No one had time for a deliberate aim or time to think…
There is no mystery about the outbreak of the First World War.
The deterrent failed to deter. This was to be expected sooner or later.
A deterrent may work ninety nine times out of a hundred.
On the hundredth occasion it produces catastrophe.

A. J. P Taylor, War by Timetable

Western Europe was saved from Soviet domination through a policy of nuclear deterrence. East and Central Europe was freed from its Soviet prison when US changes to the basis of that deterrence forced the Soviet Union into making economic and political changes of which it quickly lost control in order to compete in a qualitative arms race that in reality it could not win.

Both halves of Europe benefitted massively from deterrence.

With victory in the Cold War, however, it seemed that there was no one to deter, at least no one that presented a threat to Europe. NATO continued to exist but ceased to be a system of homeland defence; it went out of area, it was said, in order to avoid going out of business. To be sure, Eastern and Central Europeans were keen to join and were less sanguine about the prospects of eternal peace than their West European partners, but their concerns were not reflected in the resources they devoted to collective security. In this respect, they followed the freeloading habits of Western Europeans.

As a result of recent events in Ukraine, attitudes have changed somewhat. Liberal opinion has been subject to a reality check as the realisation has taken hold that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are vulnerable, fragile and poorly defended. In the words of a recent Issue Brief from the Heritage Foundation: “NATO is completely unprepared to deal with Russian aggression on its borders.” Consequently deterrence is back on the agenda. It is, after all, preferable to the alternatives – submission or war-fighting. But how to deter Vladimir Putin?

In almost any circumstance deterrence is manifestly preferable to the two most obvious alternatives, those of war-fighting and submission. In principle there can be no objection to a third possible course, that of appeasement; if lives can be saved and territorial integrity preserved it may well be that measured and finite concessions to a potential aggressor are justified. The history of the 20th century, however, strongly suggests that once a nation proceeds down the slippery path of appeasement the aggressor’s appetite for further concessions grows ever greater, without the threat of conquest and national humiliation being lifted. Hungarians know this as well as anyone.

For deterrence to work certain conditions need to be met. It must be possible to believe that the state or entity one is trying to deter is a rational actor and that it is possible to gauge how it is likely to respond in particular circumstances. Second, the threat of retaliation must be credible if it is to deter.

Quite plainly, the first of these conditions is not met in present circumstances. The leaders of NATO countries do not have the measure of Putin’s Russia; they freely confess to finding its behaviour erratic and unpredictable. Mrs Merkel is recently reported to have been so shocked by the discovery that Mr Putin had lied to her over Russian actions in Ukraine that she did not speak to him for ten days. Is it churlish to doubt whether this is the kind of deterrent that is likely to bring the Russian leader to call back his troops? I admit to feeling shocked by Mrs Merkel’s sense of shock.

In the case of Russia, what we are witnessing is the emergence of a new kind of state, one which does not conform to international norms, one even less likely to adhere to international agreements than its communist predecessors. Peter Pomerantsev, a perceptive analyst of Putin’s Russia has described it as “the first postmodern dictatorship”.1 As he points out, however, this definition is as unstable as its subject. Pomerantsev writes: “To try to fit this new type of regime into classical definitions of political science is to miss the point of its trickster nature. The regime has created a world of simulated institutions and simulated narrative.”

Mixed messages, tactical advances followed by tactical retreats, bellicose statements succeeded by phoney humanitarian gestures, sudden changes of tone or emphasis – all are designed to confuse, divide and test how far Putin can go in enhancing Russian power without risking consequences that, if possible, he would prefer to avoid. This is a high risk policy, but one which he has mostly carried off with consummate ease.

