European Affairs

johnbarryNotions dreamed up by a coterie of American nuclear strategy analysts more than sixty years ago might seem remote from today’s increasingly tense standoff with Russia. Not so.   They likely provide an important key to deciphering Putin’s seemingly bizarre behavior.  

The reality is that Putin is practicing what early Cold War generations called brinkmanship, best described as: ‘I am willing to go closer to the cliff-edge than you are.’ Authorship of the term is generally credited to President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a vastly influential figure through the 1950s as the tectonic plates of the world’s political map grated and shifted to the new order born in fire in World War Two. “The ability to go to the verge without getting into the war is a necessary art,” Dulles said, with evident self-satisfaction, in his memoir. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is generally thought to have been its last outing. Not so, it now appears.
Were Putin’s overheated rhetoric addressing merely Western governments, it would be recognized for what it is. His threats would have limited impact. In our media-saturated world, however, Putin has gained wider audiences.  

Washington and Euro capitals have shared in discussions over recent weeks their concern that Putin has achieved two ancillary goals. He has alarmed western Europe to the point that popular fears of war – especially in Germany – may now preclude, and will certainly limit, further European sanctions on Russia in response to Putin’s incursions into Ukraine. (The reluctance of EU nations at the Riga Summit last week to offer Ukraine and other eastern European nations more than tepid support is viewed by some as disquieting collateral.)   More forebodingly, Putin has whipped up inside Russia such frenzies of nationalism, so widespread a belief that NATO is about to attack the beloved homeland, that it’s hard to see how he calms this storm.  
 
Answer: Like it or not, prudent statecraft dictates that the Ukraine crisis needs speedy resolution. The corollary is that Putin must be allowed something that his Kremlin propaganda machine can present to his aroused masses as a victory. Hence U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s journey to meet with President Putin at Sochi earlier this month. Hence the follow-up discussions in Kiev and then Moscow by Kerry’s top official for European affairs, Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland.   
 
President Obama was deeply reluctant to agree to this. The State Department, or so the well-informed say, had been urging for months --- certainly since the Minsk II agreement in February --- that America had to play a more active role in resolving the Ukraine crisis. The mantra at White House press briefings was that the crisis could only have a “political” (sometimes “diplomatic”) solution. OK:  Washington has the most diplomatic clout of any western power. It should begin to exert this. The answer came back from the White House:  Not yet.  

In all Administrations, the inner counsels at the White House tend to the opaque. Cabinet members can interact with staffers of the National Security Council; talk with the National Security Adviser. What happens when the President consults with his innermost aides remains hidden. Les Aspin, Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense, observed once that, visiting the White House, he always felt like a child pressing his nose against the window, seeing a party inside to which he had not been invited. Obama’s White House is, seemingly by design, more opaque than most. Disillusioned appointees recount how issue after issue works its way up through the National Security Council’s hierarchy of analytical judgments,  surfacing at last to the committee of deputies and sometimes even to principals :  a conclave of Cabinet officers, chaired by the Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice. 
 
And then? Too often for the comfort of many in Washington’s national security community, nothing happens. No presidential decision comes back.

So far as anyone outside that innermost circle in the West Wing can figure out, Obama has held back from inserting America more deeply into the Ukraine crisis for two reasons.   

One is that Obama is adamant that regional powers must man up to tackle regional problems.  America cannot be the first responder to every crisis.  The belief --- encouraged through several presidencies --- that America will always dash to the front has encouraged allies in the wake of 2008 (especially in Europe) to eviscerate their own defenses and slash their diplomatic resources.  Obama reportedly once referred to this US-Europe dynamic as ‘co-dependency’:  an Alcoholics Anonymous term meaning loving helpers who actually worsen the addict’s state.

The nearest Obama has to a ‘doctrine’ is that if regional powers will take the lead in a crisis, as France did in Libya, America will provide support – support which will then go way beyond the capabilities of the region’s own militaries.  Obama did just this in Libya.  The White House spokesman’s explanation that the U.S. was “leading from behind” drew ridicule.   Inartfully phrased, it was a thumbnail sketch of Obama’s vision.  
 
Thus, Ukraine was a European problem. Europe, led by Chancellor Merkel atop a German industrial giant whose exports are vital to whole sectors of the Russian economy, should take the lead in handling the issue.   Washington could provide vital support.   U.S. financial sanctions on Russian individuals and financial institutions go some way further than the EU has imposed, and are enforced more diligently.   Crucially, Washington has been a quiet voice encouraging the Saudis to continue pumping enough oil to keep global oil prices in the tank ---- thereby wrecking the oil-dependent Russian economy, even though at some cost to America’s own shale-oil industry. (A flinty strategic decision by Obama that, understandably, the White House does not trumpet.) 
 
