, sanctioning Russia’s central bank, booting Russian financial institutions from the SWIFT global payments system, and so on — perhaps Putin might have reconsidered. As Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted, “No one” in Moscow anticipated “what sanctions the West might apply.”

The problem, though, was that not even Western officials knew how far they would go until Putin tried to erase Ukraine from the map. By the time that reaction came, deterrence had already failed.

A second answer is that Washington botched the application of deterrent threats. To be clear, Biden mostly deserves high marks in managing this crisis. The administration is waging an extremely successful proxy war against Russian forces. But Biden’s declaratory policy — the effort to shape Putin’s incentives through precisely worded statements — has been a disaster.

While it is undoubtedly important to avoid a great-power military showdown over Ukraine, removing any threat of American intervention simply ensured that Putin didn’t have to worry about matters getting out of hand. Similarly, Biden’s offhand remark that the allies would simply bicker among themselves in the event of a “limited incursion” was probably accurate — and it probably gave Putin hope that he could split the opposing coalition.

The third answer is the most sobering. Perhaps Putin simply valued the subordination of Ukraine, and the restoration of a Russian empire, so highly that anything short of the threat of a major war with the West would have failed to move him. If so, then the one thing that might have deterred Putin was the one thing that US and Western officials were unwilling — whether wisely or unwisely — to contemplate.

Calculated Risks

That’s a problem, because Ukraine isn’t the last great-power military crisis the US will face. The threat of economic and financial sanctions alone probably won’t prevent Xi Jinping from attacking Taiwan, in part because it would be far harder for the democratic world to do to China — with its larger, more globally integrated economy — what it has done to Russia. Even if Putin doesn’t attack a NATO country, he or a successor could provoke another showdown in Eastern Europe involving Finland, Sweden or Belarus.

Moreover, deterrence doesn’t stop when the war begins, and America still faces hard questions about how to deter Russia in Ukraine. As Moscow struggles to achieve its objectives, it could take several actions — employing chemical weapons, striking neighboring states that support Ukraine, or further escalating its brutal siege tactics — that would dramatically increase the damage or even lead to a wider war.

So far, however, Biden has been wobbly in applying the calculated risk-taking that deterrence requires.

When Putin first raised the alert status of his nuclear forces, Biden canceled a scheduled US missile test — a demonstration of responsibility, but also of a proclivity for restraint when confronted with even the vaguest risk of escalation. Then, on March 11, Biden promised to defend “every inch of NATO,” while also pledging to stay out of Ukraine at all costs, given that intervention would cause “World War III.”

Of course, saying that virtually nothing could prompt direct US intervention in Ukraine may make Putin feel that he has license to escalate. And if any war with Russia would indeed be “World War III,” then would Washington really defend even its NATO allies in a crisis?

Biden has subsequently tried to clean up some of these statements, and his administration may be signaling privately that there are forms of escalation it will not tolerate. Yet when it comes to a problem we haven’t faced in decades — deterring major aggression by a nuclear-armed adversary — America is still shaking off the rust.

Lessons of Ukraine

Fortunately, things aren’t all bleak. If Putin’s army gets mauled as badly as now seems possible, then his capacity for fresh outrages will be reduced for years. Conflict in Ukraine has certainly shown that conquering large swaths of territory is hard, particularly against a resolved, capable defender — an insight that one hopes China will take to heart.

But the true lesson of Ukraine may be that there is no shortcut to deterrence. Sure, nonmilitary tools give the US added ability to pummel the bad guys. Yet if Washington and its allies lack the military capability and will to blunt Russian or Chinese aggression, then the promise of economic pain may not suffice to keep the peace.

And if America is to deter its adversaries effectively, it must avoid the trap of forgetting that those adversaries fear escalation as much as we do, and thus suffering from asymmetric timidity in a crisis.

Deterrence, whether integrated or otherwise, is still fundamentally a competition in risk-taking. That’s an ugly truth that Biden and his successors will need to relearn, and fast.