The return of deterrence

The year 2014 was a watershed one for the West. That year saw the annexation of Crimea and the return of Russia on the world scene as a potential adversary to NATO and its allies. With its ruthless behaviour in Crimea and Ukraine, the flexing of its muscle in numerous exercises in the northwestern parts of Russia near the Baltic states, and the constant sabre-rattling going on behind the scenes, the Kremlin is no longer seen as a strategic partner of the West.

Deterrence as a response

To counter this aggression, the West in general – and NATO more specifically – realize that they need to respond. One aspect of this response is in the form of deterrence. During the days of the Cold War, deterrence was a prominent strategy that was employed by the West, NATO and its allies in battling the Eastern Bloc of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. With the recent hostility from Russia and the difficulties in relations with China, we are witnessing the re-emergence of deterrence in Western policy.

The return of deterrence is the topic up for discussion at the 13th annual Kingston Conference on International Security (KCIS).

“This conference is an attempt to consider what has been done, where we are now, and what more could be done to deter Russia from taking some adverse action that would affect NATO and its member states,” said Dr. Jeffery Larsen, Director Research, NATO Defense College. “At the same time, we are trying to figure out a way to restore dialogue and reopen the diplomatic aspects of the relationship between the West and Russia, as nobody wants to return to the Cold War era.”

Dr. Larsen, who will be chairing the first panel on the Foundations of Deterrence at KCIS, believes that we are, in a sense, close to returning to the days of the Cold War. The difference though, he said, is that during that time the two sides were in discussions, had arms control negotiations and signed treaties. But today, “we’re not doing that because, since April 2014, the Alliance has banned all practical cooperation with Russia.”

“At this point, there is no dialogue, and we do not see any response from Moscow. It’s just all talk of conflict,” he said. “Due to the situation, we need a good deterrence to prevent more from happening. That’s what we’re going to discuss at the conference.”

The concept of deterrence

Since the end of the Cold War, many have forgotten what deterrence is and what it means. “Yet, defence organizations use the word ‘deterrence’ to mean good things,” he pointed out. “Deterrence is good. We want deterrence. We want forces that deter, but nobody understands what that means.”

Deterrence is threatening another party to keep them from doing something you don’t want them to do. “You threaten to harm something they value – like their homeland, their leadership, and military – and depending on how you fashion the response, it will make it so bad that by doing a cost-benefit analysis, they will realize they should not take that action in the first place.”

He went on to explain further that deterrence is a simple concept, but making it work between nation states that have lethal nuclear weapons is quite challenging.

In the event a nation that is being deterred does not act accordingly, there will be “unacceptable consequences” for that country. The response could be anything from a conventional response on the ground all the way up to a response including nuclear weapons. “The idea of using nuclear weapons is supposed to be used as a scare tactic and not to be deployed. It is a matter of frightening people into behaving so that the weapons don’t have to be used,” he said.

Dr. Larsen went on to explain that for deterrence to work though, it needs to be credible. To be credible, you typically need capabilities and the will to use them. If either of those factors is in doubt, you don’t have a credible deterrence.

The future role of deterrence

Terrorism and instability threats bubbling up in the Middle East, North Africa and Russia are creating the demand for the return of deterrence. Dr. Larsen sees this as having two parts; one part is about having a traditional form of collective defence and deterrence against enemies that we don’t anticipate rising and the other part is deciding how deterrence could work in non-traditional realms regarding hybrid warfare.

“We’re not as far along in the cyber domain. It gets fuzzy when you start talking about things like cyber and redlines and how do you respond with kinetic weapons against an electronic attack? How do you determine when an attack occurred? How do you know who did it? How do you attribute the attack to a particular adversary, and then how do you respond?” These are all questions that Dr. Larsen said would need to be addressed in shaping future deterrence strategies.

He also believes that the deterrence domain has expanded significantly from that of the Cold War era. The United States, for instance, is investigating what is called cross-domain deterrence to decide what to do across all these different domains. “For example, can you treat a missile attack the same way as you might treat a cyber-attack or against a country taking out a satellite? Are these attacks equal and would it require the same response, or do we need to tailor it by having something different for each situation?”

The conference

The agenda for the full two-day KCIS conference is a year-round collaboration between academic and military partners from different countries and organizations who work to build a program from the ground up. “This partnership is central to everything that we do in contributing to the advancement of knowledge and discussion surrounding a specific topic year after year,” said Dr. Stéfanie von Hlatky, Director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.

Regarding the selection of deterrence as the theme for this year’s event, Dr. von Hlatky said, “Deterrence is a term that was dominant throughout the Cold War and had since disappeared from at least the Canadian defence lexicon since the end of the Cold War. Now all of a sudden we are seeing it re-emerging in speeches and policy documents. Is it relevant; does it mean the same thing like in the days of the Cold War? And if not, how is it different now?”

She went on to explain that the aim of the conference is to shape a common understanding of what deterrence challenges are now and also to broaden the discussion so that it’s not only limited to military but reaches across sectors. It will draw from the best that both academics and industry have to offer, and will have both a civilian and military perspective with a multi-sector approach.

The agenda has a good gender balance and will include a number of female experts in the field, including:

  • Amy Woolf, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress
  • Stephanie Carvin, Carleton University
  • Elaine Bunn, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, U.S. Department of Defense
  • Kristin Bruusgaard, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University
  • Cori E. Dauber, Triangle Institute for Security Studies, University of North Carolina
  • C. Christine Fair, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University
  • Chloe Berger, Middle East Faculty, NATO Defence College
  • Loren DeJonge Schulman, Center for a New American Security

Learning outcomes

The conference is designed to bring something different, depending on whether you are military, a policymaker or an academic. Everyone will be able to take away something unique. Learning outcomes will include: understanding deterrence as a concept, how it is interpreted and translated into practice – not only in national defence policies but on NATO level policies and strategic priorities – and understanding how the strategic direction translates into operational guidance for missions.

“Based on the feedback from that experience, recommendations can be formulated so that policymakers can adjust the policy and strategic direction of the return of deterrence,” said Dr. von Hlatky.

KCIS 2018 will be held from June 11-13 at the Holiday Inn in Kingston, Ontario. To learn more about this conference, visit http://www.queensu.ca/kcis/home.

Author: Marcello Sukhdeo

Marcello is the managing editor of Vanguard, IT in Canada and Canadian Government Executive and the host of Vanguard Radio and WRLWND Radio podcasts. He is an avid technology and security enthusiast, who has worked on content leadership strategies for a number of industries including the public sector, life science, technology and defence.

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