General Anthony Zinni (ret.) On Missed Opportunities, Integrated Deterrence, and Ill-Advised Red Lines

By Mie Augier and Major Sean F. X. Barrett

This is Part IV of our conversation series with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.) on leadership, strategy, learning, and the art and science of warfighting. Part I can be found here, Part II here, and Part III here. In this iteration, we focus on how the decline in strategic thinking following the end of the Cold War, which we discussed in Part I, helped lead to the situation in Ukraine, how to construct credible red lines, and what integrated deterrence may mean.

You talked about how winning the Cold War led to a decline in strategic thinking, poorly defined aspirations for a “new world order,” and how expanding NATO was not necessarily going to be a positive development or without challenges in the long term. This seems particularly important for understanding how we got to where we are now in Ukraine.

Zinni: Yes, originally when the Wall came down, and in the immediate aftermath, there was talk about redefining NATO’s role. The first question was, “Do we need NATO, or should we disband it now?” The answer was we should rethink NATO. We actually thought of not only expanding NATO, but also perhaps even bringing Russia into NATO and redefining NATO’s role in some way, as maybe more of a global defense organization. That kind of died. We made all sorts of gestures to Russia, not only in terms of a military-to-military connection, but Secretary of State Baker also started this “modified Marshall Plan” for the former Soviet Union republics and Russia. We emptied war stocks out of Germany and other places, things like hospital equipment and medicines, as a gesture of goodwill. We ran Operation PROVIDE HOPE and brought these things to the orphanages. We ran it out of EUCOM and sent supplies to places that needed it.

Secretary Baker had Ambassador Armitage go to Japan and other places to talk about helping Russia, helping the eastern European countries, helping them meet international auditing standards, and working with them to get a convertible currency. He was going back and forth, and I was the military coordinator for him. I was impressed with Russia, all these young people who came in at the top to the cabinet positions, and I watched them just get so discouraged as we were doing this because underneath it all was still the old bureaucratic communist mentality, and that was hard to change. People with that old thinking were stifling the reform efforts, but early on, people were cheering democracy and had high spirits. Then, people became disillusioned with Yeltsin, and the oligarchs saw this guy, Putin. They figured they could control him and put him in as a figurehead. Putin, however, took them out and put in his own guys, and that takes us to where we are today.

I look at this and see mistakes that were made on both sides. I go back to President Bush 41. He and Gorbachev both said there would be this “new world order” and a “peace dividend.” Since the Cold War had ended, military spending would go elsewhere. I’m in Germany at this time watching this, and there’s a euphoria, but there are also things that are starting to come apart, like the Balkan states. In a different part of the world, Saddam was starting to give us problems in the Middle East.

I was thinking about what Kissinger wrote about reordering, and this was another major reordering, but if you are not orchestrating the reordering or trying to influence it, it is going to reorder itself in a nasty way. At the end of World War I, we didn’t do it. At the end of World War II, we did a great job. But then, after the Cold War, despite the words, it never really happened. Bush was challenged on this. Reporters asked Bush, “Where is the strategy?” However, he dismissed it as a “vision thing.” Even Obama said he didn’t need any Kennans and dismissed strategy in a sense. Well, if you are not strategic, you are transactional. If you don’t have a plan or a long-term vision, you just hop from one crisis to another, and things tend to orchestrate themselves in nasty ways.

We are perhaps paying the price for that decline in thinking now.

Zinni: A couple of observations about Ukraine. One thing that has really shocked me is how incompetent the Russian military is, virtually across the board. At the strategic level, they greatly misjudged the Ukrainians and their own ability to defeat them rapidly. From a military perspective, they moved on seven axes when they could not support them. Logistically, they got spread too thinly, they didn’t move enough logistics forward, they reached culminating points, they overran their lines of communications, and their rear area security was bad. They never put their combined arms together in any real way. The quality of their soldiers, especially the conscripts, is horrible. The morale is bad, and their command and control is unbelievably bad. Supposedly, this is the modernized Russian Army.

