Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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Putin, Brzezinski, and Deterrence 101

by Janine Davidson
June 19, 2014

putin-ukraine-deterrence Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, June 11, 2014. (Alexei Druzhinin/Courtesy Reuters)


On June 16, I had the opportunity to hear former National Security Adviser (and sage professor) Zbigniew Brzezinski speak at the Wilson Center. He gave an outstanding speech regarding the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine and what the United States and NATO can and should do about it.

For those in the audience (or who read my blog) who may have slept through their deterrence lectures in college, Dr. Brzezinski’s comments were an excellent reminder of the basic logic and mechanics of deterrence.  It’s worth taking a few minutes to watch his speech as he assesses the possible applications and implications of deterrence in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Here are some key takeaways from this particular student’s notes:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want a messy, violent fight in Ukraine; therefore, he can be deterred if he thinks that further aggression on Ukraine—or beyond Ukraine—will lead to exactly this outcome.
  • Avoiding a messy, violent fight is precisely why he can be deterred from advancing on a NATO country; and NATO should act even more assertively to reassure the Baltic states that Article Five protection is alive and well.  European NATO countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, need to send troops on rotations to the Baltics—even in symbolic numbers—to augment those that the Americans have already sent. In this diplomacy of deterrence, he said, “Symbolism is as important as decisiveness.”
  • In an illuminating moment, Dr. Brzezinski says that even though it is not a NATO ally, we can make it clear to Putin that he will also face a messy fight in Ukraine if he tries to invade.  This can only be done by providing military assistance now—and making sure Putin knows that we’re doing it
  • The type of military assistance provided matters—it needs to be the kind that will help Ukrainians resist in an urban environment, which is where this fight will most likely occur. This means giving Ukrainians small arms that regular citizens can use, as well as hand-held, anti-tank weapons.
  • However, if we announce our reluctance to arm the Ukrainians and Putin is led to believe invading will be easy, he is more likely to be tempted to try.  Thus, arming Ukrainians must happen in advance of further aggression, lest the facts on the ground change and we find ourselves trying to compel him to reverse actions already taken.

All of this military effort, assistance, and posturing is in support of diplomatic efforts.  The United States ultimately needs to have discussions with Russia on this critical topic and come to an appropriate compromise.  For its part, the United States should also agree that Ukraine need not become a NATO member—something that has aggravated Putin from the start.

Bottom line, there are military options that can deter without provoking and they need to happen now.  Ironically, trying to avoid escalation and provocation by announcing our intention to avoid militarizing this crisis may induce the opposite effect by tempting Putin to take the easy target.

This is Deterrence 101.  Thank you, Professor Brzezinski.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by aril

    -“he can be deterred from advancing on a NATO country”

    Brzezinski knows that Putin would never be that stupid. He’s plain and simple warmongering. Disgraceful.

    This is nothing but a way for Brzezinski to make his stocks in the military industrial complex rise. The American taxpayers will pay for it.

  • Posted by Dimitri Klimenko

    A previous commentator accused Dr. Brzezinski of “war mongering”. I believe this to be misguided and inaccurate.

    Dr. Brzezinski’s greatest strength is in his thorough understanding of Russian history, motivations, fear, ambitions and insecurity of its historic, as well as current, place in history. Putin is currently making his “play” to reassert Russian power in Europe, as well as the world. His ambitions are nothing short of reconquering the territories of “Great Russia”, in a manner fit for 19th Century colonialism and expansion. Dr. Brzezinski understands this on a personal and geopolitical level.

    As for discussions regarding force and military deterrence, it is completely appropriate, as Russia has never fully understood Western-styled diplomacy. They played the game, but they didn’t comprehend the language. Unfortunately, blunt force has been a means of expression accepted and used throughout the culture and its history.

    Dr. Brzezinski’s ideas on providing arms to Ukraine and shoring up defenses in the Baltics are the symbolism and action Russia will quickly understand. As the Russian populous has been whipped into a near Stalin-era frenzy and wanting blood, swift action may be needed Current economic sanctions are almost worthless. Even if Great Britain were to tighten the screws on Russian banking and finances, it would not provide the rapid response needed in this situation.

    The conversation of force and military deterrence is not a first option for Western countries and NATO allies, but it has been thrust upon us by the blunt force and opportunism employed by Russia.

    Dr. Brzezinski recognizes the urgent nature of the current crisis and it would be wise to heed his advice. It’s reassuring that Ms. Davidson understands these nuances and represents the next generation of leaders who will have to contend with future conflicts.

  • Posted by autoidea

    NATO is not a danger to Russia, unless Russia (or Iran or Syria) brings it upon itself by being an agressor. For being a bully, you get your wrists slapped – simple as that.

  • Posted by Vlad

    What a tool.
    One thing for sure. Russia should never trust America ever again and do everything possible to undermine USD and American position in Europe. Frankly, the whole of US status as super power depends upon 2 things. USD and continuing EU support.

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