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.