When I was in Europe, the SACEUR, General Galvin, wanted us to connect with the former Warsaw Pact and Russian militaries, but in particular the Russian military, to reassure them. We had an agreement to connect and run these series of conferences. I used to go to Moscow, and we’d meet with their senior leadership. They even gave me a Russian aide, and they were very open about the problems they had in the Russian military. I couldn’t believe how bad a shape it was in. There were serious problems about hazing in the barracks, no real NCO corps, morale was low, troops were stranded and couldn’t get home, a lot of revolt among their junior officers, senior officers had real problems with alcoholism, and so on. They shared these things with us and even allowed their dissidents to talk with us, and they were vocal and defiant toward their senior leaders.

I heard that they had rehabilitated and modernized their military since those times, but here we are, hearing more than 100,000 conventional forces have been committed to Ukraine, and God, it is horrible. I told someone the other day, I’d love to have a Marine Expeditionary Force and fight these guys. We would go through them like a knife in melting butter!

In watching this, I have been trying to think about where the Russian generals’ heads might be at. First of all, they are demonstrating a lot of incompetence at the senior leadership ranks. Secondly, they have been thrown into this mess, and they have to see that this is taking a heavy toll on their forces. They have had trouble with encryption and even with basic communication. These are like 1950s-level problems that they have. It’s amazing.

I just wonder how long Putin can last. I don’t know how effective the punishment of the oligarchs will be. I don’t know his handle on power, but if he gets desperate, what does he do?

I’m trying to figure Putin’s calculation. Maybe he thought NATO was no longer effective and that after Afghanistan, the current administration was too weak, or at least not willing to take him on in any serious way. I think he thought NATO solidarity wasn’t there and that he had the Germans over a barrel, literally. After Afghanistan, we were weak, and he probably thought this was going to be an easy grab. But how does he get out of it now? Everybody is talking about trying to find an offramp. I don’t see how. It’s not going to be easy. How does this end? NATO’s solidarity seems stronger than it has been in decades. Putin has created something that didn’t exist before. He has actually strengthened NATO.

Concerning what the situation is teaching us, particularly about integrated deterrence, Congressman Mike Gallagher recently noted (for example, here and here) that as a concept, integrated deterrence failed, and we should probably study and learn from that. Congresswoman Elaine Luria has also been critical of the concept. It reminded us of your approach in some parts of your “Combat Concepts” lecture, trying to figure out how to make sense of nice words.

Zinni: Well, the only thing I know is, whatever it is, it failed. From a Combatant Commander’s perspective, you have war plans, but the way the war plans are constructed, it is, “Okay, bad stuff is happening, let’s go to the plan, start flowing the TPFDD [Time Phased Force Deployment Data], let’s get into the action.” However, war plans are never going to go down the way they are planned.

There is always going to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning will entail tensions mounting. Warnings start coming, and we are going to make deterrent moves or containment moves. In the Pacific, you are probably going to hear the Japanese, the South Koreans, and our allies out there scream, “Hey, help us out here, these guys are getting ready to do something bad.” You are going to see the need to establish freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We are going to start putting forces forward. Look at what we did in Poland and in the Baltic states. We started moving forces forward, NATO forces, as an attempt to deter. Reinforcing Japan is the first thing that is going to happen in the Pacific. You may be required to support the defense of Taiwan, including actually putting troops on the island to help defend it. In the stages leading up to this, 7th Fleet could rush to the South China Sea. If the balloon goes up and we start to get into a fight, I, as a Combatant Commander, have to start with all this stuff that was originally done to deter and contain. Integrated deterrence is supposed to be all these moves you take that make the other guy unwilling to take you on.

But then you go back to your plan, and let’s say you buy Commandant Berger’s strategy of putting guys on islands with anti-ship missiles. That’s overcome by events. You already have a MEF in Korea, another MEF in Taiwan or someplace, and the whole idea of a plan working out sequentially in the way you planned is only to get the basics down, of what you would employ, how you would employ it, the allocation of forces, and the sequencing. But you know darn well decisions are going to be made early on that will lead to that work being overcome by events.

