Ukraine and the Art of Crisis Management


Authors’ note: This is an early draft of an essay I intend to revisit, although with more hindsight! It is always challenging writing about a crisis before knowing how it will end, not least because it requires going out on a limb. Nonetheless, part of the challenge for those of us who make a living out of following international affairs is trying to read a crisis while it is underway and to suggest ways forward. An early version was presented to a seminar at King’s College London and benefitted from comments by Christine Cheng and Tim Sweijs. Any further comments will be welcomed.


Half a century ago, after the conflicts over Berlin and Cuba, a new term of art came into vogue – “crisis management.” American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was even quoted as saying that crisis management had taken over from strategy. A small literature came to be devoted to the subject.  In a number of respects, the term and the key themes it invoked were behind much of the debate on security policy for the remainder of the Cold War.

The term “crisis” comes from a Greek word that indicated choice or decision, and came to refer to the turning point in a disease. The crisis was the moment when the fever reached a peak and the patient was either going to get a lot worse or a lot better. It is the moment usually marked in TV dramas by delirious patients, caring nurses, anxious relatives and lots of patting down of sweating foreheads with cold sponges. The idea of an international crisis has the same sense of stress and urgency. It means a conflict has come to a head, normally because one side has taken a bold but provocative initiative. At the moment of crisis, some big, long-standing conflict would be resolved – either through last-minute diplomacy or by force. The drama would come from a keen sense of a deadline, perhaps reinforced by an ultimatum, and intense media attention. The moment would be marked by late nights in the corridors of power, emergency summits and tense Security Council meetings. There would be a need to watch out for military mobilizations and movements, with everyone on high alert.

Leaders of major powers would be expected to show that they had the temperament and character for a crisis. The premium would be on a steely resolve and calm judgement. This was the point of Hillary Clinton’s famous challenge to candidate Barack Obama in 2008 as to how he would cope when “it’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world.”

Crisis management, however, has always involved more than character. Leaders must understand its art, learning from past crises to work out how to respond sensibly when faced with their own moment of truth.

A major crisis has now erupted over Ukraine – in some respects the biggest since the end of the Cold War for NATO countries, and one that has even been described as taking the world back to the tensions of the Cold War days. This essay does not seek to be predictive. The outcomes of this crisis will depend on decisions that are in the process of being made. At issue is not only how those decisions might be influenced, but also the conduct of political leaders in such a demanding and tense situation.

In exploring how the art of crisis management might be developed and applied as the struggle over Ukraine continues, I am also seeking to make a larger point about how to make sense of contemporary international conditions.  This crisis, quite rightly, has been presented as a geopolitical jolt, a reminder that hard power never quite goes away and that, however much we may wish it were not so, the role of force remains formidable when it comes to setting and changing borders and in regime change. At the same time, there is a geo-economic dimension to this crisis that over the long-term could and should be more important.  There is always an international order issue when a powerful country occupies part of a neighbour, but in this case there are no alliance obligations to be invoked and because of the local balance of power it makes little sense for NATO/EU countries to frame this crisis in purely military terms. The more it can be framed as being about the political and economic development of Ukraine the stronger their potential hand.


The basic challenge of crisis management is to protect core interests while avoiding major war. In the Cold War lexicon, the concept had had some connections to “coercive diplomacy.” This latter concept refers to the use of threats to persuade an opponent to change policies, either in the form of deterrence, so that an aggressive move is not made, or compellence, to reverse an aggressive move that has been made.  Thus deterrence says “do not annex Crimea or else”, while compellence says “you must release Crimea from annexation or else”.  Deterrence works best when set in place long before a crisis erupts, while compellence tends to come into play during a crisis, although in circumstances where it may only succeed with overwhelming power. In practice it may be inhibited by a keen awareness of how wrong moves might be inflammatory and counter-productive. Crisis management therefore may well involve coercive diplomacy, but built into the concept is a sense of knowing when to exercise restraints and respect limits.

