This is a linkpost for https://acoup.blog/2022/03/11/collections-nuclear-deterrence-101/ . I found it a very good read for explaining the strategy behind the decisions and signaling in this war. I was inspired to post it as a supplement to https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/WX7tpnBCHWrmJcDym/why-a-no-fly-zone-would-be-the-biggest-gift-to-putin-and-why , as this piece explains why it's in Zelensky's interest to continue to call for a no-fly zone that could turn into a hot war.
It also answered a question I've had since a child, visiting old friends of my mother from her childhood growing up on military bases, wondering what the US was doing in so many countries. The answer? Their job is quite literally to die to provoke a US response.
Some excerpts below:
One such method that Beaufre discusses is what he calls the ‘piecemeal maneuver,’ but is often in English referred to as ‘salami tactics’ – including in this absolutely hilarious bit from Yes, Prime Minister, which is also a surprisingly good explanation of the method. The idea is that to make gains while avoiding escalation, a state can break up the gains they would make into a series of smaller actions, each with its own exterior maneuver ‘cover,’ so that it doesn’t rise to the level of triggering nuclear escalation. Putting together several such maneuvers could allow a state to make those gains which had they all been attempted at once, certainly would have triggered such an escalation. Beaufre’s example, unsurprisingly, was Hitler’s piecemeal gains before his last ‘bite’ into Poland triggered WWII.
Beaufre notes that for piecemeal maneuvers to be effective, they have to be presented as fait accompli – accomplished so quickly that anything but nuclear retaliation would arrive too late to do any good and of course nuclear retaliation would be pointless: who is going to destroy the world to save a country that was already lost? Thus Beaufre suggests that the piecemeal maneuver is best accomplished as a series of coups de main accomplished with fast moving armored, mechanized and airborne forces seizing control of the target country or region before anyone really knows what is happening. The attacking power can then present the maneuver as fait accompli and thus the new status quo that everyone has to accommodate; if successful, they have not only made gains but also moved everyone’s red lines, creating more freedom of action for further piecemeal maneuvers.
Avoiding this problem is why NATO is structured the way it is: promising a maximum response for any violation, however slight, of the territory of any member. The idea is to render the entire bloc immune to piecemeal maneuvers by putting all of it behind the red line (or at least letting the USSR think it is all behind the red line). It is also why American forces are often forward deployed in effectively trivial numbers in key areas in the world in what are often referred to as ‘tripwire’ deployments. Those American forces, for instance, in Poland, the Baltics or on the Korean DMZ (and during the Cold War, in West Germany) were not there to win the war; their purpose was, in a brutal sense, to die in its opening moments and thus ensure that the United States was committed, whether it wanted to be or not. And the reason to do that is to signal to both enemies and allies that any incursion into allied territory, no matter how trivial, will cause American deaths and thus incur an American military response. In that way you can shift the red line all of the way forward, obliterating the area of freedom of action, but only for countries where such a commitment is credible (which is going to generally be a fairly small group).
The logic of deterrence – in particular the fact that it is both very high stakes and also based entirely on perception – explains why NATO and especially the United States took any direct military action off of the table quite loudly well before the conflict began. Saying that ‘all options are on the table’ – as the United States routinely does with Taiwan – would have been a fairly obvious bluff. When Putin called that obvious bluff, it would have damaged the credibility and thus the deterrence value of that same statement when applied to NATO members or Taiwan, weakening the effect of US deterrence, and thus potentially encouraging another state (like China) to try to call an American bluff elsewhere (essentially inviting a piecemeal maneuver). And of course the danger to that is two-fold: on the one hand if the United States and NATO folds, it calls into question even more of its security arrangements, but if it doesn’t fold, the result is likely to be a major war which in turn could (and frankly probably would) lead to an escalatory spiral ending in the use of nuclear weapons.
It is worth noting here though how Ukrainian interests here diverge from NATO interests. Ukraine is already in an effectively total war (from their perspective; Russia is not totally mobilized) with Russia. Russian forces are already targeting Ukrainian civilian centers with the apparent aim of inflicting civilian casualties and making the refugee situation worse. The Ukrainian state already faces the potential threat of extinction. As a result, Ukraine has very little to lose if the war escalates further (especially since from the Ukrainian perspective, nearly all of the escalatory potential is on NATO’s side; note this is not true from NATO’s perspective) and so it may be in Ukrainian interests to push for high-risk NATO strategies that it is in turn not in NATO’s interest – or the world’s interest – for NATO to adopt.
