Lessons from the Ukraine Crisis (and why they will not be learned)

Simon Leitch*

Brisbane, May 22 (2014), Alochonaa: The Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian Federation’s willingness to use its military in the Ukraine has stunned many in the West. Russia, as the story goes, should be satisfied with the global order (at least according to liberals), and fears of sanctions or the loss of European-American investment should have caused Russia to preserve the very status quo which has facilitated Russia’s return as a major regional power. Economic interdependence should have preserved peace and order – at least that was the conventional wisdom before the crisis. Liberals have long argued that increasing economic integration (globalization) would not only transform authoritarian powers, like Russia and China, into responsible liberal-democracies, it would also prevent war and the use of military force for resolving interstate disputes.

In this way, the economic ties between modern states are believed to operate as a form of deterrence. No state can attack its neighbours because doing so would ruin one’s own economy. Parallels to nuclear deterrence abound, but in this case instead of mutually assured destruction (MAD) from nuclear bombs we have mutually assured economic destruction (MAED) from sanctions and capital flight. One may think that the Ukraine crisis has revealed that economic interdependence arguments do not work in the face of a motivated aggressor state and, therefore, that parallels to nuclear deterrence are unsuitable. In fact, if anything, parallels to nuclear deterrence are perfect precisely because neither MAD nor MAED can stop limited wars or limited aggression by motivated states. A brief review of nuclear deterrence can help us understand why sanctions have not deterred Russia in the Ukraine crisis, and why economic interdependence will not prevent all wars in the future.

During the heyday of nuclear deterrence theory (the 1960s to 1980s) a handful of powerful, nuclear armed states competed for influence around the globe using political, economic and military muscle. Despite the prevailing myth amongst many Western publics that the Cold War was a time of peace it was, in fact, a time of many small wars and several major ones. Indeed, Westerners may well remember Korea and Vietnam, but few would remember exactly how Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America and the Middle East were rent by conflict ranging from massive terrorist campaigns and insurgencies, many of which were state-sponsored, to conventional interstate wars. The Cold War meant peace at home for the major powers but war and disorder in the Third World and on the periphery of the great powers’ spheres of influence.

The possession of nuclear weapons by the major powers did not stop them fighting limited wars, it did not stop them supporting terrorism, it did not stop them sending “volunteers” and “advisors” to foreign theatres, and it did not even stop military occupations of entire countries. Proxy wars, brinkmanship and the toppling of hostile regimes by the major powers were common tactics, and all of this happened whilst the major powers maintained the ability to inflict catastrophic damage on each other with nuclear weapons. Yet it was precisely this ability, this overwhelming destructive power, which facilitated aggressive Cold War foreign policies. Nuclear deterrence meant impunity from punishment as much as deterrence from action. The USSR could not rationally threaten the USA with nuclear war over its support for a terrorist group, a Third World government, or a civil war faction and vice versa. The mutual damage would be unacceptable, so nuclear war was only a logical choice in the event of a nuclear attack on the homelands of a nuclear state or, at best, a major conventional attack on a critical ally. Such boundaries were understood and never crossed, even though periodic crises from Cuba to the Middle East chipped at those boundaries.

MAED should be thought of much like Cold War-style MAD. States with an interdependent economy both have much to lose in the event of a crisis but, precisely because of this economic interdependence, sanctions will be a hard weapon to use. When Russia annexed Ukraine the world awaited tough sanctions as though they would be automatic and severe only to find that Germany, Britain, France and many others are worried about preserving their own trade ties more than they are about preserving Ukraine’s borders. Just as the USSR and the USA did not wipe each other out because of a Third World skirmish, the EU was never going to pay what must be paid to hurt the Russian economy seriously enough to protect Ukraine. MAED, like MAD, will be a doctrine so limited it will be virtually useless for disciplining great powers or major trade partners over such minor issues.

This is a lesson Western states should take note of. For some decades now, a handful of rich liberal-democratic states have been able to use economic sanctions with impunity because no authoritarian powers could sanction them in return. The USA, Germany, Britain, Japan or France could hand out sanctions from a position of strength, confident that their markets would not be too disrupted by implementing sanctions. Today, however, Russia and China, at the very least, have the ability to implement sanctions of their own and are doing so. We have gone from a world of liberal-democratic domination of the sanctions weapon to a world of a series of “MAED pairings” which do not necessarily favour the “West”. Hence, China must now realize that if it was to occupy disputed islands in the South China Sea or in Japan’s administrative zone to the east it will probably have even more impunity than Russia has had in the Ukraine. Likewise, pressure on disputed territory in the western regions or Taiwan might be now appear less dangerous than ever, an expectation completely contrary to conventional views of globalization and interdependence.

The way forward is to learn the lessons of MAD and apply them to cases where there is the possibility of MAED. Specifically, deterrence in the Cold War relied in a delicate balance of conventional forces, nuclear forces, signals of intent and costly demonstrations of resolve because a leap straight into the use of nuclear weapons is neither rational nor credible in most cases, and it could lead to miscalculations from which nobody benefits. This kind of flexible conventional deterrence will be needed again in the future and would have been instrumental in Ukraine. Russia could annex Crimea precisely because sanctions or military responses from other states were not credible or viable – had Russia needed to face actual resistance, or if its actions had the genuine risk of inviting a war (at least in Russia’s eyes) its calculations would have been different.

Unfortunately, this lesson will probably not be learned by Western states because trade policies and sanctions are only cohesive weapons (for them) when local jobs and money are not in serious jeopardy, whilst costly commitments of conventional forces are equally impossible, politically speaking. Of course, the upside is that future crises with China or Russia will, in all likelihood, involve similarly small pieces of territory and result in a lot of bluster but little action and few casualties. MAED, and even MAD, will still do a job, just not the one that liberal optimists thought when they envisioned a frozen global order of laws, peace and stable borders.

*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief,  Foreign Policy and International Affairs,Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University.  His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: Asia, EU, Nato, Ukraine

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