Is Russia’s Invasion a Case of Coercive Diplomacy Gone Wrong?
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Conventional wisdom can change quickly. Whereas many opinion-makers once believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats were no more than a bluff, after Russian forces invaded Ukraine (again), conventional wisdom settled on a new position: that he planned to invade Ukraine all along, and that Moscow’s diplomatic efforts in advance of the assault were mere window-dressing meant to distract and divide the West. However, it is worth considering that the opposite might be true: that Moscow thought it might obtain some of its aims via coercive diplomacy and brinksmanship, and that the final decision to invade was only taken after these efforts failed. This could, in part, explain why the initial Russian military operation was so “bizarre” and haphazard — defined by “underweighted” and “piecemeal” attacks, obvious logistical problems, and a lack of basic combined arms tactics — and why most Russian soldiers were not told they would be invading Ukraine until the last moment (or, in some cases, not at all). How can we reconcile all the time and effort supposedly spent preparing for this invasion with the Russian army’s apparent lack of readiness for it?
Rather than interpreting the invasion as proof of Putin’s revanchist ambitions, or of secret plans to conquer the former-Soviet “near-abroad” by force, policymakers, analysts, and other observers should consider an alternate hypothesis: that Putin intended, and indeed expected, to achieve his political aims merely by presenting a highly credible threat. As Charles Michel, the president of the European Council aptly put it, Putin was attempting to commit “geopolitical terrorism,” holding Ukraine hostage in order to coerce its leaders, the United States, and NATO to meet his political demands. The invasion may have been the cruel consequence of Putin’s failed coercive diplomacy, and evidence of an inept strategist at the helm of the Russian state.
Historians will no doubt debate this question for years, but it seems plausible that the final decision to invade may have been made only weeks ahead of the invasion, after coercive diplomacy failed to achieve Russia’s objectives short of war. This hypothesis would be well supported if Russia’s military buildup was clearly coupled with diplomatic demands and a deadline intended to create political pressure to compel concessions by both NATO and Ukraine through the credible threat of force, not the use of force. We would also need to look for evidence that the decision to invade was contingent on those demands, and thus followed the success or failure (from Russia’s standpoint) of diplomatic negotiations. In this light, the invasion may not have been the plan, but rather a product of its failure.
Coercion, Diplomacy, and Russia’s Goals
At the strategic level, the cause of the current conflict in Ukraine was a fundamental misperception on all sides about the others’ resolve and credibility. In hindsight, Putin might have chosen a different course if he had more accurately assessed four key factors: first, NATO’s political resolve to maintain its open-door policy, if only in principle; second, NATO’s resolve to maintain its defensive military posture in Eastern Europe; third, Ukraine’s political resolve — from its government to its military to its society — to defend its territory; and fourth, Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.
Ukraine’s leaders also might have chosen a different course if they had a more accurate understanding of two key factors: first, Russia’s resolve over its political demands, and its willingness to back them with military force if need be; and second, NATO’s resolve to stay out of the conflict beyond supplying weapons and levying sanctions in response to further Russian aggression. Perhaps it is fair to say that NATO and Ukraine failed to deter the Russian invasion, but it’s important to bear in mind the crucial context: Russia was attempting to coerce NATO and Ukraine to alter their policies. Coercive diplomacy is the art of conveying credible threats and political resolve to other states through the purposeful combination of demonstrative military force and diplomatic posturing. The web of misperception around Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine indicates a broad failure of Russia’s attempt at coercive diplomacy.
There is a vast body of literature on coercion and coercive bargaining in international relations, but a few key concepts can illuminate important aspects of what is happening in Ukraine, and hopefully start a constructive debate at the same time. Alexander George defined three distinct forms of coercion: “coercive diplomacy,” the coordinated use of military threats and calibrated actions along with diplomatic entreaties (i.e., demands, threats, and incentives) to stop or reverse an offensive action by an opponent; “deterrence,” which seeks to prevent undesirable courses of action from being chosen in the first place; and “blackmail,” in which “coercive threats … [are] employed aggressively to persuade a victim to give up something of value without putting up resistance.” Thomas Schelling, on the other hand, defined two main forms of coercion: deterrence and compellence, in which compellence involves any effort to persuade an opponent to undertake a change in policy or behavior under duress, and thus captures both “coercive diplomacy” and “blackmail” as George defined them.
