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It's Not a Russian Invasion of Ukraine We Should Be Worried About

That's just a game Putin's playing. And it's a game we're losing.

The West is fixated on what Russian President Vladimir Putin really intends to do in eastern Ukraine: Will he invade or not? But strategy in conflict situations does not easily lend itself to identification of clear goals on either side, because the activity is reciprocal. Each side reacts to the other, so intentions and goals evolve.

What the clever strategist can do instead -- particularly in conflicts that are more about communication than fighting -- is to focus on framing. Being pragmatic about goals rather than setting a master plan maximizes your ability to exploit opportunities. Framing provides a lens that gives meaning to a story, so getting your opponent to accept your chosen frame gives you power over the meaning of events. Right now, Russia is winning that battle.

Putin has encouraged the West to see his actions through a conventional war framework, which Western analysts accept each time they fixate on whether or not Russia will invade each time there is a fresh incident. The visual counterparts to this frame are geographical maps, complete with red arrows detailing how Russian troops might advance down certain rivers and roads or airdrop behind Ukrainian lines, accompanied by charts comparing Russian and Ukraine infantry, tanks, aircraft, and other military assets.

Over-reliance on Putin's framework harms Western interests by ensuring that its responses are too late: Moscow's goals can be achieved without a conventional invasion, the threat of which nonetheless functions as useful way of distracting opponents.

Focusing on preventing a conventional war means being left trying to unwind a fait accompli. That already happened once: in the earlier Crimean phase, when the West was focused on averting a conventional invasion that never happened. As President Barack Obama stated on Feb. 28, before the annexation of Crimea, "[T]he United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine."

While a conventional invasion is not impossible in eastern Ukraine, the West must remove the blinkers of the frame of war and understand that it is currently in a conflict of coercive communication -- armed politics -- in which actions are designed to send a political message, rather than militarily defeat an enemy. Sanctions represent movement in that direction, and if hardened, might well be more operationally effective. However, when both sides use armed politics, there can be no clear boundary between war and peace, which generates a new and distinct strategic risk. The West should be clear about this trade-off.

Conversely, encouraging the West to see the situation through the frame of war has allowed Putin to follow his own instincts, often generating advantageous ambiguity. Russian actions in Ukraine have not, by and large, fit into neat conceptual or legal categories: It's not peace, but neither is it war. Russian agents are obviously on the ground in eastern Ukraine, but they are posing as civilians, making any use of violence by the so-called "pro-Russian activists" very hard to identify as clear military action. So too has the presence of large Russian battle formations on the border with Ukraine remained ambiguous, ostensibly conducting exercises during the Crimea phase of the crisis, then withdrawing, and now re-positioned in locations from where they could conceivably mount a conventional invasion of Ukraine.

The recent capture of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) military observers encapsulates the ambiguity of Putin's strategy: Separatist rebels paraded the observers before a press conference in Sloviansk as "prisoners of war." Given that rebels have no legal authority to take prisoners of war, this action made a powerful statement about Russian sovereignty without presenting a clearly military target.

The frame of war alone is inadequate to explain the subtlety of Putin's actions. The Russian leader has implicitly threatened to move into an overtly military phase in eastern Ukraine -- announcing that Russia's Federation Council had "granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine," though "I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right" -- but he has also telegraphed a more nuanced message: Unless a federalized solution is reached, creating a buffer with a now NATO-friendly state, Russia will continue to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Likewise, Putin has turned the escalating crisis there into a bargaining chip that can be used to forestall the imposition of much harsher Western sanctions. This will be especially consequential as tensions inevitably increase in the run-up to Ukraine's May 25 presidential election.

To date, Kiev has been forced to play along with Russia's framing and intentional ambiguity, even describing its counter-actions in the east as "anti-terrorist," suggesting that it is enforcing a domestic criminal jurisdiction, rather than taking action against the forces of a sovereign state. That plainly suits Russia because it can criticize Kiev for purported abuses against ethnic Russians, while simultaneously promoting the idea that this is internal, domestic action by a repressive regime in Kiev.

If Putin can achieve a federalized buffer zone in eastern Ukraine and, ideally, a pause in the sanctions regime through agreeing to de-escalate on the conventional war option, why would he risk invading conventionally?  An actual invasion, even if militarily simple, would very likely heap economic pressure on Russia and leave NATO directly on an extended new Russian border (assuming NATO stepped in to back up whatever was left of Ukraine) that Moscow would then have to garrison. If Russian troops are used at all, the much more likely scenario would be the deployment of some kind of peacekeeping force, which, again, would capitalize on the ambiguous line between war and peace and deny opponents a clear military target.  

