Getting the Fait Accompli Problem Right in U.S. Strategy

November 3, 2020

The threat of territorial conquest by fait accompli is one of the central problem statements in U.S. defense planning. As Elbridge Colby writes, “The toughest and most important challenge for U.S. defense strategy is how to defend vulnerable allies against a Chinese or Russian fait accompli strategy, particularly one backed by nuclear threats.” Although a range of stratagems can fall under the “fait accompli” moniker, from gradual impositions — or “salami-slicing” — to decisive land grabs or coups de main, the consensus seems to have singled out the latter as the central threat against which to base U.S. planning. Fear of this specific type of fait accompli is ubiquitous in the strategy community and has been detailed in many articles by David Ochmanek, Hal Brands, Colby, and others.



Unfortunately, the fait accompli has become somewhat of a boogeyman. The calculus behind this strategy is often misrepresented, as are the prospective scenarios and potential remedies. Defense planners tend to incorrectly infer adversary intentions and strategy from military capabilities, and wrongly believe that the impetus behind the fait accompli is an adversary’s reading of the military balance. A good example is Ochmanek’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “U.S. adversaries seek to use their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to create a window of opportunity during which they hold U.S. combat power at bay so that they can conduct campaigns of aggression.” Interpreting political intent or military strategy on the basis of select military capabilities has led to planning for fights that don’t make much sense, or fights that do make sense, but where the adversary strategy and political rationale does not seem well understood.

Territorial faits accomplis are about imposing gains at the expense of an adversary without getting into a larger war. They are not conquests of states via war, but limited land grabs based on the bet that the opponent won’t risk a larger fight for the territory. Most of the Baltic or Taiwan invasion scenarios that seem to drive U.S. defense thinking are not examples of this practice. They are not gambits to seize disputed pieces of land or vulnerable bordering territory, but instead large-scale conquests of whole states, which have been exceedingly rare since World War II.

What concerns defense planners are invasions of U.S. allies that could entail a supposed “fait accompli strategy” against the United States. This confection has been used to kludge together the notion that Russia or China would conquer U.S. allies before the United States could intervene. The fait accompli is often used as a blanket term to describe warfighting strategies to defeat a U.S. intervention, a bombardment coercion strategy against the ally’s leadership, and a limited nuclear escalation strategy to coerce the United States. None of those are in fact fait accompli strategies. Planners seem to grasp at a smorgasbord of potential adversary strategies, but the national security community is just not good at asking first-order questions about these premises.

Revisiting the current thinking on faits accomplis in U.S. defense strategy offers four insights. First, it reveals that many of the fights envisioned are not examples of this stratagem, and the more likely cases are overlooked in favor of sought-after larger fights. Second, there is not much evidence that adversaries harbor fait accompli strategies against the United States, nor are such strategies necessarily practicable for their revisionist aims. Third, deterring large-scale conquest via a fait accompli strategy against the United States would be much easier, and cheaper, than addressing the challenge posed by actual faits accomplis. Finally, the commonly proffered solution to fix the military balance in these scenarios (buying capability to blunt the attack) will have at best a marginal impact on shaping adversary calculus because it is not a decisive factor in this strategy.

What Is a Fait Accompli?

Dan Altman’s work on faits accomplis as strategies to attain gains and present an escalation dilemma to the opponent is incisive in this area, showing that territorial acquisition by fait accompli has been more frequent and successful than previously acknowledged in academic circles. Before 1945, countries initiated a war and then occupied large territories. Since then, they have seized small regions and then attempted to avoid a war. However, most of these cases can be summarized as seizures of small islands, disputes over rugged and sparsely populated territory, or covert infiltrations of mountainous regions — as in the case of the Kargil War in 1999 and, more recently, Ladakh between India and China. True faits accomplis cluster around long-running territorial disputes over bordering territories, particularly where the legal status quo is in question or the border remains ill-defined. For example, China’s ongoing clashes with India, including a recent border encroachment on a Himalayan glacier, are representative of this problem set, playing out as a series of faits accomplis. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea is a relative outlier because of the peninsula’s size, but nonetheless represents another classic case.

Altman’s work, and that of others in this field, illustrates that fait accompli strategies to seize territory are based on a calculus of the interests at stake and the perceived political value of seizing the territory, rather than the military balance or who bought the latest generation of weapons. That will disappoint defense planners for whom the military balance and capabilities in theater are the primary variable they are able to play with (literally, given how much wargaming drives planning). But in earnest it matters far less than they think in shaping adversary calculus. Planners fixate on resolving operational problems to the exclusion of the actual strategic considerations that underpin them. The United States need not have overmatch or superiority to deter faits accomplis. Allies can also dramatically reduce their vulnerability by garrisoning forces and showing that they will fight for the territory in jeopardy.