Thank you for posting this! AAA++, 11 out of 10, would recommend, will read again!
See also another post on the same blog about chemical weapons: acoup.blog/2020/03/20/collections-why-dont-we-use-chemical-weapons-anymore/
I have already started searching through the archives over there. Any more such gems?
This blog is absolute gold. If you want things relevant to today's situation I also recommand the piece on Thucydide and the one on Interstate anarchy in the EU4 series.
The two series on the Lord of the Rings are less relevant for today's events but masterpieces of both historical and literature analysis.
The big series on Rome cultural integration is great too.
And be sure to check the series on bread and clothes for some much needed balance between exciting military history and the day to day lives of normal people - the ones who tend to be on the wrong side of this military history.
I shall! Thank you :)
Given that Russia's attempt at a fait accompli in Ukraine has failed, and that the situation already is a total war, I fail to see Russia's logic of nuclear deterrence against NATO involvement. In a sense, NATO has already crossed the red lines that Russia stated would be considered acts of war, such as economic sanctions and direct military supply. From the Russian perspective, would NATO intervention really invite a total nuclear response the way that a Russian attack on Poland would?
NATO intervention and subsequent obliteration of the Russian army seems extremely in the interest of NATO. This intervention could be covert, limited in scope, and done in piecemeal, but with the effect of resolutely destroying the Russian military over time. A slow steady trickle of first supplies, then limited direct AA support, with a gradual buildup of force in Ukraine seems to me like it could be used to avoid escalation all the way to nuclear conflict. At some point, the invasion becomes pointless and the Russians have no option but to withdraw.
Did you read the linked article? It argues extensively and precisely why what you suggest is not something that NATO can risk.
It is a total war for Ukraine, not for Russia. And even less for NATO.
No one doubts that NATO could obliterate Russia's conventional forces, if it were guaranteed not to escalate beyond conventional warfare. Putin knows that too. Which is precisely why he couldn't and wouldn't leave any such guarantee.
Yes I did, and it doesn't follow that nuclear retaliation is immediate.
Failure to perform the fait accompli means that options other than nuclear retaliation are possible.
Take this statement and reverse the positions. If NATO calls Russia's bluff that any and all military assistance to Ukraine would be met with nuclear retaliation, as they have already done, then Russia by this logic is inviting a piecemeal maneuver on the part of NATO.
Russia is fighting an aggressive war. NATO can clearly signal via way of action that it has no intention of threatening the existence of the Russian state.
Involvement here doesn't escalate the situation inside of Ukraine beyond its borders. I'd rather see counterpoints to my arguments than blanket assertions I didn't read the article or that it "addresses my points". Please point out exactly where I'm missing something.
My apologies. I found myself convinced of these very points after reading the article, but I can see now how my words could come across as standoffish. No insult intended :)
My reading of both the text quoted and reality as presented, is that this line of thinking only applies when operating inside or very close to the opponents red lines. The next paragraph starts:
And Ukraine is not a member. NATO's red line is crystal clear. Ukraine is outside of it. Everyone made it very clear to Putin that they didn't want him to invade, and that they would impose "costs" on him if he did. But no one threatened to nuke him over it.
Putin made it very clear on the day of the attack that he was threatening nukes to anyone who "interfered" in Ukraine, with his infamous "the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history" -speech. NATO has been helping Ukraine by training their forces and supplying materiell for years before the invasion, and vowed to keep doing so. This can be considered "calling his bluff" to an extent, or as a piecemeal maneuver in it's own right. Yet they withdrew their personell from the country in the days and weeks leading up to the attack. Some have called Biden weak for doing that, essentially "clearing the way" for Putin by removing the tripwire force, and maybe he is. What is clear is that he didn't want for that bluff to be called.
Sending NATO troops into Ukraine to engage Russian forces is a very clear escalation, that Putin has specifically warned against. If this were to happen, Putin would have every incentive to nuke them inside Ukraine, or worse. He might be bluffing. I wouldn't bet on it.