In both Berlin and Cuba, war was avoided and core interests protected. To achieve this, leaders needed clarity about how core interests were defined and how they could be distinguished from more peripheral concerns. Thus in the case of Berlin, the United States was, in principle, committed to keeping Berlin as an open city.  In practice, however, President Kennedy accepted that the core interest was West Berlin and there was little they could do for the East. The erection of the Berlin Wall of August 1961 was a blow to the cause of German reunification, and to East Germans, but it defused the crisis.

Similarly, in October 1962, Kennedy knew that he had to see Soviet missiles out of Cuba, but he did not mind conceding his right to invade Cuba and was also prepared to abandon U.S. missiles in Turkey (although not too publicly).

Before these crises, the most toxic term used to describe crisis management was “brinkmanship,” from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ observation in a magazine interview in early 1956. He remarked: “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” The term came into general use, not so much as wise advice but instead as a leftist warning about the inherent recklessness of American foreign policy. The problem with the notion, on its own, was that governments would not actually wish to go over the brink. Seeking to create the impression that you might nonetheless do so could risk either incredibility or unintended disaster. This led to characterizations of subsequent Cold War crises in the terms of a game of chicken, normally presented as two juveniles pointing cars at each other to see who would swerve first.

From Cuba came another, contrary, insight. This was the need to provide an opponent some face-saving device to help them get away from the brink. This is what Kennedy was said to have done with Khrushchev. The difficulty with this notion was that it depended on identifying a feature of the crisis that was vital to the opponent but not to you. If it was just a trivial gesture then no face would be saved.

Less controversial, after the missile crisis, was the belief in the importance of keeping communications and diplomatic activity going throughout a crisis, whether through intermediaries, meetings at the foreign minister level, or direct communications between leaders. The missile crisis led directly to the establishment of the famous Washington-Moscow “hotline”.

A further requirement, that shaped thinking about nuclear strategy, was that military developments should not force the pace of diplomacy. This was the lesson of 1914, when the demanding timetable of the German offensive became a serious destabilizing factor. The idea of a nuclear equivalent, as the United States and Soviet Union wondered about each other’s ability to mount a pre-emptive first strike that would take out their retaliatory capabilities, led to the idea of “crisis stability” as a key objective of arms control.  It was vital that there was no premium on a surprise attack, that both sides had opportunities to deliberate before reaching for their weapons.

Lastly, and related, there was a need for discipline and control over armed forces so that not even the smallest unit would get involved in an incident that could trigger something wider and more dangerous. As Kennedy observed when a U-2 strayed into Soviet airspace during the missile crisis, “There is always one sonofabitch who doesn’t get the message.”

Out of this we can identify five qualities relevant to the art of crisis management:

  1. Clarity over core interests;
  2. A sense of both the possibilities and limits of coercive instruments, including where the actual use of armed force might be appropriate;
  3. Control over armed forces to prevent inadvertent or deliberate military escalation;
  4. Sustained communications with the adversary;
  5. A grasp of what the adversary needs to enable it to de-escalate, or at least to desist from further escalation.


The legacy of the Cold War experience has been evident during the current crisis over the Ukraine. Western capitals have sought to sound resolute without being reckless; there has been a readiness to talk about Moscow’s “legitimate interests” in Ukraine, such as protection of the rights of Russians, and to accept that Ukraine cannot be offered NATO membership. Some have speculated that a tougher line by President Obama over Syria last September could have affected President Putin’s calculations. Others wonder whether economic sanctions can be sufficiently coercive.  Nobody has questioned the need for a continuing “dialogue” between Russia and the other major powers.

The United States and its European allies have made their core interests clear: they seek to get Russia to release its grip on Crimea and allow Ukraine to set its own political course. The real uncertainty from the start has surrounded Russian intentions. This sort of uncertainty is hardly unique. Every Cold War crisis involved an intense debate over Moscow’s intentions. Every land grab – from Adolf Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait – prompts questions about whether it is a self-contained act of aggression or just the first of a planned sequence.