Since the West does not seem prepared to escalate to conventional war to meet Russia's use of armed politics, it is moving towards responding through coercive communication in the form of sanctions. Getting "pro-Russian activists" out of eastern Ukraine, moreover, was supposed to be one outcome of the April 17 deal in Geneva, which seems nonetheless to have failed. But even now when it uses sanctions, the West is still blinkered by the frame of war.

The West's continued focus on securing the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Ukrainian border suggests that Putin is himself the one gaining leverage through his implicit threat of war. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Geneva: "[the Russians] made it clear that over a period of time, assuming this can de-escalate and it does de-escalate, as the rights of the people they are concerned about are represented, as the constitutional process unfolds and the future government of Ukraine takes place, they are absolutely prepared to begin to respond with respect to troops and larger numbers."

But there is a catch in this gradual evolution in the sophistication of Western response to the Ukrainian crisis: Armed politics may be operationally more effective in this context, but it carries substantially different strategic consequences.

On March 2, Kerry observed that Russia was engaging in "19th century behavior in the 21st century." While he may have intended only to make a simple point about the unacceptability of Russia's actions, he also inadvertently touched on a more complex historical tradition. Moscow's actions in Crimea were not a clear-cut example of military invasion, but a use of armed politics that fell short of war and conventional military action.

Kerry's insight was still right -- the 19th century was the heyday of gunboat diplomacy, which was exactly the kind of coercive communication that occupied a gray area between war and peace. But the economic sanctions the United States has responded with are actually part of the same tradition of coercive political reprisals. In other words, the crisis is dragging both sides back in time, at least as far as methods are concerned. Violent and non-violent coercive actions, then as now, are not clearly demarcated from routine international politics. This, of course, carries its own risks: When used outside of formally identified armed conflicts, coercive reprisals can promote unstable and dangerous quasi-conflicts that undermine international stability.

Once two sides are using armed politics against each other, the boundaries -- geographical, chronological, and legal -- between enemy and non-enemy, and between war and peace, become highly ambiguous. Violence and the threat of violence merge into routine international politics, as they did during the Cold War.

The risk is clear. To be operationally effective here, the West needs to become more effective at using an armed politics approach, most likely through hard sanctions, given Western reluctance to use conventional force. However, the paradox is that this approach will end up encouraging the very blurring boundaries between war and peace that Putin himself exploits. Since this is not a recipe for international stability, the West must be sure that countering Russian aggression is worth the operational risk it entails.

Limiting operational risk comes down to the scope of sanctions. As armed politics and decisive outcomes generally don't go together, for the West to link sanctions to a full reversal to the status quo is unrealistic, unless the West seriously wants to go to the brink with Russia -- each side will eventually need to give each other a face saving way out.

So the irony is that the West's failure to react effectively, despite superior resources, at the start of the crisis due to its fixation on averting war now means a federalized solution may come to be the best outcome for both sides. That is the price the West might have to pay for getting its strategic concepts wrong at the start.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

COLUMN

The Audacity of Small Ball

Obama's defense of his foreign policy illustrates much of what's wrong with it.

This week, in Manila, U.S. President Barack Obama offered up a revealing defense of his foreign policy. It was impassioned, earnest, intelligent, and contained points to admire, but, in the end, it was only somewhat effective. In these respects it was much like the foreign policy being defended.

As reported in an excellent piece by Mark Landler in the New York Times, the president asserted that a question about his foreign-policy performance from Fox News's Ed Henry got him "all worked up." After spending much of the preceding week traveling around Asia seeking to shore up confidence and alleviate concerns about America's commitment to the region and its resolve to play an active global leadership role, Obama was clearly feeling defensive. Critiques about the robustness of his response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's bold moves in Ukraine as well as mounting worries that the serial failure of U.S. policies in the Middle East had taken a toll prompted America's lawyer in chief to step up and make a case on his own behalf.

Landler, who described the president's mood during this defense as "by turns angry and rueful," suggested that Obama sought to cope with an emerging critique that his policy has become "a game of small ball" by asserting that his approach is a more constructive form of incrementalism. "You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run," the president said. "But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world." He offered his low-key, deliverable-lite Asia trip as an example, stressing that while it might not make headlines, it "avoids errors."

Obama said, "My job as commander-in-chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it. There are going to be times where there are disasters and difficulties and challenges all around the world, and not all of those are going to be immediately solvable by us.... And if there are occasions where targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them. We don't do them because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York thinks it would look strong. That's not how we make foreign policy."

In the course of his remarks, the president also returned to what has recently been a standard defense of his international policies. He implied that the alternatives to his approach would have led to more catastrophes like Iraq, saying essentially that his critics were trigger-happy. "Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?" Obama said. "And what is it exactly," he asked, "that these critics think would have been accomplished?"