Then, you have the middle, and you must fight from these positions that aren’t part of the nice, logical build-up you had in your war plan. There is no logically flowing reception, staging, onward movement, and integration as you get inside the opponents’ area of influence. By definition, you are already there because you have 26,000 troops in Korea, and you have 56,000 in Japan. No one’s going to be worried in the beginning about what you can put on small islands in the Philippines and elsewhere—you are already in his grill, so you have to go from there. The middle is the fight.

The third thing is the end state. Nobody goes home anymore. We are still in Germany, we are still in Japan, we are still in South Korea, and we are still in NATO. We know there will be an alliance, and we are going to support it. I might be stuck with what you lay down if I’m a Combatant Commander. How do we arrange that? What are we doing to support that?

So, back to integrated deterrence. I think it was supposed to mean we would make moves in a combined joint way that would put the potential adversary off balance, and put them in a position where they would either be unable to react or would find themselves in a position where they were trumped in their ability to do something. Now, the problem they ran into in Ukraine is the self-imposed limit that nothing would happen outside of NATO’s borders. You can make all the moves you want back here, but Putin is no fool. He said if NATO attacks him, he will attack NATO, and he started to make noises about nukes and tactical nukes. “Integrated deterrence” had a line, and we couldn’t cross it. And by not crossing it, we couldn’t change his mind and actually deter. Integrated deterrence is only good if the other guy thinks it is a deterrent. If the other guy doesn’t see it as deterrence and understands its limitations, then you have got a problem.

Now, in the case of China, you can make a case that we are already there. They want us to be out of the East and South China Seas, to possess Taiwan, and probably as an adjunct, have us out of South Korea, too. The deterrence here might be stronger if you immediately reinforce those positions, which are in his grill. Make the taking of Taiwan very difficult because you are there. We weren’t there in the Ukraine. The U.S. Navy will not sail into the Black Sea now. We are not making any moves that could be perceived as provocative or threatening, so we have limited ourselves. President Biden has made all these declarations about what we won’t do, which defines the parameters for Putin. He didn’t leave anything ambiguous. He didn’t say, “Nothing is off the table.” He told everyone what was off the table. So, Putin understood the space he had to operate in.

The term is still a little fuzzy and based on some assumptions. Some may say it seems to mean mostly integration, and less deterrence.

Zinni: I am assuming that integration means either integrating elements of power, or we are integrating our military forces in some way, or both. But go to the word “deterrence.” That is the key word. A strategy can only be effective if the other guy is deterred by it. You can’t have a deterrence strategy if he doesn’t see it as a deterrent. It hasn’t happened with Putin—he wasn’t deterred in any way. He knew economic sanctions would be put on him, and he probably reasoned that NATO would not try to start any direct military confrontation. He could always throw out the nukes, tactical or otherwise, as his form of deterrence. Think about the reverse: his deterrence has worked to a certain degree and certainly in a military context. By threatening tactical nukes or other weapons of mass destruction, he has basically deterred NATO.

Maybe it is overcompensation for when President Biden was in the Obama administration. They drew red lines then, and now they are telling us that they are specifically not going to draw any red lines. Instead of leaving some ambiguity in the middle that could possibly lead to more deterrence, we are now spelling out exactly what we are or are not going to do.

Zinni: Here’s the trouble with red lines. First of all, when you establish a red line, you turn the initiative over to the other guy. In other words, if he finds it advantageous to start something, he will cross the red line, so you don’t have control over the initiative. That’s what happened in the Obama administration. At the most inopportune time, they challenged him, knowing, or assuming, that he wouldn’t do anything. And red lines also mean that if you say, “Okay, you crossed the red line, I’m going to punish you,” but the adversary is not deterred by the punishment, that is not very useful either. I had this discussion with Gen Mattis. I said, “Whoever prepared that strike on the airfield must have been Mother Teresa or something, since you didn’t do anything really damaging.” There were some potholes in the concrete that the pothole crew was able to fix the next day.