There are, however, some special features of this crisis that are shaping responses and that set the terms for its future development. Crises erupt on the fault lines of the international system. These fault lines are normally well-known, but their meaning and impact change over time according to developments in the particular states involved and, more broadly, in international relations. The fault lines within Central and Eastern Europe can largely be linked to the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires and their declines and falls. A distinctive sort of crisis emerged within this region after the Cold War, though in vital respects it reflected conflicts that have long troubled Europe. In this way, Ukraine exemplifies many familiar problems, with borders that have never been truly settled and a population that is not homogenous. Many Central and Eastern European states include more than one nation (reflected in language or ethnicity), just as the nations tend to be found in more than one state. This complex relationship between sovereign territory and national identity has generated a number of crises, notably as multi-national states have been put under pressure to break up into smaller, more cohesive entities (although those smaller entities usually have their own minorities).

Ukraine, therefore, is a particularly difficult example of a type of post-Communist crisis in Europe. The arbitrariness of borders can be no better illustrated than by Nikita Khrushchev’s quixotic gift of the historically Russian Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in 1954 as a means of cementing good relations between Russians and Ukrainians.

As the Cold War ended, the West stuck to the line that old borders should be respected, initially because of concerns about the consequences of the Soviet Union coming apart. In the end, the centrifugal forces at work in states where the old order was thoroughly discredited proved to be too strong. Along with the break-up of the Soviet Union came the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia and, much more painfully, the break-up of Yugoslavia.  In the latter case, the break-up was accelerated once the European Union recognised Slovenia and Croatia as separate states. The most controversial was Kosovo, as NATO was seen in 1999 to have facilitated the province’s break from Serbia. This precedent (and Kosovo’s more recent move for independence) is regularly invoked by Russia when encouraging secession. In the case of Kosovo the crisis in 1999 was the result of sustained “ethnic cleansing” by Serbia; in the case of Crimea the only claim is that a physical assault has been prevented. Indeed, the rhetorical thrust of Russian attempts to justify the annexation of Crimea has involved the search for secessionist precedents. This is a potentially dangerous exercise for the Russia Federation given the number of secessionist tendencies still present within its own borders, of which Chechnya is the mostnotorious.

The economic and political vacuum resulting from communism’s collapse has often been marked by chronic corruption, limited respect for the rule of law, and uneven economic development.  The EU has on the whole done an impressive job with those states that have been able to become full members (there are exceptions), largely by insisting that these problems be addressed before full accession to the Treaty.  This has paid considerable dividends for the countries that are now in the EU, a fact often illustrated by pointing to the comparative fortunes of Poland and Ukraine since the end of the Cold War when they were in similar economic positions. In 1990, Poland’s GDP was $64.5bn and Ukraine’s $90.2bn. By 2012 Poland’s was $489.9bn and Ukraine’s $176.3bn. They are now at opposite ends of the corruption tables.

While the process of incorporating former members of the Warsaw Pact, along with the Baltic states, into western institutions has been largely beneficial to those countries, Moscow has viewed these developments very differently. The process was controversial enough with the EU, but has caused most concern with NATO. In his speech of 18 March President Putin gave voice to the widespread view in Russia that allowing Central and Eastern European countries into NATO means reneging on a tacit understanding of 1990. As the Warsaw Pact dissolved Moscow first sought to get NATO to follow suit and then urged that it not expand to the east. Initially NATO obliged; it sought to meet the demand of former Warsaw Pact members for a close association through devices such as the “partnership for Peace”, but this was insufficient to satisfy former Soviet satellites that were anxious that they might be gobbled up again without the protection of alliance.

Most of this alliance-building happened without too much fuss at the time. In compensation for its general acquiescence, Russia was given privileged opportunities for consultation as security issues developed. It was also drawn into high-level international bodies, so the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations became the Group of Eight.

Inevitably the expansion of Western influence through NATO and the EU ended up highlighting the most difficult countries at the edge, notably Ukraine and Georgia. This put a strain on both, reflected in their to “bourgeois revolutions.” In the “Rose” revolution in Georgia in 2003 and then the 2004 “Orange” revolution in Ukraine, unpopular and corrupt governments succumbed to popular demands and street protests. Putin was deeply troubled by the possibility of these color revolutions being imitated in Russia. This was one factor leading to the strong authoritarian turn in his approach to domestic politics, with attempts to marginalize and expel opposition politicians and undermine NGOs, especially those with overseas support.

