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
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. Restoring
the status quo ante of Ukrainian de facto and de jure sovereignty over the Crimea.
- 2. Deterring
further Russian aggression against the rest of Ukraine, the Baltics, or other
areas in the Russian near abroad.
- 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
At the same time, however, President Obama is also hoping to
avoid multiple, negative outcomes, including:
Becoming involved in a military conflict with
- 2. Entering
a new and enduring Cold War with Russia.
- 3. Global
economic turmoil resulting from crippling sanctions.
- 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
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
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.
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