Deterring The Deterrers

Deterring Russia is a matter of principle.

Immediately after the Soviet…Whoops, excuse me, Russian invasion of Ukraine, Eastern European members of NATO, such as Estonia, Poland, and Lithuania immediately issued strong condemnations of Putin’s War. Countries on that side of the alliance are welcoming American deployments, and even giving Ukrainian refugees a place to flee.

This shows the power of alliances, something that has been a core tenet of national security since WWII, and is the core DNA of NATO. Formal treaty obligations matter, especially when the treaty members are faced with a common threat. This is exactly the principle that Vladimir Putin feared, and probably unintentionally has strengthened.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, the country never had a chance to enjoy that protection. They face the situation now that Hungary faced in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Absent a formal treaty relationship with outside powers, these countries were helpless when they tried to throw off Soviet domination, and then Soviet tanks rolled in. No amount of empty threats, such as the Eisenhower Administration’s stated policy of rollback (helping Eastern European countries escape the Soviet sphere) and massive retaliation (Americans would bomb the USSR into the proverbial Stone Age if it does anything the US doesn’t like), could save a country that wasn’t integral to US national security interests. In the face of a nuclear-armed adversary like the old USSR, or modern Russia, the US is not going to risk the first step up the nuclear ladder through a direct military confrontation with Moscow. Instead of constraining the aggressor in these cases, what early nuclear theorists like Herman Kahn believed to be the case, the nuclear shield emboldened them.

NATO membership changes that equation entirely. By definition, according to Article 5 of NATO, an attack on any nation, no matter how peripheral or small it might otherwise seem to US national security, is the equivalent of an attack on the United Kingdom, Germany, or the United States itself.

That is, as long as everyone in NATO honors that commitment. When Donald Trump thought aloud about not honoring that commitment, and perhaps pulling out of NATO altogether, it was therefore one of the lowest points in post-WWII collective security.

NATO membership restores the deterrent power of nuclear weapons against aggressors. It reduces the second-guessing — will they or won’t they? It makes it possible to position American and other forces on the borders of Russian power as a trip wire, a further reason that a Russian attack would trigger a dire US and allied response. It’s no surprise, then, that as Russia positioned its forces on Ukraine’s borders, neutral countries like Finland and Sweden began thinking that NATO membership wasn’t a bad thing.

Ultimately, peace and security run on principles. Do we live up to principles that we publicly swear to honor, such as commitments to our allies? Do we commonly agree that violations of sovereignty and the imposition of spheres of influence violate our core principles to the point where we are compelled to act upon them? Do we share the same understanding of past history, most significantly the events before and during WWII, that forms our principles about the importance of standing up to aggressors? We are now seeing, in real time, the importance of these principles played out.

People who believe in pure Realpolitik like to think they are being somehow more realistic in their rejection of principle. Only the most selfishly expressed national interest, as pursued through the rough-edged exercise of independent power, really matters in international affairs. Only the toughest ultimately get what they want. Cynicism, not principle, should guide a nation’s foreign policy.

We’ve seen where that cynicism leads — ironically, in the history of the Soviet empire that Putin wants to restore. What ultimately killed the USSR wasn’t American power, it was cynicism, and the exhaustion to which it leads. Soviet citizens grew tired of a system that was clearly based on lies, oppression, and corruption. Members of the Warsaw Pact grew tired of being dominated by the Soviets, and being placed as the first and most to suffer in a war with the West. In the end, not enough people were willing to defend the system vigorously — not in the empire outside Soviet borders, and not even within the Soviet Union’s borders.

Contrast that sad conclusion with the long history of NATO, which has been held together by principle and agreement, not brutish domination. Principles will not operate perfectly, as critics of US foreign policy are quick and right to point out. But at least there are principles that can shame us, and in our failures drive us to better adherence. We can look at the tragic fates of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and now Ukraine and feel sadness. That’s far better than feeling nothing at all, believing instead in a bleak world where that is just the inevitable fate of the weak in the face of the strong.

We restore deterrence in its correct form — nuclear weapons deter aggressors — from its inverted form — nuclear weapons embolden aggressors — only through principles like collective security, honoring of treaty obligations, and democratically elected governments empowered to pursue these policies. It’s not just nuclear weapons, forward-deployed American troops, and other exercises of power that will deter Putin from future aggression. All of those might just be bluster, as rollback and massive retaliation once were. A principled opposition, which is the essence of NATO, is essential to deterring him. It’s principle that he fears, from the depths of the nihilistic pit in which he lives, and into which he wants to drag the rest of the world.

FILED UNDER: Russia, Ukraine, World Politics, , , , , , ,
Kingdaddy
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    You’re on a roll today, Kingdaddy. Great Post.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    I tend to see it not as realpolitik self interest versus principles but as ignorant short term self interest versus well thought out, long term self interest.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    This shows the power of alliances, something that has been a core tenet of national security since WWII, and is the core DNA of NATO. Formal treaty obligations matter, especially when the treaty members are faced with a common threat.

    WW I also showed the power of alliances.

    I’m not sure whether that strengthens or undermines your argument though — having the continent torn apart by a violent and bloody war because of interlocking alliances causing a minor event to snowball does help show the certainty of the NATO alliance, and the need to prevent the minor event.

    I do think that if the Ukraine invasion doesn’t hurt Putin a lot, he will test to see if we are really willing to go to war over the Baltics.

  4. James Joyner says:

    NATO membership changes that equation entirely. By definition, according to Article 5 of NATO, an attack on any nation, no matter how peripheral or small it might otherwise seem to US national security, is the equivalent of an attack on the United Kingdom, Germany, or the United States itself.