The recent increases in Russian defence spending, and the deployment of new weapons, however, is not a matter of simulation. According to figures from NATO, Russia has increased defence spending by 50 per cent over the last five years while NATO has reduced its spending by 20 per cent with some NATO members reducing their spending on security by as much as 40 per cent.2

A similar disparity exists in the information war. While the budgets of America’s Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe and the BBC foreign broadcasting services have recently been slashed, their deservedly high reputations notwithstanding, Russia has greatly increased spending on a programme of dezinformatsia which in its sophistication and cynicism is the equal of anything achieved by the Soviet communists of old.3

Such disparities cannot continue without undermining European stability.

Over and above their national defence forces Central and Eastern Europe look to NATO and the EU for their security, but the guarantees entailed by membership of these organisations look decidedly fragile. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty imposes an obligation on NATO members to respond to attacks on the territory of other members, but the reliability of this guarantee is open to question.

Around 30,000 US military personnel remain in Europe, but they do not represent the kind of tripwire provided by the similar number of US forces in South Korea where they are configured for precisely that purpose. Presently, the US deploys more troops in the Netherlands than it does in all of Central and Eastern Europe. NATO may possess the ultimate weapon in the form of a substantial nuclear arsenal, but this does not constitute a credible threat in the kind of scenarios now imaginable. It is just not conceivable that the US would use nuclear weapons in response to a Russian invasion of Estonia, one of the several countries where the existence of a sizeable Russian minority could be exploited to provoke conflict.

It is worth remembering that during the latter stages of the Cold War NATO and the Warsaw Pact enjoyed rough equivalence at the strategic level, but the former had to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe to offset the Soviet SS 4s and 5s and the still more worrying threat of the mobile SS 20s. The existence of US ICBMs was considered insufficient to deter attack and to discourage nuclear bullying. Moreover, without the deployment of a matching NATO capability there was no available bargaining chip to use at the arms negotiating table.4

The INF Treaty of 1987 abolished intermediate range nuclear missiles on both sides. But Russia has recently been testing a new intermediate range missile, the Iskander (named after a Russian general), also known as R 500 and, according to some reports, may be deploying it. Russia has justified its actions on the grounds that the Treaty is unfair since it is not binding on other states, notably China, Pakistan and Israel which deploy missiles of intermediate range.

According to Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence analyst for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Russia has indeed broken the treaty by deploying the missile:

Of course, this is in gross violation of the 1987 treaty, but Russian officials including Putin have said this treaty is unfair and not suitable for Russia.5

Central and East Europeans should be more worried by this development than they appear to be. President Obama has played down the seriousness of the development, fearing that a direct accusation that Moscow was violating the INF Treaty would result in Russia stepping up deployment and simply tearing it up. It would seem that while Putin’s understanding of power enables Russia to punch above its weight, Obama’s poor understanding of power ensures that America punches below its.

If NATO’s security guarantees now look shaky, those provided through membership of the European Union belong to the realm of wish fulfilment. The Lisbon Treaty established the goal of a common European defence and contains a mutual defence guarantee along the lines of the Washington Treaty’s Article 5, but there is no European army to give reality to the dream. Nor is there likely to be. Such actions that have been taken under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) have been to francophone Africa in support of French national interests and on a modest scale.

Moreover the attempts to get the world to take Europe’s security ambitions seriously have coincided with a period during which European states have reduced defence spending. Only four out of NATO’s 28 members have lived up to the commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister has recently lectured his European NATO partners on their need to carry a greater share of the burden. But it should not be forgotten that Britain, apart from France the only European country with the capacity to project serious military power, introduced unprecedented cuts in its defence budget following the 2010 Strategic Review. Its army can now almost be squeezed into a large size football stadium while the Royal Navy’s surface fleet is smaller than at any time since the reign of Charles II.

President Chirac echoed a common Federalist position when he said that Europe would not exist until there was a European army, and other European leaders have since used very similar words. If they are right it would seem that Europe has an existential as well as a security problem.

