Strategic Transparency vs. Strategic Ambiguity
There is a time for both. But not right now.
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1. Escalation Clause
Peter Juul has a good piece about NATO’s need to prepare responses to potential acts of escalation from Vladimir Putin. He sketches out five of the more likely escalatory pathways Putin might take:
Chemical weapons use in Ukraine
Attack on a Western commercial flight
Missile attack on a NATO base
Use of a nuclear weapon
And here are three of Juul’s recommendations for how to prepare:
Issue clear and explicit warnings against attacks on NATO territory for any reason. President Biden has rightly made clear to all concerned that the United States will honor its collective defense obligations to its NATO allies. But both he and other NATO leaders should go further and specify in clear and uncompromising terms what Russia should expect if it violates NATO territory in any way. Russian military aircraft will be shot down if they stray into NATO airspace and refuse to turn back when told. Any attack against a NATO base would risk a retaliatory strike against the Russian units responsible. . . .
Clear, personal warnings to Russian military commanders against chemical weapons use, targeting civil aviation, and especially nuclear weapons use. The United States and its allies should make the consequences of complicity or participation in the worst possible war crimes – whether chemical weapons use or the downing of civilian aircraft – exceedingly clear to the Russian military commanders ordered to carry them out. . . . These messages should contain an appeal to disobey obviously illegal and immoral orders from the Kremlin—especially in the highly improbable but not impossible event that Putin gives orders to use nuclear weapons. . . .
Get out ahead of potential Russian escalation. Despite some criticism at the time, the United States got out ahead of Russian attempts to sell its invasion of Ukraine by releasing its intelligence assessments of Moscow’s intentions and capabilities. It needs to do the same for the Kremlin’s efforts to lay the groundwork for potential escalation, whatever form it may take. We’ve seen a similar bid to get ahead of possible Russian chemical weapons use, but the United States needs to be ready to turn up the volume on these warnings if necessary.
Yes to all of this. Let me explain why.
Deterrence comes in two opposing forms. One way to deter an aggressor is through transparent warnings about what the consequences of an action will be. The other is through intentionally ambiguous warnings, which leave the aggressor unsure of what might happen should they act.
From the beginning of this crisis, the Biden administration has been almost entirely transparent. That has served us well not because it deterred Putin—clearly, nothing was going to deter him from invasion—but because it helped invigorate and solidify our alliance. It was this unified front which has made it possible to impose so much pain on Russia.1
NATO should continue to be transparent, both about the credible intelligence it receives concerning Russian escalation and about what the alliance’s retaliation would be to various acts of escalation. In this moment, strategic ambiguity is unhelpful and potentially dangerous.
Escalation depends on the status quo and the status quo consists of two parts: (1) Facts on the ground and (2) Stated policy regarding future changes in the facts on the ground.
So let’s take the idea of a No Fly Zone.
Ukrainian airspace belongs to Ukraine as a matter of law. But the fact is that Ukrainian airspace is contested and belongs at least in part to Russian forces. If we were to attempt to impose a No Fly Zone, that would mean having NATO planes firing at Russian planes in an airspace that the Russians currently occupy. That’s an escalation.
Now maybe there are good reasons for NATO to undertake such an escalation. Certainly the moral case is open and shut. (Though I would argue that as a prudential matter, such an escalation right now would be likely to result in more harm than help.)
The point in thinking through the No Fly Zone is to underscore how good policy seeks to place the burden of escalation on the opposing party.
Being transparent about NATO responses to potential Russian escalations allows us to form a notional status quo which hovers down the road from the current set of facts on the ground.
Putin may well choose escalation anyway. Deterrence is a strategy, not an action. Some actors cannot be deterred.
But the more transparent we can be, the slower the chain of reaction will move in the event that Putin does choose escalation. And the more pain he will face for each step he takes.
Putin himself may be impervious to pain. But at some point, that pain may become unbearable for those who occupy the other power centers in the Russian system.
2. Negotiated Settlement
It’s not hard to see what the two sides would need in order to get to a ceasefire:
Territory in the south and east to claim as its own.
Ukraine not in NATO.
A severely degraded Ukrainian military.
An end to sanctions.
Not to reward Russia with territory taken through aggression.
Some sort of security guarantee which is non-negotiable.
Economic aid to rebuild the country’s economy and infrastructure.
So you can see how each side might get to a ceasefire. But you can also see how incompatible some of these needs are.
Maybe some of the items could be finessed: For instance, Ukraine agrees to give the Donbas region the right to self-determination.2
Or, Ukraine agrees not to join NATO. But leaves open the possibility of joining some other treaty organization or alliance (for instance, the European Union).
