Madman in the White House

Why looking crazy can be an asset when you’re staring down the Russians.

On the afternoon of April 19, 1972, seated in the Oval Office, President Richard Nixon instructed Henry Kissinger on what message he wanted the national security advisor to convey to his counterparts in the Soviet Union. In a few hours' time, Kissinger would be aboard a red-eye flight to Moscow for a tense set of secret negotiations on the interrelated issues of the Vietnam War and nuclear disarmament. Unbeknownst even to the flight crew at Andrews Air Force Base, Kissinger was to be joined by a most important -- and unusual -- passenger: Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin. Nixon wanted to make sure the flight time wasn't wasted on small talk.

"Henry, we must not miss this chance," the president said, his taping system silently recording the session. "I'm going to destroy the goddamn country [North Vietnam], believe me, I mean destroy it, if necessary. And let me say, even [use] the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn't necessary," Nixon hastened to add, "but, you know, what I mean is, that shows you the extent to which I'm willing to go."

Nixon wanted to impress upon the Soviets that the president of the United States was, in a word, mad: unstable, erratic in his decision-making, and capable of anything. The American commander-in-chief wanted the Kremlin to know that he was willing to escalate even localized conventional military conflicts to the nuclear level. Kissinger understood: "I'll tell [the Soviets] tomorrow night," he vowed. The national security advisor even rehearsed for the president specific lines from the good cop/bad cop routine he intended to put on. "The more we do now," he would tell his Soviet interlocutor, "the better." He was akin to saying: On the shoulders of reasonable men, like you and me, rests the responsibility of preventing a madman, like Nixon, from taking things too far.

It wasn't the first time the national security advisor had been exposed to the strategic potential of madness. The concept had originated, amid the nuclear anxieties of the 1950s, in the academic circles Kissinger had formerly inhabited. It was a product of game theory, a mathematic discipline -- often applied to national security policymaking -- that can be used to assess competitive situations and predict actors' choices, based on prior actions by their competitors. Kissinger himself had endorsed the concept in his writings, as a professor of international relations at Harvard, a full decade before he came to the White House. "The more reckless we appear [the better]," he told Nixon that afternoon, "because after all, Mr. President, what we're trying to convince them of is that we are ready to go all the way."

In his post-Watergate memoir The Ends of Power, former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman wrote that his boss's use of the strategy was hardly unconscious. "I call it the Madman Theory," Haldeman recalled the president telling him. "I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry -- and he has his hand on the nuclear button,' and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

It didn't play out quite that effortlessly: A number of very costly and destructive military operations would need to be executed, from the mining of Haiphong Harbor in May 1972 to the devastating "Christmas bombing" that December, before the North Vietnamese, badly weakened and with the assent of their Soviet masters, would return to the bargaining table in earnest. But return they did. 

Fast-forward four decades and much has changed since the Nixon-Kissinger era: most notably, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of non-state actors in international affairs, and warp-speed advances in the fields of computing technology, satellite imagery, and data flow. But as always, much remains the same. In President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB colonel who once characterized the demise of the Soviet Union as "a major geopolitical disaster of the century," the West is confronted with a Russian leader whose unrelenting quest to project strength makes him not altogether dissimilar from his Cold War predecessors.

Indeed, the idea has gained wide currency that the president of the Russian Federation -- with his determination to restore his country to superpower status, his frequent dismissals of American exceptionalism, and his track record of checking American influence wherever he can -- is determinedly immersed in an East-West struggle that bears striking similarities to the one that defined post-World War II history. "I hate to say it," lamented a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who recently returned from a congressional delegation's visit to Ukraine, "but Vladimir Putin is engaged in his own Cold War with us."

Speaking at a summit of North American leaders in Mexico last month, Obama derided those who see the Ukraine crisis, Syria, or other contexts in which Washington and Moscow are presently clashing, as "some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia." Yet the president's own national security advisor, Susan Rice, would later tell reporters following Crimea's formal annexation: "Our interest is not in seeing the situation escalate and devolve into hot conflict." Obama's sarcasm notwithstanding, Rice's comments betrayed that the United States has little choice but to see itself as engaged in a "cold" conflict.