The other reason Obama has shied from deploying America in the van on Ukraine is Vladimir Putin. Obama’s view – or so those in his Administration who endeavor to interpret him suggest -- has been that Putin transparently lusts to escalate Ukraine into a superpower confrontation in the most testosterone-soaked terms:  ex-KGB, buffed judo Black Belt Putin mano a mano against cerebral Chicago lawyer Obama.  
 
Obama, unsurprisingly, thinks that’s stupid.  Deliberately, the White House shuns macho public responses to Putin’s incendiary rhetoric.   Yet Obama’s stinging description, back in August 2013, of Putin having “that kind of a slouch, looking like a bored kid at the back of the classroom” was apparently not wholly impromptu.    Obama went on, of course, to say:  “The truth is that when we’re in conversation together, it’s oftentimes productive.” But his jab at the self-image of a leader whom respected U.S. Government analysts have concluded is fundamentally vain had been thought-out.  

So what persuaded Obama to authorize at last Kerry’s trip to see Putin at Sochi, and then have Nuland follow up in detail?
 
Essentially, Washington has come to think that a deal is needed before events take charge. Secretary Kerry journeyed to Sochi to explore whether Putin realizes this too. 

The timing of the overture to Putin is propitious – or so everyone hopes.  Despite Putin’s reassurances to his citizenry, the Russian economy is being strangled.   The lifting of western sanctions has to be one of Putin’s priorities. But how?  Answer:  A possible date is coming up.   

Formally, the toughest sanctions imposed by the EU ---swinging restrictions in the banking and energy sectors --- expire on July 1. At their last summit in Brussels back in March, though, EU heads of government agreed that sanctions would remain in place until the terms of the Minsk II accord have been met. This, the accord itself says, will not be before the end of 2015 --- and even that looks increasingly optimistic.  

But that Brussels decision has to be confirmed at the next EU summit which comes at the end of June.   It will require the unanimous consent of all 28  EU member nations.    Putin likely hopes that the new Greek government will withhold consent.   That, presumably, is why he’s been making nice with Greek premier Alexis Tsipras.   But it would be easier for Tsipras to act --- and Greece might even be joined by a couple of other EU states (Cyprus, Hungary and Slovakia are mentioned as potential hold-outs) – if Putin were to demonstrate significant progress in Ukraine before that crucial June summit.
 
For the Administration, superpower issue is not that Russia has annexed Crimea. In any conceivable deal, Putin will get to keep it. The superpower issue is that, to defend his incursions into Ukraine against predictable Western responses, Putin is dismantling the edifice of nuclear deterrence laboriously constructed through the Cold War. As his predicament worsens –  Russian economy tanking;  costs spiraling in the areas of Ukraine Russia occupies;  close to zero progress in resolving the crisis --- Putin’s threats have become wilder.   Unless Putin is halted in his present course, the White House thinking runs, nuclear deterrence could face one of its severest tests -- ironically more than a decade after everyone hoped the Cold War had ended.

Why the danger in Putin’s rhetoric? Back history. By the late 1950s, it was clear that the Soviet Union had mastered the H-Bomb and the technologies enabling intercontinental missiles to deliver it.   America’s Hiroshima nuclear monopoly was over. The apocalyptic  question arose:  What actions could two powers locked into the Cold War declare or exhibit to avert nuclear conflict? Washington handed the problem to RAND, then a California-based Air Force analysis center. Through three caffeine-soaked, nicotine-infused, personally tempestuous years of hectic brilliance, RAND’s analysts formulated the lexicon that defines nuclear strategy to this day:  deterrence, extended deterrence, escalation dominance, second-strike capability, mutual assured destruction.    

Their goal was stability. RAND’s work was to present each side in the Cold War with rational choices and actions that, rationally, would avoid nuclear war.   

Thomas Schelling, a brilliant young economist at Harvard, then took RAND’s work further. If one side in a nuclear standoff sought advantage by influencing the other, how might this be done? Applying the infant discipline of games-theory --- itself dreamed up by two earlier giants at RAND --- Schelling figured out bargaining and strategic choices in what he termed “conflict behavior”.  His disturbing conclusion:  In some circumstances “the rationality of irrationality” could have value.  Acting irrationally might persuade the adversary that you might, just might, do something cataclysmic.   Schelling even coined the term “compellence”:  the threated use of force to cow an adversary to your will.

