That's just a game Putin's playing. And it's a game we're losing.
- By Emile SimpsonEmile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer.
The West is fixated on what Russian President Vladimir Putin really intends to do in eastern Ukraine: Will he invade or not? But strategy in conflict situations does not easily lend itself to identification of clear goals on either side, because the activity is reciprocal. Each side reacts to the other, so intentions and goals evolve.
What the clever strategist can do instead — particularly in conflicts that are more about communication than fighting — is to focus on framing. Being pragmatic about goals rather than setting a master plan maximizes your ability to exploit opportunities. Framing provides a lens that gives meaning to a story, so getting your opponent to accept your chosen frame gives you power over the meaning of events. Right now, Russia is winning that battle.
Putin has encouraged the West to see his actions through a conventional war framework, which Western analysts accept each time they fixate on whether or not Russia will invade each time there is a fresh incident. The visual counterparts to this frame are geographical maps, complete with red arrows detailing how Russian troops might advance down certain rivers and roads or airdrop behind Ukrainian lines, accompanied by charts comparing Russian and Ukraine infantry, tanks, aircraft, and other military assets.
Over-reliance on Putin’s framework harms Western interests by ensuring that its responses are too late: Moscow’s goals can be achieved without a conventional invasion, the threat of which nonetheless functions as useful way of distracting opponents.
Focusing on preventing a conventional war means being left trying to unwind a fait accompli. That already happened once: in the earlier Crimean phase, when the West was focused on averting a conventional invasion that never happened. As President Barack Obama stated on Feb. 28, before the annexation of Crimea, "[T]he United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine."
While a conventional invasion is not impossible in eastern Ukraine, the West must remove the blinkers of the frame of war and understand that it is currently in a conflict of coercive communication — armed politics — in which actions are designed to send a political message, rather than militarily defeat an enemy. Sanctions represent movement in that direction, and if hardened, might well be more operationally effective. However, when both sides use armed politics, there can be no clear boundary between war and peace, which generates a new and distinct strategic risk. The West should be clear about this trade-off.
Conversely, encouraging the West to see the situation through the frame of war has allowed Putin to follow his own instincts, often generating advantageous ambiguity. Russian actions in Ukraine have not, by and large, fit into neat conceptual or legal categories: It’s not peace, but neither is it war. Russian agents are obviously on the ground in eastern Ukraine, but they are posing as civilians, making any use of violence by the so-called "pro-Russian activists" very hard to identify as clear military action. So too has the presence of large Russian battle formations on the border with Ukraine remained ambiguous, ostensibly conducting exercises during the Crimea phase of the crisis, then withdrawing, and now re-positioned in locations from where they could conceivably mount a conventional invasion of Ukraine.
The recent capture of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) military observers encapsulates the ambiguity of Putin’s strategy: Separatist rebels paraded the observers before a press conference in Sloviansk as "prisoners of war." Given that rebels have no legal authority to take prisoners of war, this action made a powerful statement about Russian sovereignty without presenting a clearly military target.
The frame of war alone is inadequate to explain the subtlety of Putin’s actions. The Russian leader has implicitly threatened to move into an overtly military phase in eastern Ukraine — announcing that Russia’s Federation Council had "granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine," though "I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right" — but he has also telegraphed a more nuanced message: Unless a federalized solution is reached, creating a buffer with a now NATO-friendly state, Russia will continue to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Likewise, Putin has turned the escalating crisis there into a bargaining chip that can be used to forestall the imposition of much harsher Western sanctions. This will be especially consequential as tensions inevitably increase in the run-up to Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election.
To date, Kiev has been forced to play along with Russia’s framing and intentional ambiguity, even describing its counter-actions in the east as "anti-terrorist," suggesting that it is enforcing a domestic criminal jurisdiction, rather than taking action against the forces of a sovereign state. That plainly suits Russia because it can criticize Kiev for purported abuses against ethnic Russians, while simultaneously promoting the idea that this is internal, domestic action by a repressive regime in Kiev.
If Putin can achieve a federalized buffer zone in eastern Ukraine and, ideally, a pause in the sanctions regime through agreeing to de-escalate on the conventional war option, why would he risk invading conventionally? An actual invasion, even if militarily simple, would very likely heap economic pressure on Russia and leave NATO directly on an extended new Russian border (assuming NATO stepped in to back up whatever was left of Ukraine) that Moscow would then have to garrison. If Russian troops are used at all, the much more likely scenario would be the deployment of some kind of peacekeeping force, which, again, would capitalize on the ambiguous line between war and peace and deny opponents a clear military target.
Since the West does not seem prepared to escalate to conventional war to meet Russia’s use of armed politics, it is moving towards responding through coercive communication in the form of sanctions. Getting "pro-Russian activists" out of eastern Ukraine, moreover, was supposed to be one outcome of the April 17 deal in Geneva, which seems nonetheless to have failed. But even now when it uses sanctions, the West is still blinkered by the frame of war.
The West’s continued focus on securing the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Ukrainian border suggests that Putin is himself the one gaining leverage through his implicit threat of war. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Geneva: "[the Russians] made it clear that over a period of time, assuming this can de-escalate and it does de-escalate, as the rights of the people they are concerned about are represented, as the constitutional process unfolds and the future government of Ukraine takes place, they are absolutely prepared to begin to respond with respect to troops and larger numbers."
But there is a catch in this gradual evolution in the sophistication of Western response to the Ukrainian crisis: Armed politics may be operationally more effective in this context, but it carries substantially different strategic consequences.
On March 2, Kerry observed that Russia was engaging in "19th century behavior in the 21st century." While he may have intended only to make a simple point about the unacceptability of Russia’s actions, he also inadvertently touched on a more complex historical tradition. Moscow’s actions in Crimea were not a clear-cut example of military invasion, but a use of armed politics that fell short of war and conventional military action.
Kerry’s insight was still right — the 19th century was the heyday of gunboat diplomacy, which was exactly the kind of coercive communication that occupied a gray area between war and peace. But the economic sanctions the United States has responded with are actually part of the same tradition of coercive political reprisals. In other words, the crisis is dragging both sides back in time, at least as far as methods are concerned. Violent and non-violent coercive actions, then as now, are not clearly demarcated from routine international politics. This, of course, carries its own risks: When used outside of formally identified armed conflicts, coercive reprisals can promote unstable and dangerous quasi-conflicts that undermine international stability.
Once two sides are using armed politics against each other, the boundaries — geographical, chronological, and legal — between enemy and non-enemy, and between war and peace, become highly ambiguous. Violence and the threat of violence merge into routine international politics, as they did during the Cold War.
The risk is clear. To be operationally effective here, the West needs to become more effective at using an armed politics approach, most likely through hard sanctions, given Western reluctance to use conventional force. However, the paradox is that this approach will end up encouraging the very blurring boundaries between war and peace that Putin himself exploits. Since this is not a recipe for international stability, the West must be sure that countering Russian aggression is worth the operational risk it entails.
Limiting operational risk comes down to the scope of sanctions. As armed politics and decisive outcomes generally don’t go together, for the West to link sanctions to a full reversal to the status quo is unrealistic, unless the West seriously wants to go to the brink with Russia — each side will eventually need to give each other a face saving way out.
So the irony is that the West’s failure to react effectively, despite superior resources, at the start of the crisis due to its fixation on averting war now means a federalized solution may come to be the best outcome for both sides. That is the price the West might have to pay for getting its strategic concepts wrong at the start.