Neither Ukraine nor Georgia has joined NATO, although the possibility has been raised a number of times. Russia has made it clear that this would be seen as a deeply hostile act. Yet being outside NATO has left these states vulnerable to Russian interventions and support for breakaway entities. The precedent was set with Transnistria, a strip of land on Moldova’s border with Ukraine in which a garrison of Russian troops is based, and which, despite complex constitutional structures, is considered to be under Russian control. Russia’s most serious assistance to secession concerned two parts of Georgia. As the Soviet Union began to break up, South Ossetia declared itself independent of Georgia. The Georgian government’s attempt to re-establish control resulted in wars in 1991-2, 2004 and, most seriously, August 2008. This last conflict began with a Georgian military offensive to reclaim the territory and ended up with Ossetian forces, greatly assisted by Russians, gaining full control. There was a similar pattern with Abkhazia : a war against Georgia in 1992-93 which the Georgians lost; an attempt to resolve the conflict, with cease-fire agreements; UN monitoring forces and a Russian-dominated peacekeeping operation. This was all falling apart when the South Ossetian conflict flared in August 2008. The Russians took the opportunity to recognise Abkhazia. Russia has not, however, been successful in getting others to share its recognition of these secessionist entities. Only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Tuvalu have joined them.

While Ukraine is not a NATO member, its security has been addressed in international agreements. At the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were still almost 2,000 nuclear weapons on its territory. Ukraine agreed to the dismantlement of these weapons and ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. In return, Ukraine requested and received a written statement from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom that these powers undertook to extend security guarantees to Ukraine: the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. It required respect for Ukraine’s borders in lines with principles of the 1975 Final Act of the Conference and Security in Europe, abstention from the use or threat of force against Ukraine, support should Ukraine be threatened by economic coercion, and agreement to bring any incident of aggression by a nuclear power before the UN Security Council. These were no more than assurances, although Ukraine refers to them as guarantees. France and China added their support.

The anomalous position of Crimea, and the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, led to a number of tensions between the two countries. It was apparently resolved in 1997 with a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. The two countries agreed, under Article 2, to “respect each other’s territorial integrity, and confirm the inviolability of the borders existing between them.” The Treaty also referred to “the protection of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious originality of national minorities on their territory” and the creation of “conditions for the encouragement of that originality.” One of the more obvious casualties of the current crisis will be any reliance by vulnerable states on assurances of this sort, as they turned out to have no relevance the first time they were tested.

Ukraine has now been thrust to the fore as the arena of struggle between the West and Russia. Larger than other Central and Eastern European countries and so much a part of the Russian past, it had avoided a definitive alignment. It was caught between two competing visions – of a new integration with the EU, assumed to be largely favored in the country’s west, or of a much closer association with the Russian Federation, assumed to be more favored in the east. This was further complicated by the immaturity of Ukrainian politics, its limited economic reform and its high degrees of corruption. The Orange Revolution was deeply disappointing in its effects, in the squabbling among reformers and in the lack of actual reform.

In 2010, former President Yanukovich returned to office. He tried to keep both the EU and Russia in play, which limited progress with both. Late last year Putin forced the situation, effectively bribing the government with a huge loan to turn away from the EU, with the coercive implication that finance and energy would be difficult if he did not. This ended discussions with EU and sparked fierce popular protests. Yanukovich handled the protests poorly, alternating hot and cold, first with an attempt to introduce authoritarian measures, then seeking  compromise, followed by shooting and finally a hastily brokered deal on 21 February with the EU and Russia present (although the latter did not endorse the deal). By this time, popular feeling was against Yanukovich and he fled, leaving behind evidence of startling, corruption-fueled wealth, with the result that he is totally discredited. The transfer of power was irregular and improvised but not wholly extra-constitutional because the Parliament was still functioning. The new government was not ideal but better than could have been expected if Yanukovich had left behind a complete power vacuum.

