For decades, one of the central tenets in elite foreign policy circles held that a large-scale war between Russia and Western countries in Europe was unthinkable. The lessons from World War II had been learned, and catastrophic history would not be repeated. Some theorists even suggested that war had become obsolete in Europe. After all, the old continent experienced peace for nearly 80 years, the longest period in European history. It was difficult to conceive that peace could come to an end.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s decision to place his country’s nuclear forces on high alert have shown how wrong this elite conception regarding security on the continent has been. This reigning common wisdom was based on three main assumptions. For one, Russia’s military expansion to former Soviet states could be deterred as long as NATO forces remained deployed on the Eastern flank of its member countries. Second, the political and economic costs would be so unbearable that they would also deter Russia from carrying out any such military plans. The equation was simple. Europeans needed Russia’s oil and gas and Russia needed Europeans’ money. It was a win-win relationship that war would make into a lose-lose.
A third assumption involved a belief that Russia was not a credible security threat. Whenever scholars or intellectuals warned about growing Russia’s imperialist ambitions, those notions were politely dismissed as pure speculation. Rather, a growing number of elected officials in Europe—and for that matter also in the United States—have been sympathetic to Russia’s position regarding NATO as a destabilizing force.
The collective over-confidence in the validity of these assumptions led to a massive demilitarization in Western European countries, despite repeated US expressions of concerns. For instance, in most European NATO members, defense expenditures as a share of gross domestic product steadily declined for almost two decades and remain well under NATO’S two-percent guideline.
All of these beliefs, however, were quashed on February 24, 2022, when Russia launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine by land, air, and sea—the largest military attack of one state against another in Europe since World War II. The invasion followed a five-month-long military buildup at Ukraine’s borders, with Russia massing up to 190,000 troops by the eve of the assault. During this time, concerns grew among NATO members after receiving US intelligence about Russia’s invasion plans. But few believed Putin would take the enormous risk of invading a sovereign country of Europe.
NATO forces and prior unity of its members were not sufficient to deter Russia from launching its attack on Ukraine. The first round of sanctions and threats of unbearable political and economic costs did not deter Russia’s actions either. As early as December, Biden said of Putin: “If he moves on Ukraine, the economic consequences for his economy are going to be devastating.” Putin didn’t blink an eye. Rather, he later escalated the situation, reminding everyone repeatedly about the real prospects that a Russia-NATO conflict could turn nuclear.
Seasoned foreign policy and defense experts in Western Europe are now experiencing what resembles an epistemological breakdown after their long-held assumptions have been invalidated overnight. Beyond self-congratulatory and finger-pointing sparring on social media, a significant number of experts have started to reassess their own beliefs about Russia and NATO. For example, Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, admits there is a large dose of uncertainty because “in any major war, firebreaks and thresholds tend to weaken, deliberately or not.”
As they enter into unknown territory, analysts are reconsidering Putin’s actions and vision. According to Caitlin Talmadge, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, “Putin’s behavior suggests that revisionist actors are not so inhibited and may instead use their strategic nuclear forces as a shield behind which they can pursue conventional aggression, knowing their nuclear threats may deter outside intervention.” Some admit it is hard to decipher Putin’s end game in Europe, either operationally or strategically. Others, even more worried, find no sense of limits and fear there could be other testing grounds for Putin in Europe, including an attack on a NATO member country. After all, Putin’s desire could be to realize Russia’s imperial dream, fueled by his revisionist history of Russia, Ukraine and Europe.
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul warns that Putin may feel emboldened by his successful wars in Chechnya (1999), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), and Syria (2015)—actions for which he endured very limited military, political, and economic consequences. Even more worried, Stephen Hadley, Bush’s former National Security Advisor, guesses that “[i]f Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he might decide that he needs a land bridge to link Kaliningrad to Belarus and then Russia … through Lithuania or Poland”.
Doubts also exist as to whether NATO will be an effective deterrent against an increasingly bellicose Putin. For instance, Tertrais admits he is “no longer sure whether Putin makes a clear difference between Article 5 countries and others.” Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty on collective defense stipulates that an armed attack on one ally is considered an attack against all members of the alliance. Yet Putin announced that that there would be unprecedented measures taken for anyone supporting Ukraine war effort. On Friday, the Kremlin issued a statement threatening Sweden and Finland, asserting that their accession to NATO could have detrimental consequences.
Less than 24 hours into the war, foreign policy and defense experts had agreed on two things: Peace is over in Europe, and a new military playbook is being written.
To work, nuclear deterrence theory must assume that both sides will avoid crises and conflicts out of the fear they could escalate to a nuclear war. Putin’s explicit nuclear threats are remarkable in that respect. They signal a willingness by his regime to turn to its nuclear arsenal should the West interfere with Russian invasion of Ukraine. But what’s the threshold for interference? Would France’s offer to host Ukraine President Zelensky at the French embassy in Kyiv be considered interference? Inversely, what would be the alliance’s response in case Russian fighter jets inadvertently violate NATO airspace over Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, or Romania? Multiple scenarios exist of possible inadvertent escalation between Russia and NATO, making the possibility of a nuclear war less theoretical than it seemed just months ago.
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