‘The Strategy of Conflict’, in which Schelling laid out these thoughts in 1960, is a classic text. His work so influenced areas of competition far removed the nuclear that Schelling shared the 2005 Nobel Prize for economics.

Along came Daniel Ellsberg, the notorious leaker in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War – the most substantive disclosure of U.S. secret documents before Edward Snowden’s.  He was a late arrival at RAND in 1959; and he is not reckoned one of the giants of deterrence theory.   Ellsberg's contribution was a small but gaudy one:  he put Schelling's work on steroids, developing the “madman” theory of nuclear deterrence.     A nation’s leader could usefully “build a reputation for erratic, senseless, schizoid behavior,” Ellsberg argued.  “A leader could project deterrence by convincing others that he/she might be oblivious or incapable of choosing the rational choice…Thus, a leader with an image of a ‘hot temper’ and lapses in rational thought is one who could actually enjoy a higher degree of political stability.”   As David Scott summarized in his succinct paper to a 2005 North-Eastern University conference:  “Ellsberg noted that the resulting deterrent effect on others would be: ‘I don’t know what he might do…He could have done anything’.”  
 
Ellsberg wasn’t alone in these musings.  A rising young star at Harvard named Henry Kissinger had already gone part-way down this path, broaching the merits of a “strategy of ambiguity” in possible responses to a nuclear challenge.    Kissinger had Ellsberg lay out his radical thoughts in two lectures in 1959 to Kissinger’s Harvard seminars.   

This has led to much speculation that Kissinger subsequently had Ellsberg’s thinking inform President Nixon’s handling of Vietnam. The irony is inviting  – Ellsberg passionately opposed the Vietnam war --- but the evidence is slight.  Kissinger’s less operatic notion of “ambiguity” did have influence, though.
 
What’s alarming now is that Ellsberg’s theory serves to predict, with creepy fidelity, what Putin is doing.    Step by purposeful step, Putin has walked the world to the brink of nuclear crisis.
 
He cleared the way for his exercise of Schelling/ Ellsberg/Dulles theories of brinkmanship/madman deterrence by renouncing two treaties: the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe accord, and the Intermediate-- Range Nuclear Forces agreement of 1987.  The pair were milestones in the winding-down of Europe’s Cold War confrontation.    Both were a long time dying.  Putin first talked of abandoning them in  2007. 
 
Putin announced Russia's intention to withdraw from the CFE treaty in Feb 2007 in the course of a blistering diatribe against the U.S. at the Munich Security Conference.   (That speech was really the launch of Putin's hard-line approach --- marking his decisive break with the policies of Gorbachev and Yeltsin.) The 1990 CFE treaty laid out an elaborate geographic template for dramatic reductions in heavy military hardware from the Atlantic to the Urals.    Efforts were made in 1999 to rework the deal to take account of the Soviet Union’s fragmenting and the consequent need to bring within CFE limits the militaries of liberated Warsaw Pact nations.   The effort failed.  Putin refused to observe the CFE requirement that Russian troops pull out of Georgia and Moldova.    It was a strategic blunder characteristic of him:  short-term gain, long-term price.   With lawyerly cunning, the 1999 revisions could have been finessed now into controls on the current NATO deployments in eastern Europe that Putin so thunderously denounces.    A formal declaration of Russia's exit from the treaty came in Dec 2007. 
 
 In the same 2007 Munich speech, Putin expressed concerns about the INF Treaty.   In October 2007 he warned that Russia was considering withdrawal from the treaty.   
 
The INF treaty requires both sides to forswear the development of any missile --- ballistic or cruise, conventional or nuclear --- with ranges of 500 to 5500 kilometers (300 to 3400 miles).  The ban went into effect in mid-1991.   Arguably, history has overtaken it.   For America and Russia, the ban is global.   But non-signatories do not, of course, have to observe it.  By 2005, it was clear that nations around Russia’s eastern borders --- China, Pakistan, Iran -- were developing and deploying missiles within those ranges. 
 
With some cause, Russia viewed these as a security threat.  Iron military logic argued that Russia develop cruise missiles to counter.   On the other hand, Russia did not want to abandon the INF Treaty.   That would permit the United States, if it wished, to deploy in Europe its extraordinarily accurate cruise missiles.  (Reputedly so precise they can target not just a building but a particular window in that building.   Putin has, with some reason, denounced these as conventional weapons with a nuclear impact.)   
 
