As their clash over Ukraine continues, Moscow and Washington are playing an ever-increasingly intricate game of signals in an attempt to achieve their objectives without firing.
Traditional diplomacy is only one part of this dance. Troop movements, sanctions warnings and legislation, embassy closures, leadership summits and intelligence leaks are all intended, in part, to prove each country’s willingness to carry out certain threats or to accept certain risks.
It is a form of high-stakes negotiation, conducted in deed as well as in words, intended to settle the future of Europe as conclusively as if decided by war, by telegraphing how a conflict would unfold. rather than leading it directly.
Russia, by moving thousands of troops from its Far East to the Ukrainian border, hopes to convince Washington and Kiev that it is prepared to endure a major war to secure its demands by force, so that those countries had better respond peacefully to Russian demands.
The Biden administration, by declaring that a Russian invasion could be imminent, even closing its embassy in Kiev, and swearing economic retaliation, signals that Moscow cannot expect desperate American concessions, making further escalation less attractive .
Such gestures have multiplied. Russia has held naval exercises in the Black Sea, implying it could shut down commercial waters. President Biden issued joint statements with European leaders, indicating that they do not balk at threats of US sanctions that would also hurt Europe.
But the more both sides try to make their threats credible, for example by relocating troops, the more they increase the risk of a miscalculation that could spiral out of control.
Each side also cultivates ambiguity about what it will or will not accept, what it will or will not do, in the hope of forcing its adversary to prepare for all eventualities, by scattering its energies.
The White House said Russian President Vladimir V. Putin could decide this week to invade, deflating Moscow’s cautious obscurity, while demonstrating, especially to cautious Europeans, that any invasion would be Russian-motivated, rather than Russian-motivated. ‘in response to some external provocation.
On Tuesday, Moscow moved to recreate the confusion, withdrawing a handful of forces even as it continued nearby war games and Mr Putin accused Ukraine of genocide against its native Russian-speaking minority. Simultaneously feigning de-escalation and invasion on Tuesday, Moscow is pressuring the West to prepare for both.
“That dynamic is very volatile,” said Keren Yarhi-Milo, a Columbia University political scientist who studies how countries signal and maneuver amid crises.
A range of factors unique to this crisis, she added — different political cultures, multiple audiences, growing uncertainty — “make reporting in this case very, very difficult.”
The result is a diplomatic cacophony almost as difficult to manage as the war itself, with equally high stakes.
With their positioning, Moscow and Washington are struggling to resolve two outstanding questions about a possible conflict, each to their advantage.
Would a Russian invasion bring Moscow more rewards than harm?
And, would the West have less tolerance than Russia for the pain of Mr. Biden’s proposed sanctions, and abandon them?
If Moscow can convince Washington that the answer to both questions is “yes,” then Mr. Biden and his allies would, in theory, be forced to conclude that they had better make whatever concessions will keep Russia from starting a war.
But if Washington can persuade Moscow that both answers are “no”, then Mr Putin will have every interest in cutting his losses and pulling himself out of the hole.
Mr Putin has been ambiguous about what he would consider a successful invasion of Ukraine. And gestures like his recent visit to China or the bluster of his ambassadors, defying the sanctions, signal that he is ready and able to meet the foreseeable costs.
Of course, if the war was really that advantageous, it would have already begun, one of many clues that Mr. Putin may be partly bluffing, although it’s impossible to say by how much.
Mr. Biden, for his part, sent arms to Ukraine, a message that he would make any conflict more painful for Russia, and detailed retaliatory sanctions. He implied Western unity on sanctions, which could be just as much of a bluff as Mr Putin’s war speech.
His administration has also gone public with what it says are Russian plans to fake a justification for war, implying that such a scheme would be quickly exposed, making it less attractive.
But threats and bluffs work best when backed by actions, increasing the risk of a war neither side really wants.
And those efforts are complicated by each side’s need to persuade multiple audiences of contradictory things.
Mr. Biden must persuade Mr. Putin that Western sanctions would be automatic and severe, while convincing Europeans, who would bear much of the cost, that the sanctions would not hit them too hard or be applied without their consent.
Similarly, Mr Putin seeks to position himself to Western leaders as being ready for war, while convincing anti-war Russian citizens that he is being dragged into a war, for example with false allegations of US aggression. and Ukrainian.
But Western leaders often struggle to differentiate between statements Mr Putin hears they take seriously and those he expects them to ignore as bluster for domestic consumption, Christopher Bort warned. a former US intelligence official, in an essay for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. .
The Kremlin’s “torrent of lies” about Ukraine, Mr Bort added, risks persuading Western leaders that diplomatic entries from Moscow can be ignored as cover for an invasion it has already decided to launch – potentially preventing exit from war.
lost in translation
“Your system is much more open than ours,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It produces a lot of misunderstanding.”
Because Kremlin decision-making is dominated by a handful of intelligence and military officials, Mr. Gabuev said, there is a tendency to assume that Washington works the same way.
Offhand comments from US military officers carry particular weight in Moscow, while lawmakers who direct much of Washington’s policy are ignored.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
Such cultural misunderstandings, Mr. Gabuev added, have worsened considerably in recent years, as Washington and Moscow have expelled diplomats from each other and ended numerous unofficial exchanges, hampering their visibility on the politics of the other.
It’s not always dangerous. Many in Moscow, assuming that Mr. Biden is acting like Mr. Putin, believe that Washington has created the appearance of a conflict with the intention of declaring a false American victory when the more reasonable Mr. Putin cancels the deployments that he insisted on being defensive. , Mr. Gabuev said.
This misunderstanding greatly facilitates Mr. Putin’s opt-out option. And many in Russia see the West as the aggressor, and would therefore take an averted conflict as Mr. Putin triumphant, not surrendering.
However, the less Washington and Moscow understand each other, the more difficult it will be for them to decipher each other’s signals and anticipate each other’s reactions.
“The Russian president’s circle of trust has grown stronger over time, isolating him from information inconsistent with his prior beliefs,” academics Adam E. Casey and Seva Gunitsky wrote in Foreign Affairs.
As Mr. Putin’s inner circle has shrunk, they wrote, he has become dominated by yes-men who tell him what they think he wants to hear and by leaders of the security services that tend to be warmongering and suspicious of the West.
He would be far from alone in this case: research reveals that strong men like him are, for this reason, more likely to start wars and more likely to lose them.
Thus, what Washington views as a Russian ploy or bluff, such as ignoring sanctions threats or implying that some Ukrainians would welcome Russian liberators, may reflect a sincere belief due to political dysfunction.
“Information flows to Putin are choppy at best, and sanctions are a highly technical subject that is not even well understood in Washington,” said Eddie Fishman, senior sanctions policy official in the Obama administration. .
So far, both sides have avoided any obvious misinterpretation of each other. This may partly stem from the length of the crisis, which allowed each capital to repeatedly telegraph its intentions and capabilities.
But that same factor – time – also creates more opportunity for error as each side escalates.
“Every day we don’t solve it, we increase the percentage chance that something will go wrong,” said international relations specialist Dr Yarhi-Milo.
“We are testing a lot of people’s nerves at the same time,” she added. “It can take a very bad turn very quickly.”