However, this is hardly a simple problem to solve. In some places, such as uninhabited islands or mountain passes, it is difficult to convey strong interests at stake or deploy tripwire forces. In others, leaders miscalculate not because they perceive a military advantage, but because they simply believe the other side will not fight. The 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom is a classic example of this judgment. More forces may be part of the answer to convincing the aggressor that a fight is likely, but this approach offers rapidly diminishing returns beyond initial investments.

In order to deter this type of aggression the United States has to demonstrate that a sustained conflict is a possibility, and that it has plans to contest the object in question. This element of deterrence proposals, focused on directly contesting aggression, makes sense. One cannot get around the capability requirement in deterrence. However, the extent to which the United States needs a blunting force capable of denying the objective is debatable, as is the desire to chase military primacy in these respective theaters. As Mike Mazarr’s recent analysis and numerous other deterrence studies have shown, “The defender need not have superiority for deterrence to work.” This is especially so in the case of the fait accompli.

The Baltics: A Strange Brew for Scenario Planning

Current thinking on Russia exemplifies the problem. The premise of the Baltic “high-end” fight is a pre-1945 argument that rather than grabbing a small bordering territory that would pose an escalation dilemma for its owner, Russia will engage in an occupation of three states — a significant seizure of territory that has not been seen since the days of World War II. Another commonplace scenario is a Russian seizure of the Suwalki corridor between Lithuania and Poland. This too is not a fait accompli. It requires the Russian seizure of one and a half states — Belarus and a large part of Lithuania. Notably, Belarus is both larger and more populous than the three Baltic states combined. Without Russian forces in Belarus to establish a defensive line there is nothing to really attach Suwalki to, and no sensible military objective for that operation. That has not stopped these scenarios from being wargamed to death, but the history of why and where fait accompli gambits are launched by revisionist states does not substantiate these stories.

The scenarios positing Russian aggression as driven by opportunism have one thing in common: an inability to postulate what is in it for Moscow. Faits accomplis tend to happen over territory that the aggressor believes is politically valuable to them were they to gain it. In this sense, the Russian annexation of Crimea makes sense, but the Russian occupation of Suwalki does not, because what could be the political value of that territory? Why there and not somewhere else? There is also no discernible casus belli, since no territories are in dispute and the legal status quo is unchallenged by either side. This is important, since states are not dissuaded by sovereignty norms in cases where they believe the territory in dispute is rightfully theirs, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea. This does not appear to be the case in the Baltic states. That is one of the important differences between a Taiwan and a Baltic scenario, which unfortunately are regularly grouped together to the detriment of defense planning.

Some have suggested that Russia would invade a NATO member to discredit the alliance, an oddball case of territorial aggression without a tangible objective. This has always been a nonsensical and ahistorical proposition — or, in other words, the sort of thing that one can find only in road-to-war stories for wargames designed to test warfighting concepts. Despite the Rube Goldberg nature of this scheme, and its lack of historical basis, there is no reason this need be accomplished via large-scale invasion or even take place in the Suwalki corridor at all. Why can’t Russia just invade a bordering Norwegian territory to discredit NATO? It does not make any more sense, but it is easier and cheaper than occupying three countries. Ironically, the “war to destroy NATO credibility” scenarios always have Moscow invading in a way that is the most risky, costly, and escalatory for Russia’s own political objectives.

A better interpretation of the fait accompli problem suggests that the most probable scenarios for conflict between Russia and NATO entail Moscow seizing a small bordering territory of low value in Estonia, Latvia, or perhaps Norway. Svalbard is a potential candidate, as are numerous other islands. The reason is that low-value territories may lack significant population or military presence (Svalbard is legally demilitarized), and therefore a fait accompli gambit is both viable and practicable. These are still unlikely cases since the casus belli is unknown and there is no territorial dispute between Russia and these states, but at least they constitute a contingency informed by the history of great-power irredentism and observed Russian behavior. Why defense planning is based around a Russian deployment into the Suwalki corridor,  or “gap,” as opposed to a town on the Russian-Estonian border is a mystery, but an evidence-based understanding of the problem would certainly privilege the latter over the former. Beyond cases of limited territorial conquest, there is, however, still the chance of war with Russia due to miscalculation on both sides when responding to a potential crisis in a third country like Belarus, where decisions made inadvertently lead to a conflagration.