As Chirac’s words imply, an autonomous European Defence capability is deemed necessary because it is recognised that the grand European project cannot be completed without it. The CSDP has not, however, added a single tank, soldier or warship to the defence of Europe. In practice much of the discussion at the European level is not about common security threats or the way to respond to these but about protection of Continental defence industrial interests which lag behind those of the US. Recent and current attempts by the Commission and the European Defence Agency to harmonise a European certification masks the intention to exclude US equipment from the market, which can only have the effect of rendering Europe’s all too modest contribution to NATO less effective.

What then can be done?

The inescapable reality is that Europeans need to spend more on defence. US policymakers will find it difficult to justify a continuing military presence in Europe and to take particular European defence concerns seriously if European states themselves spend little more than one per cent of GDP on what is the state’s most important role: the protection of citizens from external threat. Germany’s decision to effectively derail the NATO summit in Wales this September by refusing to commit to higher levels of expenditure was bad enough, but its reason for doing is till more disturbing. This was that events in Ukraine required a political rather than a military solution. If European leaders deprive themselves of the political and diplomatic leverage which military capability provides we are in for difficult and dangerous times; it is precisely such attitudes which account for the course of unilateral disarmament upon which Europe, with very few exceptions, has embarked upon.

A permanent military presence in the Baltic would clearly make sense; this would mean scrapping the 1997 agreement which limited the basing of NATO assets in Central and Eastern Europe; Russian military aggression in Ukraine and the violation of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 should be cited as reasons for doing so. This step would provide a tangible symbol of the US continuing commitment to transatlantic security.

The decision taken in August to create a 10,000 NATO rapid reaction force comprising troops from Britain, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Latvia and Estonia is welcome – but long overdue; what should follow is large-scale military exercises. There is also no doubt that European security would be greatly enhanced by the development of a robust European ballistic defence, a goal which was set back in 2009 when the Obama administration cancelled George W. Bush’s plan to deploy ground based intercepts in Poland and an x-band radar in the Czech Republic.

In addition there is a strong case for adding unconventional threats such as the use of militias and cyber warfare such as that used against Estonia to NATO’s Article Five.

Over and above these steps the sanctions agreed by EU and the US following the Russian “incursion” into Ukraine should be rigorously maintained. They do not go as far as some would like, but they impose real costs on members of the Putin coterie and upon the Russian economy.

Fresh thinking may be required to find ways of imposing additional costs on both in order to provide US and European policymakers with a broader range of options to deter a freewheeling, unorthodox but economically weak adversary from aggression and threats. And more should be done to expose and to highlight the audacious criminality of those at the top of the Russian state. The reaction of the Soviet leadership to the one-man campaign launched by Bill Browder whose Moscow-based hedge fund was expropriated by fraudsters with the Kremlin’s active participation demonstrates how concerned it is that Western investors and businesses will be driven away.

Under Putin, Russia has embarked on a course that risks making it a pariah state; the Russian leader is no doubt aware of the possible consequences of this, not least the likelihood that his scope for manoeuvre and postmodern political theatrics will yield steadily diminishing returns. In its dealings with the West Putin may have changed the rules of the game, but it would be a mistake to suppose he holds all of the best cards.

At the most fundamental level, however, American and European political elites have to face up to the fact that peace and stability are not self-generating and that if the peace is going to be kept, someone has to keep it. Defence does not come cheap, but as the great Scots economist Adam Smith observed, it is more important than opulence.


1 “Russia: A Postmodern Dictatorship?” Legatum Institute lecture series, October 2013, wwwli.com

2 According to SIPRI, Hungary currently spends only 0.8 per cent of GDP on defence, although it is committed to increasing this by 0.1 per cent a year until 2022; Poland spends 1.9 per cent; the Czech Republic spends 1.1 per cent; and Slovakia 1.1 per cent.

3 Its budget for next year is reportedly two-and-a-half times bigger than this year’s – a sign of how important information is to the Kremlin.

4 The blame for this imbalance may lie with President Kennedy who agreed to remove the Thor and

Jupiter missiles from Turkey as part of a secret deal to end the Cuban Missile Crisis.

5 Quoted in The Guardian, Tuesday 29th July.

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