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On the Issue of Resilience, Deterrence and the Readiness to Accept Casualties

Aug 10, 2023

The West needs to speak even more openly about its resilience – also in view of the need to promote deterrence - and instill a greater level of urgency in implementing decisions about civil defense and preparedness. The Russian readiness to escalate the war against Ukraine, including through hybrid warfare - with consequences far beyond the current area of battle - must not be underestimated. At the same time Russian decisionmaker(s) would do well not to underestimate the Western resolve to protect its vital interests. This alone is vital for deterrence.

But what do we know about Russian intentions?

In an earlier article, the Russian debate about the possible use of nuclear weapons was briefly discussed as an example of an issue intensely studied in the West. A high-ranking former NATO military expert could be quoted arguing that he would know more or less precisely what the Russian General staff would recommend to the President. But he would have no idea what decisions would be made by Putin.

Similar problems faced the Western intelligence community during the Second World War, and many prominent social scientists were recruited to find ways of inferring intentions from German propaganda and military actions to forecast Hitler's decisions. An essential volume with the title Propaganda analysis discussing a possible methodology was published by Alexander L. George in 1956. It can be seen as an important precursor to extensive academic work, not least in Sweden, about content analysis.

A disappointing conclusion from this work was the difficulty to infer intentions from quantitative analysis. Of course, artificial intelligence was not available then, so "manual" qualitative analysis became the answer, an extremely personal intensive effort. And anyone trying today to ask an AI app about current Russian intentions will most likely get the answer that the robot is not trained to deal with problems of the future.


The readiness to accept casualties – a key parameter

Moving beyond the issue of the possible use of nuclear weapons, there is a related issue of vital importance concerning the effectiveness of deterrence in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine, inferences about the willingness – on both sides - to accept casualties and other costs of the war.

In the file of lessons learned from the war against Ukraine, it is already clear that this question will figure prominently in the discussion. And this is by far not yet a question of the past. In fact, already when raising the nuclear question, the issue of the willingness to accept projected casualties is an important component of the analysis.

Content analysis aside, studies will most likely show that something has happened on the Western side in terms of resilience, from the pandemic onwards. A greater sense of confidence has been created in countries, including in Sweden, about the possibilities to survive hardships already during the pandemic and even more during the current war. Russian forecasts about Europe, crumbling, being totally divided over what could and should be done in response to the Russian aggression have been already proven wrong, as has in a spectacular way, Russian interpretations of Ukrainian resilience.

Lessons learned, however, will probably also include a tendency on the Western side to underestimate what it takes to undermine Russian resilience, and more specifically, the intentions of the President of the Russian Federation to continue the war during a period of attrition and possibly even escalation. In this regard, the Russian propaganda machine makes every effort to confuse Western analysts, including by allowing a wide range of different messages to be published by academics, military, bloggers, and official representatives. In the West, this has led to the need to open earlier academic studies in the bookshelf which goes far beyond content analysis. The need to reconsider the effectiveness for instance of sanctions has become obvious – a topic extensively studied notably in Sweden. Any analysis of the Soviet/Russian resilience during the Second World War would also indicate that the current war still has affected Russian society in a relatively limited way.

Western intelligence, notably in the United States and the UK, scored important successes when it came to forecasting the Russian aggression against Ukraine from the start. But important lessons are to be learned about Russian capabilities to implement the decisions taken. The decision to attack Kyiv indicated that the Russian President was willing to take major risks when exposing the bulk of the existing Russian military capabilities to the dangers involved in attacking a country the size of Ukraine, which had already been preparing for a new war over eight years.

One does not need to be a scientist to guess some of the reasons why this catastrophic decision was taken by Putin: many have tried to tell him what he wanted to hear. And Putin himself has most likely closed his ears to people who tried to tell him what he did not want to hear. Once he was into the war, his decisions may have been more reactive, tactical rather than proactive and strategic, as often is the case in wars - compare with President Johnson's reactive decisions to escalate the Vietnam war. And then comes the issue of prestige - the need to defend earlier decisions, and the need to describe earlier actions as successes.

At the same time, there has been the obvious need to keep everyone on their toes, destabilizing hierarchies, and even publicly humiliating top officials. There may also be an element of overestimating threats motivating risky, pre-emptive responses. There may be an element of lack of continuity when listening to the last person in the room. We also know, of course, from studies of the Cuban missile crisis that priorities and perceptions of leaders may drastically change over days and hours. They are also humans and can be affected by doubt, etcetera.


Horizontal escalation to reduce Western resilience

The war, as it looks now seems like a war of attrition with images reminding of photographs from the trenches of the First World War. Conclusions to be drawn from this no doubt point to one important way ahead for Putin which already is substantiated by a number of propaganda analysts, not least in the EU, of a global hybrid war against Western interests, seeking to destabilize Western resilience, and confuse the West in its focus on the war effort in support of Ukraine. That Russia implements these policies in close coordination with Iran and China can be taken for granted. That this may include recruitment and support to proxies seeking to influence the American elections in 2024, seeking to provoke another wave of migration from the south, seeking to undermine NATO, through the burning of Qurans etcetera is more than likely. We also probably have to get used to the idea that organized crime will be paid as another type of private armies, undermining stability. Weapons and munitions sent to Ukraine are likely to reappear in explosions and shootings in Western countries, including Sweden. Dangerous destabilizing developments are taking place in Sahel, but also inside Europe. The North Korean link to organized crime in Europe is already such a well-developed methodology that it alone would motivate the recent visit of the Russian defense minister to Pyongyang.

The conclusion is that the West needs to speak even more openly about its resilience – also in view of the need to promote deterrence - and instill a greater level of urgency in implementing decisions about civil defense and preparedness. We can take the example from Ukraine, but also from countries like Poland, and one can argue, Finland - all very likely to be highly respected in Moscow given the amount of determination there is in society to protect freedom and the hard-fought sovereignty of these states and peoples. The mere fact that Poland is going ahead towards spending 4% of its GDP on defense is a case in point. In Sweden, of course, hard questions about capabilities to protect the population in crises requiring massive treatment of casualties must be answered. We need to assume that whatever our possibilities to infer the intentions of Putin, there is hardship ahead, beyond the climate crisis and possible future pandemics.


Lars-Erik Lundin