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Putin’s Deterrence Playbook: US Ideas on Display?

  • Published
  • By Prof. Mel Deaile

Within the last week, the world watched a violent violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty with tremendous force, the scale of which has not been seen since World War II.  As Putin built forces on Ukraine’s borders and prepared for combat operations, he simultaneously conducted nuclear exercises.  Once Russia crossed into Ukraine’s territory, Putin sent a targeted strategic communication through video while at the same time members of his government sent specific messages as well.  All of Putin’s actions demonstrate concepts the United States has postulated but is still trying to formalize in policy.  From integrated deterrence to conventional-nuclear integration (CNI), the United States has put forward ideas on how to practice deterrence in the era of strategic competition.  Those concepts are now being executed by Putin and the US would be wise to take notes on how the Russian President has conducted modern deterrence.

            Currently, an Interim National Security Strategy guides US policy as the nation awaits publication of the President’s National Security Strategy (NSS) coupled with the Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) which will incorporate a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Missile Defense Review (MDR).1  Foreshadowing an important concept anticipated to be engrained in these documents, Secretary Austin, while speaking at a change of command in INDO-PACOM, said the nation would pursue a strategy of integrated deterrence, which he described as, “We'll use existing capabilities, and build new ones, and use all of them in networked ways — hand in hand with our allies and partners," Austin went on to say, "Deterrence still rests on the same logic — but it now spans multiple realms, all of which must be mastered to ensure our security in the 21st century.”2  Released in the last few weeks, the Indo-Pacific Strategy announced integrated deterrence as the theater strategy saying, “Integrated deterrence will be the cornerstone of our approach.  We will more tightly integrate our efforts across warfighting domains and the spectrum of conflict to ensure that the United States, alongside our allies and partners, can dissuade or defeat aggression in any form or domain.  We will drive initiatives that reinforce deterrence and counter coercion, such as opposing efforts to alter territorial boundaries or undermine the rights of sovereign nations at sea.”3  Conceptually, integrated deterrence appears to be a ‘whole of government’ deterrent strategy using all the nation’s resources.  But questions remain.

            Expectations are that forthcoming national security documents will announce an integrated approach to deterrence as well.  But what does operationalizing the strategy look like?  Who is the lead integrator of nation’s various deterrent capabilities?  Is it the theater commander who executes the theater strategy, as the Indo Pacific Strategy might lead one to believe?

            As Putin began his Ukrainian invasion, the world caught a glimpse of integrated deterrence in action.  First, the Russian President, following a nuclear exercise, threatened “consequences like never seen in history” to any who would interfere with his plans.4  At the same time, a Russian Foreign ministry spokesperson issued a warning to Finland and Sweden who, having seen what happened to Ukraine, might seek shelter by joining NATO.  Maria Zakharova, the equivalent of a US State Department spokesperson, said the two countries would face “serious military-political repercussions” if they pursued NATO admittance.5  In short order, Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chair of the Security Council for Russia, tweeted about the German decision to cancel Nord Stream 2 pipeline saying, “Welcome to the brave new world, Europeans are very soon going to pay” more for natural gas.6  Nuclear, military, diplomatic, and economic threats all synchronized and issued to achieve Russian interests.  Coupled with these open threats was a cyber attack on McDonald’s.7  Why McDonald’s?  It is the recognized symbol of capitalism and the middle class, not only in America but in the world.  In an attempt to explain the effects of globalization, Thomas Friedman proposed the “Golden Arches Theory,” which postulated that countries with McDonald’s—the symbol of a globalized middle class—do not go to war with one another.8  As Russian forces attacked Ukraine, Russian hackers simultaneously attacked McDonald’s.

            Putin’s approach to integrated deterrence provides insight for how America may need to conduct deterrence in the future.  First, integrated deterrence must be coordinated at the highest levels of government.  Putin integrated, and then synchronized, the messaging of his administration as his forces invaded Ukraine.  In this new age of strategic competition, the state must become a unitary actor, especially in executing deterrence.  When examining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Harvard professor Graham Allison outlined models of state behavior, the first was the Rational Actor Model (which he labeled Model I behavior).  Under the Rational Actor Model (RAM), the state is a unitary actor, making rational decisions and executing actions intended to influence the calculus of another state’s unitary actor.  Typically, Combatant Commanders handle deterrence in their respective areas of responsibility (AOR).  These commanders can use assigned military forces to posture and message for the purpose of deterrence.  Other capabilities—like cyber, space, and other whole of government capabilities—typically reside outside a combat commander’s AOR.  The commander then must reach back and request these capabilities.  When this happens, there is the chance that another of Allison’s behavior models comes into play—bureaucracy.  Competing agendas and interests at the same level of government can create barriers to effective execution of deterrence.  This is why, as seem in the recent week, integrated deterrence has to be coordinated at the Presidential level.

