THE EXPENSIVE PRETZEL LOGIC OF DETERRING RUSSIA BY DENIAL

This article was published on War on the Rocks (June 23, 2016)

The question of how to best deter Russia looms large over the upcoming NATO Summit hosted in Warsaw.  If this week’s news is anything to go by, the annual NATO gathering promises to be an eventful one.  Germany’s Foreign Minister Steinmeier recently ridiculed the alliance’s BALTOPS exercise as “saber rattling,” while U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus defended the event.  The chief proposal for enhancing NATO deterrence on the table this year is the establishment of four multinational battalions to rotate through the Baltics, but NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Soltenberg said there was no “immediate threat against any NATO country from the East,” implying that despite being branded as a deterrent this is more about reassurance.  The past two weeks in the run up to the summit makes one wonder, what exactly are we doing here?

In my critical essay last month, I challenged the current thinking on NATO’s deterrence problems in the East, taking on prominent advocates for deploying U.S. forces in the Baltic in the quest of strengthening deterrence.  Part of that article took aim at RAND’s wargame and similar arguments from deterrence proponents like Elbridge Colby.  The goal of that article was to take one-sided policy advocacy, rarely the stuff of good decision-making, and turn it into a more substantive discussion.  In this essay, I circle back to the problem of fixing NATO deterrence and the policy implications, with a crystallized and hopefully better distilled approach to the argument.

When discussing NATO force structure, it is crucial to decide whether one can truly attain deterrence by denial. I argue that this is a fool’s errand.  The fear of a Russian fait accompli in the Baltic is simply the latest conventional wisdom, following on the foot heels of equally wrongheaded concerns that Russia would create a land bridge to Crimea in 2014 and 2015. In my view, improving deterrence by punishment is not just the smarter approach, but also the only feasible option NATO has available.

So where do we go from here?  At first glance these perspectives are diametrically opposed.  However, a closer reading of deterrence proponents’ arguments reveals to me that we are largely in agreement on the basics.  Proponents of bolstering, enhancing, or increasing the robustness of NATO’s deterrence in the Baltics are fixated on conventional deterrence by denial.  Their intent is in the right place, but their ideas for how to solve this problem are not.  In the process of defending their views, they concede all my principal points on the nature of the fight and its problems.  The difference is then in the analysis and consequently the policy recommendations.

The rest can be found at http://warontherocks.com/2016/06/the-expensive-pretzel-logic-of-deterring-russia-by-denial/

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