Again and again during his exchange with the press, the president reverted to this argument. When asked whether by offering support for Japan in its territorial dispute with China he is drawing another so-called red line, he pushed back, arguing that the willingness to respond with force to the violation of a "norm" is not the only measure of how "serious" America is about a situation. When the topic of Syria was raised, he responded that critics of his policies really only want to send in troops -- even when they argue they don't. On Ukraine, he argued that his critics' recommendations, that we send arms into that country to deter the Russians -- and other approaches in that same vein -- would not, in fact, be more effective than applying the kind of political pressure and sanctions currently at the center of the Western response.

Obama's embrace of incrementalism and his defense of carefully picking and choosing where to intervene will undoubtedly be seized upon by the purveyors of the "small ball" critique as evidence that they are right -- that this is a president who is too cautious, leaning away, leading from behind, and not getting much done from that position. But the approach he is describing also reflects admirable characteristics such as prudence and realism. The grandiosity of political rhetoric and nostalgic depictions of past leaders aside, most presidents apply just such an approach most of the time. For example, when pushed by his right to militarily confront the Soviets, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower set the pattern ultimately followed by all his successors by avoiding direct conflict and relying patiently on the entropy of a flawed communist system, consistent pressure, and management of smaller proxy conflicts to bring down America's adversary.

In addition, it cannot be denied that overreaching and promiscuous militarism led to a disaster in Iraq and that ensuring we avoid episodes of such steroidal belligerence was precisely one of the reasons that the president was elected.

Finally, the passion that infused Obama's comments in Manila and the thoughtfulness of his arguments belie critics who suggest that he does not care about foreign policy.

But for all these virtues, Obama's remarks also revealed discordances, flaws of reason, blind spots, and underlying views that will almost certainly continue to fuel doubts about his abilities as an international leader.

First, of course, there is the striking contrast between the views and apparent ambitions of this Obama and the one who took office in 2009. That was the Obama of The Audacity of Hope, the man whose first overseas journeys featured visionary speeches promising effectively to change the world -- from remaking America's relations with the Muslim world to eliminating nuclear weapons. That was a guy who practically received a Nobel as a door prize for showing up at the office. But you can't read about this most recent assessment the president made of his own foreign-policy approach and not see it as a terrific come-down, a resetting of expectations.

Also, at the center of Obama's comments this week was the go-to false choice on which the White House has recently frequently relied to help fend off criticism of its policies -- the seeming implication that the only two options available to a president are either significant military intervention and inaction or the most modest forms of incrementalism.

This kind of misrepresentation of options is too binary: It paints all critics as knuckle-dragging thugs while deliberately overlooking the reality that the range of options available to the president is vastly greater than the two offered up. It's a cheap dodge, unworthy of a man capable of serious arguments who well knows the full range of those options available to him because of the many times those options have been presented to him over the past five years. It creates a special kind of cognitive dissonance when the champion of foreign-policy nuance disingenuously dismisses all the shades of gray on the spectrum of policy options and thus sidesteps the real discussion about degrees and speed and quality of execution on which outcomes ultimately turn.

The president knows that, as leading members of his national security team presented to him years ago, there are options other than boots on the ground that could have had a major impact on events in Syria. These alternatives to military intervention range from more rapidly arming members of the opposition (back when the opposition was not so awash with bad actors and muddied allegiances) to more aggressively supporting humanitarian intervention or pursuing an international criminal court case against Bashar al-Assad.

The commander in chief also knows that weeks ago his State Department was pressing for more aggressive sanctions against Moscow and more extensive aid to the Ukrainian military (it's not just provision of weapons that was rejected as an option by the administration -- it was also offering up blankets and uniforms). He knows some in the U.S. military were suggesting a stronger, faster show of NATO resolve to discourage further aggression by Putin. He knows that in the wake of revelations about Mohamed Morsi's abuses or the uprising against him in Egypt there were other options available instead of vacillation or letting a policy gap emerge between the State Department and the White House or between the United States and its most important and dependable allies in the region. He knows that more effective communication with and cultivation of support from allies worldwide could have benefited the United States in virtually every crisis this administration has faced.

But Obama also is aware that his foreign-policy legacy will be weighed even more on an assessment of how effective it was than it will be on any inside-the-Beltway debate regarding which specific policy options were considered or how they were implemented.

By such a measure there are wins to be sure. Getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, getting Osama bin Laden and decapitating "core" al Qaeda, the New START deal with Russia, helping to orchestrate global economic recovery, and the chemical weapons deal with Syria are all significant. Further, many of the events that could be seen as setbacks on his watch were beyond his control or even beyond his ability to influence them very much. But there have been a host of problems as well for which he must bear some responsibility. And it is these facts on the ground -- not the often politically motivated slams of his critics -- that are truly at the core of concern surrounding Obama's leadership to date.

