Since November, the Biden administration has pursued a policy regarding Russia and Ukraine that can best be described as “deterrence by disclosure.” The policy has operated on several levels. First and foremost has been the disclosure of Russian troop movements and dispositions as well as the plans for provocations and false flag operations that could serve as a pretext for Putin’s war against Ukraine (and, more broadly, the West and the existing regional and global order). It has also been accompanied by leaks about interagency deliberations about sanctions and disclosures about agreements being negotiated with allies to suggest the more traditional “deterrence by punishment” to come should Russia recklessly launch a premeditated and unprovoked war in the center of Europe.
“Deterrence by disclosure” suggests that the administration is playing a weak hand but hoping to play it deftly. To be fair, the Biden team’s weak hand is a function of both difficulties it inherited (geography dictates that the fate of Ukraine will always matter more to Russia than to the U.S.) and those that its own actions created or exacerbated (rolling over the New START Treaty without any conditions, waiving Nord Stream 2 sanctions, granting Putin a summit with the president in the wake of serious cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure conducted by Russian hackers, the disastrous Afghan withdrawal, and Biden’s own gratuitous comments about not sending Americans to fight in Ukraine and “limited incursions” by Russia into Ukrainian territory). By the time you read this, an assessment of the administration’s effort at “deterrence by disclosure” may be moot. Still, it seems worth taking a crack at evaluating the pros and cons of endeavoring to deter an adversary like Russia with public disclosures like the ones we have seen coming out of the current administration these past few months.
In the first instance, disclosure of Russian troop movements had some positive outcomes. It alerted the American and European publics to the fact that a political and military crisis was brewing. It signaled to Moscow that “we are watching you,” hopefully inducing some cautionary notes into internal Kremlin deliberations. Publicizing information about possible plots or provocations to provide a pretext or bogus casus belli had the impact of disrupting operational planning by the adversary (a lesson U.S. policymakers have learned over the past 20 years of disclosing plotting by violent Islamist extremists as part of U.S. counterterrorism policy). It also forced Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and other senior Russian officials to “deny” any intention of invading Ukraine. These denials serve several purposes in their own right. They heighten the costs for Putin in the ongoing information warfare between the U.S. and Russia by highlighting his mendacity if he commences military operations by increasing his reputational costs (not that he and his compatriots care much about reputation, given the transparent nature of many of these efforts and the insouciance with which he has treated revelations about the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko, the Skripals, and Alexi Navalny). Moreover, they help in the battle for public opinion in allied countries, help ease the work of diplomats working on putting together an agreed-upon package of biting sanctions if deterrence fails, and will create a presumption of disbelief in Russian official statements once Putin’s war is underway.
Perhaps most important, deterrence by disclosure has bought time for the administration’s “relentless” and virtually non-stop diplomatic effort (for which it has gotten and generally deserves good grades). Moreover, there are some indications that U.S. disclosures have created some consternation in Moscow and, at the very least, produced the carefully stage-managed meetings of Putin with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu via which the Russians hoped to signal an intention to de-escalate and reinvigorate diplomatic efforts. That transparently false effort was quickly exposed by both Washington and its allies at NATO and in capitals.