Russia’s military has regarded preservation of the INF Treaty as a priority.  As recently as May 2012, Gen Nikolai Makharov, then chief of the Russian General Staff, publicly ruled out withdrawal from it.   Putin dismissed him shortly thereafter.    
 
Instead, Putin -- confronting this INF dilemma – chose, characteristically once again,  the short-term option.  He cheated.  In early 2008, U.S. intelligence picked up first indications of a new Russian cruise missile in the works.  By 2011, flight tests were observed.   By 2013, the missile was ready for production.   That May , the State Department’s top arms control official, Rose Gottemoeller, finally raised the issue with the Russians.    She subsequently raised it “about a dozen times”, she told Congress much later.  Russia’s brusque response: its officials had looked into the matter and considered the issue closed.  
 
The Obama Administration decided, after much internal debate, to go public with its concerns in July last year – as the Ukraine crisis was heating up.   President Obama wrote to Putin, detailing how the U.S. had clear evidence that Russia was in breach of the INF Treaty.  He called for a high-level dialogue with Moscow to see how the Treaty might be preserved.   Putin returned no substantive response.   (The new cruise missile appears not to have been deployed, though.)
 
Having demolished the pillars of the military stand-down from Cold War garrisons, Putin then went a fateful step further.   The guiding axiom of the 50-year-plus “Balance of Terror” has been that nuclear weapons are essentially defensive, held to deter an adversary from aggression. Putin declares he has abandoned this.   He still talks of “nuclear deterrence”, but that is to dissuade attack on Russia.   In contingencies outside Russia -- Ukraine, for example -- Putin told an audience in Crimea last August that Russia would be “surprising the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet”.     Pravda newspaper, ever a reliable Kremlin mouthpiece, followed up Putin’s comments with an article headlined “Russia prepares a nuclear surprise for NATO”.    Dmitry Kiselyov, head of Russia’s main news agency and host of one of Russia’s most widely-watched TV current affairs programs, boasted to his TV audience back in February:  “During the era of political romanticism, the Soviet Union pledged never to use nuclear weapons first. But Russia’s current military doctrine does not.  No more illusions.”

Chest-thumping aside, that’s not what Russia’s military doctrine actually says.  Its latest iteration, published at the end of last year on Putin’s presidential website, repeats the restrained and cautious formulation of its 2010 predecessor.  In the event of a conventional war “imperiling the very existence of the state, the possession of nuclear weapons may lead to…a nuclear military conflict.”  

Worryingly, that sober mainstream Cold War definition of nuclear policy is not what Putin is trumpeting.   Putin has steadily expanded his catalog of triggers of nuclear war.  Any attempt to invade Russia or undermine Putin’s regime would provoke war.   His declared list then includes:  any attempt to recapture Crimea; any attempt to overthrow the separatists in eastern Ukraine; any attempt by NATO to repel a Russian invasion of the Baltic states; even (grotesquely) any participation by Danish warships in NATO anti-missile radar exercises in the Baltic.   

At a discreet gathering of retired U.S. and Russian intelligence officials held in Germany back in March, the Russian attendees -- who indicated they had been briefed beforehand by the Kremlin – added to the list. Any supply of lethal weaponry to Ukraine, and even the fact of the ongoing NATO build-up in the Baltic states were now said to be triggers of nuclear war.  
 
One Russian strategic analyst reputedly esteemed by Putin has even advocated that a limited use of tactical nuclear weapons could be viewed as “de-escalation”  -- on the grounds that the adversary would immediately surrender. There is no more alarming indicator of the topsy-turvy world that an embattled Putin has created.    
 
In this fevered climate, the vital question is: where are the real do-not-cross “red lines”?  As a longtime senior defense official in Washington observed:  “We do not know Putin’s red lines.  Putin does not know our red lines.  I’m not even sure we know our red lines.” Agreeing with this assessment, a European ambassador in Washington added:  “That’s why it’s so urgent to talk President Putin down from the ledge.”    
 
All of which explains why President Obama allowed Secretary Kerry’s journey to Sochi; and why Victoria Nuland is trying to work through the details of any peace deal.   It would be wise to restrain optimism.   Their visits are, at best, only first steps in what will likely be a fraught process.   What nobody yet knows is what Putin can be cajoled/coerced into settling for. It’s unclear whether Putin knows that himself.
 
*Perspectives is an occasional forum of The European Institute reflecting member and guest views on topical issues.