TURES COLUMN: Does deterrence work? Lessons for the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Published 9:30 am Thursday, February 24, 2022

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Does deterrence actually work?  In our international relations class, my students researched the track record of deterrence in several cases of international aggression, as well as examples where deterrence was not employed against a belligerent country targeting a smaller nation, as we see today in the Russian-Ukraine crisis. And here is what we found.

Several students looked at cases from the 1930s. During this time, Nazi Germany marched upon its neighbors, seeking to satisfy Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s insatiable quest for power. When he stormed into Austria to add it into Germany, few even sent a muted word of protest. We probably wouldn’t have even known it happened if it wasn’t for “The Sound of Music.”

Hitler then turned his attention to Czechoslovakia.  In a case eerily similar to today’s Russia-Ukraine conflict, Hitler used the existence of “Sudeten Germans” to demand a third of Czechoslovakian territory. Rather than deter Nazis, Britain and France signed the Munich Pact with Germany, hoping that giving him the Sudetenland would appease Hitler. It didn’t and he swallowed up the country the following year, on another flimsy excuse.

By the time Hitler played the “false flag” campaign again, this time at Poland, West Europe seemed to sense the danger. Britain and France declared after Nazi Germany attacked Poland, but did not conduct a counter-offensive against Germany. After dividing up the country with the USSR, Hitler would then turn his attention West, knocking out France and almost Britain.

You’d think that America would learn the lessons of a lack of pre-WWII deterrence. And it did…sometimes. When Josef Stalin, the USSR and East Germany blockaded West Berlin, America, Britain and allies flew in supplies until the embargo was dropped, an event considered a successful operation with a minimum of fighting, though it did not stop the overall problem.

But other cases showed failures. In Korea, America withdrew its troops and weapons from South Korea, practically daring North Korea to attack. The U.S. and allies rushed back in 1950 after North Korea, but it cost us 36,000+ American lives to successfully help save South Korea. And in East Timor, our leaders turned their backs on the Christian minority who declared their independence back in 1975. We may have even encouraged the anticommunist Muslim majority, with US weapons and training, to crush the independence movement.

Only after the Cold War did America consistently employ the projection of power in advance of an attack, with successful results. In 1994, America rushed forces to Kuwait to successfully deter Saddam Hussein’s mobilization to take the country a second time for Iraq. And in 1996, the U.S. Navy rushed in to check the Chinese and their dangerous missile fire and threats to Taiwan. And we even were able to use international pressure to give the East Timorese Christians a second chance and freedom. Under such protection, more than three-quarters of E. Timor voted and received independence.

So here’s what my students (Cary Burton, DeQueze Fryer, Hannah Godfrey, Mason McLaughlin, Nicole Morales, Jaydon Parrish, Abbey Reese), and I learned. Ignoring aggression not only flattens a small country, but encourages future belligerence. Rushing in after the war starts can lead to a disastrous beginning to a conflict, a plan perhaps costlier than withdrawing in the first place. But the threat, display or even a limited use of force can change an aggressor’s calculations of the conflict. Hopefully, posting troops in NATO country near Ukraine will lead to outcomes similar to other U.S. successes in the post-Cold War era.