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Jan. 19, 2024

Deterring War without Threatening War: Rehabilitating the West’s Risk-averse Approach to Deterrence

By Antulio J. Echevarria II

Shortly after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, defense scholars began asking why the West’s approach to deterrence had failed. Some critics claimed the West never had an official deterrence policy regarding Ukraine, or at least not a consistent one; others maintained the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) took military force “off the table” too soon, relying too much on the coercive power of sanctions.[i] In truth, the West had both a deterrence policy and a supporting deterrence strategy vis-à-vis Ukraine. US President Joseph Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reinforced the policy and the strategy by repeatedly warning Russia’s President Vladimir Putin not to attack Ukraine. However, the West’s approach was too risk-averse to succeed against a major power armed with military capabilities comparable to NATO’s own. It attempted to deter war without threatening war, which in turn rendered it vulnerable to Russian deterrence. By attempting to minimize the risk of a major war, the West made the right call, even though it resulted in the failure of its own deterrence measures. The “value of the political object,” to borrow Clausewitz’s expression, did not warrant risking a potentially ruinous war.[ii] The question now is whether it is possible to rehabilitate the West’s approach to deterrence without requiring NATO to act as irresponsibly with military force as did Putin’s Russia

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