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WHEN DETERRENCE FAILS: The Weak Attack The Strong

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Russia may be difficult to deter at this point, with a highly motivated, overconfident and dismissive Putin believing that nothing can stand in his way.

Published on October 5, 2014

Our faith in deterrence is strong; we believe in our ability to maintain the status quo by threatening to inflict unacceptable costs on the hostile state were it to attack us or our allies. But it may not necessarily be congruent with reality. This gap between our expectations and reality is particularly relevant for Russia’s ongoing westward push. In fact, Putin’s Russia may have developed certain characteristics that make her less susceptible to being deterred, even by the clearly superior military power of the United States and the Western alliance.


The gradual decline of Russia relative to Europe and China creates strong pressure to act now to shore up her geopolitical position before it is too late. Moreover, Putin does seem to suffer from megalomania, or at least from the strong desire to be a worthy successor of Ivan III, the “gatherer of Russian lands” who conquered Novgorod and expelled the Golden Horde from Russia.


[Putin] is aware of the long-term problems facing Russia, but for now he seems to think that the Russian military, including its nuclear capabilities, is more than sufficient to achieve the revision of the regional order ... Putin may even think that Russia’s superiority in tactical nuclear weapons can be translated into a victory in the competition with Europe. This assessment may be correct, but there is sufficient uncertainty in it to warrant caution—and that caution is missing in current Russian behavior.


Putin appears to believe that the West is very vulnerable. Europe is divided more than ever among states with fundamentally different threat assessments and divergent postures toward Moscow. It is also militarily feeble and, with few exceptions, appears to have no interest in shoring up its capabilities. Finally, the United States is distracted by other regions and is led by a President who has expressed little interest in foreign policy in general and even less in Ukraine and Europe in particular.

It is therefore plausible to think that Russia may be difficult to deter at this point. Highly motivated, overconfident, and dismissive of the West, Putin may be one of those leaders who embarks on an offensive believing that the opposition will not materialize or will be minimal.

Faced with the possibility of a failure of deterrence, the most rational option should be to strengthen one’s own defenses to patch the perceived vulnerabilities, in part in the hope to alter the rival’s calculus and misperceptions. But it should also be a natural response to the expectation of an exacerbated competition with the rival, which is impervious to the evidence of power and the logic of deterrence. You wall your city not only to dissuade the barbarians from assaulting you, but also to protect yourself from their onslaught if they are not dissuaded. So far, however, there are few signs that the West recognizes that deterrence may fail. Russian revanchism meets Western complacency.


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