In Praise of a Measured Response to the Ukraine Crisis

Yesterday afternoon, I tweeted that the Obama administration wasn’t getting enough credit for its measured response to the Ukraine crisis so far, asserting that sanctions were really hurting Russia and noting that “we”—by which I meant the United States—were not directly at war.

Not long after I said that, someone I follow tweeted that he hadn’t seen a compelling explanation of how sanctions are supposed to work in this case. That’s an important question, and one I also haven’t seen or heard answered in depth. I don’t know how U.S. or European officials see this process beyond what they say in public, but I thought I would try to spell out the logic as a way to back up my own assertion in support of the approach the U.S. and its allies have pursued so far.

I’ll start by clarifying what I’m talking about. When I say “Ukraine crisis,” I am referring to the tensions created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its evident and ongoing support for a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. These actions are only the latest in a long series of interactions with the U.S. and Europe in Russia’s “near abroad,” but their extremity and the aggressive rhetoric and action that has accompanied them have sharply amplified tensions between the larger powers that abut Ukraine on either side. For the first time in a while, there has been open talk of a shooting war between Russia and NATO. Whatever you make of the events that led to it and however you assign credit or blame for them, this state of affairs represents a significant and undesirable escalation.

Faced with this crisis, the U.S. and its NATO allies have three basic options: compel, cajole, or impel.

Compel in this case means to push Russia out of Ukraine by force—in other words, to go to war. So far, the U.S. and Europe appear to have concluded—correctly, in my opinion—that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine does not warrant a direct military response. The likely and possible costs of war between two nuclear powers are simply too great to bear for the sake of Ukraine’s autonomy or territorial integrity.

Cajoling would mean persuading Russian leaders to reverse course through positive incentives—carrots of some kind. It’s hard to imagine what the U.S. and E.U. could offer that would have the desired effect, however. Russian leaders consider Ukraine a vital interest, and the West has nothing comparably valuable to offer in exchange. More important, the act of making such an offer would reward Russia for its aggression, setting a precedent that could encourage Russia to grab for more and could also affect other country’s perceptions of the U.S.’s tolerance for seizures of territory.

That leaves impel—to impose costs on Russia to the point where its leaders feel obliged to change course. The chief tool that U.S. and European leaders have to impose costs on Russia are economic and financial sanctions. Those leaders are using this tool, and it seems to be having the desired effect. Sanctions are encouraging capital flight, raising the costs of borrowing, increasing inflation, and slowing Russia’s already-anemic economic growth (see here and here for some details). Investors, bankers, and consumers are partly responding to the specific constraints of sanctions, but they are also responding to the broader economic uncertainty associated with those sanctions and the threat of wider war they imply. “It’s pure geopolitical risk,” one analyst told Bloomberg.

These costs can directly and indirectly shape Russian policy. They can directly affect Russian policy if and as the present leadership comes to view them as unbearable, or at least not worth the trade-offs against other policy objectives. That seems unlikely in the short term but increasingly likely over the long term, if the sanctions are sustained and markets continue to react so negatively. Sustained capital flight, rising inflation, and slower growth will gradually shrink Russia’s domestic policy options and its international power by eroding its fiscal health, and at some point these costs should come to outweigh the putative gains of territorial expansion and stronger leverage over Ukrainian policy.

These costs can also indirectly affect Russian policy by increasing the risk of internal instability. In authoritarian regimes, significant reforms usually occur in the face of popular unrest that may or may not be egged on by elites who defect from the ruling coalition. We are already seeing signs of infighting among regime insiders, and rising inflation and slowing growth should increase the probability of popular unrest.

To date, sanctions have not dented Putin’s soaring approval rating, but social unrest is not a referendum. Unrest only requires a small but motivated segment of the population to get started, and once it starts, its very occurrence can help persuade others to follow. I still wouldn’t bet on Putin’s downfall in the near future, but I believe the threat of significant domestic instability is rising, and I think that Putin & co. will eventually care more about this domestic risk than the rewards of continued adventurism abroad. In fact, I think we see some evidence that Putin & co. are already worrying more about this risk in their ever-expanding crackdown on domestic media and their recent moves to strengthen punishment for unauthorized street rallies and, ironically, calls for separatism. Even if this mobilization does not come, the increased threat of it should weigh on the Russian administration’s decision-making.

