Arguments that Ukraine can deploy effective deterrents to further Russian escalation of conflict miss crucial realities about the logic of deterrence and coercion. While many, including VoxUkraine, have offered innovative and creative ways that Ukraine can attempt to deter Russia, most of these policies would do far greater damage to Ukraine than Russia, a fact that undermines their deterrent capacity. The imbalance in economic and military power is too great for even the cleverest “red button” deterrents to overcome, leading to the conclusion that Russia is unlikely to be deterred from acting as it pleases in Ukraine.
The recent republication of VoxUkraine’s editorial from September 22, 2014 entitled “Can Ukraine play MAD with Russia?” warrants a reassessment in light of the fact that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues without end in sight, with many of the conditions that anchored VoxUkraine’s initial analysis still in play. While well articulated with many compelling points, the editorial nonetheless is open to a variety of critiques based on certain underlying assumptions and empirical developments on the ground since it was originally published last September.
The Editorial Board’s argument is premised on the logic of deterrence, noting that “the experience of the Cold War teaches us that there are a number of policies Ukraine could follow to make the prospect of a war so costly for Russia that it will not invade Ukraine openly and en masse.” Deterrence is, of course, a type of coercion in which one party threatens significant pain in order to compel another party to take a certain action. Or, in the case of deterrence, it is a coercive threat to inflict pain in order to compel another to refrain from taking an action.
Thomas Schelling’s 1966 classic, Arms and Influence lays out the chilling logic of deterrence and coercion in the introductory chapter titled, “The Diplomacy of Violence.” Considering “the power to hurt” to be “among the most impressive attributes of military force,” Schelling asserts that “It is the threat of damage…that can make someone yield or comply. It is latent violence that can influence someone’s choice – violence that can still be withheld or inflicted.”
Thus, the power of the nuclear deterrent – and the stabilizing force of mutually assured destruction (MAD) rests on the ability to credibly commit to a devastatingly painful second strike retaliation in the event that a first nuclear strike is launched against another nuclear power. The threat of unimaginably painful and destructive retaliation is thus sufficient to coerce one state into abstaining from a nuclear first strike.
The Editors fully understand this grim logic in their article but take the argument one step further and offer the historical counterfactual that “If Ukraine had nuclear weapons, the current Russian aggression and threats would almost certainly have never happened.” This argument, however, fails to appreciate what most experts on international security have come to appreciate: the only thing that nuclear weapons are good for are to deter the use of other nuclear weapons. Put another way, nuclear weapons deter nuclear attacks, but the historical record shows that they are of surprisingly limited use beyond that purpose. Barry Posen, one of the preeminent scholars of international security at MIT notes this fact, noting that “since the end of World War II, no nuclear power has found a way to use nuclear threats to achieve offensive strategic objectives.” In fact, they have arguably served limited defensive or deterrent purposes against conventional threats as well. The Soviet Union was not deterred from involvement against a nuclear-armed United States in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, nor was China deterred from involvement in Vietnam. More to the point, the United States was undeterred in escalating those conflicts even though it faced – through proxies – nuclear-armed adversaries. More directly, India and Pakistan have fought multiple conventional wars since both acquired nuclear weapons.
This is perhaps a long way of arguing that even if Ukraine had maintained the nuclear arsenal that was forfeited as part of the Budapest agreement in 1994, it is unlikely that such an arsenal would have successfully deterred the Russian invasion and conventional war that Russia launched in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine twenty years later. This is because a successful coercive threat depends on both the capacity to inflict violence and the resolve to do so.
In an alternate reality where a nuclear armed Ukraine threatens Russia with a nuclear first strike in the event of a Russian invasion, it does so knowing that it will be subject to the massive nuclear retaliation of which Russia is capable. By virtue of massive differences in the size of their territories, populations, and (hypothetical) nuclear arsenals, the proportional pain and destruction for Ukraine would inevitably far exceed that of Russia.
If Russia and Ukraine both understand that following through on the nuclear threat would result in the destruction of Ukraine, would that really be a credible deterrent threat?
To their credit, the Editors understand that this counterfactual of a nuclear armed Ukraine is just that, and that we are dealing with untestable hypotheticals. However, they make the intriguing case that the logic of coercion and deterrence can be carried into the conventional realm, suggesting several creative means by which Ukraine could inflict pain on Russia in an attempt to deter the latter from further military intervention.
Unfortunately, their suggestions for a variety of “red button” threats meant to deter Russian escalation all suffer from the same underlying issue raised in the nuclear scenario above: each method – intended to inflict sufficient pain on Russia in order to compel it to change its behavior – simultaneously inflicts far greater proportional pain on Ukraine, thus severely diminishing the credibility and effectiveness of the threat.
The first “red button” that the Editors suggest is what has been labeled by some scholars as the “transit weapon:” They argue that Russia’s well-known dependency on energy sales, combined with the fact that half of Russian gas exports to Europe transit Ukraine, “together imply that Ukraine has the capacity to deal a huge economic hit to Russia by disrupting the country’s energy exports through its territory.” While a loss of transit routes through Ukraine would no doubt be painful, would it cause the devastating pain necessary to force a change in Russian policy toward Ukraine? Unlikely: Russia has alternative export pipelines that circumvent Ukraine. They also have an unlikely – if uncomfortable – ally in the European countries that depend on gas that transits Ukraine. How long would Europe stand to freeze in solidarity with Ukraine if the latter were responsible for energy shortages, no matter how just the cause?