This time, however, it is the Russians, not the Americans, who find value in the strategic use of "madness." Following a telephone call with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have confided that she was not sure the Russian leader was in touch with reality; "in another world" is how she reportedly described her interlocutor. And in the diplomatic volleys that followed Russia's military seizure of Crimea, it was Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov who, in a radio interview with the Voice of Russia, warned that the Kremlin might respond to additional sanctions by the United States and its European allies with "asymmetric measures."

What did he mean, exactly? In post-9/11 parlance, of course, "asymmetric" is usually used in conjunction with "warfare," and typically refers to the tactics that rogue regimes and non-state actors, like North Korea and al Qaeda, respectively, have deployed against conventional powers: cyberwarfare and terrorism, chiefly. However, it is more likely that Ryabkov, channeling Nixon and Kissinger, was seeking to exploit existing fears about such terminology, and meant to signal that Russia intends, should the crisis deepen, to bypass the traditional practice of tit-for-tat responses.

That, so far, is what Moscow has been confronted with -- a tit-for-tat approach -- and it shows that the Obama administration has ignored two critical lessons from the Cold War. The first is the value of projecting unpredictability -- or in Nixon and Kissinger's case, even madness. Whereas Nixon once instructed his national security advisor to tell Dobrynin, "I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but he [Nixon] is out of control," Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have sought continually to impress upon the Kremlin their supreme reasonableness. "We would like to see this de-escalated," Kerry said during his dramatic visit to Kiev earlier this month. "We are not looking for some major confrontation." The president's advisors have maintained, pro forma, that all options remain on the table, but Obama explicitly removed the most potent of them: "We are not," he told San Diego's KNSD-TV, "going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine."

What's more, the Obama administration has purposefully embarked on a course that the United States trod, with little success, during its Vietnam-era confrontations with the Soviets: the gradual escalation of punishments intended to produce changes in enemy behavior. After six fruitless hours of talks in London with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, aimed at staving off the Crimean referendum that ultimately proceeded apace, Kerry told reporters that if Putin makes a decision "that's negative," then the Western allied response "would be calibrated accordingly." This "calibrated" response from Washington continued after the referendum, and after the formal annexation of Crimea, as manifested in Obama's serial announcements of new sanctions on a list of senior Russian officials that expanded marginally each time.

The danger in this approach is twofold. First, it cedes all initiative to Putin -- or, as Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on Fox News immediately following Mr. Obama's latest announcement of sanctions: "Mr. Putin, again, is controlling the battlefield, so to speak, and we're reacting."

Second, it fails to administer the lesson that President Lyndon B. Johnson learned, at such great cost, in Vietnam: namely, the perils of gradualism. If the idea is to apply pain -- or "costs," to use the Obama administration's preferred language in this case -- to an adversary, in order to compel it to do something or to cease doing something, the application of the pain in gradual, incremental doses will only enable the adversary to acclimate to these marginal increases in pain, which in each instance will not feel markedly different from the last set of imposed "costs." It's no surprise that Vladimir Putin will more readily accept incremental increases in pain than risk a form of retaliation that is massive and debilitating.

If the Obama administration assesses that the fate of Ukraine is not a vital enough national security interest to make it worthwhile to inflict massive and debilitating costs on Russia, then the administration's next best option would be to sow doubt in the minds of Putin and his advisors about American intentions. Even though Washington may privately know itself to be unwilling to escalate the crisis, projecting the opposite could carry tangible benefits, both diplomatically and on the ground in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the president and his secretary of state have discarded that option, as well.

