Making Coercion Work Against Russia
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
As the Ukraine war enters its third week, Western countries continue to impose significant economic sanctions against Russia and support Ukrainian forces with overt military aid. But Western leaders have refrained from making explicit demands about what Russia must do for this coercive punishment to stop. There have been calls on President Vladimir Putin to end hostilities and military operations in Ukraine. But, so far, these requests are not especially specific, nor are Western leaders connecting them to the rollback of economic sanctions and military aid.
Many analysts and reporters have noticed the absence of coercive demands with alarm. If the United States and Europe hope to compel Putin to stop the war, they will need to tell Putin what specific actions he can take to reconnect Russia to the global economy. A compellence strategy imposes costs with the threat of more pain to come until an adversary changes its behavior in some way. It must involve clear demands. Otherwise, the adversary could assume that no amount of concessions will be sufficient to end the punishment. In the Ukraine war, however, the Western focus on economic and military punishment seem prudently designed to turn up the heat on Putin and his elite supporters. Indeed, withholding demands buys time for sanctions and lethal aid to inflict visible costs on Russia.
But the success of punishment today creates a key dilemma for coercion tomorrow: It is going to be difficult to credibly promise the Russians that this pain will stop. On the one hand, the United States and Europe need to convey their resolve to punish Russia until it withdraws from Ukraine. On the other hand, Washington and Brussels must eventually promise to roll back punishment if Moscow concedes. This assurance would present Putin with an off-ramp to avoid further pain by complying with Western demands over Ukraine.
Assurances will be an ugly but essential component of the coercive campaign against Russia. Putin deserves no quarter for his unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. The natural inclination is to “toss him an anvil, not a life jacket,” as Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov recently lamented. Putin may also reject any off-ramp offered to him at this stage. “I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now,” CIA Director William J. Burns stated to Congress on March 8, underscoring that “he’s likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties.” But pushing a nuclear-armed autocrat down the plank without any exits could be dangerous for Europe and the world. Moreover, assurances are not rewards for atrocious behavior — they merely lay out the terms for punishment to stop once Moscow reverses course. Western leaders should therefore consider how current efforts to ratchet up punishment might make it harder to credibly assure the Kremlin down the road, and start planning for difficult diplomatic dilemmas ahead.
Economic Warfare: Hard to Turn Off
The centerpiece of Western pressure on Russia is a broad array of financial sanctions. These are creating immense costs across the Russian economy. As tools for getting states what they want, sanctions in general have a mixed track record. But, they are most likely to work when applied by multilateral coalitions and international institutions. Sanctions are also sticky; once applied, they often become difficult to remove. In this case, the pressure has been highly coordinated, particularly between the United States and the European Union. In addition to governmentally imposed restrictions, many private companies are “self-sanctioning” by withdrawing their services, investments, and purchasing from the Russian market.
The extent and nature of the sanctions imposed against Russia make it more likely that restrictions will remain in place for a considerable time. Some measures — such as blocking off Russia’s central bank — may not have been anticipated by Moscow. Russian institutions appear to be left with few workarounds to insulate themselves against new measures. A key implication here is that sanctions will be strongest in their initial use, before Russia has a chance to insulate its economy even further. So, states applying economic pressure are best served using these tools now, rather than assuming that they would have similar effects if threatened or reapplied in the future. The effects of economic levers are also likely to grow as the sanctions remain in place. This creates an additional incentive for Western states to keep the sanctions in place: It allows them to potentially avoid imposing additional measures that they themselves will find more costly.
It’s also not likely that any of the sanctioning countries will be able to bail out from the sanctions regime easily. The highly publicized nature of this coordination also signals the strength of the opposition to Russia — countries are less likely to bow out of terms when they commit themselves collectively in front of public audiences. Finally, the coordination of sanctions took considerable effort, so stakeholders are likely to become vested in maintaining this economic punishment regime until a potentially large set of goals, including retributive punishment against Russia, is met.
Beyond government sanctions, many private companies have decided to pull out of the Russian market in various ways. The voluntary withdrawal of major enterprises — notably BP, Shell, Disney, Netflix, Apple, FedEx, DHL, Visa, and Mastercard — expands the effect of sanctions to more businesses and individuals. Energy companies started to avoid Russian oil and gas purchases before the United States announced governmental bans on this activity. The steps by private companies allow the United States and its partners to apply greater pressure while avoiding domestic political backlash that might arise from requiring private companies to take the actions they’ve taken voluntarily.