Furthermore, we must take into account the cost to Ukraine of using the “transit weapon,” the most obvious of which is that Ukraine will cut itself off from Russian gas supplies. While improvements in reverse flow capacity have the potential to reduce Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy, the fact remains that Kyiv is still heavily dependent on Russian gas. This reality – that Ukraine’s use of the transit “red button” would inflict severe pain on a Ukrainian population already gripped by economic crisis – seriously calls into question its effectiveness as a coercive threat. For better or for worse, what started out as a hypothetical debate has the potential to become an empirical question this winter: on 1 July 2015, Gazprom announced that it was suspending gas supplies to Ukraine a day after Kyiv announced that it was halting purchases of Russian gas. While Kyiv can withstand the warm summer months without Moscow’s gas, experts note that Russian gas will be necessary in order to get through the cold winter. While not a perfect empirical test of the transit “red button” argument, the eventual resolution (or failure) of this episode will reveal important information about which country is better able to bear the cost of shutting off the gas. See which blinks first (concedes the most concessions in an eventual deal) and you’ll have your answer.
The second “red button” that the Editors suggest depends on leveraging the historical and contemporary interdependence of Ukraine and Russia’s military-industrial complexes. This interdependence, they argue Ukrainian firms “might possess some highly sensitive information which, should it end up in NATO’s hands, could compromise the Russian nuclear arms capabilities.” To their credit, the editors not that this is conjecture as the “do not have the full picture on either the nature of the sensitive information in Ukraine’s hands, or the extent of the damage that could be inflicted to Russia by divulging this information to NATO.” Conjecture aside, one wonders how such information (whatever that may be – it’s hard to say without concrete examples) would be operationally useful to Ukrainian forces. Take the example offered by the Editors: disruption of Russian nuclear forces.
Given that there is a miniscule likelihood that Russia would launch a nuclear first strike against a non-nuclear Ukraine whose population it hopes will see Russia as an “elder brother,” it is hard to imagine how such “information” could be used by Ukraine in a way that alters the parameters of the conventional war on the ground.
Furthermore, setting aside nuclear weapons, it is important to remember that interdependence of the sort that the Editors offer as a “red button” works in both directions: for ever secret of Russian weaponry that Ukraine holds, it is likely that Russia holds a secret about Ukraine’s capabilities.
Finally, the Editors raise the possibility of a Ukrainian blockade of Crimea as an extreme last-ditch “red button” to deter further Russian aggression in Ukraine. By taking the drastic step of cutting off electricity, food, and water supplies to the region, they argue that this could incite civil unrest and dissent within Russia, ultimately forcing Putin to back down. This argument misreads Russia’s interests and intentions in serious ways. First, there can be little doubt that Vladimir Putin and a majority of Russians now view Crimea as sovereign Russian territory. They would respond to such a blockade with the same determination and force as they would if another Russian border city were seized or surrounded by a foreign military. And there is little question that they would prevail militarily in such a scenario, leaving the Ukrainian military battered and demoralized. Regardless of which side held the moral high ground in global public opinion, the tragedy of great power politics is that “might makes right,” a lesson taught by the strong to the weak since Athens wiped the good people of Melos off their island in 415 B.C.
Second, a Ukrainian blockade of Crimea would give Russia the justification and motivation to push further along the Black Sea coast through Mariupol and beyond in order to establish a land link between Russia and Crimea via rebel-held territories in Eastern Ukraine. Because it would be an intervention in defense of Russian territory (i.e. Crimea) this operation would likely be undertaken by highly trained Russian military units like those that carried out the invasion of Crimea rather than the rebel proxies that Moscow has relied on in Eastern Ukraine. And the operation would surely succeed, leaving Ukraine worse off than before.
Thus, we arrive at the dispiriting conclusion that each of the creative “red buttons” proposed by the VoxUkraine Editors are likely to result in a worse situation for Ukraine than had she not pressed the button. Nor, unfortunately, are western infusions of defensive weapons likely to offer hope as “red buttons” either, as I have argued elsewhere. This reminds us of the depressing reality that sometimes there are simply no “red buttons” big enough to deter great powers. It is a painful lesson that Ukraine learns today, as the neighbors of great powers have learned over the centuries.
Robert Person is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He holds a PhD in political science from Yale University, as well as an MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from Stanford University. His research focuses on democratization and authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union, nationalism, and Eurasian security issues. Recent publications include, “Potholes, Pensions, and Public Opinion: The Politics of Blame in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs (2015) and “Resisting Hegemony: Transformations of National Identity under Foreign Occupation,” Kellogg Institute for International Studies (2014). He has also is a regular contributor to the Moscow Times on Russian politics and the conflict in Ukraine. His current book project, entitled Deconstructing Democracy, explores the ways in which the post-Soviet economic collapse durably shaped citizens beliefs about and support for democracy and dictatorship across the post-Soviet space.