Deterrence is a game where a big enough mistake kills hundreds of millions if not billions of people

Saturday, August 26th, 2023

Putin’s War in Ukraine is a fairly clear example of the stability-instability paradox:

In a pre-nuclear world, an intervention like this would have risked a direct, conventional response from NATO; at least at the moment it seems clear that the political will for such an intervention exists and is only really restrained by escalation concerns. Consequently, while in a pre-nuclear world invading Ukraine would pose the real risk of sparking an unwinnable conventional war with NATO, in a nuclear world, the Russian Federation can remain relatively sure that the war in Ukraine will remain ‘cabined’ to Ukraine. Moreover, the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons and Ukraine does not means that in the event that Ukraine wins, their ability to exploit that victory would be extremely limited; they could not, for instance, push deeply into Russian territory without triggering a potentially nuclear Russian response. The invasion thus seemed ‘safe.’

More broadly, I think Beaufre’s thinking is actually quite applicable here. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a classic interior maneuver and the Russian plan of operations follows Beaufre’s thinking closely: rapid advances with airborne, armor and mechanized forces to try to produce a coup de main that would topple the government and present its replacement as a fait accompli before the rest of the world could react. Clearly that’s not the only thing motivating the Russian operational concept – there seems to have been quite a lot of self-delusion and wishful thinking about how welcoming the Ukrainians would be. That said, it seems fairly clear that the Russian operational plan was designed to try to produce that fait accompli in just a few days, but of course the problem with such lightning advances is that should something go wrong, it is likely to go very wrong, with units spread out and often deep into enemy territory with fewer forces holding rear areas. By contrast, for instance, the United States, far more confident in its exterior maneuvers creating the window of freedom of action to intervene, was able to adopt a fairly methodical approach to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Which goes to the next point: Russian exterior maneuvers prior to the invasion were also fairly obvious. The Russian Federation, while building up claimed it had no plans to invade and used ‘exercises’ as a pretense in an effort, one assumes, to maximize confusion in the event and thus make unified action by the rest of the world more difficult. At the same time, Russia attempted to orchestrate a number of false-flag attacks and other fake ‘provocations’ in order to justify their intervention. What is also fairly obvious is that those exterior maneuvers failed, in particular because they lacked any kind of credibility. The smokescreen only works if a meaningful proportion of people believe it. The strategy NATO intelligence agencies took, of ‘calling’ Russia’s shots in advance robbed the strategy of much of its power. Again, the exterior maneuver is all about perception: Russia needed to create a ‘grey-zone’ of acceptability for what it was doing and largely failed.


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.

Remember: deterrence is a game where a big enough mistake kills hundreds of millions if not billions of people.


At the same time basically everything that NATO is doing in Ukraine can be understood as having a dual purpose: both attempting to degrade Russian military capabilities (by sinking the Russian economy and arming Ukraine) but also as an exterior maneuver designed to alter the freedom of action of other players in the system. Unable to directly act against Russia due to the concerns of deterrence and escalation, NATO is seeking to close the window of freedom of action tight enough that wars of conquest sit outside of it. It is doing this by rallying world opinion to the imposition of massive economic costs, in an effort to signal that wars of conquest will have such tremendous negative repercussions (even if they don’t trigger direct intervention) as to never be worth the cost.


  1. David Foster says:

    Haven’t read Beaufre’s strategy book, but I read his book “1940: The Fall of France”, which I thought was excellent.

    He describes his experiences in the colonial conflicts of the interwar period and then as a young Captain on the general staff…where he was not impressed with the senior officers:

    “I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.”

  2. Isegoria says:

    It’s amazing how quickly wartime armies turn into peacetime armies.

  3. David Foster says:

    Beaufre’s point about the General Staff was interestingly mirrored by Picasso, when Matisse asked him, as the German armies advanced, WTF are our generals doing? (or words to that effect)

    Picasso’s response: “Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts!”…ie, men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.

  4. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “It [US/NATO] is doing this by rallying world opinion to the imposition of massive economic costs …”

    Unfortunately, those massive economic costs are being imposed by US/NATO on … US/NATO. And world opinion is hardly rallying to the US/NATO cause; see the recent BRICS conference, or the failed “Stand with Ukraine” conference in Saudi Arabia.

    When analysts ignore the obvious aggressive moves of the US/NATO eastwards to the Russian border and ignore the impact of the coup and long civil war in the Ukraine on Russia and instead characterize everything as “Putin’s war”, it does tend to engender a very low opinion of that analyst’s assessment.

  5. Isegoria says:

    It’s a shame that Beaufre’s works are out of print — at least in English.

  6. Biff Shickendorf says:

    When Putin dies another progression downward occurs. Russia is structured very like organized crime cartels with Putin as the chief of chiefs. The war of succession may be the end of all things.

  7. Pongo says:

    The initial celebration of Russia’s invasion on parts of the dissident right and its subsequent implosion, partial rollback and stalemate have permanently stained the armchair generals of the right IMO.

  8. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Wars of attrition are not bloody endless stalemates.

    Bloody yes; but neither endless nor stalemates.

    The stalemates exist only in the minds of personages afflicted by the condition of map autism, who think that lines on the map sum the total of reality.

    As regards to correlation of forces in reality, how men are fighting other men in the Ukraine, and what the results of that fighting is, they are not equivalent at all; but you can’t learn that by just looking at lines on a map.

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