So far, the Western sanctions regime has been effective in ratcheting up the punishment for Russia. The traditional logic of compellence stipulates that the costs imposed on Russia must not only be high, but also come with the expectation that this pain will continue or even increase until Putin reverses course. This suggests that Western nations need to carefully control economic damage — increasing the financial costs before decreasing or ultimately removing the pain altogether. The sanctions biting into the Russian economy right now may be ill-suited to this task.
Some economic sanctions on Russia can be lifted with a policy statement, but that means they can be reinstated or changed as well, and that might give Russian leaders pause. From a practical standpoint, it would be fairly easy for states to alter the content or timing of a sanctions policy change. There is no way to assure Russia that a particular policy will indeed be announced as soon as its tanks cross back into Russia. In a de-escalation scenario, if Russia withdraws from Ukraine, these steps will be difficult to reverse quickly. They would be giving up tactical positions, and pulling back lines of logistical support. What if Russia takes these steps but the West decides to renege and not announce any change to the sanctions policy? Or lift some sanctions but not others? At that point, Russia would have even less leverage to influence the policy choices. Western governments also cannot promise a return to business as usual because they cannot control the willingness of private companies to do business with Russia.
The multilateral approach also creates incentives for this coalition to continue its pressure even in the event of Russian de-escalation over Ukraine. Deep differences could emerge among sanctioning states as to what concession or change of behavior by Russia would be sufficient to lift sanctions. For example, some sanctioning states will themselves face greater blowback costs from sanctions, and so may be willing to accept less from Russia in order to end sanctions sooner. Others — including, of course, Ukraine itself — could set the bar higher. This dynamic makes it hard to use promises to lift sanctions as a credible bargaining tool. It also privileges maintaining the restrictions that states already managed to agree upon.
In addition, the relative power of the Western bloc may increase further as the Russian economy collapses. Russia’s weakness may be perceived as an opportunity to use sanctions to further degrade its ability to fight future conflicts. The problem is not in the desire to use sanctions in this manner — which is itself a potentially effective strategy — but rather in Russia’s expectation that this will be the case. Knowing that an even more powerful West will be tempted to continue pressing, Russia has few reasons to believe an off-ramp that includes claims that sanctions would be lifted. This expectation would strangle any prospects for diplomacy.
Overt Military Aid: Fast and Risky
Western nations have marshaled massive packages of lethal military aid to arm Ukrainian forces with a variety of weapons and equipment — from Javelin antitank and Stinger surface-to-air missiles to machine guns, sniper rifles, ammunition, and secure communication systems. Washington authorized over $350 million in military aid and started delivering the weapons to staging grounds in Poland within days. The European Union took the unprecedented step of establishing a common purchase fund of almost $500 million for members to send weapons. So far, over 22 countries have joined this effort to flow arms and material support into Ukraine.
Military aid is a venerable tactic for inflicting pain on an adversary without the risks associated with direct action. The goal is simple: Arm Ukrainians so they can more effectively kill Russian soldiers and resist the invasion. In the past, however, lethal military assistance has often been cloaked under a veil of plausible deniability. Washington’s use of covert intermediaries in Pakistan to support the mujahideen insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan is the most infamous example. The covert nature of this lethal military assistance dampened escalation risks between the two superpowers, which helped to keep the local war from spilling over into a major confrontation. Russia also seems to utilize private mercenary forces, notably the Wagner Group, to intervene in local conflicts around the world without running risks of direct confrontation with Western militaries.
The notable difference in Ukraine today is that Western nations are brandishing military aid in an overt fashion. Many leaders have made public announcements laying out material support commitments to Ukraine; official government social-media accounts echo these statements.
The overt nature of this military aid campaign can enhance coercive punishment against Moscow in three ways. First, the United States and its European allies appear to be imposing more immediate costs on Russian forces compared to going covert. Sending weapons to Ukraine in plain sight enables the West to send more weapons faster than if it were trying to do so stealthily and with deniability. Instead of making lengthy efforts to hide weapon shipments to staging grounds, Western nations can spend more time and resources on supplying military aid as quickly as possible given operational security concerns. The outpouring of support seems to be bolstering the morale and capabilities of Ukrainian forces, enabling them to inflict grave setbacks on the Russian incursion.
