[O]ur lesson on NATO expansion indicates that Russia was deeply disturbed by the eastward encroachment of NATO into territory Russia once controlled as the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Like most of War Room’s readers, few of our Army War College students are experts on Russia or Ukraine, yet our course of study equips them to draw meaningful conclusions about the likely spectrum of what Russia is trying to achieve by massing troops on Ukraine’s borders and ostensibly threatening invasion. In particular, lessons on coercion and case studies regarding NATO expansion and the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis, sprinkled with a little knowledge about the credibility of threats, suggest that Russia envisions more than one acceptable outcome.
First, Ukraine’s current unenviable situation illustrates why so many eastern European countries sought NATO membership after the collapse of the Soviet Union. More importantly, our lesson on NATO expansion indicates that Russia was deeply disturbed by the eastward encroachment of NATO into territory Russia once controlled as the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Russia surely would have preferred a different outcome then and Russian officials still think that additional NATO expansion threatens Russia’s vital national interests. And, as we teach, vital interests are worth fighting over. But does Russia seek to prevent further NATO expansion primarily through coercive diplomacy by rattling its saber along Ukraine’s border? Or does Russia prefer to take matters into its own hands as it did with its war with Georgia, its seizure of Crimea in 2014, and its ongoing support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine? Our lessons on coercion and the Taiwan Straits crisis suggest some form of the latter while preserving options for the former.
During the Taiwan Straits crisis, China conducted threatening military exercises close to Taiwan after the United States granted a visa to a Taiwanese presidential candidate who favored promoting Taiwanese independence. China viewed this as an unfavorable shift in the delicate status quo. Accordingly, it used the threat of force to compel the Taiwanese to quiet their agitation for independence and compel the United States to promise to issue no more visas to Taiwanese officials. China somewhat succeeded with the first objective and mostly failed in the second. As we teach and China discovered in this case, compellence is generally more difficult than deterrence.
Approximately 25 years later, Russia’s massive military “exercises” on Ukraine’s borders have created a new crisis with important similarities and differences to the Taiwan Straits crisis. Like China versus the United States regarding Taiwan, Russia has a more direct and intense security interest and cultural connection to the fate of Ukraine than does the United States and NATO. U.S. and NATO interests are more abstract and related to maintaining international norms of the current “liberal world order” and thus may seem less intense and more difficult to communicate. Another similarity is that Russia’s demands appear to attempt to compel action from the United States by threatening brute force against a third party that the United States is willing to sacrifice, albeit reluctantly, because it is not a vital interest. This interest asymmetry creates two dynamics that make a diplomatic solution harder. On the one hand, NATO will be hard-pressed to deter Russia’s intense interest in improving its security situation by force, if necessary. On the other hand, Russia’s coercive threats against a less intense interest of the United States are unlikely to work, much like China failed to compel the United States to accede to its demands during the Taiwan Straits crisis. Russia’s overt demands are unrealistically high and not matched by a threat of sufficient direct cost to the United States or NATO.
This discrepancy between demands and means might explain why the United States is so pessimistic about Russian intentions; Russia’s current approach to coercion does not seem genuinely interested in “negotiation” because they are not threatening something the United States values enough. Nonetheless, Russia will take any “free chicken” they can get from crisis diplomacy with the United States, but they are not likely to get much. Talking for at least a limited time will not cost Russia much, could improve their image slightly, and help them refine their cost-benefit calculation before committing to other actions.
The third potential similarity that seems underreported in the U.S. press is the possibility that Russia might primarily be trying to extract positive outcomes from Ukraine itself, much like the favorable election results that China’s threat to Taiwan seemed to produce. For example, implementation of the Minsk agreement of 2015 may provide Russia with enough gains to justify de-escalation. Greater insight into if this is happening would be helpful to know and could significantly shape U.S. perception of Russia’s intentions. Furthermore, the credibility of Russia’s threat to Ukraine is significantly higher than was China’s threat to Taiwan back in 1996, so it is at least plausible that Russia anticipates the mere fear of attack might produce an acceptable outcome in Ukraine.
Russia has already gained a strategic success by risking military action against Crimea.