Taiwan: A Different Story

In the case of China, Taiwan constitutes the quintessential case of a territory claimed by an irredentist power, and there is cause to be pessimistic about the future given how compelling the threat appears. However, it is difficult to see how Beijing can take a piece of that island nation by fait accompli. Such a strategy could be used to attain uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, or those belonging to Taiwan, but not Taiwan itself. An amphibious invasion of Taiwan, or a sustained bombardment campaign, does not follow the logic of a limited land grab. It is also unclear how such massive operations could be executed as a fait accompli strategy against the United States.

The essence of a fait accompli is winning without fighting because you expect the other side not to show up. It is not delaying the opponent by forceful interdiction, counter-intervention, the use of bombardment for coercion, or a large-scale attack to win the war. A quick Chinese invasion of Taiwan may be improbable, and some argue is militarily  impossible. More importantly, these are not credible scenarios for opportunistic aggression by fait accompli. The fait accompli in this case rests on the notion that Chinese leaders believe they can conduct an ambitious military operation quickly, Taiwan will surrender, and Washington will just sit it out. That’s an unproven assertion about Beijing’s perceptions. It implies unrealistic war optimism in Beijing given the inherent difficulty of a cross-strait invasion, and equally optimistic assumptions about U.S. political resolve.

Chinese leaders either believe they will have to fight the United States for Taiwan, or they do not. Any war with the United States can become protracted, because there is no reason for the United States to concede once the political stakes have risen. It’s not clear what a special fait accompli strategy looks like in this case other than just trying to seize Taiwan faster. It’s equally unclear why strategists apply this boogeyman of a term to such scenarios. If leaders in Beijing believe the United States lacks the resolve to fight, they may be influenced by the perceived military costs the United States will suffer relative to its stakes, but these are judgments of political will and interests, as opposed to warfighting assessments.

Scenarios like an invasion of Taiwan are likely to result from loss aversion: the perceived need to act to prevent a geopolitical loss. While difficult to deter, it is hard to see such a scenario arising anywhere in the Baltics. The most likely candidate for this type of Russian intervention is Belarus, not a NATO member state, and that scenario may ultimately unfold depending on how events turn in Minsk. In the case of Taiwan, the only saving grace is the actual challenge of conducting a cross-strait invasion. This means that adversaries would launch such attacks not because they expect to succeed and avoid a war — surely Taiwan and the Baltics will fight for themselves — but because the political stakes surpass the military risks, or because war optimism has taken hold despite any objective reading of the realities.

Conversely, revisionism by fait accompli appears remarkably consistent with observed Chinese and Russian behavior in low-value territories in legal dispute with neighbors: mountainous regions, small islands, peninsulas, and so on, as opposed to wholesale conquests of nations with powerful allies. This does not mean that a large-scale war is not possible with America’s main military rivals. Failed gambits can lead to such conflicts. But this logic does cast doubt on the proposition that the Baltics or Taiwan will be seized via fait accompli or that opportunism would drive large-scale aggression.

Beyond territorial seizures, faits accomplis to gain position are no less important since they can result in nuclear crises and affect the strategic balance vis-à-vis the United States. Fait accompli strategies between modern great powers, especially nuclear ones, generally play out as attempts to gain strategic position, not as contests for territory. Examples include the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1999 seizure of Pristina airport by Russian forces ahead of the Kosovo Force peacekeeping mission. The militarily weaker side will often seek such gambits to revise its position, posing an escalation dilemma for the United States that could result in a nuclear crisis. These are not land grabs or surprise invasions, nor would they impinge on American allies’ sovereignty, but they have serious implications for U.S. strategy.

Other countries seem to have a better understanding of where the fait accompli is a potential problem and how to deal with it. The Swedish decision to place a small force on Gotland is an example of a cheap precautionary measure to signal that they value the island, making it such that military forces would be encountered in any attempted seizure. Russia has similarly placed forces on the Kuril Islands, recognizing vulnerabilities there. This is the correct, albeit not foolproof, way to address the threat of revisionism by fait accompli. It can be accomplished by U.S. allies and partners, with a modicum of U.S. support. The United States effectively addressed the prospect of wholesale conquest in the Baltics by stationing NATO battlegroups and pre-positioning equipment. It has not solved for the full range of potential Russian fait accompli land grabs, though many could be dealt with by the supposedly vulnerable allies themselves.

In the case of Taiwan, it is not clear if it is a vulnerable ally by virtue of anything other than choice. The investments needed to deny an amphibious invasion, or make one tremendously costly, seem somewhat rudimentary. Hence it is a mystery why either fight — in the Baltics or in Taiwan — should be the centerpiece of U.S. defense strategy. Taiwan should be leading the business of denying an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, rather than U.S. defense strategy being forced to live in a Taiwan-centered universe.