Second, overt military assistance demonstrates Western resolve to run significant risks over Ukraine. There is a stronger element of brinkmanship at play here relative to the covert option. Overtly arming Ukrainians sets in motion a process that could get out of hand, dragging the United States and NATO closer toward the brink of direct intervention against Russian forces. The groundswell of public opposition in the West to Russia’s actions may soon push Western leaders to become more involved in the conflict. For example, a chorus of voices is already calling for more lethal aid and even attacks on Russia to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This process puts pressure on Moscow (and the West) to end the crisis before it boils over.
Third, the focus on public signals bolsters alliance cohesion. NATO members have struggled to mount unified responses to Russian revanchism in the past. But Western leaders are now tying their hands to military aid commitments in front of each other and their audiences at home and abroad, including Moscow. Military staff from the United States, Britain, and the European Union are also coordinating several efforts to send weapons and materials to Ukraine, pulling NATO and E.U. members closer together. These highly visible steps raise the costs of defection — states are less likely to break ranks down the road after making overt commitments and empowering multilateral coordination cells. The more unified the response that Russia confronts, the greater the threat of punishment becomes as the war drags out.
The campaign to arm Ukraine is proving to be an essential tactic for routing Russian forces and increasing the cost of the war for Moscow. This effort should continue until Russia reverses course. But as with the sanctions, the same attributes that make the overt provision of military aid such a powerful instrument of coercive punishment also create barriers to guiding Putin down an off-ramp later. Public rather than secret commitments to arm Ukraine’s military introduce domestic political friction into any future rollback process. It will be more difficult for Western leaders to dial these activities back down without sparking domestic criticism. Western leaders may need to consider the electoral consequences of ending military aid, especially if the public views rollback as tantamount to appeasing Putin.
In a similar vein, disagreements among nations about when to end military assistance could spoil diplomatic deals down the road. Some European states more directly threatened by Russian aggression now have even stronger incentives to further bolster future deterrence through more military assistance. This may well be a prudent move. The Baltics, for example, might see a bargain with Russia that limits Western assistance as resolving an immediate problem at the expense of creating another one down the line. This variety of incentives within the coalition will make it difficult to maintain unity after the moment of crisis passes. And as with the financial sanctions, Russia might anticipate that some states will want to keep sending weapons into Ukraine, and see assurances about the future of military aid as meaningless and little reason to change its behavior.
The rapid provision of weapons at the outset of the conflict could enable an insurgency to flourish in Ukraine over the long term. Given the overt commitments made so far, Western countries would become the public patrons of such a resistance force. But it can be hard to end an insurgent movement. Guerilla attacks can continue well after weapon shipments end. This would make it difficult to scale back the violence in Ukraine as part of a negotiated settlement with Moscow. Russia is no stranger to observing how military assistance takes on a life of its own during a long insurgency, so may not see even a promise to cease future lethal aid to Ukraine as such a valuable Western concession in a bargain.
Compellence usually benefits from laying out specific demands with deadlines by which time the adversary must comply. “There has to be a deadline,” Thomas Schelling underscored, “otherwise tomorrow never comes.” Without a deadline, the adversary could use diplomacy as a ruse to buy time while advancing its objectives. But in this case, Western countries may well be deliberately delaying their demands, even though it seems to violate a core tenet of compellence. The White House intimated as much on Mar. 3, with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters, “I don’t think now is the moment where we are giving anybody that sort of an off-ramp.” Delayed demands may be quite beneficial in the context of the Ukraine conflict for three reasons.
First, withholding demands could buy time for economic sanctions and military aid to inflict visible costs on Russia. Unlike direct military action, the full effects of these types of measures are not apparent immediately. In some past coercive campaigns, states have also let the punishment kick in before laying out specific criteria for it to end. Before negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran over its nuclear program in 2015, for example, the United States walked away from public diplomacy for several years and laid siege to Tehran with harsh multilateral sanctions. Western leaders may want to make the unfolding status quo in Ukraine more untenable for Putin. As key actors in Russia feel the mounting costs of the conflict with each passing day, they could become more pliable to Western demands to change this status quo.
