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Politics & Security

INTERVIEW | Nadia Schadlow Explains Deterrence: Where the Free World is Going in Ukraine

You don’t just deter overnight, It’s like a stone wall that is slowly built up over time. And at the very least, don’t tell your adversary what you will not do.

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Extraordinary NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Michael Kappeler/DPA via AP, Pool)

Much of the world has focused in horror at the conflagration taking place in Ukraine. National security expert Dr. Nadia Schadlow has done more, taking up the challenge of explaining what deterrence is and why the West has failed to prevent Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Her analysis in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal published on March 20 prompted widespread public discussion of the issue. The points she raised have implications for regional security in Asia, which she further discussed in a March 29 online interview with the Washington Bureau Chief of the Sankei Shimbun. 

Formerly the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy and a chief architect of the 2017 US National Security Strategy, Dr. Schadlow, is currently a National Security Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

Excerpts follow:

Dr. Nadia Schadlow

What are the most critical points behind the West’s failure to deter Russia from invading Ukraine?

It’s definitely a difficult problem, because there’s no scientific formula for what works in deterrence. There are two principles, which are important. I wrote about that: capability and will. 

But the mix of what works and the timing is almost a question for a historian looking back. It’s very hard to predict. 

What is a problem is that the building blocks for deterrence are set in place years before. You don’t just deter overnight, they accrue, they build up over time. It’s like a stone wall that is slowly built up over time. That’s the ideal kind of mix of deterrence. 

We haven’t had that, in many ways, for quite some time. You have NATO that has decreased its capabilities for many years. Not just the arguments about the 2% or the 1% [of GDP contribution to defense]. Germany ended up with something like under 300 tanks, maybe less. That’s hard to believe!  

And the same thing with the United Kingdom. So that had been happening for 10 years. [It’s an] example of a building block of deterrence. 

You had discussions about how in war games ー that the United States had actually done ー NATO would have lost and could not keep the Baltics protected. These were public games that have been in newspaper reports. I think the RAND Corporation was involved. You had Germany signing a gas agreement with the adversary [Russia] that NATO had identified. It doesn’t make sense. 

These are examples of the building blocks of deterrence that had started to really dissolve. 

If you think of it as a stone wall, all of these rocks in that stone wall had been pulled out for a long time beforehand. 

I was at an event really recently with a Danish parliamentarian who said to me, “I was wrong. All I cared about was climate. I never ever, ever thought that this (could happen.) So, to be fair to the Biden administration, this situation had been growing over time. 

What I did argue in my article, though, was at the very least, don’t tell your adversary what you will not do.

Can you explain further?

As soon as you start to say, “I won’t do this, we won’t do that”, not only do you limit your own options, but you tell Putin exactly what your lines are. So it doesn’t even make sense in terms of strategy.  

Strategy: you want to keep your options open. You want to inject some ambiguity, threats of what might happen or what might not happen. 

I think Putin, going into this invasion, had a very strong sense that the West’s options would be fundamentally limited and, in a way, they were.  

Now if this becomes an Article 5 violation, do I think NATO will fight? I think we have indications from many of the key frontline NATO states that they certainly would, but everyone has become a little bit nervous about making predictions in this scenario.

US President Joe Biden REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

If the Biden administration could show clear will to defend Ukraine, do you think it could have deterred Russia?

I can’t say with certainty, because I think Putin was so determined. But the events leading up to the invasion didn’t help. 

Saying that we would accept a minor incursion. Saying that we would not under any circumstances deploy US troops. And essentially saying there’s a clear limit to how much, how many, what types of weapons we would provide the Ukrainians. 

There are no such things really as defensive or offensive weapons ー it is how they are used. The Ukrainians are on the defensive here, they’re protecting their territory. They’re protecting their country. So creating these distinctions between types of weapons systems probably is not helpful. 

Putin in the end probably had decided a while ago that this is what he was going to do. I think he overplayed his hand, I don’t think he anticipated the response that he got.

But before we start to pat ourselves too much on the shoulders, we are still buying Russian [goods]. There are still billions of dollars in transactions of Russian oil and gas. Check on that figure, but that’s what I’ve read, which I find shocking. 

We’re still including Russia at the negotiating table with Iran. It doesn’t make sense. They’re at war in Europe, we have all these sanctions, and yet we’re including them as a trusted partner at the negotiating table with Iran? It’s mind boggling. 

So we’re sending Putin some mixed signals.

And I’m very surprised about the oil and gas numbers from the European Union. Obviously, we haven’t cut things off completely. 

What about NATO?

Long term, what will NATO look like? Will Germany really commit to increasing its capabilities, not just its defense spending? 

To do that, [the German government’s] probably going to go up against the limits of German debt and what is acceptable in German society in terms of debt ratios, as I understand it. And experts I’ve talked to have said they’re not going to do it. 

So what does NATO look like in two years from now? Hopefully war will be avoided in Europe and the problem that we will be facing will be: what’s the configuration of NATO? Hopefully, it will not be a more terrible problem, which no one wants.

Ukraine’s Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, attacked by Russian troops on March 4 (Reuters from a YouTube capture from a camera at the same nuclear power plant)

What do you think of Putin’s tactics to exploit the fear or threat of nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction?

I think he’s been effective at it. But also, unfortunately, he’s de facto used chemical weapons many times in the past, not only against individuals that he has targeted. Remember what happened in Syria. Certainly the Russians looked aside when Assad used chemical weapons. 

Then remember, President Trump used the strike against Syria, targeting its facilities. So I think on the chemical side, in terms of even chlorine gas, I’m worried that Putin will do something terrible like that. 