            The United States has struggle for years with the idea of Conventional-Nuclear Integration (CNI).  The concept proposes an integration of conventional and nuclear capabilities for a spectrum of deterrence.  While there has been considerable talk of CNI, dating all the way back to Secretary Ash Carter under the Obama administration, a formal definition of the concept remains illusive.9 Joint Pub 3-72 (2019), Nuclear Operations, the first published joint doctrine on nuclear operations in decades mentions that “The application of nuclear and/or conventional deterrence operations during all phases of planning and execution is critical to influence an adversary’s decision-making process, regardless of the state of the conflict.”10  Operationalizing the concept, let alone defining it, remains a challenge despite years spent discussing the idea.  Putin seems to have put the concept on display in the last week.

            As his conventional forces began staging for an invasion of Ukraine, President Putin decided to run nuclear exercises.  Ahead of the Ukrainian invasion, Russia conducted nuclear operations that involved the launching of nuclear delivery vehicles from warships, submarines, and warplanes to include hypersonics.  These weapons hit simulated targets at sea and on land.  It is important to note that this is move is unprecedented in modern times.  In the midst of a large conventional build up, Russia conducted a large-scale nuclear exercise to include a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launch.11  It would be analogous to the United States, on the eve of Operation DESERT STORM or IRAQI FREEDOM, conducting a nuclear generation loading its strategic delivery assets with nuclear weapons.  Leave no doubt, as the US wrestles with the concept of CNI, Putin put his version of it on full display.  Following the nuclear exercise and as Russian force crossed into Ukraine, the Russian President, as noted earlier, issued a warning that interfering in his plans would reap “consequences you have never seen.”  Even as of this writing, Putin, under the strain of crippling sanctions, has put his nuclear forces on a higher state of readiness while conducting a major conventional operation.12

            As the US tries to perfect the practice of integrated deterrence and conventional-nuclear integration, President Putin displayed his idea of these concepts in the past week.  America needs to take note.  In this time of strategic competition, messaging among nuclear powers will no doubt mean unitary actors influencing the calculus of other unitary actors.  Therefore, deterrence actions must be integrated at the highest level of government.  While it may be called ‘integrated deterrence,’ the truth is that it must be ‘integrated and synchronize deterrence.’  Executing messaging coupled with coherent actions requires Presidential level guidance and synchronization.  In the same vein, the US needs to quickly operationalize its version of conventional-nuclear integration.  The Russian model is one, but many criticized the approach as escalatory.  Yet, it did deliver a clear message.  The concepts of integrated deterrence and CNI are no longer uniquely US; Russia has executed them.  Now is the time for the US to put its ideas into practice.         

Dr. Mel Deaile

Dr. Mel Deaile is the Director of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies under the Air Command and Staff College at Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL. He is the author of Always At War, a book on organizational culture in SAC under General LeMay.


[1] White House, Interim National Security Guidance, March 2021, available at

[2] C. Todd Lopez, “Defense Secretary Says ‘Integrated Deterrence’ Is Cornerstone of U.S. Defense,” 30 April 2021, available at 

[3] White House, Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, February 2022, available at

[4] Dasha Litvinova, Yuras Karmanau, and Jim Heintz, Russia attacks Ukraine as defiant Putin warns of ‘consequences you have never seen,’ available at Russia attacks Ukraine as defiant Putin warns US, NATO - Chicago Tribune. 

[5] Taylor Ardrey, ‘Russian officials warn Finland and Sweden of ‘serious military and political’ relaiation if they joined NATO,’ available at Russian officials warn Finland and Sweden of 'serious military and political' retaliation if they join NATO (

[6] Dina Khrennikove, “Russia Ex-President Medvedev Sees Soaring Gas Price on Nord Stream 2 Halt,” available at Nord Stream 2: Russia Ex-Leader Dmitry Medvedev Sees Soaring Gas Price on Halt - Bloomberg. 

[7] “Russia-linked hacker gang claims ransomware attack on McDonald’s,” available at Russia-linked hacker gang claims ransomware attack on McDonald's - countryask.

[8] Jonathan Haeber, “What is the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention?,” available at What is the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention? - CBS News.


[9] Vincent Manzo and Aaron Miles, “The Logic of Integrating Conventional and Nuclear Planning,” available at The Logic of Integrating Conventional and Nuclear Planning | Arms Control Association.

[10] Joint Staff, “Joint Publication 3-72, Nuclear Operations (2019),” available at Joint Publication 3-72 Nuclear Operations | Public Intelligence.

[11] Tom Balmforth and Maria Kiselyove, “Putin leads sweeping nuclear exercises as tensions soar,” available at Putin leads sweeping nuclear exercises as tensions soar | Reuters.

[12] “Putin puts Russia’s nuclear forces on alert as fighting in Ukraine continues,” available at Putin puts Russia's nuclear forces on alert as fighting in Ukraine continues - CBS News.

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