On Thursday, February 9, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies was pleased to welcome a delegation of chief information officers from the Department of Defense for a panel session with security and foreign policy experts. The CIOs were hosted by the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, an interdisciplinary, cross-campus effort at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) aimed at solving pressing national security problems at the locus of diplomacy, information, the military, the economy, and technology.
The delegation was led by David McKeown, the Acting Principal Deputy Chief Information Officer, and represented each of the branches of the military as well as various DoD task forces focused on cybersecurity, digital modernization, and integrated defense strategies.
As the officers responsible for cybersecurity, communications, information systems, and other information enterprises at the Department of Defense, the war in Ukraine and the lessons it teaches about how technology functions in a modern conflict were top of mind for the visiting officials. To provide insight into what can be learned from Ukraine, FSI Director Michael McFaul and senior fellows Scott Sagan and Amy Zegart presented their perspectives on Putin, nuclear security, and the evolving intelligence ecosystem.
Counting Assets and Creating Confidence
For former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, one of the biggest takeaways from the war so far in Ukraine is how poorly conventional wisdom served both Putin and Western alliances in estimating how Ukraine would respond to an invasion. By the numbers — tanks, missiles, personnel, ammunitions — Russia’s military capability is formidable. Yet it has vastly underperformed against traditionally-held expectations, a fact McFaul admitted has required him to revise his own research and thinking.
“Clearly tanks, aircraft, missiles, and soldiers are not the whole war effort,” he told the delegation. “That tells me we need to figure out better ways to measure capabilities than just counting things.”
His concerns over military enterprise were not limited to Russia. Turning a critical eye towards home, McFaul also stressed the importance of fixing acquisition and development challenges in the United States’ industrial base. Reliable, scalable access to military resources is not only crucial to the defense of America and its allies, McFaul reminded the panel, but it has direct impacts on how effective deterrence strategies will be elsewhere. Without such guarantees, the United States will lack credibility, whether in Ukraine and the active conflict there or in Taiwan and the challenges it faces from China.
For McFaul, the odds-defying performance of the Ukrainian military thus far also highlights the complimentary need to quantify the human side of defense and the impact it can have on strategic outcomes.
“How do you measure will to fight? We need to understand that better if we want to be better at our assessments in the future,” he urged.
Keeping a Clear Eye on Nuclear Threats
Early in the war, Putin and other Kremlin spokespeople made headlines with less-than-veiled allusions to the possibility of using nuclear weapons in their campaign against Ukraine. While that nuclear sabre-rattling has cooled in recent months, Scott Sagan says the United States and its allies need to remain very clear-eyed to the dangers posed by raising even the specter of nuclear use.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question yet,” said Sagan. He went on to explain, “I don’t think Vladimir Putin has decided yet whether he would use nuclear weapons or not. Part of these threats are about trying to deter us from intervening and to scare and divide the West. But it’s also about Putin getting a gauge of what we’re thinking and how we might respond if he did.”
Sagan, an internationally recognized expert on nuclear security and nuclear policy, said that even with the assurances that high-level U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have communicated to their Russian counterparts, the unacceptable nature of any kind of nuclear use in war needs to be emphasized.
“We need to underline the illegality of this. We need to remind them that we have a long history of going after war criminals. We need to make it clear that if they think they will not suffer catastrophic personal consequences, they should think again,” said Sagan.
Beyond individual actors, the threat of nuclear weapons directly challenges the regime of non-proliferation currently in place around the world. By Sagan’s assessment, the endurance of non-proliferation rests on how the West would respond to the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. In the scenario where nuclear use leads to the Russian military intervening against Putin, or the West escalating to bring about a definite Russian defeat, Sagan believes non-proliferation would continue largely intact.
If, however, nuclear use leads to the collapse of the Ukrainian government and causes the West to back away, the domino effect could topple the commitment to non-proliferation the world over. Sagan points to the recent uptick in dialogue about nuclear programs in South Korea, Japan, and Iran as early indicators of what a more devastating event could trigger.
“What’s at stake here is not just the future of Ukraine and the future of democracy, and the future of American credibility; it’s also, potentially, the future of what kind of nuclear world we live in,” he cautioned.