While “coercion” can (and should) be used to encompass all these various forms, it is worth noting that by George’s definitions, Russia has specifically engaged in blackmail. It has attempted to persuade NATO and Ukraine to give up their pursuit of a military alliance, and to compel Ukraine to accept Russia’s views of the Minsk agreements, first by threatening force, and later by following through on its threats. Schelling would have simply termed this effort “compellence,” as it involves an effort to persuade NATO’s and Ukraine’s political leaders to do something they would clearly rather not do.
However, when it comes to coercion, perspective matters. NATO countries (particularly the United States and United Kingdom) have focused their defense cooperation with Ukraine over the past several years on building up Ukraine’s armed forces and ostensibly improving Ukraine’s eligibility for future membership in the NATO alliance — both intended to deter further Russian aggression. Their goals toward Russia were therefore defensive, designed primarily to prevent a Russian attack. From Russia’s perspective, however, Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership — and its growing military capacity and capability since 2014, in partnership with NATO — represented a revisionist policy course that threatened Russia with further NATO encroachment on former Soviet territory. In other words, Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO was viewed as a corrosive policy course that was already under way, and that needed to be halted and reversed. Where Ukraine and NATO saw themselves as attempting to deter aggression and resist blackmail, Russia saw itself as pursuing coercive diplomacy to compel Ukraine and NATO to reverse course.
Debate over the extent to which past NATO expansion is somehow to blame for the present conflict is beside the point. Obviously, Russia is solely to blame for invading Ukraine in violation of international law and its own past commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. But it is also true that Putin has for decades made perfectly clear that he regards NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat. As such, Ukraine’s increasing alignment with NATO provided an “exacerbating context” for Putin’s anxieties about Russia’s international security and status. At the Munich Security Conference in 2007 he bitterly complained “that NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders” and that NATO expansion “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” This is because Russian elites have tended to regard NATO expansion serving principally as a vehicle for further U.S. military deployments along Russia’s periphery. The sincerity of this grievance was made even clearer when Russia invaded Georgia the following year in support of separatists in South Ossetia. While the immediate goal of invasion was to prevent the reincorporation of South Ossetia into Georgia by force, Russia’s strategic aim was “to teach the West a lesson about Russia’s ability to veto further NATO expansion eastward.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clearly has a similar dimension, and halting Ukraine’s incorporation into the Western alliance system remains the Kremlin’s primary political objective in the conflict.
As NATO allies, U.S. intelligence officials, and serious analysts have acknowledged for years, Ukraine’s path to NATO membership has been illusory since 2008 when NATO declared that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” This unfortunately categorical statement was the result of a compromise between the Bush administration, which wanted to move speedily to welcome these two countries into the alliance, and Germany and France, which were understandably concerned about the Russian reaction. Concerns in Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere were based on a sober understanding that Russia could be willing to use force in response. Even the current director of the CIA, Bill Burns, wrote in 2008 that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).”
Fast forward to 2022: Ukraine’s partnership with NATO countries has continued to strengthen in the interim, resulting in much more tactically and technically proficient Ukrainian armed forces with deep political and intelligence ties with the West. NATO and Ukraine may have assumed that Russia merely wanted to deter Ukraine from joining NATO, and thus viewed their deepening partnership as fair game. This was clearly a miscalculation about Russia’s intention to compel NATO and Ukraine to terminate and reverse what it perceived as a deleterious policy. This framing helps explain why Putin spent the majority of his Feb. 24 speech justifying the invasion by railing against NATO and American unilateralism, before meandering around to the Donbas and “neo-Nazis in Ukraine.” Speaking of NATO’s alleged efforts to encircle Russia, Putin said, “It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty. It is the red line which we have spoken about on numerous occasions. They have crossed it.”
Failing into War
Western intelligence publicly noted an unusual buildup of troops in late October and early November last year, but this was actually the second such military buildup in 2021. Last March and April, Russia similarly positioned over 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border for combat exercises, redeploying roughly 30,000 troops from the Southern, Western, and Central Military Districts to Crimea and regions near Ukraine. The deployment of so many apparently combat-ready forces, complete with a field hospital and troop quarters, was supposedly “In response to the [NATO] alliance’s military activities that threaten Russia.” While Russian officials claimed that the deployment was not meant to threaten anyone, they also claimed they were responding to the “threatening” presence of NATO forces near its borders.