With six years in the Oval Office under his belt, Obama can be expected to have grasped these basic precepts of game theory as they apply to negotiations, or confrontations, with adversaries on the world stage. Richard Nixon learned them during what amounted to an extended apprenticeship for the presidency: his eight-year tenure as vice president. He took particular note of the leadership style of one of the era's dominant geopolitical figures, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, with whom Nixon had come face-to-face during their heralded "kitchen debate," in Moscow in 1959. And the future president, having narrowly lost the 1960 election, watched keenly as the burly Russian battered the youthful, inexperienced President John F. Kennedy, when the two met in Vienna, in 1961.

Looking back on his career in 1985, settled into an armchair in his Manhattan office, Nixon judged Khrushchev "the most brilliant world leader I have ever met." Asked why, America's only ex-president said simply: "He scared the hell out of people."

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Russia's Window of Opportunity in Ukraine

If Putin wants to make a grab for Ukraine's east and south, he'll need to move soon.

On March 21, President Vladimir Putin signed the final decree on the annexation of Crimea. Fireworks lit up the Moscow sky, and crowds around Russia celebrated the peninsula's "reunification with the motherland."

According to pro-Kremlin pollsters, over 90 percent of Russians support "reunification with Crimea." The president's approval rating has skyrocketed. Putin's emotional 50-minute speech before signing the "Crimean reunification" treaty was repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations. Putin spoke, at times with palpable bitterness, about the injustices Russia has suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which, he said, had left his country weak and his compatriots a "divided people." The West, according to Putin, had overplayed its hand, pushing Russia too far by attempting to take over Ukraine under the guise of an association agreement with the EU. Now Moscow is pushing back by taking "our Crimea." Putin called for national unity in the face of Western sanctions and warned against internal subversion by an unnamed "fifth column of national traitors." At the same time Putin sounded a conciliatory note, promising that "we do not want to break up Ukraine."

Is Putin's promise genuine? On March 4, Putin publicly promised [Rs.] not to "consider" annexing Crimea -- and then proceeded to do exactly that. The Russian president may find it hard to stop there. The problem is that his brand-new province is deeply dependent on the Ukrainian mainland, which is the source of almost all of its electricity, water, and food. The peninsula's railroads and highways lead north into Ukraine. The only link between Crimea and Russia is a ferry crossing from Kerch that connects the peninsula to Russian Taman in the North Caucasus. Russian officials have announced plans to build new power stations in Crimea and a grandiose bridge from Kerch to Taman. These projects will cost billions and require years to complete. Crimea, moreover, has a rapidly aging population of over 2 million. Sustaining Crimea and fully rebuilding its infrastructure to separate it from Ukraine could cost tens of billions of dollars over the next five years, straining [Rs.] the Russian budget. An isolated, Russian-controlled Crimea facing a hostile Ukrainian mainland hardly seems like the kind of scenario Putin envisaged.

Moscow has stated it will not recognize any government in Kiev or the results of any national elections in Ukraine until a new constitution is adopted. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has specified that this new constitution, which must be unanimously adopted by all regions of Ukraine, must transform the country into a loose "federative state," one in which Russian will be an official language along with Ukrainian and the regions will be allowed to conduct their own foreign and economic policies. The establishment of a new Ukrainian state along these lines would essentially change a belt of mostly Russian-speaking regions inside Ukraine, stretching from Moldova in the southwest to Voronezh in the northeast, into a de facto Russian protectorate (even though they would still remain part of a nonaligned Ukraine). Control of these areas would allow Russia to link up with the pro-Moscow Transdniester enclave in Moldova along Ukraine's western border, where Russia still has a military garrison. The political and economic integration of large sections of a "federative Ukraine" could eventually lead to their joining the Russian Federation, like Crimea. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry rejected the Russian plan to impose a federal system on Ukraine, calling it "unacceptable."