"Red lines" aren't always geographical. Currently (it looks to me like) NATO's unambiguous red line is it's geographical border, while it is trying to establish some strategic ambiguity over use of chemical/biological weapons. This is going so-so, especially after the US's bluff was called in Syria with no consequences. Meanwhile (it looks to me like) Putin's unambiguous red line is Russia's geographical border, and he is trying very successfully and believably to assert a red line over any direct military intervention inside Ukraine, and less successfully over less direct help. Since he was deliberately unspecific in his threats, he can gracefully back down from the supply of weapons without loosing face. That does not mean he would back down from other more direct help, with the infamous Polish fighter jets toeing the line too close for comfort, so the US backed down on that one.
The start of the very same paragraph reads:
Now, as for fait accompli:
I think the phrase "have to be" above is not to be taken as absolute. The same paragraph continues:
Everyone agrees that the maneuver "is best accomplished" if it can be performed quickly. Obviously Putin would be in a much stronger position if he would have been able to conquer Ukraine within a few days. Almost tautologically so. But considering how US Intelligence were consistently calling his shots days in advance during the weeks leading up to the invasion, Putin never managed to establish very much of a smokescreen for this operation, and thus I don't see this ever being presented as fait accompli to anyone, no matter how it would have turned out on the ground. Unlike his annexation of Crimea, where that tactic was much more successful.
Thanks for the measured response.
If I understand the following correctly:
You interpret that as being specifically a warning against overt deployment of troops to Ukraine? I suppose my reading of it was more broad, and as such NATO already fell on the side of violating my understanding of "interfering". While at the outset I can see that being a strong reason at the beginning of the war, i.e. "Don't take my attempt at a quick victory away from me or else I'll nuke you", I don't know how feasible that remains over time. Putin can't think that if the war goes on for months without victory that everyone would just sit on the sidelines forever. I suppose clarity from the Russians about their commitment to the war in general would help especially regarding:
While I agree that Russia's border is not something NATO tanks should go rolling across, I haven't seen as strong of a message in recent days threatening nuclear retaliation if say a THAAD battery near the Polish border with Ukraine engaged a Russian fighter jet. NATO could plausibly claim the fighter penetrated Polish airspace (even if it wasn't actually the case).
In fact, the US and USSR engaged in direct aerial combat in the Korean War, in the infamous "MiG Alley" without escalating into a full fledged war.
Agreed, but if Russia starts bombing the supply convoys from NATO, that would almost certainly invite more direct NATO intervention. "Russia is bombing humanitarian aid convoys" etc.
All this to say I think the situation is a lot more nuanced than "If NATO fires a single bullet at a Russian it's the end of civilization".
Strangely enough, I think this was the intention. I think the prospect of this war escalating could if nothing else be used to help force the Russians to reevaluate their goals and hasten the end of the war.
I think it was deliberately vague. This allows Putin room to choose his response due to exact later consequences, without being bound to his own word. The way NATO is interpreting it sure seems to be that weapons are ok but troops are not, and Putin has accepted that, with only some non-committal grumbling. I think the fact that NATO was already providing that before the invasion makes a strong "status quo" argument. Also it has historically counted as "not participating", however ridiculous and arbitrary this may seem. Scott Alexander wrote more on this.
In my understanding this is very feasible indeed. Within hours of the invasion, the new status quo had emerged: NATO was sending weapons/money/intelligence and doing sanctions/UN hearings/etc, and Russia was advancing conventionally. The status quo hasn't really changed since then, except that a; Ukrainian resistance is is much stronger than expected, and b; western sanctions are much stronger than expected. If China came down on one side or the other, that would shift the status quo; or if Russia goes through with it's chemical weapons gambit, or if NATO escalates support. Or if the ground war starts leaning one way or the other. Breaking the status quo is always counted as a "Move", however contrived the status quo.
I think this would be a major major crisis, going down in history alongside the Cuban missile crisis. I think Putin would basically interpret this as a totally unprovoked attack, at least publicly, likening it to Russian forces shooting down NATO planes inside NATO airspace. It would be a massive escalation, and Putin would have to do something in response, or loose all credibility. Whether that thing would then escalate further is hard to know. I don't want to find out.
I'm not read up on the "MiG Valley" history, but my understanding is that a; everyone pretended that the pilots were not Russian, and b; this was before the doctrine of MAD was fully established. But again, I don't know the history around it. If there was direct fire exchanged between Russian and NATO troops today, however circumstantial, It would make the history books for sure.