At the time of the show of force in March and April, the conflict in Donbas was heating up with repeated ceasefire violations and combat fatalities near Donetsk, and NATO was beginning its Defender 21 series of exercises, involving a total of 28,000 troops from 26 countries. In this context, Ukraine asked for dialogue with Russia to reduce tensions, and asked for NATO countries to prepare to use economic sanctions to deter a Russian attack. Russia later announced that it would withdraw most of its forces by the beginning of May but left the bulk of arms and equipment in place for the Zapad exercise planned for September.
Over the summer, in the wake of the heightened tensions from these dueling exercises, the United States and Russia engaged in a series of discussions on strategic stability and arms control, focused on “reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.” These negotiations between Putin and President Joe Biden appeared to show some promise, but following Russia’s military buildup for the Zapad exercise in the fall, Russia became increasingly insistent on a legally binding guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO, and a moratorium on missile deployments in Europe. On Dec. 15, Russia presented the United States and NATO with a list of diplomatic demands, several of which seemed wildly unrealistic. Russia effectively demanded that the United States permanently withdraw its nuclear forces from Europe and that NATO refrain from placing forces anywhere in the former Soviet Union. Still, the basic message of Russia’s wishful overture was that Russia wanted stringent, binding security guarantees from the United States and NATO, especially with respect to Ukraine. On Dec. 21, Secretary of State Tony Blinken roundly dismissed Moscow’s demands as “obvious nonstarters.” Then, in what would be perhaps his most direct ultimatum, on Dec. 23, Putin admonished a Western reporter: “You should give us guarantees. You! And without any delay! Now!”
Washington delivered its formal response roughly a month later on Jan. 26. The U.S. counterproposal essentially sought to shift the negotiations to a more sensible but limited dialogue focused on transparency around missile deployment and military exercises, but with none of the security guarantees or assurances with respect to NATO expansion that Russia wanted. Washington also reinforced its message of deterrence with a modest deployment of 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe, principally Poland and Romania, and not surprisingly, both sides, in the words of the White House press secretary, “continued to take escalatory, not de-escalatory steps.” Moscow responded, “It cannot be said that our views were taken into account, or that a readiness to take our concern into account was demonstrated.”
Moscow then attempted yet another round of diplomacy, with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sending letters to Western capitals to press its case about “indivisible security,” and separately, continuing with the Normandy Format negotiations with Ukraine, in which it reiterated its demand that Ukraine negotiate with the separatist regimes in the Donbas. On Feb. 2 and again on Feb. 9, Ukraine’s foreign minister made clear that his government had no intention of negotiating with the separatists in Donbas, or granting them special status under the Minsk agreements, essentially rejecting two of Russia’s key demands with respect to ending the conflict in the Donbas. American news reports noted at the time, “Most experts believe Russia is massing troops near Ukraine in part to try to force Kyiv into moving toward Moscow’s interpretation of the Minsk agreement.” On Feb. 10, Russia and Belarus began the “largest military exercise since the Cold War.” On Feb. 14, Lavrov told Putin in a staged conversation that none of his letters had been answered, but that they should still continue with diplomacy: “We have already warned more than once that we will not allow endless negotiations on questions that demand a solution today.” Ten days later, Russian forces crossed into Ukraine.
Putin’s failure to win concessions through intimidation alone meant that he had to either demobilize his forces or follow through on the tacit threat to invade. The first several days of the invasion demonstrated Russia’s lack of preparedness for “Plan B,” and the initial intention to achieve its aims without large-scale combat. Instead, Putin appears to have hoped for a rapid coup de main by attacking the Ukrainian capital and decapitating the government, apparently relying more on a Ukrainian mutiny and the psychological impact of a sudden attack than on force of arms. He sought to attack Kyiv with a relatively small number of unseasoned and unsupported mechanized forces, and little more than a few hundred paratroopers.
