12:00 14.11.2020


Russian military force. Is deterrence possible?

8 min read
Russian military force. Is deterrence possible?

Vadym Chernysh, Head of the Center for Security Studies "CENSS", Minister for the Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs (2016-2019)



The policy of deterrence, in general, is to dissuade, force the state [1], which considers such a possibility, to abandon the use of military force.

Deterrence, by definition, is a kind of counter threat to the threat of the use of military force.

A state may abandon the idea of using force if the likely negative consequences for it are comparable to or even exceed the potential benefits.

Deterrence can be carried out in two ways:

  • through the threat of real and significant countermeasures, when only the presence of such a threat itself forces to deny the use force;
  • through the threat of punishment, retaliation, for the use of force, that is, the threat of causing significant or even destructive harm outside the sphere or territory originally chosen by the initiator of the use of force.

Historical examples of strategies of military force deterrence through the threat of countermeasures include the Great Wall of China or the Mannerheim Line.

Since the appearance of nuclear weapons, the concept of nuclear deterrence has become widespread, based on the threat of its use in the enemy's territory as a punishment. It has two "measurements". In the first case, the idea is that state which possesses the nuclear weapons is capable of deterring other "non-nuclear" states from using military force against it. In the second case, it is that the possession of nuclear weapons will deter other owners from using such weapons.

Over time, two states - the United States and the USSR (now the Russian Federation) - have accumulated such a huge number of nuclear weapons that the term "mutually assured destruction" appeared in the theory of nuclear deterrence, meaning that a nuclear exchange is guaranteed to cause the complete annihilation of both sides. The concept of a “second nuclear strike” also appeared, the essence of which, in our case, can be reduced to the ability of a state to retaliate with a nuclear strike in retaliation.

Russia is a country with a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, as well as three types of delivery vehicles - nuclear missiles, strategic aircrafts and submarines, the so-called "nuclear triad".  In terms of its level, only the US nuclear potential is comparable to the Russian one and can perform the function of nuclear deterrence, but this factor acts only in relation to the US and its allies.

On June 2, 2020, the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation "On the Foundations of the Russian Federation State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence" was issued, which sets out the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, inter alia:

  • receipt of reliable information on the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
  • use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by the enemy in the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
  • enemy's influence on critical state or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the disabling of which will lead to the disruption of the response actions of the nuclear forces;
  • aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.

In June 2014, following the occupation of the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the invasion in the East of Ukraine, the United States launched an initiative that is currently called the "European Deterrence Initiative". Its main goal is to contain the military force of Russia, to increase the military potential of both the United States itself and its allies, as well as partners in Europe.

The total amount of funds allocated in 2020 from the US federal budget for this initiative is USD 5.9 billion. Within the framework of this initiative, there is another one "The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative".  It is in accordance with it that Ukraine receives military aid, the amount of which is determined at USD 250 million.

The policy of deterrence and corresponding strategies can be successful if a number of conditions are met, which are the following:

  • presence of appropriate potential, the ability to effectively resist or carry out a quick punishment, retribution;
  • determination to resist or implement punishment/retribution without delay when clearly defined conditions occur;
  • bringing to the threatening party a sufficient (but not excessive!) volume of information about one's abilities, determination and conditions for the beginning of confrontation, punishment/retribution.

A very important point to note here is that if the deterrence policy and the corresponding strategy prove ineffective, in other words, "will not work", then it will be necessary to deal with the implementation of the defense strategy.

The prevailing opinion among Ukrainian politicians currently is that military deterrence of Russia is possible through the threat of countering a possible attack. That is the content of statements by the political leadership and all kinds of experts. At the same time, the emphasis is on a large number of military losses for the Russian Federation in the event of its invasion of the territory of Ukraine, which, in their opinion, is the main deterrent.

There are at least two objections to this.

First, Russia possesses a large number of weapons capable of destroying manpower, equipment and infrastructure on the territory of Ukraine remotely, at a distance. Evhen Prymakov, the current director of one of the Russian federal agencies, Rossotrudnichestvo, once wrote about this in 2018: "It is necessary to make it clear to Kyiv and its sponsors that the Russian army is not planning any "invasion" and "aggression" against Ukraine, let them hope. And no one will even cross the border. But we will definitely bomb/scatter by missiles the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the era of the Zaporozhian Sich, which the Ukrainians will be proud of, as expected. That there will not be a single communications center, not a single headquarters, not a single fuel depot, an airfield, motor pool, a column, a barrack, a checkpoint - and not only, and not a single power plant, pump station, converter, bridge ... "

Secondly, the Russian military organization is based on the maximum use of modern conflicts not of the regular military personnel of its armed forces, but of "surrogate" military formations - the so-called "private military companies", and units consisting of citizens of other countries, which can be called differently - "people's militias", "self-defense forces", etc. All these combatants act under the command of the Russian Federation and in its interests, but are not formally part of its armed forces, and obligations to them, as a rule, are limited only to the payment of monetary rewards and some compensations. Losses among such combatants do not have a deterrent effect, since society is not sensitive to them to the extent that it would be in the case of regular military personnel. Let us also note that Russia's military losses are currently classified as information with limited access.

It seems that the Russian deterrence strategy with the use of some elements based on the threat of military retaliation deserves a discussion.

In the Russian deterrence strategy, it would be possible to focus on at least three components:

  • building a modern air defense system capable of effectively hitting air targets not only over the territory of Ukraine, but also over the territory of Russia to the maximum possible depth;
  • establishment and production of a significant number of high-precision super- and hypersonic (super-task) ground-based cruise missiles capable of hitting targets far in the depths of Russian territory;
  • development of new types of conventional warheads and explosives of great destructive power.

It is important to note that until 2019 Ukraine could not develop shorter- and medium-range missiles, being bound by obligations in accordance with the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles between the USSR and the USA, signed back in 1987. On August 2, 2019, the aforementioned treaty was terminated.

Not being a nuclear state, Ukraine is unable to implement a policy of nuclear deterrence. In this case, the policy can be based on the principle of the so-called "extended" nuclear deterrence in the sense that a political and military alliance with a nuclear-capable power will be a nuclear deterrent for Russia.  But taking into account the size of Russia's nuclear potential and the fact that all other nuclear states, except for the United States, are far behind, we have to admit that only the American "extended" nuclear deterrence will be most effective.

In turn, developing its military potential, Ukraine can become a significant element in the mechanisms for ensuring security in Europe and one of the key players in the implementation of the policy of collective deterrent against Russia.


[1] In some cases, the policy of deterrence can be applied to non-state actors as well.