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WINDS OF WAR AND DILEMMAS OF DETERRENCE

Jan 31, 2022

It is going to be extremely interesting to see how the current sudden geopolitical-cum-military crisis over Ukraine will in the future be evaluated, regardless of but of course depending on the next few weeks´ developments.

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The basic question now concerns dilemmas of deterrence, the strategy of deterrence and the costs of deterrence, whether deterrence is or will be seen as successful or a failure, and in case of failure (partial or total) what the costs will be of having to fulfill, for credibility, whatever was pledged, or threatened, in the effort to deter the adversary´s (threat of) aggression.

Yes, it is complicated, as is any process of action-reaction, but also highly important, for policy analysis. Especially now, with the rather unchartered territory created by the Kremlin´s apparent calculation that now – with the West weakened by political turbulence and isolationist tendencies in the US and diverging interests within European NATO and the EU – is the time to take a dramatic step forward, not only over the position of Ukraine but concerning the whole post-cold war security arrangement. One can speculate that Putin now realizes that he has underestimated the power of counter-productivity and risks clearly undesired and unplanned outcomes.

Is the Kremlin´s threat of invasion – or some other/lesser form of (military) aggression – credible? On this there has evolved a significant difference of opinion between Joe Biden´s US with rather unified NATO following and the country immediately concerned, or threatened, Ukraine. While team Biden speaks of invasion/aggression imminence and declares and prepares drastic countermeasures, including evacuation from Ukraine of non-essential staff and families, team Zelinsky in Kiev openly criticizes unnecessary alarmism on the part of the US & Co, suggesting rather that while the threat is serious – as it has been ever since 2014 – it is not imminent.

Team Zelinsky also hints critically at the Biden administration´s steadfast focus on deterrence – all the drastic consequences that Russia would suffer if (but only if) it attacks, rather than (as demanded by i.a. some prominent GOP:s and other critics in the US) to immediately implement a number of deterring reinforcements, military and economic, in defiance of the counter argument that such concrete measures would seriously risk provoking the other side and making open conflict more rather than less likely.

All this shows that both team Biden and team Zelinsky – pending further clarity on what president Putin is actually planning and hoping to achieve as the tense situation evolves – carry mixed bags regarding deterrence, revealing a significant element of divergent interests. To a certain degree the divergence reminds of the complex US-Israeli relation as regards perceptions of the Iranian threat, Israel being immediately affected as regional neighbor and involved in low-level conflict on a daily basis, US strategically distant, less vulnerable to Iranian means of aggression and deterrence. Ukraine, similarly, is the neighbor with a leadership in need of calming the population through determined resolve and to seize the opportunity for longer-term building of national sovereignty (and Westernization).

So if team Biden´s strategic mixed bag is a combination of deterrence (deterring Russian aggression against Ukraine) and reassurance – reassuring allies mainly in NATO´s eastern flank of the US´ readiness to reinforce their ability to deter further Russian aggression westwards, there is necessarily also the third element, reassuring Russia of a willingness for dialogue on topics of common interest. Combining these three as a – or the – means of diffusing the current acute crisis involves the need to resolve a huge and critical dilemma. For whatever is done now, regardless of whether or not the current crisis leads on, perhaps shortly, to the first major military conflict in Europe since WW2, will necessarily have long-term consequences. That includes the unprecedented economic sanctions now acrimoniously being negotiated within the Alliance, the harsher these sanctions, for deterrence efficiency, the more costly these will be also for economically vulnerable Alliance members, such as Germany, meaning that if deterrence works and the Kremlin backs down the mere threat of these sanctions will remain as a disputed reality for years to come (for reference: North Stream II). And the grim alternative here is that deterrence fails…

Similarly, the now US declared readiness to reinforce east-European allies – initially, for reassurance of allies, with 8 500 troops – can hardly avoid having long-term consequences, including for the question of US longer-term military presence in Europe in relation to elsewhere, notable in the far East to face the prioritized Chinese challenge. And these are critical matters in the polity of the US as team Biden faces seriously difficult mid-term elections this year.

The next few weeks will tell. The importance of these weeks, or months (or days) will no doubt be seen as an important watershed in future analyses. Either way. Deterrence is a complex and risky business, and we must not forget the existence of a nuclear dimension.

Nor must we in Sweden forget that the current acrimonious intra-NATO debate on how to assist Ukraine by best deterring Russian aggression – in whatever format – exemplifies limits to what Alliance members can and will do in support of a non-member but “enhanced opportunities” partner, such as Ukraine, and Sweden and Finland.