Nonetheless President Putin considered it to be illegitimate and hostile. At the end of the month there was a pro-Russian coup in Crimea backed, despite denials, by Russian forces. On 16 March, a hastily arranged referendum supported a re-integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation. On 18 March Russia completed the annexation. For Russia the government in Kiev remained illegitimate but there was no pretence that Yanukovich could be returned to power. For everyone else it was about an illegal occupation of another’s sovereign territory. When the issue was put to a vote on 15 March Russia cast a lonely veto. Thirteen members of the Security Council rejected annexation; China abstained.


Many commentators have given Western countries poor marks so far for its crisis management over Ukraine. The failures have variously been described to be: (1) Easing President Putin’s risk calculus with an evident reluctance to take forceful positions in recent crises, for example over Syria, and looking for diplomatic exit routes over Iran; (2) Failing to appreciate the developing logic of Putin’s fear of liberal democracy and his assertiveness both at home and in Russia’s “near abroad”; (3) Paying inadequate attention to the full implications of what was going on in Kiev in February 2014 and supporting what was, in the end, an anti-democratic seizure of power; (4) Offering only feeble responses to the Russian move into Crimea at the end of that month.

These are the sort of criticisms that are invariably made of liberal democracies when they are trying to keep up with fast-moving events. They always contain some truth because it is in the nature of liberal democracies to be distracted, risk-averse, and superficial when assessing developing situations, and then at a loss when they are caught by surprise. Authoritarian governments have a natural advantage, especially when executing a bold move for which they have all the capabilities in place.

Regarding the first charge, it is possible that in Putin’s mind there is an image of President Obama as weak and tentative when faced with a big crisis, but this line of criticism is overdone. In 2008, under President Bush, NATO countries did not respond with force to events in Georgia. And even President Obama’s critics admit that there are no serious military options available in response to the current crisis. Matters will have to get much darker before military responses are even mooted.

The charge of inattention is more serious. Western governments are guilty of not fully grasping the dynamics of change in the region and what Putin believes to be at stake. Other than more contingency planning, however, and perhaps private warnings, it is not clear what difference this would have made. It can be argued that the EU should have better understood the geopolitical game Putin believed himself to be playing with Ukraine last year, and matched Russia’s offer on debt relief. But given what was already known about the Ukrainian government and economy, a more generous offer to President Yanukovich would have been irresponsible. The EU did back the 21 February agreement in Kiev and had urged demonstrators to accept, but once Yanukovich fled the scene, and with the evidence of corruption left behind, it would have been impossible to insist on his return.

Behind this debate is the key question as to whether Putin acted because he thought the West was weak or because he thought it strong. From Putin’s perspective, going back to the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the last 25 years have been a disaster. The once proud Soviet Union has been broken up and many former allies have been gobbled up by NATO. This aggressive push, from his perspective, has not stopped and has threatened to allow NATO and the EU to encircle Russia. Wary of this supposed encroachment, Putin has been intent on preventing Georgia and Ukraine becoming part of the Western institutions. This part of his stance is crudely geopolitical. Russia’s claims to be a great power are increasingly geo-political rather than geo-economic. It depends on its veto power in the United Nations and its nuclear arsenal (as a leading Russian broadcaster indelicately reminded his audience).

Another part is based on ethnicity and nationalism, to the point where it would not be unreasonable to assume that the natural borders of Russia extend to wherever there are ethnic Russians. The third aspect is what would have been best described during the Cold War as an “ideological” battle, but is now better described as one of “political economy.”  For most of the last decade Putin’s position was buoyed by high energy prices. This allowed the economy to grow and the oligarchs to be satisfied. Western Europe’s dependence on Gazprom provided yet another level to ensure that Russian concerns were taken seriously. But a lack of reform and corruption have taken over, while the energy market has moved to Russia’s disadvantage, with new sources of natural gas emerging, and the United States in a position to become a serious exporter.

Ukraine has also suffered from corruption and a limited liberalisation of its economy. One threat to Putin, therefore, is that Ukraine adopts a political economic model that would depend on a close association with the EU and might even succeed, throwing into relief the failure of his own model. Moscow is therefore threatened by a shift in Ukraine’s political economy.  The threat has been described in terms of rightists and fascists, allegations which have been refuted. Even if all involved are  shown to be moderate and reasonable, Moscow knows that the new government would have no interest in cementing Ukraine’s ties with Russia and would not be biddable when subjected to pressure.

