Redefining War and Peace

War and peace govern the vast landscape of geopolitics. At the heart of such crucial decision making lies the preponderance of probabilities of power and deterrence. As Thomas Schelling said “The power to hurt is bargaining power, to exploit it is vicious diplomacy.” He defines “deterrence” as “the diplomatic use of coercion/violence as a way to change behaviour of the adversaries.” Viciousness becomes inherent to the art of diplomacy as it is essentially the manipulation of an adversary’s cost and benefit estimates of an action or omission. The question however is, did deterrence fail to work in case of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Was it the US or NATO which failed to showcase its capabilities persuasively or were other factors involved in the making of the current crisis?

The varied concepts of deterrence and their impact

The whole concept of dissuasion on a global fora is intended to shape/alter the thinking of a potential aggressor. According to Schelling “Nations are known to bluff and hence we need to understand the intention behind their moves.” Castillo and Mueller in their book “Striking First”, talk about the varied and complex nature of aggressor motivation.According to them it is often grounded in a desperate sense of a need to act and is often a product of ‘aggressive opportunism’. A similar urgency to act was witnessed in the  Russian case. While opportunism was certainly evident, the Ukrainian invasion may not have its roots in aggression, despite its sudden escalation to the same.

The Russian invasion started as an attempt at deterring NATO expansion. The military build up along the Ukrainian border was meant to create ‘deterrence by denial’. Herein one party tries to tell the other that their action (of NATO’s eastward expansion) is unlikely to succeed. In any case, the demand of such action is to shape the enemy’s perception in a way that it finds the alternative to aggression more attractive. Classical studies suggest that deterrence by denial is a more reliable method but Schelling draws on its shortcoming stating that sometimes the perception that the defender may prove unwilling to carry out its threat weakens the entire exercise. In the 21st century with Moscow sitting at the center of the UN Security Council, it is possible that a more diplomatic action was expected out of a long term world leader, Vladimir Putin. To add to that, the current economic slowdown and failings due to the pandemic had the world in a flux about the possibility of a war. Economic well being is often expected to override political motivations especially when such a threat is not imminent.

Moscow, however, seemed to have perceived Schelling’s idea of its likeliness to not act on its threat as a portrayal of weakness and therefore seizing the opportunity launched the invasion for what may have been a two pronged agenda. First was to reinstate Russia as a hefty contender in an age of multipolarity and second, to exhibit its zero tolerance towards American bullying via NATO.

The American Role and how old strategies have failed to sustain

According to classical scholars, the USA’s idea of deterrence has drawn from its position of long-standing superiority, economically, militarily and politically. It has relied on threats like economic sanctions and nuclear escalations since the post war era. This attitude had been essentially shaped by America’s role in revival of the European economy and lending support to the third world via neo-liberalism embedded in its capitalistic ideology.

The use of such threats fall into the category of ‘deterrence by punishment’. The post-modern world with its economic and political interdependence has taken away the credibility from such threats considering the USA isn’t the only pillar of financial and military support. Regional alliances and nine nuclear states have made its former position of ‘patriarch’ precarious. This may have shaped Putin’s perception wherein such sanctions did not deter him in 2008 during the Cremian annexation and they seemed to have failed yet again.

The more resilient military back-up however seems to come from NATO which provides “extended deterrence” to members only. Kyiv was not a NATO ally due to lack of consensus among the members. This is directly attributable to the unwillingness of the West to directly confront Moscow at its doorstep. Russia’s threat to invade Kyiv had almost worked in securing its neighbours from the ambit of NATO but the very act of launching an invasion had an opposite effect than intended. It is a clear case in which deterrence backfired both ways wherein Moscow attacked despite the threat of economic sanctions and the NATO failed to provide clarity on its willingness to halt its eastward expansion despite the Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border. The USA failed to prove its political clout and Moscow seems to have created a fear of ‘imminent threat’ for its Western neighbors prompting them to seek NATO’s membership (Finland and Sweden).

Recent events have yet again proved the relevance of Schilling’s theories re-enforced by Robert Jervis in his “Rational deterrence : theory and evidence”. According to Jervis “ perception of the aggressor matters more than the actual prospects of victory.”

Future of Ukraine

It is evident that the older policy methods are unable to manipulate the thinking of current leaders. Most actions seem like thoughtless knee-jerk reactions to prolong the nation’s relevance at the global fora. 

Putin’s decisions can be attributed to his geopolitical commitment of making Russia a force to reckon with, again. He had ones remarked that the breakdown of the erstwhile USSR was a ‘geopolitical catastrophe’ and the move could very well be an open declaration of Russian dominance over the former satellite nations ( especially the ones swaying West-wards). It could also be a move to enhance his status at the domestic political fora. 

Despite these, one cannot negate the chances of Putin re-considering the attack, had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence in the Indian subcontinent has prevented several conflict situations from escalating. Another such speculation is whether the ceding of  the disputed territories of Donbas by Ukraine had been sufficient to prevent a full scale invasion.

While nobody except Moscow is aware of the real reason, it is evident that the stint did not go as planned. The resistance faced by Russian troops in Ukraine and the Western military aid was disproportionately larger than Moscow had expected. Despite NATO not acting directly in support of Kyiv, several EU nations have individually shown support, militarily, economically and by way of welcoming war refugees. Putin has faced a global backlash for his “unprovoked” aggression. However the future of Kyiv and its relationship with Moscow is yet to be determined. It might be too ambitious to expect restoration of the status quo ante in Ukraine. The massive physical and emotional devastation may take decades to rebuild and the map may stand permanently altered depending on which territories Moscow returns to its former sovereign authority. While millions of refugees wait to return home after the war, the World has largely failed Ukraine and sent alarm bells ringing throughout the globe with an urgent need to seek more formidable modern day deterrence.

[Photo by Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Tanya Vatsa is an Indian geopolitical analyst and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh.

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