The Expensive Pretzel Logic of Deterring Russia by Denial


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 ABCs of Deterrence in Europe

The predominance of the facts in the deterrence debate are not in dispute.  Increasingly, there is a common understanding of NATO’s potential problem on the Eastern front:

The geographical map and the Russian order of battle make the Baltics a vulnerable flank for NATO.  Russia can invade and capture the Baltics, seize a small parcel of land, or deploy forces between Kaliningrad and Belarus, effectively severing the Baltic states from the rest of NATO.  Hence, Russia has a panoply of invasion options while NATO’s defense options are slim.

A NATO high-end fight is ultimately an airpower dependent fight.  In a Russian contingency, most of NATO’s firepower is in its air force, not its land force.  Taking on a large and well-equipped land army like Russia’s is impractical for Europe’s comparatively lighter forces.  American landpower is not substantially better positioned or equipped for this fight either.

Russia poses both an irregular and a conventional threat, but the latter is very unlikely to materialize. The former, however, can effectively bedevil NATO and these irregular capabilities remain largely unaddressed by any ideas put forward so far.  Thus, in a plausible scenario, Russia’s conventional forces will most probably be used for compellence in support of a sub-conventional challenge to the alliance, much as they were on the eastern border of Ukraine.  In other words, Russia’s army likely won’t invade, but instead will intimidate NATO, preventing a response to irregular or political warfare.  More NATO presence does not translate into an answer for this problem.

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is a nuclear landmine for the entire scenario, making reinforcement in a high-end battle impossible without bypassing this territory.  This means that the risk of escalation is built into the fight no matter how you structure it.  As we sometimes say in Maine, “You can’t get there from here.”  The fight simply doesn’t work without crossing what are likely nuclear red lines.

The reasons for seeking a heavier NATO presence are typically predicated on the notion that a small tripwire force is no more than a hostage force. Yet, this paints deterrence proponents into a corner since their proposals simply offer a larger hostage force that does not change the fundamentals of the strategic environment.

Deterrence advocates trap themselves logically when they admit that the only reason Russia would seize the Baltics in a fait accompli is to destroy NATO, while acknowledging that this is the least probable or cost-effective means of doing so.  A more substantial threat is a large operation to sever the Baltics from the rest of NATO while avoiding the trap of prolonged occupation.  This problem is less one of a short notice land grab, but a methodical deployment of overmatching military power which takes advantage of the map.  In terms of the hassle of occupation it would prove low-cost and by default turns NATO’s presence in the Baltics into an isolated bargaining chip.

Trying is the First Step to Failure

Proponents of deterrence by denial are essentially offering to convert water into wine by simply having more of it.  Once you delve into this debate it becomes clear that the only solution to be found on the deterrence side is the notion of “robustness”, which is often a vague pitch is to increase U.S. Army presence in the Baltics.  Some demur on what their proposal truly constitutes, others are more forward in seeking at least one brigade in each Baltic country.  In other words, they assume that making the U.S. Army presence more robust in a militarily untenable situation somehow translates into more robust deterrence, as opposed to a greater liability.

As a consequence, the policy discussion is really a haggling exercise over how many brigades you want to argue for and where you wish to stick them.  This is nothing more than a game of “pin the tail on deterrence,” because three brigades in the Baltics do not necessarily offer a more robust deterrent than three battalions or three companies.  These arguments only make sense  as a stalking horse for much larger U.S. military presence across the board, especially a larger or at least more forward-deployed Army.  Some are more upfront with this reality than others, but their military rationale remains equally suspect.  It is not Russia, but the map, which offers the greatest impediment to conventional deterrence by denial.


The Baltics, along with the Baltic Sea, are a confined killbox and there is no deterrence by denial to be found there.  Imagine if, in 1954, the French knew what would happen at Dien Bien Phu, and their military commanders argued that the plan could be turned from a military disaster into a glorious victory if they trapped more units in the same pocket in a set piece battle.  A fight in the Baltics would be a set piece battle, operationally and strategically.  With the same logic, deterrence proponents are now arguing that they can convert NATO’s vulnerability in the Baltics into robust deterrence.  In my last War on the Rocks article, I cited the Battle of Dunkirk which ultimately resulted as a failure of the deterrence thinking.  The German army too got trapped in the Courland pocket late in 1944.  History is replete with such examples.  This usually ends badly.

Facts and Fixing Deterrence

“Robust deterrence,” in this formulation, is not deterrence, but simply a turn of phrase in the absence of a workable plan for how to defend the Baltics.  It does not take much foresight to see that robustness is an argument of degrees, or the proverbial “do something” policy mentality so common in Washington, D.C.  When the U.S. foreign policy establishment makes errors in judgment on how to employ military power, they are typically very “robust.” We could be repeating our time honored cycle of “doing something” and then explaining later that “mistakes were made.”  We all agree that more deterrence is better everywhere, but prudence dictates we do something smart, not something merely “robust.”