On Feb. 24, a few dozen Russian helicopters and at least 100 airborne forces attacked the Gostomel airfield outside Kyiv, and three helicopters were allegedly shot down. Ukrainian forces led a counterattack to retake the airfield, and after an intense battle, Russian forces eventually secured an airfield that was damaged beyond use. Paratroopers were also sent to capture Kharkiv, along with some light armored vehicles and infantry formations, but without adequate support they were quickly overwhelmed and captured. Russian light vehicles assaulting Kyiv shared a similar fate.
This delusional opening attack, and the apparent lack of preparation for major combat operations across the theater afterwards, evinces a lack of serious consideration of an invasion plan beforehand. Considering the evidence that Russian forces failed to adequately account for the significant practical challenges of equipment maintenance, command and control, operational security, reconnaissance, and intelligence, Russia’s initial invasion verged on lackadaisical. This likely indicates an overconfident expectation that Ukraine would quickly capitulate when faced with an invasion and that Russia would achieve its political goals without serious fighting. While the military capabilities assembled in plain view over the past year ensured that Putin would have the option of invading Ukraine, and persuaded some that he intended to do so, it is difficult to explain away the evident lack of serious planning and preparation for actually executing such a major operation. Attacking Ukraine with less than 200,000 troops may have seemed feasible, but it strains credulity that any military leaders would have agreed to order and execute a major invasion and occupation without having planned for combined-arms support and logistical sustainment beyond the first few days. Instead, the conduct of Russia’s invasion indicates a half-cocked effort to make Ukraine flinch, the culmination of a failed strategy of coercion, rather than a calculated plan for conquest.
Coercive Diplomacy Gone Wrong
As noted, prior to the invasion, there was robust debate over whether Putin intended to invade, or if he was just bluffing. Clearly Putin was not bluffing, but that does not necessarily mean that he intended to invade all along, nor does it mean that Russia’s political demands and diplomatic engagements were all part of a duplicitous ruse. On the contrary, Putin’s decision to invade may have been driven by the perceived need to make good on his tacit threats and may indicate that his political demands were sincere. Indeed, for coercion to be successful, threats must be made to seem credible, practical demands must be made clear, and political resolve around those demands must be effectively conveyed. It is also generally useful to have a clear deadline attached to an ultimatum in order to create a sense of urgency around the demands. The leadup to the war in Ukraine thus provides an object lesson in why coercive diplomacy fails.
First, Russia’s demands were fairly clear and consistent, but they were not particularly realistic, nor were they attached to a defined deadline. Coercive diplomacy is inherently difficult, even when the coercer has clear advantages and relatively modest demands. Unconditional surrender, disarmament, territorial concessions, and regime change are all particularly onerous demands, especially against a well-armed opponent like Ukraine. However, Putin’s repeated efforts to deny Ukraine’s nationhood showed him to be prejudiced and unreasonable, and made it exceedingly difficult to take any diplomatic overtures to Ukraine seriously. His demands that U.S. nuclear weapons be removed from Europe and all NATO forces be pulled out of Eastern Europe were also received as unserious and were bound to be rejected.
With respect to a Russian deadline, the conclusion of the planned exercises in Belarus and the end of the Winter Olympics arguably provided a tacit deadline of Feb. 20, to the point that many open-source intelligence analysts had identified it as a time period of concern. Though intelligence indicated the possibility of a Russian invasion as early as mid-November, the first clear indication (to my knowledge) of the political decision to invade Ukraine came in late December, soon after the public rejection of Russia’s demands in negotiations with the United States. However, Russian officials never issued an overt threat or provided a concrete deadline, except perhaps when Putin made a cryptic reference to “retaliatory military-technical measures” if he did not receive a timely response to his demands, and demanded guarantees “…without any delays! Now!” Indeed, Russia’s consistent denials about the plan to invade, and especially Putin’s reassurances to Macron, may have created doubt about Russian resolve and further undermined the clarity of the threat. Captured war plans indicate that invasion plans were prepared by mid-January at the latest, but diplomacy still might have been used to greater effect up until the invasion, both for threats and for compromise.
