The Czar of Brinkmanship

A Classic Cold War Strategy Makes a Comeback in the Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Siberia on July 20, 2013. (Courtesy Reuters)

It has been exceedingly difficult, over the past several months, to discern the precise limits to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to escalate the crisis in Ukraine. In addition to stationing some 40,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border and ordering them to conduct military exercises, Putin has used pro-Russian activists, guided by covert Russian operatives, to foment unrest and instability in eastern Ukraine. All the while, he has warned that Kiev’s military actions to reassert government control violate the rights of those Russian populations and push the country to “the verge of civil war.” Putin has also suggested that the Ukrainian government, already on the brink of default, will have to pay for its gas at higher prices beginning on June 1 -- a veiled threat to the European Union, which depends on Russian gas imports through Ukrainian pipelines. Amid all of these threats, the ultimate goal of Putin’s risky provocations has remained unclear.

One might conclude that Putin is motivated by anger or resentment. After speaking with him in early March, as the crisis in Ukraine was still in its early stages, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to draw that conclusion, telling U.S. President Barack Obama that the Russian president was living in “another world.” But Putin’s actions are not irrational. Understanding them requires a close reading of the international relations theorist Thomas Schelling, whose classic work on brinkmanship, The Strategy of Conflict, seems -- in its Russian translation, perhaps -- to have found its way onto Putin’s desk.

As Schelling explains, brinkmanship “is the tactic of deliberately letting the situation get somewhat out of hand, just because its being out of hand may be intolerable to the other party and force his accommodation.” Schelling would describe the dynamic that Putin has imposed in Ukraine as the “rationality of irrationality”: Putin has been purposefully generating risk and “exploiting the danger that somebody may inadvertently go over the brink, dragging the other with him.”

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