The good news is that, so far, both strategies have been quite carefully calibrated. The bad news is that America and Russia may still be on a collision course because only one of these strategies can succeed.
Coercion is the art of shaping a rival’s behavior through intimidation or violence; it can happen in peacetime, in wartime, and everywhere in between. Today,
Washington and Moscow are not directly fighting each other in Ukraine. But since the start of this conflict, they have aggressively coerced each other.
Putin’s version was louder and more rhetorically threatening. Since February 2022, the Russian leader has spoken ominously of nuclear war to dissuade the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from intervening directly on behalf of Ukraine. Kremlin officials have warned that even supplying kyiv with certain weapons, such as long-range strike missiles that can reach deep into Russia, would cross Moscow’s red lines. Putin seeks to intimidate the West so he can fight the war he wants – a head-to-head duel in which Ukraine will succumb to Russia’s superior strength.
It didn’t work, because of a quiet but ruthlessly effective US campaign of coercion. America has forced Putin to remain remarkably passive as Ukraine and the Western coalition that backs it inflict previously unimaginable damage on its military and the state it controls.
Repeated promises by President Joe Biden’s administration to defend “every inch” of NATO territory have made it too risky for Putin to interfere with Ukrainian supply lines through Romania and Poland. US military power, both conventional and nuclear, has deterred Moscow from unleashing as the West provides the weapons, information and money Ukraine needs to annihilate Russian ground forces; imposes financial sanctions that set Putin’s economy back a generation; and adds two new NATO members on the doorstep of Russia, Finland and Sweden. It’s a triumph of coercion worth appreciating, even if it took things to a dangerous point.
Putin is heading for defeat in Ukraine; he may not survive this outcome politically. So he mobilizes hundreds of thousands of troops while reminding his enemies just how much damage Russia can cause.
By illegally annexing four Ukrainian regions, Putin is warning Washington as well as Kyiv that attacks on these territories amount to attacks on Russia itself. And if Russia was behind the recent attacks on undersea gas pipelines to Germany, as European Union officials argue, Putin could be sending the message that Moscow can lead the fight against the countries of the world. NATO in a less conventional way. Back off, Putin says, before things get really serious.
The Biden administration chose not to listen. He responded to the annexation ploy by announcing new arms shipments to Ukraine, which is liberating more territory every day Putin now claims as its own. US officials publicly warn Moscow that the use of nuclear weapons would prove ruinous for Russia; in private, they would make threats that would be more specific but still leave something to the imagination. Every time Putin has tried to bully or brag out of trouble, the US has simply coerced him back.
There are still moves left in this game. Putin has other non-nuclear cards to play, such as the attacks on the undersea fiber optic cables that connect the United States and Europe. He could issue a more specific nuclear ultimatum or start moving his arsenal in a way that US intelligence agencies would detect.
The United States, for its part, has yet to supply kyiv with long-range missiles, attack aircraft, main battle tanks and other weapons. The current contest is deeply dangerous, but has not yet gotten out of hand.
It is, however, reminiscent of the most chilling times of the Cold War. During the Berlin Crises of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised that the rockets would fly if the United States and its allies did not abandon West Berlin. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy warned that America could invade Cuba – with all the escalation that might ensue – if Khrushchev did not remove the missiles he had placed there. Nuclear threats and counter-threats were the language of great power politics, as they still are today.
These crises were ultimately resolved peacefully, as the coercion was eventually softened by compromise. In 1961, Khrushchev contented himself with turning East Berlin into a prison, by building the Berlin Wall, rather than driving out the Western powers. The following year, Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba if Khrushchev sent his rockets home. The current moment is frightening because it is unclear what the equivalent compromise would be.
Putin remains determined to dismember Ukraine, which Kyiv and Washington will not accept. Ukraine and the United States have Putin on the path to a disastrous defeat which is anathema to him. Both sides are betting that a fundamental compromise on their war aims is not necessary, as they can exert enough pressure to push back the enemy at the crucial moment. Both parties cannot be right.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Take Putin’s nuclear threat seriously, but not too seriously: Hal Brands
• How does Putin remain so popular while losing the war in Ukraine? : Tobin Harshaw
• Putin pushes Serbia and Bosnia to support his war in Ukraine: James Stavridis
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. Henry Kissinger Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he is the co-author, most recently, of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” and a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Policy Council. ‘State.
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