    I am both a foreign policy Realist and one who believes in the power of principle and the duty to honor commitments. It’s why I tended to oppose the post-Cold War expansion of NATO into countries I deemed peripheral to US national security. It’s simply more credible that the American people will rally to fight to preserve the sovereignty of the UK, France, Germany, and other Western European allies—at the potential cost of tens of thousands of lives and a not insignificant risk of nuclear annihilation—than it is that we’ll do so for Estonia, Montenegro, or North Macedonia. Having given them membership, we have a duty to honor Article V. But it’s no guarantee a given President will decide to do so.

  5. @James Joyner:

    It’s simply more credible that the American people will rally to fight to preserve the sovereignty of the UK, France, Germany, and other Western European allies—at the potential cost of tens of thousands of lives and a not insignificant risk of nuclear annihilation—than it is that we’ll do so for Estonia, Montenegro, or North Macedonia.

    I think defending the UK, et al., is an easier sell. I think, however, that defense of NATO regardless of a member state wouldn’t be all that hard of a sell (although trumpism has made it harder).

    Keep in mind it was not hard at all to convince the American public to kick Iraq out of Kuwait (a place most Americans could not have found on the map at the time).

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  6. At this point, I actually think that NATO member is what is keeping Russia out of the Baltics.

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  7. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Seen elsewhere on social media: “If the U.S. wants to freeze Russian assets, how about starting with Mar-a-Lago.”

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I think, however, that defense of NATO regardless of a member state wouldn’t be all that hard of a sell (although trumpism has made it harder).

    My concern is that you have to be over 50 to have any real appreciation for NATO and what it means. Aside from membership/non-membership in the Alliance, I would argue that the US has far more interest in defending Ukraine than it does North Macedonia or Kosovo.

    Keep in mind it was not hard at all to convince the American public to kick Iraq out of Kuwait (a place most Americans could not have found on the map at the time).

    It was actually pretty hard. Even hawks like Sam Nunn opposed it. The AUMF passed the House 250-183 and the Senate 52-47 (albeit, granted, both were majority-Democratic). It became popular once the war started and it went so smoothly.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    At this point, I actually think that NATO member is what is keeping Russia out of the Baltics.

    I agree with that. And, were Ukraine a NATO member, Putin would likely not have invaded. But it’s a hell of a gamble, in that we’d be obliged to risk WWIII on that bet.

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  9. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    There’s more to an alliance than who gets attacked.

    I assume you know far more than I do about military matters. Still, pushing NATO’s boundaries to the Russian border, means the western European powers like France and Germany have a buffer between them and Russia. The addition of the Baltic states makes Russian naval operations in the Baltic and North Sea more difficult.

    Things like that count for a lot.

    Suppose NATO had refused to admit any former Soviet Republics or Warsaw Pact countries. What would they have done to stave off Russian domination? Perhaps joined a political and military alliance with Russia. That’s one possibility: giving in to a little domination to prevent total domination*.

    Better, IMO, to bring these nations into NATO.

    *This is something that has a mixed record. See the Delian League.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy: Oh, there’s a lot in NATO expansion for the countries we’ve added. It’s just that, with the possible exception of Poland, they bring very little to the table in the way of additional security for the US and they bring a hell of a lot in the way of upside risk.

  11. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Kathy:

    What would they have done to stave off Russian domination? Perhaps joined a political and military alliance with Russia. That’s one possibility: giving in to a little domination to prevent total domination*.

    In a way, they already did that.

    When the Soviet Union fell, and Ukraine became an independent state, it instantly became the third largest nuclear power in the world. All those nukes installed in Ukraine suddenly became theirs.

    They unilaterally chose to (completely) disarm their nuclear arsenal in exchange for assurances from, amongst others, Russia that there would be no future hostilities.

    Look where that got them.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Mu Yixiao: As Cheryl Rofer recently reminded us, Ukraine has the weapons but not the codes. And, as an assurance from Bill Clinton isn’t binding on Donald Trump, one from Boris Yeltsin isn’t binding on Vladimir Putin.

  13. dazedandconfused says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    There was as much fear of the materials inside the bombs as the bombs themselves, which could be used to make a very nasty dirty-bomb. At the time of the fall of the USSR Ukraine was as poor as a church mouse and the “government” was mostly chaos. They had people grabbing Russian military gear and selling it to anybody. One could pick up a jet trainer for a couple thousand bucks and fly it out of there, if you found the right person to pay for it. Several rich people did. One sat at our airport for many years, he managed to fly it a couple times but that was about it before the FAA effectively shut him down. He told me he made about twice what he had in it parting it out and selling the rest for scrap.

    The Ukes were not unhappy to be rid of that stuff.

  14. @James Joyner:

    I would argue that the US has far more interest in defending Ukraine than it does North Macedonia or Kosovo.

    Well, sure. But I think you are cherry-picking your counter-examples a bit there.

    And, were Ukraine a NATO member, Putin would likely not have invaded. But it’s a hell of a gamble, in that we’d be obliged to risk WWIII on that bet.

    Agreed (and, of course, why they weren’t admitted in the first place).

  15. Richard Gardner says:

    The Arms Control Association has a decent primer on the various security agreement given to Ukraine 30 years ago for denuclearizing – mostly Russia, USA, and UK (not NATO) https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Ukraine-Nuclear-Weapons
    Regardless China has coveted the Russian Far East, don’t be surprised to see efforts (sabotage) to separate it (train derailments, etc). Lots of pieces and only some of them are USA related.