Could Putin De-Escalate Even If He Wanted To?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As I write these lines, talks between Moscow and the West appear to have stalled, and the world waits with bated breath whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will order the 100,000 troops he’s massed near Ukraine to attack that country. In this moment of peril, it’s worth dusting off three old concepts in international-relations theory to take stock of the strategic situation.
One concept is called “escalation dominance.” It was coined during the Cold War by a think-tanker named Herman Kahn, who inspired the title character in the black comedy “Dr. Strangelove.” The idea is that in any conflict, the side that’s in a better position to raise the stakes — because it knows it would win, could bear the costs more easily, or wants something more intensely — has a strategic advantage. Its adversary will come under ever greater pressure to pull out and settle.
Putin has so far clearly enjoyed escalation dominance in the conflicts over Ukraine and the wider region. He’s made clear that this former Soviet Republic — which he doesn’t consider a proper nation but a branch of a greater Russian realm — is worth more to him than it will ever be to the U.S., NATO or the European Union. He would up the ante in blood — and the West wouldn’t match it.
As a former ambassador to Russia from New Zealand has observed, this means that Putin “can dial up and down the pressure as he sees fit.” The West will never be the first to climb another rung on the escalation ladder (to stick with Kahn’s metaphors); it merely follows where Putin goes. The West’s interest always lies in getting him to climb down.
So Putin is in a pretty place up there on his ladder. He could use that strategic advantage to achieve his objectives, provided he’s clear about what those are. One frightening scenario is that he may not be. Some of the West’s negotiators, after the talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna this week, got the impression that even his own emissaries don’t know whether Putin wants a compromise or merely a pretext for an invasion.
His overarching objective is to create a sphere of influence across the former territories of the Soviet Union and the adjoining buffer states in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and beyond. But he covets this zone less to deter a NATO attack on Russia (which he knows isn’t a risk) and more to prevent any neighboring country from becoming a vibrant, liberal and pro-Western democracy.
Any success of that sort would only remind Russians what they’re missing and thereby undermine his own rule, which is the only thing he cares about. In effect, he needs to create a belt of failed states around Russia to stay in power.
In this light, his maximalist demands in two draft treaties with the U.S. and NATO, published last month, do and don’t make sense. They do, because they ask for what would amount to that sphere of influence — he wants NATO never again to expand and even to withdraw from Eastern Europe. They don’t, because he knows that the West can never agree to any of this — NATO might as well tear up its charter and dissolve itself.
The question for me is whether Putin, in a lapse of tactical discipline, accidentally forfeited his escalation dominance. After all, he can dominate only as long as he’s the one deciding whether to climb up or down the ladder.
Owing to something called “audience costs,” Putin may have lost that freedom to choose. The audience he cares about is his own country’s domestic population. Even though Russians can’t choose their leader freely, they must fear and respect him enough for him to hold on to power indefinitely.
Now imagine Putin simply dropping his demands to freeze and shrink NATO and then withdrawing his huge invasion force from the Ukrainian border. The West would of course give him something to brag about — an agreement that both sides won’t maneuver in a certain geography, or something of that sort. But how could he explain to Russians such a huge climbdown from the ladder? He’d look like a loser. And that’s what he can’t afford.
So there’s a real risk that Putin has become trapped in “path dependence.” This concept originally had nothing to do with international relations. It describes situations in which our decisions now are constrained by other decisions made in the past. For example, we have QWERTY keyboards (or software standards, railway gauges, welfare systems, you name it) not because they’re best suited for the task today, but because legacies led to dependencies.
My fear is that Putin, with his many acts of aggression — from cyberattacks to disinformation campaigns and more — has by now gone far enough down a path to make him depend on it. During the first rounds of escalation, he may have been dominant. Now he may feel that, because of what he’s already done, he has no option but to go all the way to war.
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Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."
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