The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. and Europe didn’t get what they wanted from Putin. But Putin didn’t get what he wanted from them.

Russia’s president made threats without offering assurances

Military vehicles drive along a street in the separatist-controlled region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine on Feb. 22. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

With Russian troops now entering the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, there has been much hand-wringing about the failure of U.S. and European diplomacy to deter Russian aggression.

However, an equally important question is why Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts at “compellence” have failed. While deterrence is the art of using threats to dissuade an adversary from attacking, compellence is the art of using threats (rather than brute force) to extract a concession from the adversary. The West and Ukraine may have failed to deter Russia, but Russia has also failed to compel Ukraine.

Earlier in the crisis, Russia demanded an end to NATO enlargement — and withdrawal of NATO military forces from countries that joined NATO after 1997, even those that joined early on, like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Presumably, Putin would prefer to achieve those aims peacefully, given the costs and risks of war. Yet he has failed to do so. Both Ukraine and NATO have refused to offer any significant concessions.

And yet Putin’s threats seem credible. Biden no longer doubts that Putin is willing to invade Ukraine. Many countries are withdrawing their personnel in anticipation of war. If Putin’s threats to invade Ukraine are credible, why are his opponents not backing down?

Compellence requires both credible threats and credible assurances. While Putin’s threats are credible, his assurances are not. Even if he made a deal now, Putin would find it hard to commit to honoring it in the future.

What would an invasion of Ukraine mean for Russia?

Why assurances matter

War is costly for all involved, which suggests countries have reason to find a peaceful bargain that both sides prefer to fighting. In this case, if Russia really did just want to prevent Ukraine’s membership in NATO or the European Union, and was willing to fight to prevent this from happening, it might seem reasonable that Ukraine and NATO agree to these terms rather than face a costly war.

By all accounts, NATO has no current plans to offer membership to Ukraine or other countries. NATO members have made it clear Ukraine’s membership is not on the table. Many U.S. policy makers across the political spectrum are opposed to NATO enlargement. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has publicly stated that NATO membership is no more than a “dream.” So why not bargain with Putin to avoid a war that will be costly for all sides?

Our research suggests the challenge lies in credibly assuring the other side that your aims are limited. Yes, it would seem rational for the United States and its NATO allies to accept a deal to keep Ukraine out of NATO, in exchange for a peaceful resolution to the current Russia-Ukraine crisis. But if the United States and Europe think Russia harbors more ambitious aims in Ukraine, then a deal might not make sense.

For Putin, invading Ukraine comes with political risk at home, these surveys show

For example, what if Russia’s interests lie beyond Ukraine’s membership in NATO? Isolating Ukraine may strengthen Russia, and make it easier to achieve further goals that Putin may have. Moscow could then demand basing rights in Ukraine, or other infringements on Ukrainian sovereignty.

All of this would weaken Ukraine and make it easier for Russia to impose its will. Under these circumstances, in Ukraine’s view, it might better to face a war with Russia now, rather than fight later after making concessions that weaken Ukraine’s ability to resist.

Putin makes threats without offering assurances

The assurance side of compellence is where Russia has underperformed. Putin has not offered much in the way of assurances throughout the crisis. There are at least two additional reasons Putin would find it difficult to reassure his opponents that his aims are limited.

First, Putin’s past actions include intervention in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014, and in eastern Ukraine thereafter, giving Russia a questionable track record. He has made it clear that he views the post-Soviet space as a region where Russia may intervene at will. By seizing Crimea from Ukraine, he showed a disregard for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the treaties and agreements Russia signed that pledged to respect it.

Don't miss any of TMC's smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

And second, Putin’s own reflections indicate he does not see Ukraine as a sovereign nation — and does not see Ukrainians as distinct from Russians. He has often lamented the end of the Soviet Union as a tragedy that split “historical Russia.” His recent speech articulated a series of grievances against Ukraine that go well beyond NATO membership. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that complete subjugation of Ukraine remains Putin’s goal.

If that is the case, Western diplomats may conclude that conceding to current Russian demands may only strengthen Russia to pursue further demands against Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. That might make fighting now appear a somewhat better choice than fighting later on worse terms. Without credible assurances that Russia’s demands are limited, Putin’s compellence is likely to fail.

Professors: Don’t miss TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides

Andrew H. Kydd is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Find him on Twitter at @AHKydd.