As he remarked in Manila, one of the core issues he was elected to address was that of America's standing in the world. He said, "If you look at the results of what we've done over the last five years, it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger."

Well, is that true? Certainly that's not the case with America's alliance with Egypt, where, as one Cairo-based diplomat told me, "The only thing on which all Egyptians agree is that they are angry with the United States." Nor is it the case with Israel or America's moderate Arab partners in the Persian Gulf. Is the NATO alliance stronger than it has ever been -- after the mixed experience in Afghanistan and Libya? After the failure to coordinate a swift response to Russia in Ukraine? Is the alliance with Japan in great shape if it took the president's recent trip to reassure that country that we stand with it on the Senkaku Islands -- and then afterward saw the president offer up a series of exquisitely legalese statements that appeared to blur the U.S. stance? Edward Luce had a terrific piece on April 20 in the Financial Times in which he talked about America's deteriorating relations with the BRICs. With most countries in Latin America, we barely have any meaningful policy interaction at all at the moment. In Africa, there is nostalgia for the more engaged, positive, better-funded support policies of George W. Bush's administration. Even America's strongest alliance -- its relations with the United Kingdom -- suffered a setback when Prime Minister David Cameron couldn't deliver parliamentary support for very limited missile action against the chemical weapons-using Assad regime, in part because the Obama team didn't give him time to round up the votes.

And the list goes on. Did the NSA scandal, a direct product of this administration's policies, strengthen America's relations with its allies? Did the country's use of drones? Even when you look at some of the friends once cited by Obama, you have to ask, did the United States make good choices back then? Was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan really the guy to bet on as a key conduit to the Middle East and the Muslim world? Certainly, that relationship is not what it was a few years ago.

Obama argued that as part of his quiet incrementalism, progress would be made with Asia on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Even setting aside the slow progress made during the president's trip, the fact that his vice president reportedly suggested to Democratic legislators in the United States that the administration would not push for trade promotion authority in the near term casts a shadow over the seriousness with which the entire administration is approaching the endeavor.

Among big "home run" initiatives, the "reset" with Russia is in the trash bin. The Israel-Palestine talks are circling the drain (despite the tireless and impressive efforts of the secretary of state). While there is a chemical weapons deal with Syria, it looks like Assad -- the real weapon of mass destruction in that country -- will remain in power. Libya has turned to chaos. On the eve of elections, Iraq faces widespread unrest and a bigger terrorist presence than at any time since war began there. Although bin Laden is gone, there are now more al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliates today than at any time in history, and the terrorist threat looms over Africa and the Greater Middle East as never before. We have been unable to capitalize in any way on the Arab Awakening, and it seems that we may actually soon embrace a new era of authoritarianism in the region.

International institutions are weaker than ever. The G-20, which was to be the new vehicle for international economic coordination, has faded in importance over time, giving way again to the G-7 (the G-8 blew up). And as the president's trip illustrates, there is no such thing as a part-time pivot to Asia. Without the champions of the initiative like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her team, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the effort has atrophied. Indeed, we have seen so many reversals and efforts to spin this initiative over the past five years -- we're in, we're out, it's a pivot, it's a strategic rebalancing, we're shifting our attentions from the Middle East, no we're not -- that the effort shouldn't be called the pivot -- it should be called the pirouette.

The president is famously deliberative. That is a good thing. But too slow or too nuanced or too eager to find a solution that offers a little bit to everyone often leads to being ineffective. Combine that with muddled processes -- from the Afghanistan policy review to the tortured reversals around Syria policy last August -- and you ultimately end up with the kind of mixed results cited above that have led to America's damaged reputation worldwide. (Yes, Bush damaged the country's reputation through a ham-fisted overreaction to the 9/11 attacks, and now Obama is doing the same by trying to hew to an alternative course. Thesis. Antithesis. That old dialectic will get you every time.)

Incrementalism is fine. Hitting singles and doubles and sometimes swinging for the fences is OK -- and I hope the president has a few more home runs in him, beyond an Iran nuclear deal to perhaps, to pick one example, leading an effort to remake the Atlantic alliance. But as in all games, you also have to keep your eye on the scoreboard. And sometimes, even players of considerable gifts find themselves losing because they just aren't up to what their opponents -- and their eras -- are throwing at them. This game is not over. But unless the president is more honest with himself about where he stands and makes the right adjustments, he and those of us who have been hoping for him to succeed seem likely to be disappointed with the final results.

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images