Russia’s greater credibility in terms of capability and resolve is an important difference from the Taiwan Crisis. Although China had a clear interest in countering pro-independence momentum, its capability and resolve at that time were questioned. In contrast, Russia’s capability to overwhelm Ukrainian forces throughout the rest of Ukraine seems clear. It also appears to possess sufficient resolve to accept the risk and cost of implementing the threat. Russia has already gained a strategic success by risking military action against Crimea. Although Russia’s ability to translate force into enduring political objectives outside of Crimea is far less clear, one should not discount their willingness to gamble on this vital interest. Furthermore, Russia’s tolerance of the sanctions from its previous actions against Ukraine might make one wonder how much additional pain NATO countries are able and willing to impose indefinitely, especially when Russia yields substantial counter coercion against Germany, Hungary, and others due to its control over much of their supply of gas. This situation, too, helps explain apparent U.S. pessimism.
One might think another important difference between the two crises would be the potential restraining factor of the fact that Ukraine is a sovereign country whereas in 1996 most countries had already acceded since 1971 that Taiwan was part of “one China.” However, given that Ukrainian sovereignty did not restrain Russia in 2014 and that President Putin has made the case for the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine, we should not count on Ukraine’s sovereignty exerting much restraining influence now, though it may prompt Russia to seek at least a fig leaf to cover any aggressive actions it takes.
Can we infer any likely Russian actions by comparing these two cases? Possibly, if we consider the relatively low risks to their credibility that both China and Russia put at stake by engaging in provocative military actions. First, their control of domestic media makes internal consequences of saber-rattling low. Second, one might think that bluffing invasion might have significant adverse consequences on Russia’s future credibility in the eyes of foreign powers, but, like China, Russia has not overtly threatened invasion. China made it very clear to the United States that it did not intend to invade Taiwan. Nonetheless, China’s actions imposed cost on the United States by requiring U.S. officials to divert their attention and agendas to address the provocation, and China was rewarded with an informal presidential summit.
Judging from the reaction of U.S. officials, Russia has not similarly given the United States such explicit assurances. Nonetheless, by publicly insisting it is just conducting exercises while allowing inferences to the contrary, Russia reduces the likelihood and magnitude of damage to the credibility of its future threats if it chooses not to invade this time. As long as it gets something of plausibly sufficient value from NATO or just the United States, Russia can claim that its huge military exercises were not a bluff but rather an appropriately “loud” way of communicating its intense dissatisfaction with the status quo. If, however, no meaningful concessions are forthcoming, Russia is likely willing to take at least some limited forcible action both to save face and improve its security in the light of NATO intransigence.
Thus, Russia’s apparent decision to preserve a diplomatic pathway that will allow it to save face without violence presents a narrow opportunity for the United States and its allies to work with Russia to de-escalate. Although NATO is rightfully reluctant to reward bad behavior too generously, its “principled and pragmatic” approach seems to accept Russia has some legitimate concerns for its security, which NATO may be able to address at least partially. NATO should also factor into its cost-benefit calculations that coercion theory suggests that it should take less threatened carrot and stick to deter Russia from military action than it will take to compel Russia to undo any military action after the fact.
It is unclear if the United States and its allies are willing to offer enough inducements and credible punishments to prevent Russia from taking aggressive actions. It would be unlikely for Putin to engage in this costly and somewhat risky escalation if he did not have at least two satisfactory though not equally preferred outcomes in mind. He surely prefers significant concessions, however unlikely they may be. But creating facts on the ground through a coup, expanding his grab of Ukrainian territory, or at least formalizing control over the Donbas may also be an acceptable outcome, even though more costly, riskier, and less preferred. Russia is indeed testing the United States. A narrow de-escalation window exists, but both sides must be willing to use it.
Leon Perkowski is a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, an Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security and Strategy, and the Director of the Eisenhower Series College Program at the U.S. Army War College. He holds an MS in Environmental Pollution Control from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations from Kent State University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: President of Russia Vladimir Putin meeting with U.S. President Joseph Biden (via videoconference).
Photo Credit: Presidential Executive Office of Russia and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0