Stephen Walt Makes the Case for Appeasing Russia

The leaders of Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine, Feb. 11, 2015Those who favor arming Ukraine are also applying “deterrence model” remedies to what is almost certainly a “spiral model” situation. In his classic book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, political scientist Robert Jervis pointed out that states may undertake what appear to be threatening actions for two very different reasons.

Sometimes states act aggressively because their leaders are greedy, seeking some sort of personal glory, or ideologically driven to expand, and are not reacting to perceived threats from others. The classic example, of course, is Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and in such cases accommodation won’t work. Here the “deterrence model” applies: the only thing to do is issue warnings and credible threats so that the potential aggressor is deterred from pursuing its irrevocably revisionist aims.

By contrast, the “spiral model” applies when a state’s seemingly aggressive policy is motivated primarily by fear or insecurity. Making threats and trying to deter or coerce them will only reinforce their fears and make them even more aggressive, in effect triggering an action-reaction spiral of growing hostility. When insecurity is the taproot of a state’s revisionist actions, making threats just makes the situation worse. When the “spiral model” applies, the proper response is a diplomatic process of accommodation and appeasement (yes, appeasement) to allay the insecure state’s concerns. Such efforts do not require giving an opponent everything it might want or removing every one of its worries, but it does require a serious effort to address the insecurities that are motivating the other side’s objectionable behavior….

Those who now favor arming Ukraine clearly believe the “deterrence model” is the right way to think about this problem. In this view, Vladimir Putin is a relentless aggressor who is trying to recreate something akin to the old Soviet empire, and thus not confronting him over Ukraine will lead him to take aggressive actions elsewhere. The only thing to do, therefore, is increase the costs until Russia backs down and leaves Ukraine free to pursue its own foreign policy. This is precisely the course of action the report from the three think tanks recommends: in addition to “bolstering deterrence,” its authors believe arming Ukraine will help “produce conditions in which Moscow decides to negotiate a genuine settlement that allows Ukraine to reestablish full sovereignty.” In addition to bolstering deterrence, in short, giving arms to Kiev is intended to coerce Moscow into doing what we want.

Yet the evidence in this case suggests the spiral model is far more applicable. Russia is not an ambitious rising power like Nazi Germany or contemporary China; it is an aging, depopulating, and declining great power trying to cling to whatever international influence it still possesses and preserve a modest sphere of influence near its borders, so that stronger states — and especially the United States — cannot take advantage of its growing vulnerabilities. Putin & Co. are also genuinely worried about America’s efforts to promote “regime change” around the world — including Ukraine — a policy that could eventually threaten their own positions. It is lingering fear, rather than relentless ambition, that underpins Russia’s response in Ukraine.

Moreover, the Ukraine crisis did not begin with a bold Russian move or even a series of illegitimate Russian demands; it began when the United States and European Union tried to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and into the West’s sphere of influence. That objective may be desirable in the abstract, but Moscow made it abundantly clear it would fight this process tooth and nail. U.S. leaders blithely ignored these warnings — which clearly stemmed from Russian insecurity rather than territorial greed — and not surprisingly they have been blindsided by Moscow’s reaction. The failure of U.S. diplomats to anticipate Putin’s heavy-handed response was an act of remarkable diplomatic incompetence, and one can only wonder why the individuals who helped produce this train wreck still have their jobs.

If we are in a “spiral model” situation, arming Ukraine will only make things worse. It certainly will not enable Ukraine to defeat the far stronger Russian army; it will simply intensify the conflict and add to the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Image: The leaders of Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine, Feb. 11, 2015 (photo: Office of the President of Russia)