Last week, mainstream media reported that dozens of Russians died fighting U.S.-backed Syrian forces. Let that sink in. Reporters attributed the casualties to a U.S. airstrike, raising the possibility of a direct and deadly Russian-American clash. At a minimum, it tells us that the creeping internationalization of the Syrian civil war has reached a new and dangerous level.
But both Moscow and American officials were quick to clarify that those killed in the Feb. 7 incident were private Russian mercenaries and there was no risk of “direct conflict between United States and Russian forces.”
This episode reminds us that the fog of war is hazardous. And it illustrates one way that adversaries, tacitly or explicitly, can cooperate to minimize the danger of escalation.
Leaders can use incidents like the Syria deaths, or even more minor provocations, as an excuse to escalate war. But studies of crisis prevention, escalation management and my own research on secrecy suggest that adversaries have several ways of walking themselves back from the precipice.
How to defuse a crisis (or, how to make dead Russians disappear)
1. Keep it secret.
Perhaps the safest way to defuse a crisis is to hide it. My research suggests adversaries often rely on secrecy, working to prevent deadly incidents from being exposed in the first place. When both sides want to avoid turning a local conflagration into a larger war, they may find themselves — whether tacitly or explicitly — colluding to conceal.
One startling example comes from the Korean War. The end of the Cold War opened archives that verified Soviet pilots covertly engaged in air-to-air combat with American pilots during the Korean War — not just once but for two years. And a collection of 1,300 declassified documents confirmed that U.S. intelligence agencies knew. One intelligence estimate stated that “a de facto air war exists over North Korea between the UN and the USSR.” But because both sides wanted to limit the war, Moscow and Washington stayed silent.
Or consider a more recent example from among the thousands of war logs disclosed by WikiLeaks. In Iraq in 2006, a routine U.S. border patrol resulted in a deadly exchange of gunfire with Iranian military personnel. Neither nation chose to publicize the incident, avoiding the harsh glare of the spotlight.
2. Distance governments from the incident.
Sometimes an incident is leaked, documented by journalists on the ground or appears on social media. Governments then shift their tactics from secrecy to influencing how others interpret the incident.
By framing an incident as unofficial or accidental, authorities can disperse media coverage, reduce domestic controversy and decouple the government’s reputation from the incident. Even if headlines can’t be avoided, leaders gain breathing room and can better contain the damage.
You can see one such technique in Russia’s statement that private military contractors were killed in Syria: The government is distancing itself from the dead. Whether truthful or misleading, a state gains plausible deniability by characterizing its nationals as nonofficial military personnel, using such terms as contractors, mercenaries, privateers or volunteers. For instance, during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Italy described its forces as “volunteers.” Russia used the same line recently about its personnel in Ukraine. Several other countries currently have such “volunteers” in Syria.
A similar tactic is to claim that an incident was an honest mistake, whether that’s accurate. During the Vietnam War, for example, U.S. leaders covertly attacked sites in neighboring Laos to disrupt the Viet Cong’s efforts to smuggle weapons and people along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Declassified records now publicly available show that U.S. leaders planned to cite “apparent navigational error” if personnel were killed in a way that would “lead to publicity.”
3. Admit and apologize.
A third option is to express diplomatic regret and try to move diplomacy forward. We can see that illustrated in a 2001 incident near Hainan Island. A U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter plane collided; the crash killed the Chinese pilot and stranded an American air crew inside mainland China. Both the United States and China publicly acknowledged the incident, including the fact that official personnel were involved. Washington then chose to meet China’s request for an official apology. The American air crew was released — and the incident disappeared from the headlines, replaced by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks only months later.
Apologizing can be a very risky way — perhaps the riskiest — to defuse a crisis. The meaning of the apology itself can be controversial. For instance, in the Hainan Island incident, U.S. and Chinese representatives disagreed about whether Washington’s statement was an “apology” or merely an “expression of sorrow and regret.” Even worse, Jennifer Lind’s research finds that apologies can trigger a nationalist backlash in the apologizing country; in that case, George W. Bush administration critics called the statement a “national humiliation.”
Lessons from the past for the future
World War I’s lesson still rightly haunts leaders: A local dispute over an assassination can launch a devastating and destructive war. Governments and observers today fear that the rise of China and rhetoric about North Korea could inadvertently escalate — and they are increasingly interested in learning how to prevent that.
But history offers two other lessons. First, very few incidents are like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, quickly exploding from local to international — and leaders can shape what happens, as the United States and Russia just did with the Syria incident. But leaders and their advisers must know escalation management tactics and use them effectively.
A gloomier lesson is that knowing such techniques can invite leaders to meddle overseas, confident that a dangerous clash can be defused. Leaders may hope that by relying on these techniques, they can attack without provocation or send deniable signals of resolve. Just as the ability to claim “navigation error” made it easier for U.S. leaders to rationalize covert operations into Laos during the Vietnam War, Putin likely found it easier to send private contractor units into Syria easier because they could be disavowed if killed. Crisis stability may come at a cost: a more hospitable environment for international intervention.
Austin Carson (@carsonaust) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of “Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics,” forthcoming from Princeton University Press.