Essentially, proponents of conventional deterrence by denial are taking a bucket of water and throwing it into an empty swimming pool, which will only lead to them rushing back to demand more buckets of water.  Keep in mind this is an analogy for putting men and women in harm’s way with no credible plan to defend, supply, or reinforce them.  No sooner will we place several brigades in the Baltics than we discover them to be in dire need of air defense, missile defense, artillery support, and a never-ending list of increasing demands to fill a bottomless well of deterrence.  Deterrence is a perpetual pauper: It always needs more.  If you wait for deterrence proponents to tell you when you’ve got enough deterrence, you will be waiting a long time.

Decision-makers should not be lured into simplistic answers to fixing deterrence in the Baltics. Russia analysis in the West tends to lurch between underestimating the Russian military and overestimating it.  In the past two years, Washington’s defense enterprise has become much more aware of Russian military reforms and modernization.  However, awareness should not be confused for knowledge. Furthermore, transatlanticists have sown the seeds of their own destruction in this debate.  If deterrence by denial is the bar for security, then you can forget about further NATO expansion eastward, because there’s absolutely no hope of defending the borders of any prospective future applicants.  You can have the prospect of NATO expansion eastward, deterrence by denial, but not both.

Decision-making in a low information environment is fraught with risk and vulnerable to policy pushes by the next big report.  Tools like wargaming play an important role in informing our thinking, but they should not be viewed as a substitute for strategy and planning.  Recent findings have been over-consumed and insufficiently moderated by a wider body of work.  If your world was turned upside down by the last wargame on Russia, then expect to have your mind changed frequently.  We should take more time to admire this problem. It’s a big one.  Near-peer competitors are far less forgiving of policy missteps than the terrorist and insurgent adversaries we have become used to.

The Church of Deterrence

When we talk about deterrence by denial versus punishment, it’s important to remember that in the conventional realm, the first is much more preferable.  Unfortunately, there are times when it is impossible. Indeed that is how we lived for much of the Cold War, unable to deny a conventional Soviet advance in Europe from the 1950s through the 1970s.  We know denial is best, but also that against powerful adversaries it can be impossible, thus making punishment the preferred approach.  To achieve denial, one has to have the demonstrable warfighting capability to win in the conflict.

In the Baltics, we’re stuck between the pointless and the reckless.  Deploying forces that lose the same battle with more casualties is not deterrence by denial, while any force sufficiently large to achieve denial would present an intolerable threat for Russia.  This would engender a substantial repositioning of Russian forces. In the best case, this would recreate the problem. In the worst, it would spark the very war NATO seeks to prevent.  Here I envision something far beyond three brigades, which strikes me as a disingenuous proposition to the policy community, knowing full well that such a deployment is just the entry level bid.  The only logical answer is, and always has been, improving deterrence by punishment: our ability to vertically and horizontally escalate a conflict, along with superiority in sustainment, offer a decisive edge.  Quite probably this is what has deterred Russia all along.

Proponents of “robust deterrence” have crafted a plausible scenario of Russian invasion in the Baltics that’s not too big, not too small, and has the right operational concept to make their story work.  If you string enough assumptions together, everything becomes plausible.  The notion that we could occupy Iraq with less forces than it took to invade is plausible, but we know what happened. Prolonged nation-building in Afghanistan can become a plausible use of military and economic power, but we know what happened. The list goes on.

The fait accompli story crafted by those concerned with NATO’s floundering deterrence needs a basic Russia reality check.  The deterrence community has imagined some nonexistent Russian commander and are trying to have a deterrence relationship with him.  Perhaps we could call this officer Colonel-General “Rational Ivan” who faithfully follows the tenets of deterrence theory.  Unfortunately, Rational Ivan is quite tempted by the prospect of a fait accompli in the Baltics, willing to risk World War III for it, which seems highly irrational.  Like us, he too has only just realized the correlation of forces was always in his favor.  Thankfully, Rational Ivan can be deterred by a modest force and then we shall fear him no more.  This sort of narration can be expanded to explain how U.S. policymakers prefer to interact with Russia.  Instead of facing realities they imagine a Russia that does not exist and then attempt to have relations with this more preferable country.

Expensive Pretzel Logic

The deterrence argument is a formula that results in pretzel logic.  Russian intent cannot be divined, except to structure an argument for why Moscow would invade the Baltics.  When it comes to explaining the Russian reaction, we suddenly become clairvoyant.  Thus, the danger to the Baltics can be allayed cheaply, with no knock on effects or adverse consequences for European security.  In my experience, our track record on Russia is best summarized as “often wrong, but never in doubt.”

The geopolitical context matters, and what might have been perceived non-threatening before will be seen today through the distorted lens of Russia’s confrontation with the West.  Expanding U.S. military presence eastward, which is what worries Russia’s leaders the most, may be a red line akin to NATO expansion into Ukraine or Georgia. As such, Russia could react just as unreasonably.  This fear is why Moscow sought to codify restrictions on NATO military presence in the Baltics in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.  Consider the context of when that deal was signed in light of today’s confrontation.

Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine are a cautious tale about the need to consider adversary perceptions in strategy and policy.  Any deployment in the Baltics is likely to result in one of three outcomes: a Russian force repositioning that yields a net security minus for NATO, more aggressive behavior in the Baltic region to stir and provoke, or punishing a country in Eastern Europe that is not in NATO, but the West politically cares about.  All of the above could happen and, in the worse case, this could spark the conflict scenario that “robust deterrence” advocates fear the most.  We should temper the desire to muck about with NATO’s force posture and security dynamics in the Baltics prior to establishing a solid understanding of the potential consequences.  Dismissing escalation dynamics is a good way to become personally familiar with them.

We should challenge such thinking both for prudence of judgment and to maintain analytical rigor in the field of deterrence, keeping it from becoming a faith-based enterprise.  Conventional deterrence proponents regularly like to dip their toes in the facts of any particular region just enough to make their case, always for more conventional forces. Now they have discovered the Russian military and NATO’s floundering Eastern flank as a cause celeb.

At first glance this whole discussion seems useful in and of itself, as an opportunity to revive NATO and keep the United States engaged in Europe, but I suspect the harder American policymakers push, the more continental disunity will be revealed.  Ultimately Washington is likely to get frustrated and go it alone with a few willing countries, as we always do.  That will lead to calls for engagement by Europeans rightfully worried that we will simply militarize the confrontation in a perpetual quest for deterrence without a clue for how to end it.

Welcome to the First Stage of Grief

Despite the shortcomings in the current policy discussion on fixing NATO’s deterrence, we have seen some positive steps.  Those who recently discovered the Russian military’s capabilities and the force balance in the Baltics are still in the first stage of analytical grief, typically called denial.  This is why they believe that deterrence by denial is achievable in the Baltics.  Eventually, the policy community may accept that as during much of the Cold War we can, and will, do just fine by making punishment work.  This is a gap that I suspect will be bridged not with ink, but with time.  The miasma of “Russian hybrid war,” which overtook the analytical community for two years, is slowly dissipating.  Fears of a fait accompli in the Baltics may also fade within a few years.

Talk today of switching to warfighting footing is aspirational at best.  NATO is currently on a “wartalking” footing, i.e. deterrence by rhetoric.  It’s not exactly an effective deterrence strategy.  Theodore Roosevelt described his foreign policy as “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  Instead, Western officials and military commanders yell loudly about the Russian threat while waving PowerPoint slides.  NATO still looks like an army with more drummers than riflemen.  The U.S. $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative will fund important training, exercises, and interoperability improvements. Yet, the spending shortfalls of allies cannot be perpetually addressed with American money and soldiers, nor should they be.  NATO today is largely composed of two types of countries: those lacking high-end military capability and those in a woeful state of operational readiness.

How do we keep deterrence from eroding?  A mix of the new and the old.  Technology and training will lead the way.  The more you stare at the Baltic high-end fight the more obvious it becomes that this is a battle decided by whether or not NATO airpower can overcome Russian air defenses.  NATO is unsuited to take on Russian landpower, while Russian forces are highly vulnerable without their layered air defense.  Although airpower heavy, this is a joint force mission in which all services have a role whether they like it or not (some, like the Army, may want it too much).  However, our Army may not be what wins the fight, but it is what glues this effort together.  While that force needs modernization, , it’s the Air Force that has severe technical and training holes that the Pentagon needs to fill if we are to make the Baltic high-end fight work.

Ever wonder why Russia has the best land-based air defenses in the world but for 25 years its tank force has been a perpetually upgraded T-72 variant?  It’s because they’ve never seen NATO’s land forces as a strength, but they dread NATO airpower.  The list of capabilities to realize deterrence by punishment is not small, and hence there’s enough work to go around for everyone: overcoming Russian anti-access/area-denial, defending against Russian long-range cruise missiles, maneuver warfare on land, operating in a contested electronic and information environment, countering special forces and auxiliaries, and providing territorial defense west of Kaliningrad.  Yes, it makes more sense for everything beyond tripwire forces  to be west of the Baltics if they have any hope of surviving a war and counting towards deterrence by punishment.

NATO’s proposed multinational battalions are helpful in making Article 5 more credible as a political process, though the envisioned forces offer little in terms of warfighting.  The better deterrent to a Russian fait accompli is having the Baltic states reintroduce conscription, as Lithuania is considering doing, developing a solid mobilization plan, and turning themselves into porcupines.  This is the direction for NATO planning for the Baltics: make occupation highly undesirable.  Even small animals can have very successful strategies for not getting eaten, while large alliances can come up with working ones for deterrence.


Michael Kofman is an Analyst at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.  Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University.  The views expressed here are his own. 

Image: U.S. Army, Ralph Zwilling