Perhaps too neatly, we can thus describe the crisis as having aspects based on traditional geopolitics, nationalism (which has always complicated geopolitics) and political economy. I would argue that Western policy should be to move the crisis into an area which works most to the Western advantage. It leaves serious geopolitical issues hanging, especially as the nationalist arguments deployed by President Putin are bound to make any countries on the periphery of Russia nervous, and it also, of course, depends on future developments within Ukraine.

The crisis can also be described as having moved through two phases, neither of which is fully complete, with another two already begun. The first was the internal crisis, played out on the streets of Kiev, which concluded with the departure of Yanukovich and the formation of a new government. Russia argues that this phase is not over but it does not give the impression that it can reshape the new government, and appears to have given up on a Yanukovich comeback.

The second phase has been the absorption of Crimea into the Russian Federation. This has been justified on the basis of the historic ties between Russia and Crimea. The nationalist arguments used to justify this alarm other countries with substantial Russian populations, and they create risks to the minority Tatars in Crimea, especially if they begin to feel oppressed. There is also no constitutional basis, and it is unlikely to be accepted by the international community. It is worth recalling the limited recognition enjoyed by Abkhazia and South Ossetia and, for that matter, the fact that Stalin’s seizure of the Baltic states in 1939 was speedily unravelled at the first opportunity after the fall of the Berlin Wall. All that being said, as a matter of coercive diplomacy the West lacks the means to compel Russia to reverse this process. There are current points of tension as Russia deals with local Ukrainian military units and there will be medium-term issues about how it looks after Crimea, but for the moment the West can do little more than signal displeasure in a mildly punitive way.

The third stage will concern Eastern Ukraine. Russia has made the arguments (“protecting our people”) and has the capabilities (established garrisons supplemented by occasional exercises on its side of the border).  A military move was anticipated as Crimea was occupied. It was, however, always more difficult because the pretext would not be so straightforward, there could be no pretending that Russian troops were not involved, some military and popular resistance could be expected (and now much more), and, once begun, any operation would be hard to stop without occupying of all Ukraine.  That was more than Russian military might be able to manage and sustain. This calculation could change. Over the coming week demonstrations and other provocations can be expected in the East. These will need to be handled with care.  Together with the continued Russian military presence close to the border, the intention may be to deter Ukraine from taking strong actions, or just keep the country unstable and uncertain. This period is one to be weathered. If there is further military intervention it is obvious that the crisis will enter a new and much more dangerous phase. This could happen as a result of some incident in an eastern city, but for the moment, cautiously, it is reasonable to assume that the territorial acquisition has stopped with Crimea.

The fourth phase has also already begun. This is about the long-term political economy of Ukraine.  This is reflected in association agreements with the EU, a role for the IMF and the various forms of financial and technical support from individual countries. This will require measures to deal with corruption, manage debt and introduce market reforms and may well be painful. Without these measures Ukraine will be barely viable; implementing them will be extremely demanding. In the end this is the arena in which the question of winners and losers in the struggle for Ukraine will be decided.


What have events in Ukraine up to this point told us about the art of crisis management?

