Shadow Government

The Problem with Obama’s Strategy of Graduated Escalation Towards Russia

President Obama has chosen his strategy for dealing with Putin: "graduated escalation." But will it achieve the administration's explicit and implicit objectives? Most likely not. Graduated escalation is a very difficult form of coercive diplomacy to wield successfully, and when the president limits the extent to which he will escalate, it becomes even more challenging.  It may, however, be the one best suited to the president's view of the interests at stake and the geopolitical constraints he faces.

Graduated escalation is a form of coercion where the pressure on the target begins at low levels, then slowly increases in response to the target's continued defiance or additional provocations. It has a very long pedigree -- it is the form of coercion Exodus describes as God inflicting upon Pharaoh's Egypt until Pharaoh heeded Moses's demand to "Let my people go!" But in modern times, it is most associated with the coercion strategy the United States followed in Vietnam, itself an outgrowth of Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling's bargaining theory of coercion.

Obama is implementing truncated graduated escalation; he has explicitly ruled out kinetic military operations, which lie at the upper rungs of coercion, and made it clear that he foresees no plausible role for the use of force beyond symbolic gestures like moving a ship into the Black Sea.

Obama's strategy, therefore, is to coerce Putin by gradually increasing economic pressure, but with the explicit intention of stopping well short of military strikes. The initial step was limited economic sanctions and travel restrictions on a handful of Putin's cronies. The second step was expanding the list of targeted individuals and adding one financial institution, the Rossiya Bank. The third step was issuing an executive order that allows the sanctioning of Russian persons across a broad swath of the Russian economy. In taking these steps, President Obama has threatened to take still more (unspecified) actions that would be more painful, with a vague suggestion that this escalation will continue until Putin changes his behavior. These steps continue a trend of targeting of individuals and financial institutions for coercive leverage.

President Obama is hoping to achieve multiple goals with this strategy, including:

  1. 1.      Restoring the status quo ante of Ukrainian de facto and de jure sovereignty over the Crimea.  
  2. 2.      Deterring further Russian aggression against the rest of Ukraine, the Baltics, or other areas in the Russian near abroad.
  3. 3.      Changing Putin's strategic calculus about the wisdom of his aggression by ensuring that he pays a price for his blatant disregard of international law and the international community.

At the same time, however, President Obama is also hoping to avoid multiple, negative outcomes, including:

  1. 1.      Becoming involved in a military conflict with Russia.
  2. 2.      Entering a new and enduring Cold War with Russia.
  3. 3.      Global economic turmoil resulting from crippling sanctions.
  4. 4.      Russian retaliation that would sink other strategic priorities that depend upon Russian cooperation, including: strategic nuclear arms control; ending the Syrian civil war on terms favorable to Western interests; freezing the Iranian nuclear program well short of a nuclear weapons capability; and exiting Afghanistan in an orderly way, among others.

The desire to achieve myriad ambitious diplomatic objectives, while at the same time avoid a variety of undesirable outcomes, has led the President to select a strategy of graduated escalation, whereby he can slowly increase the pressure on Russia to change its behavior while attempting to limit the likelihood of significant Russian retaliation.   

While this strategy of restrained, graduated escalation probably limits the likelihood that there will be a shooting war with Russia or that a new Cold War will break out, it will have a very hard time achieving the other goals set out by the Administration, notably the explicit primary goal of getting Putin to reverse course. In particular, the strategy has three limitations.

First, the incrementalism inherent in graduated escalation sends mixed signals to the target.  Obama wants to send competing signals to Putin: Resolve, but also restraint and the willingness to cut a deal. However, incrementalism signals the latter (restraint and a willingness to cut a deal) much more loudly than the former (resolve) and so nets out as weakness. This is precisely what caused graduated escalation to fail in Vietnam. North Vietnam experienced the incremental pressure and inferred, correctly, that the Johnson Administration was less committed to winning than it was to not losing on its watch. Putin already believes that President Obama and his European allies lack resolve -- otherwise he would not have taken the risks he did. Therefore, it would take quite a lot of unambiguous signaling to shift that assessment. The mixed-signals aspect of incrementalism is not well-suited to making Putin believe that Obama is highly resolved.

Second, in this circumstance, Putin can inflict significant pain on us as well, making it less likely that we continue employing this strategy until it works. Coercive diplomacy is a contest in pain tolerance, with success going to the party that can withstand more pain for a longer period of time. While the sanctions imposed on Russia appear to be causing some pain, Russia has the ability to punish the United States as well. Beyond frustrating our nuclear diplomacy with Iran and derailing any progress we hope to make on Syria, Russia could retaliate against U.S. investment in the country, cut U.S. multi-national corporations off from pre-existing deals (e.g., Exxon's gas projects), and take a number of other actions that would cause U.S. companies economic pain. The likelihood that the continued employment of U.S. sanctions on Russia will threaten these other U.S. interests is going to put significant pressure on the Obama administration to stop its sanctions program. 

Third, Putin's authoritarian-lite government has strategic advantages that make it less susceptible to short term punishment than the United States and its European allies.  Democracies are often at a disadvantage in such competitions in pain tolerance, at least initially, since authoritarian regimes, like Putin's, can suppress domestic critics who demand policy changes. Further, if your side is a coalition of democracies, as is the case here, you suffer a double disadvantage; not only do your own domestic constituencies pressure you, but your allies' constituencies may pressure them as well and lead to the fracturing of any coalition to bring additional coercive leverage to bear on the target.    

