War in Ukraine seems unlikely but, for the US and Europe, peace will taste bitter

If more U.S.-Russia talks are to happen, what should be on the table?

Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon, writing in Politico Magazine, attempt to thread the needle of Russia’s Ukraine demands by considering a moratorium on the country’s future NATO membership amid a larger security compromise. “Now is the time to think big and imagine a new, more durable order, one that can encompass Russia,” they write.

Others go further, with Anatol Lieven, writing in the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s blog, arguing for U.S. backing for an autonomous Donbas region as well as a treaty of neutrality for Ukraine—worked out by the United States and Russia—which would both hobble Russia’s territorial ambitions while holding off the prospect of greater Ukrainian integration with the West.

“An agreement along these lines will be bitterly attacked by Western hardliners with all the usual accusations of ‘cowardice’ and ‘appeasement.’” Lieven writes. “They need to ask themselves however whether they are really prepared to contemplate war with Russia; and if not, what they are proposing as a concrete alternative to these proposals.

That is Colm Quinn in his daily Morning Brief, a Foreign Policy newsletter that is one of the first I look for each morning. Recommended for a wide range of international news and analysis.

I hesitate to comment on a region I know so little about, but there are some general insights on war that underlie the logic in the Graham/Menon and Lieven pieces. (Also, I had my colleague Scott Gehlbach check my homework and offer color commentary). These general propositions make me optimistic that prolonged violence is unlikely, but they make me pessimistic about Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

  • Russia has risen in relative power in the last 20 years, and so it’s in a position to demand a wider sphere of influence, client states, and territorial control
    • Moreover, for a power of its size, Russia has strikingly few allies and client states (plus many adversaries close by) and so Russia arguably places greater value then the West on more allies, clients, and coopted or docile neighbors
  • A nation’s bargaining power comes from a lot of different sources, but a big one is the ability to cause the other side pain by fighting—especially by threatening to burn the whole house down
    • The West remains powerful, but among other things, mistakes and misfortune in Iraq and Afghanistan mean they’re reluctant to use force anywhere, thus reducing their relative bargaining power
    • An even if Iraq and Afghanistan never happened, the US just doesn’t have anything at stake here—in Washington’s eyes, Ukraine is a poor, corrupt, nonstrategic, and only marginally democratic country too close to Russia
  • Russia also gains some bargaining power from Putin’s autocratic rule—he can more credibly threaten conflict precisely because he and his cabal bear just a fraction of the costs of fighting (a factor that has long been one of the reasons autocracies and democracies fight)
    • And lest you think he can be held accountable for wars, Putin has that covered too—journalists can expect every bone in their body broken if they report on deaths of Russian soldiers in the Donbas
    • Some people think war might even benefit Putin and the military, letting them test new toys and distracting the country from covid mismanagement—not a story I usually buy (the empirical evidence that this works is weak) but we only need Putin to think it works
  • Of course fighting is still extremely costly and risky for Putin, but how much is not clear—his resolve and willingness to use force is uncertain
    • That means Putin needs to signal his determination through costly displays (such as mass mobilizations on the border), and the West has to decide whether those signals are credible or not (which is hard)
    • An example: Graham and Menon note how Putin told his diplomats in mid-November that a certain amount of tension would force the West to take Russia seriously
    • This means that insisting on preconditions for negotiation, like removing troops from the border, totally ignores Putin’s bargaining incentives
  • Also, in a time-honored tradition, Putin can gamble and try to exact more concessions by pretending to be a little irrational
    • Others have worked out the game theory, but appointing a hawkish and crazy-seeming President is a risky but sometimes effective strategy for getting concessions
    • Now, in my view, people are too ready to paint strongmen as unreasoned, and so they get fooled by these tactics
    • Leiven writes how, far from Putin having gone mad, or Russian policy being mysterious, or innately aggressive, Russian motives and actions are quite rational—and close to how Washington runs its own foreign policy
  • The good news is that war is costly enough that both sides will try to avoid it, and if there is violence, prolonged fighting is unlikely
    • That means, contrary to what some people say, Putin is unlikely to be hellbent on invasion
  • Still, within the set of compromises both sides prefer to fighting, there’s wide room for deals more favorable to Russia, and so we can expect Putin to try to get the better bargain
    • This leaves a lot of room for what Thomas Schelling called “strategic moves”: an attempt to suddenly change the game through a sudden and decisive action—such as a surprise invasion of a territory, one that is quick enough that it cannot be averted, and modest enough that it’s not worth the West going to war over it (think Crimea)
  • The main reason I worry about war is that calibrating the right strategic move is hard—you never really know what your opponent is willing to tolerate, and (if history is any guide) all sides are subject to overconfidence and prone to project their own values onto their adversaries (meaning they get the probability of an angry or calculated armed response wrong)
    • In other words, a lot can go wrong in crises and brinksmanship
    • That i scary, and it ‘s why I think war is unlikely but not impossible
  • All this is why the Biden administration is talking about sanctions and threatening Putin and his cabal with other terrible punishments—they want to deter Putin from strategic moves
    • One name for this tactic is conditional repression, and while it’s hard to know if targeted sanctions ever work, there’s lots of evidence it works at lower levels, against drug cartels and city gangs
    • That said, it’s hard to say how painful sanctions will be for Putin—“Sanctions will hurt us, especially gas and oil industry. The problem is that the Kremlin might be not very interested in what industries say.” my colleague Konstantin Sonin told NPR
  • All this is why both articles suggest that the US and Europe are going to have to live with painful concessions: an indefinite or permanent delay in Ukraine’s NATO admission, autonomy for the Donbas region, and the like.

If you are interested in the social science behind all this, I have a book for you.

Image from Al Jazeera