The interim Ukrainian President Olexander Turchinov has announced that -- rather than passively resisting, as Ukrainian forces did in Crimea -- Kiev's forces will "accept battle" if Russia makes any further encroachment on Ukrainian territory. On March 17, the parliament in Kiev voted to mobilize some 40,000 men to beef up the dilapidated Ukrainian military. A National Guard is being formed and some 20,000 volunteers have been called to join. The call-up of men and volunteers has been plagued by chaos and disorganization as the ill-experienced post-revolutionary government in Kiev struggles to cope with seemingly insurmountable political, economic, and social problems -- in addition to the annexation of Crimea and threats of further aggression. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian army's battle readiness has begun to rise [Rs]. Joint battalion-strength combat groups are being formed. Maintenance crews, including civilian specialists from the still vast Ukrainian defense industry, are struggling to get armor and other heavy equipment ready for operation. (The photo above shows Ukrainian armored personnel carriers heading through eastern Ukraine.)

Ukraine's armed forces have at their disposal vast amounts of Soviet-style heavy weapons and staggering stocks of munitions: thousands of tanks, heavy guns, and rockets as well as hundreds of jets, helicopters, and antiaircraft missiles. Most of this hardware is in storage or otherwise out of order. Given enough time and effort, however, some of these armaments could be made usable again, and the Ukrainian military could be transformed into a formidable fighting force -- especially if its leaders manage to somehow amalgamate the professional abilities of their small, largely demoralized regular force with motivated patriotic volunteers. Of course, the Ukrainian military badly lacks many essentials, like good boots, socks, field fatigues, body armor, Kevlar helmets, medical kits, communication equipment. Should they succeed in refurbishing some of their weapon systems, they should be able to achieve the status of a respectable, albeit non-modern, Soviet-style force. But the opposing Russian military can be described in the same terms: The government's vastly increased spending on rearmament in recent years has so far changed little in this respect.

Russian forces have been concentrated for possible offensive action on the borders of Ukraine, in vast numbers and in a high state of readiness, according to U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In a series of military maneuvers on the Ukrainian border, Russian paratroopers (the VDV corps) and the air force have been preparing to spearhead a possible push deep into Ukraine. The lightly armed paratroops have  been training to take over "enemy airfields and airports as bridgeheads of an overall advance." Such a thrust would be closely followed by the tank and motorized army brigades that have been training and deploying [Rs.] along the Ukrainian border. The Russian Defense Ministry denies that it is preparing to invade Ukraine. It is likely that the Kremlin has yet to issue a final order approving an actual invasion.

If Putin decides to send in his troops, he has a narrow window in which to act. The winter of 2014 in Russia and Ukraine was relatively mild with little snow, while the spring is early and warm. The soil is drying rapidly, meaning that it will soon be possible to move heavy vehicles off of highways and into fields in southern areas of Ukraine close to the Black and Azov Seas. A key date is April 1, which marks the beginning of the Russia's spring conscript call-up, when some 130,000 troops drafted a year earlier will have to be mustered out as replacements arrive. This would leave the Russian airborne troops, marines, and army brigades with many conscripts that have served half a year or not at all, drastically reducing battle readiness. The better-trained one-year conscripts can be kept in the ranks for a couple of months but no longer. Otherwise they'll start demanding to be sent home, and morale will slip. As a result, Russia's conventional military will regain reasonable battle-readiness only around August or September 2014, giving the Ukrainians ample time to get their act together.

Ukraine has scheduled a national presidential election for May 25 that may further legitimize the regime the Kremlin hates and wants to overthrow. The Kremlin may find it hard to resist the temptation to attack Ukraine and "liberate" the south and east while Russia is ready, the Ukrainian military weak, and the regime in Kiev unstable. Such a move could lead to more Western sanctions, but this risk maybe dwarfed by the vision of a major geostrategic victory seemingly at hand.

The window of opportunity for an invasion will open during the first weeks of April and close somewhere around the middle of May. During his long rule Vladimir Putin has generally shown himself to be a shrewd and cautious operator, but his actions during the Ukrainian crisis have been rash. So far his daring has paid off. This, unfortunately, is precisely what could trigger more bold moves down the road.