Second, the situation on the ground in Ukraine may be moving too fast for the West to nail down concrete demands. By exercising patience, Western states put themselves in a better position to identify more specific bargaining terms as the situation solidifies. The ideal demand today might not be the prudent demand a week later. Leaders do not want to make a demand and then make a new, lesser demand — it gives the appearance that they are conceding. Unfortunately, smaller demands sometimes become the only viable option for ending the conflict. The grim logic of war termination therefore means that leaders may be wise to hold off on issuing public demands during the initial stages of battle.
Third, the absence of public demands opens space for Western diplomats to probe conditions behind closed doors. Perhaps Washington and Brussels already conveyed conditions to Moscow in private through backchannels or intermediaries. This move could help the West to manage the dilemma between imposing significant punishment on Putin while eventually presenting him with an off-ramp to end the war. Private demands would give the United States and its allies more room to maneuver without the appearance of backing down or relieving pressure.
There are, however, some notable downsides to delayed demands when it comes to creating credible off-ramps out of the conflict. The lack of clear demands might fuel a belief that Putin already seems to hold — the notion that the West is determined to undermine and weaken Russia. The image of punitive measures targeting Russia with no end in sight could be used to further galvanize Putin’s domestic propaganda. In this environment, Putin himself, his top leadership, and the broader Russian public may become increasingly unlikely to believe any Western off-ramp offers made down the road. The lack of public demands also erodes the credibility of any promises attached to private discussions. It is easier for leaders to disavow pledges made away from public scrutiny. Russia may anticipate this and see private assurances as inherently not credible, or worry that Western leaders will be pressured by their own publics to reverse assurances when they are revealed.
It is, of course, important to underscore that the Ukrainian people will ultimately decide what terms they can accept with Russia. They should retain full agency to accept or reject any negotiated settlement.
The West should try to stay on the same page as the Ukrainian government. Keeping a close eye on the tradeoffs between coercive punishment and assurance will be crucial. Other scholars have already noted how direct military involvement raises escalation risks. Our analysis suggests another dynamic. Western sanctions and military aid are improving Ukraine’s bargaining leverage. But the success of this punishment could make it harder for the Ukrainians to cut a deal with Russia, if diplomacy ever returns as a viable solution. Western leaders may not be able to turn off the heat on Moscow in a seamless fashion, or even agree on when it should be turned off — the water in the pot may continue to boil for some time. Without clear signs that de-escalation will ease punishment on Russia beyond the battlefields in Ukraine, Moscow may opt to double down on the war. In this way the West could inadvertently spoil a deal the Ukrainians broker to end the war with Russia.
Putin’s track record of coercive diplomacy in the lead-up to the invasion also suggests that he could reject all off-ramps in the future. He has repeatedly used diplomacy to practice deception. He may double down anyway, seeing victory on the ground as the only acceptable outcome, even at immense economic cost. Yet it is still essential to make sure that punishment levers can be dialed down as part of a coherent compellence strategy. Putin’s rejection of reasonable off-ramps would itself provide timely warning of even more malign revanchist motives. Moreover, it could be more costly to back Putin into a corner where escalation with more indiscriminate violence is his sole option. Even deals with small probabilities of success are worth trying to avoid greater catastrophe.
At this stage we cannot divine the precise shape that assurances or off-ramps might take as the conflict unfolds. The difficulty of making both threats and assurances credible haunts compellence strategies in general. But it appears to be especially vexing in the Ukraine conflict. Unfortunately, our analysis does not yield satisfying solutions to the dilemma, beyond identifying how it works and what kind of problems should be anticipated.
The policy focus thus far has rightly been on making the war costly for Russia in economic and military terms. Going forward, any transition to compellence will require greater attention to the tension between inflicting necessary damage on Moscow while ultimately promising to stop the punishment once Putin complies with Ukrainian and Western demands. There are good reasons to keep these preparations private. But Western leaders should anticipate the friction points likely to emerge from the coercive tactics on vivid display now, especially if war termination does ultimately require the Ukrainians to strike a grim bargain with Moscow.
Jane Vaynman is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University. She is the 2021-22 Lightning Scholar at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @JaneVaynman.
Tristan A. Volpe is an assistant professor in the Defense Analysis Department of the Naval Postgraduate School and a nonresident fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is grateful for insightful feedback on earlier parts of this analysis from his students. Follow him on Twitter at @TeeAndersVolpe.
The views in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.