Second, Russia badly underestimated Ukraine’s resolve to fight rather than make any territorial or political concessions, as well as NATO’s resolve to preserve its open-door policy (in principle, if not in practice). Additionally, one or more parties may have miscalculated Russia’s resolve, either ignoring the real danger of invasion or concluding that its show of force was a bluff. Russia’s demands in December were dismissed as unrealistic and interpreted as a possible indication that Russia was seeking a pretext for invasion when its demands were rejected. But while Putin’s “nonstarter demands” were clearly unacceptable from the standpoint of the United States and its NATO allies, that does not necessarily mean that they were put forward in bad faith, as is commonly asserted. Instead, they likely reflected Russia’s well-known resentment about past NATO expansion, and a sense that the implicit threat of invasion gave Russia enough leverage to demand whatever it wanted. If the United States and the rest of NATO wanted Russia to spare Ukraine, the direct demands about their military posture in Europe seemed to offer an alternative to war. Either NATO, Ukraine, or both, did not fully appreciate the seriousness of Russia’s tacit threat to invade, or they were simply not concerned enough by the prospect of war to grant Russia the political concessions required to avoid it. In either case, there was at least one gross miscalculation by at least one side (Russia).
While the series of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia since the invasion have not yet produced an end to the war, they have revealed information about Russia’s political demands — now its war aims. Prior to the invasion, Russia’s diplomatic efforts were arguably directed equally if not more toward NATO and the United States than toward Ukraine. With respect to Ukraine, Russia’s demands consistently focused on imposing Moscow’s version of the terms of the Minsk agreements. For the first month of the invasion, Russian negotiators have seemed to feel they have significant coercive leverage in the conflict. With the Minsk agreements truly dead, Russia claimed it intended to fully “demilitarize” Ukraine, and to rewrite its constitution to enshrine its formal neutrality as a matter of policy. These constitute ambitious demands indeed, especially when coupled with an insistence that Ukraine’s armed forces essentially surrender, and that Ukraine recognize Russian sovereignty in Crimea and the independence of the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk.
It now seems clear that the Russian military will be incapable of conquering Ukraine, at least not in the near term, or without significant additional mobilizations. Consequently, the Russian military has begun to signal a narrower set of war aims more focused on its originally stated goal of “liberating” the Donbas. However, the level of brutality exhibited by Russian forces may be in direct proportion to Putin’s level of frustration that his political demands have still not been met, despite all the pain and suffering his forces have inflicted on Ukraine.
The good news is that in spite of Russia’s stated commitment to completing the demilitarization of Ukraine, its overtures before and during the invasion indicate that Russia is interested in a political settlement, not a nationwide attritional campaign followed by long-term occupation. Last year, Putin’s unrealistic, maximalist demands, coupled with doubt over the credibility of Russia’s tacit threats, undermined Russia’s efforts to intimidate Ukraine and NATO, and utterly failed to produce the desired concessions and security guarantees. Instead, these efforts arguably backfired, producing greater solidarity among NATO powers, and between NATO and Ukraine. The United States reiterated its commitment to good-faith diplomacy and to NATO’s open-door policy. Ukraine remained adamant that it would not implement the Minsk agreements as Russia interprets them. In effect, when Ukraine and NATO held firm, it forced Putin to either make good on the threat of force or publicly back down once the scheduled exercises concluded. In this case, Putin sought to preserve his coercion “credibility” over his humanity. This disastrous war is the result of Putin’s coercive diplomacy gone wrong.
Zelensky has recently indicated his openness to discussing a formal end to Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership, and to some of the territorial concessions that Russia has demanded. This would essentially seek to reset the bidding back to Russia’s pre-invasion demands. However, he is understandably less keen to demobilize his armed forces in the face of Russia’s brutal invasion, and in the midst of what looks to be a successful series of (limited) counteroffensives. Given the brave resistance that the Ukrainians have mounted, and the united front presented by the West, Putin would do well to learn from his very recent blunder, and to take Zelensky’s “yes” for an answer. Otherwise, holding out for another set of unrealistic “nonstarter” demands like unconditional surrender and demilitarization could again be self-defeating, and lead to nothing but prolonged suffering on all sides.
James Siebens is a fellow with the Defense Strategy and Planning program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center, and an editor of Military Coercion and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Use of Force Short of War (Routledge 2020). He is currently working on a study of Chinese military coercion.