  • It is very hard to manage a crisis when there is so little understanding of what the other side is up to. Is Putin’s main priority to act on behalf of ethnic Russians or to destabilise the new Ukraine in order to recreate scope for Russian influence or some combination of the two? It may be that initially he did not see a choice. The first step was to take Crimea, which was easy and did not involve (up to now) serious fighting.
  • Even a well composed first step can create trouble when events don’t move along as planned, leading to a struggle to find appropriate second steps. Russia may have been relying on a template derived from Georgia, which created expectations about both the Ukrainian and wider international reactions that have turned out to be incorrect.  Specifically, because of its limited options, and its knowledge of what transpired in Georgia, the Ukrainian government has avoided provocation. It did not rush into heroic battle.  Given what it had been saying about the wild militants of Kiev, Russia was put in an awkward position by the Ukrainian military’s refusal to be either provoked or intimidated. Whether or not Putin expected Ukrainian-inspired violence, as time has gone on, the lack of such violence has been inhibiting. It has made it harder to claim anarchy and a humanitarian crisis. Loyal Ukrainian units held their ground in Crimea longer than expected.
  • There is always pressure to “do something” to show disapproval of an aggressive act, but for Western countries available punitive measures are unlikely to measure up to the scale of the challenge.  Even in the most propitious circumstance economic sanctions take time to work. It is therefore unwise to claim coercive effects for measures that will not generate real pressure.
  • For the West in this situation, the core of the geopolitical response has to be around NATO. It is important to differentiate between the role of NATO and the EU, even if they get blurred in Moscow’s eyes.  There is no obligation by NATO countries to come to the aid of a country that is not a member. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the new government says it does not want to join, and if there were any moves to do so this would clearly be inflammatory in Moscow’s eyes. One consequence of recent events should be not only to remind members why they should be grateful that NATO exists but also to make sure it is in good order.  An association with the EU might also be provocative but it is unavoidable if Ukraine is to reform.
  • One main difference between Cold War crisis management and the 21st Century is the importance of the economic dimension. There was very little interaction between East and West during the Cold War. The export of energy was one area which began to grow during the Cold War and then became progressively more important. In 2007 and 2009 gas supplies were cut off to Ukraine and this affected European suppliers using the same pipeline. The position has changed substantially over the past few years. The Russian economy is now slowing down and Gazprom’s position is no longer so buoyant. Both need the revenues. Russia has chronic problems of demography and corruption.  It has failed to move its economy away from being dominated by oil and gas, and become an increasingly unattractive place to invest. It is not an emerging economy but a declining one. The past use of gas supplies for coercive purposes has encouraged customers to look elsewhere or to develop alternative supplies so they are less vulnerable to coercion. Finally, the transformation of the US’s energy position over past few years could be used to weaken Russia’s position further. One response to the crisis has been a determination to further move away from dependence on Gazprom. The long-term significance of this should not be underestimated.
  • In the end the Soviet position during the Cold War was undermined by a flawed ideology. State socialism clearly performed poorly when set against liberal capitalism. For the same reason the political economy of Ukraine is at the heart of this dispute. This is an area where the West has levers which it can deploy, to enable Kiev to address its major problems of debt, corruption, good governance and economic reform.
  • Words matter. It is easy to dismiss talking shops when tough actions are being taken on the ground. During crises government statements and the speeches of leaders are studied far more intensively than at other times, precisely because there is an intense interest in what is being said as the main source of evidence about current concerns and future intentions. It is through words that crises are framed and their salient points identified. The inability of Russia to construct a case that gained any support in the UN was undoubtedly a blow and left it on the defensive internationally.
  • In the internet age, when news comes quickly through from many sources on the front-line and is rapidly transmitted, governments will struggle to control a poorly constructed story. Fabricated claims can catch out governments when they start unravelling as they are checked by those on the ground. This is a hard factor to measure, but one indicator of its impact may be Putin’s determination to eliminate independent media outlets within Russia, another disturbing consequence of this crisis.

I suggested earlier that certain lessons had emerged out of the Cold War for crisis management: clarity over core interests; a sense of both the possibilities and limits of coercive instruments, including where the actual use of armed force might be appropriate; control over armed forces to prevent inadvertent or deliberate military escalation; sustained communications with the adversary; a grasp of what the adversary needs to enable it to de-escalate, or at least to desist from further escalation. These remain relevant. Writing this during the first month of what could be a prolonged period of tension provides a reminder of those areas of interest and intention that remain uncertain, and the difficulties of shaping policies in national capitals and in multi-national settings when events are still unfolding. These dangers and uncertainties have led some to talk of a new Cold War. Certainly President Putin’s rhetoric has echoes of those days and one should not expect a lot of cooperation on the generality of international problems over the coming months. As in the Cold War, if this becomes a competition between different economic and social systems the West can win. The most important source of confidence, however, is that during the Cold War the Soviet Union was much larger and had its own allies. Those allies have now joined NATO and at the moment one can assume that they are feeling no regrets.


Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. His most recent book is Strategy: A History (OUP, 2013).


Photo: White House