Avoiding a Cult of the Fait Accompli in U.S. Strategy

U.S. defense strategy should address the challenge posed by faits accomplis. But strategists should not reduce everything to the thesis that adversaries will use, and must secretly harbor, fait accompli strategies to conquer American allies. The reason this consensus has formed is straightforward: classical mirror imaging, theorizing based on military capabilities instead of examining adversary military thought or operational concepts, and too much wargaming — which is regularly misused and abused in U.S. strategy circles. If the threat of large-scale territorial conquest with the use of a fait accompli strategy against the United States is such a critical problem, then one should expect to see a world of U.S. security commitments being challenged on a regular basis in this manner, but this has not been the case.

This spotlights a longstanding flaw in defense strategist arguments — the practice of inventing strategies and doctrines for Russia or China based on personal interpretations of their military capabilities. These hypotheses become sticky, leading defense thinking down the wrong alleys for years, but are usually incorrect. As Peter Drucker once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast, and military cultures come to different interpretations on the implications of military capabilities, especially about what they mean for the military balance. What matters most is perception, and this is the area where planners and strategists tend to be the weakest when it comes to understanding how America’s great-power adversaries think.

Strategists fear that a changed military balance, or the threat of nuclear coercion, will unleash these scenarios, but this is just old wine being poured into new bottles — neither is a decisive factor in fait accompli strategies. Russia and China are not new nuclear powers, and the alleged period of “untrammeled” U.S. military might has always been overstated. War optimism is a factor among military establishments, and weaker states have attacked stronger powers or their allies throughout history. There are cases aplenty where faits accomplis were launched by great powers against weak states with no allies, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and equally by weaker nations like Pakistan against stronger powers like India. Thus, the argument that a positive military balance is essential to preventing faits accomplis, while appealing in its simplicity, leaves much to be desired in its efficacy. The offense/defense military balance has never been an objective thing, but rather what military cultures and leaders make of it.

Discussions on capability are replete with technology fetishism, revealing more about what U.S. planners find to be important than they do about what adversaries think about the military balance. David Ochmanek’s aforementioned thesis, for example, that A2/AD capabilities create “windows of opportunity” lacks an evidentiary basis. Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, has had “A2/AD capabilities” since time immemorial, organized under complementary offensive and defense operational concepts. Which capabilities are clear indicators of plans for a campaign of aggression? When speaking to adversary strategy the important question is how those military communities plan to use those capabilities, their operational concepts, and theory of victory.

Some of these arguments stem from dated views on what shapes decision-making. Political leaders do not make decisions to go to war based on their enthusiasm over a specific set of military technologies, be they air defense systems, anti-ship missiles, or the latest tank. Not only does the strategy community indulge in mirror imaging, it also projects its own profession’s predilections into the minds of foreign leaders. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are not military planners by training, nor do they stay up at night reading technical manuals on niche capabilities or wargaming with many-sided dice. Hence much of the handwringing over America’s military edge is neither here nor there when it comes to the question of how to shape the calculus of political leaders.

Most acquisitions only marginally improve warfighting potential and restore America’s competitive edge in a way that is not meaningful to adversary decision-makers and will not decisively factor into their political leadership’s decision to engage in aggression. Furthermore, the military balance is a somewhat abstract notion because forces do not walk off ledgers neatly onto a battlefield. In many cases adversaries may not be impressed by U.S. military potential given how much of it may be irrelevant in a specific contingency. Argentina didn’t expect the British Navy to show up in 1982, and arguably, neither did the British Navy. In other cases they may be unnecessarily fearful. The notion that both sides have an objective understanding of the military balance, and value or factor capabilities evenly, is highly erroneous.

Great-power interregnums lend themselves to mythmaking about adversary strategy, intent, or the character of war — myths that can sharply diverge from reality. There is a robust debate on whether the factors that have shaped the types of aggression observed in international relations post-1945 will continue to hold. It is of course important to hedge against an uncertain future and not fall victim to the fallacy of secular trends. However, the discourse on fait accompli strategies reflects a poor understanding of the calculus behind this strategy.  Consequently, defense planning assumptions have led to questionable warfighting contingencies, and equally questionable remedies for how to deter them. The threat of territorial revisionism by fait accompli is very real, but its expressions are treated as lesser cases, or simply ignored. Prevailing scenario constructs need to be revisited in the next defense strategy along with how we think about the fait accompli.



Michael Kofman is a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as research fellow at the National Defense University and a nonresident fellow at Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed here are his own.

 Image: saamiblog