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. It is a weak state, but weak states are often not deterred by stronger ones, and attack even when in the end the odds are against them. Putin may do the unthinkable, after all.
A short and cogent article by a RAND analyst, Barry Wolf, is illuminating on this issue. Written more than twenty years ago, the piece lists three characteristics that make weak states engage in aggressive behavior toward strong ones, leading to a failure in deterrence. The first feature fits Putin like a glove: Weak states that are “highly motivated” have attacked stronger ones. For instance, weak states have embarked on a risky limited war to achieve a better bargaining position, despite the likely battlefield losses. Second, a psychopathological leader (the author mentions, among others, Stalin and Khrushchev) may start a war out of a warped sense of reality exacerbated by a pronounced megalomania. Finally, there are states that are simply “crazy,” namely that do a cost-benefit analysis that is incomprehensible to the Western mind; nationalism stirred up by persistent propaganda is one source of such “craziness.”
Today’s Russia appears to possess a mix of these features, making her highly motivated to be overly aggressive. 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. Trying to match the historical myth of an imperialist tsar is not a recipe for stability and peace; Mussolini also tried to mimic emperors. And Russian public opinion has been subjected to sleek and relentless propaganda painting the West as a den of evil, corruption, and perversion.
The second characteristic that leads to a failure in deterrence is when the weak state fundamentally misperceives the strategic landscape. For instance, it overestimates its strength relative to the rivals, exuding “magnificent overconfidence” in its own capabilities. On top of this, the weak state may also believe that its actions will not generate a strong reaction from the targeted state or from its security patron (the latter leading to a failure of extended deterrence). Putin seems to fit into this category, too. He 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. As some analysts have pointed out, 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. Russian foreign policy is fueled by revanchism exacerbated by overconfidence, a mix that undermines the possibility of deterrence.
Finally, according to Barry Wolf, the third category of features that undermine deterrence is the perception that the strong country is vulnerable to an attack. This vulnerability may stem from “geographical distance, a (remediable) lack of fighting forces, or the engagement of the stronger country elsewhere.” In other words, the weak state thinks its rival is strong but vulnerable; the vulnerability offsets the power differential and weakens the relationship of deterrence. 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.