We must think Russian deterrence outside the box

The Associated Press

Three weeks into what Moscow probably expected to be a quick win, Russia failed its ‘initial period of war’ and made many tactical mistakes in Ukraine. This calls for a reassessment of actual Russian military capabilities, and how to push back against the Kremlin with more effective Western and NATO deterrence.

There is proof that a strong and coherent response against Russia works to force Moscow to reconsider its cost/benefit calculus in harming the West. Conversely, de-escalation always makes the West look weak and ready to compromise. 

This also means thinking outside the proverbial box in terms of future scenarios with Russia. Western complacency about the nature of the regime and Moscow’s willingness to use blunt force have closed our eyes to possibilities.

Yet here we are, facing the largest conflict in Europe since World War 2.

Russian vulnerabilities in Ukraine

Russia is not the almighty military giant many feared for the past two decades. Indeed, Russia has so far been unable even to achieve air superiority in Ukraine, break Ukrainian command and control systems, or establish its own air defense systems — the fabled ‘A2AD bubbles’.

{mosads}This consequently hampered Moscow’s ability to leverage electronic warfare — an asymmetric instrument where Russia has technological superiority, at least on paper — as well as drone warfare for target acquisition purposes.

Russian ground precision strikes have been everything but precise, and the Kremlin quickly had to revert to what the armed forces do best: concentrated, indiscriminate carpet-bombing. The absence of basic operational planning in Russian deployments is also surprising, and the armed forces are suffering from crippling resupply and logistical issues — especially considering the high rate of abandoned military hardware on the battlefield.

All in all, Russia went to war against Ukraine with a botched ‘concept of operations’ and insufficient numbers to sustain protracted high-intensity warfighting on the whole Ukrainian territory. It is hard to see how Moscow will now be able to achieve any genuine military victory over Ukraine as the war drags on.

Deterrence outside the box

Now that Western policymakers and military planners have witnessed the limits of Russian military capabilities in a regional war at the operational-strategic level, it is time to reassess our assumptions regarding effective deterrence.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that we have not yet seen Russia’s most technologically advanced hardware used in Ukraine, including the capabilities Russia would deploy to hold NATO countries at risk of destruction in a conflict.

First, Western policymakers should stop self-deterring. For too long we have been misguided by false images of Russian military superiority and the fear of Russian capabilities. It is as though we are back at the end of the Cold War when the West discovered the reality of Soviet conventional forces: so much fear for what?


Self-deterrence is particularly prevalent in discussions around providing Ukraine with jet fighters. Just because such systems have an offensive purpose, the United States drew up an imaginary and arbitrary red line because it was perceived as potentially antagonizing for Moscow. 

Pushing back against the Kremlin should no longer be seen under the lens of self-censorship on Western options. Moscow should be in no doubt that aggressive behavior will lead to a strong response — it is a matter of Western credibility in deterrence.

Second, policymakers should explore innovative ways to carry out deterrence to test the Kremlin’s pain threshold differently — sometimes called ‘grey zone deterrence’ or ‘deterrence outside the box’. The goal is to signal intent more clearly through bolder selective action. Russian reactions to this remain largely untested.

Third, Western and NATO responses should seek to achieve specific comparative advantages by ‘surprising’ the Russian leadership as well as creating unpredictability and ambiguity. Better deterrence and a dialed-up defense posture must, however, go alongside smarter escalation management to avoid miscalculation and tactical errors.

Dealing with Russian escalation

One, because whatever Western nations and NATO say and do will be considered escalatory by Moscow. Our actions will always be used, exploited, and distorted by the Kremlin.

Two, because Russia is already in a conflict with the West and has been waging warfare against us by other means. This is fueled by disingenuous perceptions in Moscow that NATO is confrontational and seeking to destroy Russia.

Three, because there is a Western tendency to believe that responding to Russia’s nefarious behavior will automatically lead to nuclear warfare. This is a fallacy: Russia works on a different escalatory ladder that does not always overlap ours — which leads to more self-deterrence.

{mossecondads}Deterrence works both ways: We must accept to pay the price of increased risks.

It is a hard path, but the cost of complacency and inaction against the Kremlin is worse. Once Western credibility has been re-established, action must be coherent and united over the long term.

Finally, a key question remains regarding the desired state of relations with Russia moving forward — namely, what should we expect from Russia and with Russia. This should be carried out without compromising on Ukraine or offering dangerous off-ramps to Vladimir Putin.

Mathieu Boulègue is a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London. He graduated from Sciences Po Toulouse in France and from King’s College London.

Tags Cold War countering Putin countering Russia deterrence Nuclear warfare Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russia–NATO relations Ukraine Vladimir Putin

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video