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.”

In threatening to intervene to protect Russian “compatriots” in Ukraine from the escalating violence that Moscow helped incite and has done nothing to stop, Putin is signaling that he has a tremendous amount at stake. If Western policymakers hadn't previously appreciated the extent to which Ukraine is a core Russian interest, they certainly do now. Ukraine’s alignment is central both to Putin’s conservative nationalist base and to Russian security as a buffer state, given its indefensible borders. Ukraine is the main artery through which Russian exports flow, and it remains part of the post-Soviet military-industrial complex. Putin's clearest geopolitical ambition, the creation of a Eurasian Union, allowing Russia to dominate its neighbors and act as a major regional power, would be impossible to achieve without a close relationship with Ukraine.

In an April 17 interview, Putin declared, “We have reached a point beyond which we cannot retreat.” The Kremlin’s determination to stop the advance of Euro-Atlantic institutions was signaled in a smaller campaign against Georgia in 2008. Now Putin also implies that Russia would begin to treat a broad swath of southeastern Ukraine -- a region historically called Novorossiya (New Russia) that was transferred to Ukraine by Soviet authorities -- as a Russian protectorate. But tough talk on Ukraine doesn’t signal a preference for a war of conquest. Rather, his brinkmanship signals that Russia has higher stakes in Ukraine than the West. By communicating to leaders in Kiev and the West that he is willing to risk plunging Ukraine into outright civil war, Putin has already gained bargaining leverage in any discussions over Ukraine's fate.

Brinkmanship has had plenty of admirers among policymakers, especially during the Cold War, when Schelling formulated his theory. John Foster Dulles, who served as U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state from 1953 to 1959, is considered by some historians as the “master of brinkmanship.” Recent research suggests that the Eisenhower administration’s threats to “respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing,” including the use of atomic weapons against China, if it expanded the war in Indochina in 1954, had an impact: the Chinese leadership modified its position and pressured the Viet Minh to make concessions for a negotiated settlement. 

But Dulles himself warned that brinkmanship was not a strategy for the timid. “If you are scared to go the brink, you are lost,” he explained: it was “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war” that was “the necessary art.” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who admired Dulles for his nervy policy, agreed, as the historian Marc Trachtenberg has shown. He wielded the same tactic in a series of crises from 1958 to 1962, exploiting the vulnerability of West Berlin to pressure the West into recognizing East Germany as a separate state. Khrushchev managed to block West German ambitions while demonstrating his resolve to hawks in the Kremlin and communist bloc. “I think the people with the strongest nerves will be the winners,” he said in 1958. “The people with weak nerves will go to the wall.”

Although Schelling’s theory suggests that policymakers who use brinkmanship wisely could prevail without having to fight, in practice the record is mixed. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy confronted the Soviet Union after discovering the secret installation of Soviet nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba, despite Khrushchev’s repeated assurances that Moscow would not provide Havana with such weapons. Knowing -- as Kennedy did not -- that the nuclear missiles were fully operational and accompanied by tactical nuclear weapons under the control of local commanders to repel a U.S. attack against Cuba, Khrushchev recognized that the potential for uncontrollable risks and unintended outcomes greatly outweighed the limited payoffs to Moscow, so he prudently backed down. Paying no heed to this about-face, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared Khrushchev “the most brilliant world leader” he had ever met, because he “scared the hell out of people.” Nixon embraced his own variant of the madman theory during the Vietnam War, when he ratcheted up nuclear alert levels to coerce the Soviets and their North Vietnamese clients to be more accommodating in peace talks. But the historical record shows that Nixon's coercive gambit had little effect. According to the scholars Scott Sagan and Jeremi Suri, Nixon’s nuclear alert strategy “produced the worst of all worlds … [it was] both ineffective and dangerous.”

Putin's approach to Ukraine bears some resemblances to Khrushchev's strategy in Germany. Khrushchev was confronted with a West German leadership bolstered by economic recovery, increasingly serious in its nuclear ambitions, and eager for reunification on Western terms; he also faced challenges to his authority at home and elsewhere in the communist world. Putin, similarly, seems to be worried that a Ukraine anchored in the West will eventually become a prosperous democratic country and lead Russians to challenge their own stagnating crony capitalist system. Like Khrushchev, Putin has staked his domestic legitimacy, in part, on geopolitical advances in the face of foreign challenges and recalcitrant client states. Putin used both sticks and carrots in dealing with Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's former President, who resisted bringing Ukraine into Russia’s orbit against the will of the many Ukrainians, who wanted their country to be oriented toward the European Union. Putin finally brought Yanukovych around, but this sparked the Maidan revolt, Yanukovych’s rapid exit, and Putin’s need to shift strategies. For both Khrushchev and Putin, a competition in risk-taking offered a beguiling chance to solve multiple international and domestic challenges in one swoop, forcing others to compromise in unwanted tests of wills.

Putin's brinkmanship has not only generated risks. It also reveals information about the bargaining range of possible deals that could be reached in Ukraine and which side is willing to commit more power to achieve its objectives. In contrast to President Obama, who ruled out the use of force, Putin has shown that he is strongly motivated to win. But very likely he would accept some outcomes short of his maximal position in order to prevent scenarios he would prefer to avoid. Putin would surely prefer not to launch an all-out invasion of Ukraine, or be stuck with the costs of defeating any subsequent insurgency. He would also likely rather avoid an economic war with the West.

But the West should not confuse Putin's reluctance to carry out his threats about military intervention or Russian economic retaliation for extreme Western sanctions with a lack of determination to do so if he felt it necessary. With an economy the size of Germany’s and substantial cash reserves, Russia is in a position to risk mutual economic destruction with the West. Moscow could strike blows against Western firms invested in Russia and take other economic measures that would wreak havoc on global markets and economic recovery in Europe.

In that sense, although NATO should bolster the defenses of member states, the West would be foolish to match Putin's strategy with brinkmanship of its own. Instead, Western leaders should recognize that the West has significantly lower stakes in Ukraine's fate than Russia does and work on facilitating a deal that accommodates elements of all sides’ second-best preferences. For Moscow, these include federalization of Ukraine with significant regional autonomy, Kiev's nonaligned status, and a trade partnership with Russia. For the West, this means stopping the spread of violence and keeping Ukraine intact. Rather than pass new sanctions or offer military support to Kiev -- which would escalate the crisis and run the risk of a collapse of the coalition government, full-blown war in Ukraine, and eventual partition -- the West should push Russia to help broker a deal it will support, provide a share of economic aid, and lower the price of gas.

In the short term, this will mean that Russia will have significant sway over Ukraine's fate. But the West would still have the advantage in the long term. Khrushchev’s brinkmanship half a century ago offers a cautionary tale for Putin. Although Khrushchev had correctly calculated that the West was unwilling to risk a war over West Berlin, the West's acquiescence to the existence of two Germanys only created a new set of problems for Moscow, which soon shifted its strategy from brinkmanship to the building of the Berlin Wall. Khrushchev found himself obliged to stop a mass exodus of skilled workers to the West, shore up the East German economy with Soviet subsidies, and stem any risk of contagion within the Soviet bloc, which proved an immense economic burden that eventually contributed to the Soviet Union's final economic crisis. In Putin's case, as in Khrushchev's, short-term gains could boomerang into long-term disasters. 

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  • CYNTHIA A. ROBERTS teaches international relations at Hunter College and is also an Adjunct Senior Associate and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
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