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

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.