No one knows on the nuclear side. The thought of unleashing nuclear war seems just impossible to fathom. I guess we do have to fathom it, but no one can predict what will happen through the course of events there.

What is needed to deter further escalation, the use of chemical weapons, biological weapons, or tactical nuclear, small nuclear weapons?  

I think we can stop purchasing. We can stop allowing close to billions of dollars of purchase of oil and gas from Russia. 

We can probably threaten or do something in the cyber domain. But the sense [is] that Russia’s future growth is going to be harmed. The problem is Putin. The Russian people have a great capacity for suffering and they don’t necessarily have any choice in this matter either. 

In a way, Putin is making decisions independent of the best interests of his country and of his people. 

Instead he could have been focusing for years on the great scientific and cultural heritage of Russia and growing that, a country with so many talented people in it. And he hasn’t done that for many, many years.

Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Chingis Kondarov.

You made a point in the Wall Street Journal article that it’s their strategy to “escalate to de-escalate.” Could you explain in more detail what that means?

Yes, it’s a part of Russian military doctrine. I’m not an expert on all aspects of all the doctrine. But it’s a part of Russian military doctrine, which they’re doing. 

Escalate: [means] you threaten or use force to get to the negotiated settlement you want. And unfortunately, [as] people who have studied Russian nuclear doctrine have pointed out in much greater depth, a part of that is the possibility of threatening the use of tactical nuclear weapons, because it would create such fear in the West that we would be forced to negotiate. We’re seeing a little bit of that now. 

You mentioned the need for ambiguity for deterrence. What do you think about Biden’s remark in Warsaw, in his words, “For God’s sake, the man can’t remain in power”? 

To be honest, I evaluated his remarks as just saying something off the cuff that he shouldn’t have said. And I think he meant it in an off the cuff way. I do not think he meant it to signal policy. 

I think he just said that without thinking and it didn’t reflect United States policy. Unfortunately, he has tended to do that, have these off the cuff phrases. But he’s the President of the United States, so it creates a problem.

Former President Trump sometimes would do the same, only often the media would come down on him even more. So I think, as president, you have to think more carefully before you speak. 

What worries me more is the last point that I made in the article, that to rebuild the building blocks of deterrence, are we going to be forced to use military force the next time?  Because at a certain point, it will seem that we are unwilling under any circumstances to use force. That’s what worries me. There will be pressure.

How about the White House officials’ reaction trying to deny the President’s comment? 

I think they were probably very concerned about it. In the same way, they were concerned about the statement that President Biden made, the “a minor incursion” statement. That was walked back as well, and [so was] the statement that he made, “We will respond in kind to the [use of] chemical weapons”, suggesting that we would use chemical weapons, which we won’t. 

There are a series of statements that he has made. And he has made what I would call gaffes on the domestic side as well.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin marks the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, May 9, 2022. Sputnik/Anton Novoderzhkin/Pool via REUTERS

At this moment, what is needed to convey a message to Putin that shows the West’s will, or capability, to address this conflict?

We should reaffirm that NATO is an alliance that will take its Article Five commitment seriously. That’s very important. We cannot see the war spread further in Europe.  

We should immediately reduce the shipments, in terms of the amount of money still going into Russia from the purchases [of oil and gas]. 

I think we should stop the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal and not give the Russians leverage over that or allow the Iranians to sell oil. Because I think [the Russians] do see a benefit for it. So those are some of the factors. 

We need to remain committed to NATO and in the long term, [show] we’re committed to ensuring that NATO capabilities remain strong well into the future. 

But perhaps [we] also [need to] give a way out, a sense that Russia can take a different trajectory and rethink its role in the international system in a way that’s good for the future of its people and of the Russian people.

How do you assess the Biden administration’s draft 2022 National Security Strategy, and the concept of integrated deterrence that is said to be fundamental to it? 

I have to look at it more closely, but my first look at integrated deterrence is that it’s no different from the fundamental idea that political, economic, and military power go hand in hand. That power matters, you can’t separate them out. All of them are integrated. 

The concept of deterrence in the traditional way, will and capability, is the predominant concept that should hold. If integrated deterrence detracts from that, I think we lose focus. 

American power has always been a mixture of economic, political, and military. So how is integrated deterrence different from that fundamental concept? 

I would add technology now in that mix. But as an operational concept, will and capability still seems the best way to look at deterrence. 

Also, that’s what our adversaries will see. You have to test the concept against how it will be received by the other side. So in a way, what would be interesting would be to see how Chinese military and political leaders, Russian military and political leaders, Iranian military and political leaders, interpret integrated deterrence.

And I’d like to know for a different point, to ask my Japanese counterparts how they view the concept as well.

Airstrip used by mobile missile units training in that area of China. Experts in China’s nuclear force says it is expanding the number of underground silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

What is your view of the concern that China could use the Russian model to exploit the threat of nuclear war in order to avoid US intervention in the event of a Taiwan invasion? 

It worries me, as well. China has been modernizing its nuclear forces for quite some time now. 

A key reason why the United States left the intermediate range forces treaty, the INF Treaty, was not just because Russia was not abiding by it anymore. [It was] also because it didn’t cover a big part of what China was doing. 

So yes, I think it is a threat. That’s why we need to make sure the costs look really high in China for [following a Russian model]. 

China still has a lot of goals regarding its long term growth, its long term desire to grow its economy, and to take up some key positions globally. War would hurt that. It would set those goals back for a long, long time. 

So hopefully there’s some deterrent effect in that. It’s a tough problem.

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(Read the related article in Japanese at this link.) 

Interview by: Hiroo Watanabe, Washington Bureau Chief