These limits do not necessarily mean that the administration's policy is incorrect; it may be that this is the best choice on a menu of bad options. In addition, while this strategy is unlikely to lead to restoration of Ukrainian control over Crimea, it certainly could signal to Putin that there is some price to pay for such aggression, though it remains an open question whether the strategy would dissuade Putin from engaging in additional aggressive activity against the rest of Ukraine, the Baltics, and other areas in the Russian near abroad. However, the strategy will likely only achieve these limited objectives if President Obama continues to escalate the pressure beyond the minimal steps he has taken thus far.

A strategy of graduated escalation can work if the balance of resolve is in your favor and you have a higher pain tolerance than your adversary. Choosing such escalation because you are weakly resolved to prevail in the explicit contest (getting Russia to reverse course in Crimea), but highly resolved to avoid major confrontation, is understandable, but odds are against it achieving other objectives and heavily stacked against it achieving the putative primary goal of restoring Ukrainian control over Crimea. 

Eric Lorber works in the International Trade Regulation and Compliance practice group at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP, where he advises clients on issues related to economic sanctions. 

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A Cold War Lesson for Ukraine

There's been a lot of talk about how Russia's invasion of Crimea means a return to the Cold War. History never repeats itself exactly (it merely echoes). But there are actually some lessons from the Cold War which could be applicable to the crisis in Ukraine.

The first is that facts on the ground matter. The Soviet Union occupied half of Europe after World War II more or less with our blessing. Yes, we felt tricked that Josef Stalin installed communist regimes, but his troops were there because they had been our allies. Once President Truman realized Stalin's true intentions, he tried to counter Soviet expansion with his containment policy. But he was still playing catch up. Not only did the facts on the ground in Eastern Europe favor Stalin, so did the impression, left by years of cooperation with Roosevelt, that the United States was not really interested in fighting another war after the victory over the Nazis.

We are in a similar situation today. Putin must surely understand -- if for no other reason than because we are constantly telling him so -- that Americans are weary of war. He's also likely gotten the impression that Obama, like Franklin D. Roosevelt before him, prefers a world in which Russia is given a fairly wide berth. That was clearly signaled by the Russia "reset" policy, and it was an impression likely reinforced by Obama's casual handling of the Ukraine crisis, complete with comedy TV appearances and Florida vacations, which at the very least indicated a lack of alarm.

There's another similarity: Russian troops now occupy Crimea as they once did Poland in 1945. Because of that, Putin likely thinks the Europeans and Americans are bluffing over Ukraine, as Stalin likely thought Truman was doing when he first protested Soviet actions in Poland. But Truman was not bluffing. He not only resisted Soviet aggression against Turkey and Greece, but eventually made it clear that he would resist Soviet bullying by launching the Berlin airlift in 1948-49. And, of course, he went on to launch his containment policy which lasted for a generation.

Obama faces a similar challenge. At some point he will have to choose between a containment policy of his own or business as usual. Putin may not give him the choice of trying to have it both ways. At some point the president should expect to be tested, as Truman was, to show how much he really believes in all his rhetorical support for Ukraine.

But there the similarities with the Cold War end. Putin may have the military and geopolitical advantage in Ukraine, but he does not enjoy the same strategic assets of the Soviet Union. His military power is not as great; except for nuclear weapons, Russia is not really a global power. The ideological struggle over communism is missing. And unlike in Stalin's time, Putin's political base at home (the nouveau riche oligarchs) do not want economic isolation. They want to continue to shop at posh London shops and to continue getting rich selling natural gas abroad. This means they are far more vulnerable to economic sanctions than were the travel-deprived apparatchiks of Soviet times.

There's another difference. While Putin occupies Crimea, he does not occupy all of Ukraine. Unlike in 1945-47, when about 500,000 Soviet troops occupied Poland, there are today no Russian troops in Ukraine outside of Crimea. Thus most of Ukraine is still free. We should be taking advantage of this window of opportunity because Putin may close it soon. Stepping back and waiting to see what Putin does next is likely to convince him that he can move to the next step, whatever it may be.

One of the most important lessons of the Cold War is that drawing lines in the sand actually works. We often think of how the containment strategy held the Soviet Union in check, but the real tests of strength actually occurred before that strategy was fully in place. Truman "lost" Poland (mainly because he never had it in the first place), but he drew the line with Turkey and Greece. Both countries ended up as NATO allies, not members of the Warsaw Pact. We should be drawing similarly clear lines in the sand today, particularly with respect to the Baltic members of NATO, making it absolutely clear that the United States will honor its NATO Article Five commitment to defend those countries.

The challenge for U.S. policy is not to let Russia's fait accompli in Crimea signal a complete abandonment of Ukraine. It's one thing to say we will not go to war to defend Ukraine's independence, and another one altogether to consign Ukraine forever to Russia's sphere of influence. Not everything in foreign policy comes down to threatening war. Most Ukrainians want to be part of the West, as the Poles did some 70 years ago, and this matters more in the long run than the strength of Russia's armored brigades.

So let's give the Ukrainians -- and the Russians -- a long-term strategy. In addition to near-term sanctions against Russia that truly threaten its ability to do business with the West, we should be offering to assist Ukraine's economy. We can do this not only by supporting loans and loan guarantees to assist Ukraine through its immediate crisis, but to help the International Monetary Fund and the European Union construct a program of aid-for-reforms that can turn Ukraine's economy around. Part of Kiev's problem is that it pretends to want to join the West but it never gets its economic house in order to actually do it. Economic aid packages are fine, but Ukraine's economy needs serious reform.

The most important thing President Obama could now do is to signal to Putin that he has the patience to follow through on a strategy of isolating Russia. Putin likely believes he lacks that patience. To prove him wrong, the United States should: launch tougher sanctions against Russia; help Ukraine get its economic house in order; start serious military planning for the defense of the Baltic States; restore America's military and strategic defenses; and let it be known that the United States will never recognize Russia's suzerainty over Ukraine.

A former assistant secretary of state, Dr. Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images