Let’s ask… ‘After the Crimea: ¿towards a new deterrence?’


The crisis with Russia over the Crimea and the Ukraine in general has led the EU and NATO to start re-thinking the concept of deterrence, although in a very different context from that of the Cold War. Re-thinking has only just begun, given the current events and in view of the forthcoming NATO Summit in Cardiff in September. We have asked two experts about it.

Henrik Ø. Breitenbauch | Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies, Copenhagen University (Denmark)

Whatever the results of the pact agreed upon by the US, Russia, Ukraine and the EU on -17 April, it is clear that Western relations with Russia have entered a new phase. Even though the crisis has subsided somewhat and all parties are nervously looking forward to the 25 May elections in the Ukraine, crisis management will continue to be the order of the day. But in the wake of the Ukraine, a ‘new strategic reality’ will have dawned on the European region as noted in an important speech by NATO’s Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow on 4 April. According to Vershbow, this will mark a significant point, since for the first time since the end of the Cold War NATO will be ‘forced to consider Russia less of a partner and more of an adversary’. Likewise, SACEUR Philip Breedlove referred to a ‘new paradigm in the activity of the Russian forces’ in his press conference remarks on 16 April after the announcement of a NATO initiative to strengthen collective defence. As SACEUR noted, the new deployment, to be maintained until the end of the year, is defensive in nature and aimed at reassuring the appropriate allies. Even so, it seems clear that NATO is bound to rediscover the tenets –and challenges– of deterrence, including the conventional option, in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.

Importantly, the US government is already revisiting containment, in a ‘retrofitting for a new age’ of George Kennan’s concept. According to the The New York Times, President Obama has concluded that there is little prospect of a productive relationship with President Putin and that the best thing to do is to minimise the disruption Putin’s government is pursuing in order to save energy for attending to other more promising foreign policy agendas. The trouble with this approach is that it does little to acknowledge that a fundamental shift has taken place in the geopolitics of European security and that the ensuing transformation of the underlying mechanisms and policies will pose real political and strategic problems and take time to master in practical and leadership terms. A superficial return to a vague form of containment cannot just be implemented at the political level. Large military and ultimately political repercussions follow from such a choice, including how to implement conventional deterrence and assurance in appropriate ways. Western leaders, including President Obama, are likely to be disappointed if they presume that a toning down of the Ukraine crisis will also imply a return to almost normal conditions in European security.

Enrique Ayala | General (ret’d) and Fellow, Fundación Alternativas (Madrid)

The annexation of Crimea by Russia, adding to the precedent of Georgia in 2008, has shown Moscow’s willingness to intervene in what it considers its near abroad, in defence of its own interests or of the Russian minorities that remain in these areas following the dissolution of the USSR. The wish of NATO and the EU to support the independence of the countries affected by this threat but, above all, the possibility that the Kremlin’s policy might affect some of their member states –such as the Baltic republics– where there are significant Russian minorities, has forced them to consider the implementation of a new deterrence to compel Russia to respect international law, avoiding an open conflict.

Deterrence requires a capability to respond –adequately and visibly– and the willingness to use it, to a level where the relation between costs and benefits for a hypothetical aggressor becomes negative. These elements provide it with credibility, which is the essence of deterrence, since it only works to the extent that the potential adversary is convinced that the answer will be in the terms announced. The paradigm is nuclear deterrence, which for decades prevented an open war between the USSR and the US. But the Cold War is over. Is it credible today to use nuclear weapons to repel a conventional attack, with the current US Administration? If it is not credible, it is not a deterrent, and therefore it is necessary to resort to conventional deterrence. This requires adequate means –quantitatively and qualitatively–, whether deployed at the borders or with a rapid reaction capability. And today this is beyond the capability of the European nations –where defence budgets have been reduced by the crisis– and even of the US –given its growing interests in Asia–. A deployment such as existed on the border between the two Germanies during the Cold War is now unthinkable. What can be done, then? Deterrence has an important psychological component. The deployment of small units in some Eastern European countries is a form of showing the flag, although it has no practical effect. In this case, to deter one needs to show sufficient determination not to tolerate any kind of aggression that for NATO members could reach its ultimate consequences related to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. But this hardly protects countries that are not members of NATO.

There are other possibilities, such as what we might call ‘positive deterrence’, which would consist in tying up the potential adversary with so many –and decisive– economic, commercial and political links that to give them up would be more harmful than to renounce an aggressive policy. But, as in any other kind of deterrence, this only works if it is credible that the one aiming to deter is willing to give up such a relationship and accept the sacrifices that renouncing them would entail. Economic pressure, which could be catastrophic for Russia if it were to lead to its total isolation –since the EU is its largest trading partner– would also damage the EU itself, especially in terms of energy supplies and trade, although the latter would not affect all Member States equally. Is it really conceivable that the EU will be willing to stay the course? The perception that there is insufficient unity between European countries, as well as the unwillingness of the citizens of those States to accept sacrifices because of a security threat they consider to be far distant, is definitely a major argument favouring Moscow’s game.

In short, even with a response capability, of whatever character, without determination –which remains the key factor– and without unity between the various players involved in the response, credibility is null and deterrence ineffective. Are Europe’s citizens willing to accept measures that might involve sacrifices in the form of increased military spending, deficient energy supplies or significant price increases, or to give up the Russian market and those of other related countries? One must answer this question before talking about a new deterrence.