Grappling with a Deluge of Data
Amy Zegart offered similar cautions when asked about cyber capabilities and intelligence. Analysts have been quick to comment on the seemingly underwhelming cyber front in the war against Ukraine, particularly when compared with Russia’s estimated cyber capabilities and prior campaigns into cyber interference. Zegart flipped the scenario to pose a different perspective.
“The lesson may not be that Putin is not ten feet tall. I think the right question to ask is, ‘Could he have been?’” she told the CIOs.
Rather than view the events in Ukraine as a win for Western cyber defense, Zegart believes it will be much more constructive to unpack how the current war was almost a near miss.
“What are the factors that tilted in our favor? What if those aren’t there next time? Is a near miss a signal that things are working well? Or is the near miss a sign that things are prone to catastrophic failure?” she posed to the delegates.
Zegart has studied and written extensively about how emerging technologies are rapidly and dramatically changing the landscapes of cyber and intelligence gathering, an analysis she summarizes as the “Five Mores”: more threats, more speed, more data, more customers, and more competitors. While not exclusive to the events unfolding in Ukraine, each of these areas has been highlighted and accelerated by the conflict, says Zegart. In a world where information is coming faster and from more directions than ever before, understanding those points of potential failure and building resiliency and protocols into the process becomes absolutely crucial for security and defense, whether in Russia and Ukraine or with adversarial relationships elsewhere.
Understanding Parallels Between Moscow and Beijing
While the current conflict in Ukraine was the immediate topic of the panel, the implications of what is happening now in Eastern Europe have clear correlations to how events unfold between China and Taiwan in coming years. Beyond Ukraine, the question many of the officers had was: What is Xi Jinping learning from all of this?
As both Scott Sagan and Michael McFaul were quick to point out, Xi, like Putin, is a very difficult target to read, and making any assessment of his thinking is exceptionally difficult.
Echoing the sentiment, Amy Zegart explained, “When I go down the list, I can make an argument for polar opposite learnings on every dimension. That’s what concerns me the most. I don't know which of those Xi Jinping is learning.”
Turning the question around, Zegart offered an alternative. “Maybe the question we need to be asking is, ‘How can autocrats prevent self-deception? How can we help our adversaries stop deceiving themselves?” As Scott Sagan noted, autocratic systems built around an authoritarian leader like Putin are highly incentivized towards yes-man politics rather than criticism and constructive critiques about how to identify problems and achieve results. Putin’s miscalculations in Ukraine and the apparent gaps in his intelligence briefings are evidence of this.
In regimes prone to self-deception, the answer to Zegart’s question may lie in data and analysis. If autocratic leaders are unable to rely on information from within their own system, outside actors should work to fill in those gaps and communicate an accurate cost-benefit analysis, she suggests.
Looking toward China, Michael McFaul agrees that this type of communication and analysis needs to be a key part of the U.S. deterrence strategy.
“I think it would be a very worthy enterprise for a government organization or a think tank to spell out in detail the economic consequences of an attempted invasion of Taiwan. We want Xi Jinping to know that,” he advised.
Learning from Today and Planning for Tomorrow
Whether in Ukraine, China, or in other challenging policy areas, McFaul also emphasized the need for longevity and commitment. “This is year one of the war,” he reminded the delegation. ”We can feel really good about what we’ve done today, but if in Year 4 we’ve lost the war, nobody is going to remember that.”
McFaul highlighted not only the urgency of the current situation, but also the importance of dialogue and partnerships between academia and policymakers. While political appointments and assignments in government may shift from term to term or from one administration to another, experts at academic organizations like the Freeman Spogli Institute and the Gordian Knot Center can provide the continuity and deep bench of expertise needed to make, adapt, and sustain challenging policy decisions in the long-term.
In his concluding remarks, McFaul reminded the visiting delegates of one of the institute’s foundational principles. “Our mission statement here at FSI is to translate research into policy outcomes. We want people based in D.C. to understand how many resources and people we have for them to call on,” he said.
Wrapping up the discussion, Joe Felter, the director of the Gordian Knot Center, likewise emphasized the importance of this connection. Speaking to the CIOs he said, ”This panel clearly shows that academia does more than just admire problems. Stanford is in this fight, and we’re putting our best forward to provide solutions.”