Mystery without deterrence is a recipe for war

The main responsibility for the outbreak of war in Ukraine, of course, lies with Russia and Vladimir Putin, who invaded a neighboring country without the slightest hint of justification and without any real threat from Ukraine to Russia, its borders or its people. At the same time, it would also be fair to examine the mistakes made by other players that led to the current crisis. There must be broad agreement on this: the policy of strategic ambiguity has failed to deter Russian aggression. This should also be reflected in the important lessons of US policy on Taiwan.

There are two main ways to deter hostile regimes from attacking their neighbors. The first is to set clear red lines: if you go beyond this point – you will face certain consequences. Of course, as we have seen with Barack Obama’s absurd policy in Syria, setting a red line is useless if you do not intend to stick to it. This was in fact one of the factors that led to the war in Iraq: Saddam Hussein regularly violated the terms of the cease-fires in the Gulf War, and the administration of President Bush Jr. had to decide whether or not to stick to the red line he had set. higher.

The second method is beyond the policy of strategic ambiguity: making the hostile regime guess what action it will call for a response, and what kind of response it will be. This is usually a more effective approach when your leader maintains a hostile and unpredictable image, which is why most Americans believe that Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if President Trump were still in office today.

The United States, NATO countries and their allies were able to clarify the situation to Putin and Russia. NATO could have accepted Ukraine’s joining its ranks. The West could have openly threatened to take some of the steps it is now taking – handing arms to Ukraine or boycotting Russian gas and oil. But the West did nothing of the sort. Nor did he shut the door completely upon Ukraine’s entry into NATO, or tell Putin openly that he had not gone to war over Ukraine—measures that could have encouraged Russia to fight but also reassured some of its presidential paranoia.

Strategic obscurity can be the best of both worlds, leaving you room to maneuver as well as deterring the enemy without committing to the unstoppable. But it can also be evil for both worlds, allowing the bad guys to take reckless bets – especially when they see our leaders as weak and helpless, as Joe Biden for example was seen with the surrender in Afghanistan. This has sometimes been the result of ambiguities in the past: the Gulf War and the Korean War came in the wake of America’s failure to make clear its desire to defend the target country. Similarly, in World War I, Germany bet that British ambiguity regarding Belgian defense was little more than a hoax. Russia made a similar mistake regarding the French and British defense of the Ottoman Empire in 1853, paving the way for the Crimean War. In the current crisis situation, it didn’t work out. Putin saw the trick in front of him, bet on it, and led to this bloody war.

Strategic ambiguity has remained US policy in Taiwan for decades. The United States does not tell China or Taiwan whether it intends to defend the island in the event of a Chinese attack. As long as America is led by people who fear the Chinese, this policy can work, as it has for many years. If he concludes that ambiguity has not prevented Putin from ousting Ukraine, he may draw his own conclusions about Taiwan.


The column was first published on the National Review website.

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