I go back to the Clinton administration, when we were told that if Saddam crossed our red lines—there were two: take a shot at our airplanes or start interfering with the inspectors—we are going to hit you. President Clinton gave us the freedom to pick the targets, and we picked the entire air defense system. The UN went crazy, but we used the justification of the UN Resolution, which was vague on all this stuff, so we sort of expanded its authorization. But it shocked the hell out of Saddam when some guy with a little anti-aircraft gun took a couple of shots and we took out their defense headquarters in Baghdad. You don’t get motivated when that happens.

The second part of the red line is that the punishment for crossing it has to hurt or reduce capability in some way. We knew that Saddam would test us on these red lines and mess with the inspectors, so we designed plans to systematically take down their air defense system.

When we struck in DESERT FOX, it paralyzed them. My fear was the government was going to collapse. They were so shaken. They were so paralyzed they couldn’t even come up on the net and say hostile things to the United States. And, of course, our inspectors were back in the next day.

I’ve been doing some thinking about no-fly zones. I did a few TV appearances on it, too. I did it because I wanted to help people understand that you don’t just snap your fingers, and then you have a no-fly zone. You need to understand what is involved in doing it: what the cost is, what it entails to put together, what the risks are, and how complex the rules of engagement can be. If the Russians put an anti-air system in a built-up area with a lot of civilians around, what are you supposed to do if it shoots at you? What are you going to do if a plane comes in from Russia, takes a shot, and goes back into their airspace? What will you do if you see their airplanes bombing the heck out of civilians, and you have a plane up that can take it out? Is that pilot just going to watch it, be witness to it? That is a tough scenario. Then the question becomes, what else can fly? Can the Ukrainian Air Force fly? There are lots of these difficult questions. No one answers them. They just say, “Oh, let’s put in a no-fly zone.” And then I keep reminding people the no-fly zone in Iraq lasted over 12 years.

Red lines, however, are not like no-fly zones. People have to understand what no-fly zones are. With a no-fly zone, you must have bases to operate out of. You must have some legitimate authority to do it. Is it going to be NATO, is it going to be the UN, is it going to be something you can hang your hat on? Where are the bases, and who is going to give them to you? Is anyone else going to operate with us? Then, you have to realize that, in Ukraine, you have an area the size of Texas, and you have to keep that air space sanitized. The number of combat air patrols you need to do that, the radar systems, the refuelers, the base operations you need . . . you are going to constantly patrol because the Russians can see when you are in and out, and they will test you, they will come in when you are out and try things. So, the rules of engagement are going to be very complex in what you do. How long can you keep that up? You also need search and rescue. What happens if a plane has a mechanical failure or gets shot down? You have to go in and get the pilots. You have to answer all these questions. And pilots will tell you that it is crappy duty. Pilots lose proficiency by just going up and patrolling and coming back. They don’t go through all the wickets they need to stay current, so you must rotate units regularly. All these people screaming for no-fly zones don’t understand how this works.

It’s similar with humanitarian corridors. You can’t have a humanitarian corridor unless you are sure that both sides fully agree and there will be no violation. If you are going to secure the corridors, who is going to run it? Is it the United Nations? Are you going to have peacekeepers or observers in there? Hardly anyone thinks this through. This is the “inch deep” crowd that comes up with these ideas. They are around the Beltway and have no idea what is involved.

General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, a position he held from August 1997 to September 2000. After retiring, General Zinni served as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2001-2003) and U.S. special envoy to Qatar (2017-2019). General Zinni has held numerous academic positions, including the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Sanford Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at Duke University, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. General Zinni is the author of several books, including Before the First Shots Are Fired, Leading the Charge, The Battle for Peace, and Battle Ready. He has also had a distinguished business career, serving as Chairman of the Board at BAE Systems Inc., a member of the board and later executive vice president at DynCorp International, and President of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc.

Dr. Mie Augier is Professor in the Department of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Executive Officer for 1st Radio Battalion.

Featured Image: CAMP FUJI, Japan (June 13, 2022) – U.S. Marines with 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, prepare to begin Exercise Shinka 22.1 at the Combined Arms Training Center (CATC), Camp Fuji, Japan, June 13, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Michael Taggart)

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