Zelensky moved on this front the other day, suggesting that NATO was not in the cards for Ukraine.
But what’s the alternative? If Ukraine doesn’t have Article 5 covering its ass, then it will need to be armed to the teeth and on something close to a permanent war footing. Because Russia is right next door and whatever negotiated decision might be reached on Crimea and the Donbas, the facts on the ground will be contested by the people.
All of which is to say that it is difficult to see a settlement coming out of the current dynamic. One side or the other will have to be put into a position where they are forced to give up at least one of their current “must haves.”
For Ukraine to give up one of these, it would mean that the populace is so battered that they need peace.
For Russia to give up a condition, it would mean that its army is on the verge of disintegration in the field.
The larger problem is that there’s a third party to any such settlement sitting in the shadows: NATO and the European Union.
These countries have a say, too. Because they’re the ones putting the screws to Russia through sanctions and they will be the ones arming and rebuilding Ukraine.
So even though the NATO/E.U. countries aren’t at the bargaining table, they are stakeholders, since they control the sanctions regime that Russia needs to end.
And from the point of view of NATO/E.U., it would not be in our interest to ease sanctions on Russia in any case other than the fall of Putin’s regime.
3. Profiles in Courage
Vitaly Kim is half-Korean, speaks Russian, and is leading the fight in his province:
FOR THE governor of a province beset by Russian forces, who have surrounded its capital to the north and east, Vitaly Kim looks surprisingly rested. Ukrainian units have been pushing the enemy back from Mykolaiv, he says, and that is diminishing the invaders’ chances of fully encircling the strategic port. But his reassuring calm stems not just from the latest bulletins from the front lines—serenity is a “weapon” in its own right, he explains. “We got scared at the start, and then we learned indifference. When we get indifferent, the Russians get scared, and that’s when I can get a good night’s sleep.”
The governor’s composure, which occasionally tips into cockiness, has transformed him into a national symbol of resistance. In some ways, his trajectory mirrors that of his boss and “idol”, Volodymyr Zelensky. Like Ukraine’s president, he is a political neophyte, an accidental war leader and social-media darling. His now famous daily video blogs combine humour with withering putdowns of the “idiotic” Russian army. When he speaks, the people listen. One post is enough to get Mykolaiv’s residents to pile tyres on street corners, ready to create smokescreens should Russian tanks break through the city’s defences. “I’ll tell you when to light them,” he says. Another instructs them not to lose faith. “Good evening. Remember, lads, we’re from Ukraine. Let’s finish them off.”
In a video-conference room inside the heavily sandbagged and fortified provincial administration building, the half-Korean, Russian-speaking governor says he started making the videos by accident. His press secretary had to evacuate with her young daughter. “So I needed to reach people quickly, and this was how.” He might not be a trained soldier, he says, but a successful career in agriculture, construction and catering has helped teach him how to strategise: “War is war, not pretty pictures. You need to use all your logic, and intuition, or many lives will be lost.” . . .
Mykolaiv, the next city along the Black Sea to the east of Odessa, is a big obstacle to Russia’s apparent plan to occupy Ukraine’s entire coastline. . . .
Downtown, the streets are quiet, with marked exceptions around army-enlistment centres and posts offering humanitarian assistance. Only the poor, immobile and fearless remain in the city. A sizeable proportion of those are pensioners, too infirm or stubborn to leave. They scurry with wheeled shopping trolleys to the last open shops. . . .
In his daily briefing with journalists on March 14th Mr Kim said Russia had become frustrated with the lack of progress it had made, and was taking it out on the local population. It tried to force its way through the city, and failed. It tried an amphibious landing to cut Mykolaiv off from Odessa, and failed. It tried to bypass the town to the north; and again, it wasn’t having much luck. “They are hitting residential areas in order to retreat and regroup. And they are targeting civilian infrastructure too,” Mr Kim warned.
Rockets have landed far from discernible military targets: in shopping centres, furniture stores and, on March 13th, near a bus stop and food store where people were queuing. Nine died and scores more were seriously injured. Anton Ignatienko, a bomb-disposal sapper who removed the missiles from the scene, said the high death toll was caused by cluster munitions.
As always: The necessary precondition for this unity was the valor of Ukraine. Without Ukraine’s will to fight, little of what NATO has done would have been politically feasible.
Though in practice this may not work because the people there may sufficiently hate Russia now that given the freedom to choose, they’d stay with Ukraine. Which brings us back to square one.