In my tweet on the topic, I credited the Obama administration for using measured rhetoric and shrewd policy in response to this crisis. Importantly, though, the success of this approach also depends heavily on cooperation among the U.S. and the E.U., and that seems to be happening. It’s not clear who deserves the credit for driving this process, but as one anonymous tweeter pointed out, the downing of flight MH17 appears to have played a role in deepening it.

Concerns are growing that sanctions may, in a sense, be too successful. Some observers fear that apparent capitulation to the U.S. and Europe would cost Russian leaders too much at home at a time when nationalist fervor has reached fever pitch. Confronted with a choice between wider war abroad or a veritable lynch mob at home, Putin & co. will, they argue, choose the former.

I think that this line of reasoning overstates the extent to which the Russian administration’s hands are tied at home. Putin & co. are arguably no more captive to the reinvigorated radical-nationalist fringe than they were to the liberal fringe that briefly threatened to oust them after the last presidential election.

Still, it is at least a plausible scenario, and the U.S. and E.U. have to be prepared for the possibility that Russian aggression will get worse before it gets better. This is where rhetorical and logistical efforts to bolster NATO are so important, and that’s just what NATO has been doing. NATO is predicated on a promise of collective defense; an attack on any one member state is regarded as an attack on all. By strengthening Russian policy-makers’ beliefs that this promise is credible, NATO can lead them to fear that escalations beyond certain thresholds will carry extreme costs and even threaten their very survival. So far, that’s just what the alliance has been doing with a steady flow of words and actions. Russian policy-makers could still choose wider war for various reasons, but theory and experience suggest that they are less likely to do so than they would be in the absence of this response.

In sum, given a short menu of unpalatable options, I think that the Obama administration and its European allies have chosen the best line of action and, so far, made the most of it. To expect Russia quickly to reverse course by withdrawing from Crimea and stopping its rabble-rousing in eastern Ukraine without being compelled by force to do so is unrealistic. The steady, measured approach the U.S. and E.U. have adopted appears to be having the intended effects. Russia could still react to the rising structural pressures on it by lashing out, but NATO is taking careful steps to discourage that response and to prepare for it if it comes. Under such lousy circumstances, I think this is about as well as we could expect the Obama administration and its E.U. counterparts to do.

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Peace *and* Elections in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is slated to hold its next national elections in the not-too-distant future. Presidential balloting is due in 2014, and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2015. As it happens, that’s about the same time NATO is supposed to hand over full responsibility for security in the country to the Government of Afghanistan.

The coincidence of these inflection points has some people worried, and it should. For a while now, international interventionists of various stripes have portrayed democratic elections as catalysts of peace in countries beset by civil wars. The thinking goes something like this: Civil wars are really just domestic politics by other means–in other words, fights over governance. To resolve these fights, you need to get to a government that all parties to the conflict consider legitimate. Free and fair elections are the only way to get to legitimate government nowadays; ergo, you can’t get to conflict resolution without going through elections.

In an important recent paper, however, political scientists Dawn Brancati and Jack Snyder argue that elections held soon after civil wars end are more likely to spur renewed fighting than they are to cement the peace. “Bringing quantitative evidence to bear on this heretofore largely qualitative policy debate,” they write, “we find that the skeptics are correct in their central claim: holding elections too soon after a civil war raises substantially the risk of war occurring again.”

This outcome isn’t inevitable, of course. From their statistical analysis, Brancati and Snyder also conclude that “decisive victories, demobilization, and peacekeeping diminish the fighting capacity of former combatants who might otherwise be tempted to return to war when faced with unfavorable election results.” Importantly, they also argue that international actors can help bring about these more propitious conditions, or at least to avoid pressing for the unfavorable combination of unstable peace and quick elections.

International involvement has often pushed for early elections in risky conditions, when recently warring factions remain well armed and able to use violence to contend for power. Indeed, international actors have helped create these conditions in the first place by pressing warring factions to reach settlements before one side has defeated the other. However, international actors can sometimes create conditions that mitigate the risk posed by early elections when they provide robust peacekeeping, facilitate the demobilization of armed forces, back power sharing agreements, and help build robust political institutions. Thus, we argue that international pressure in favor of early elections strengthens peace when it provides these stabilizing instruments, but it undermines peace when it is not backed by effective means to achieve stable democracy.

Unfortunately, none of the “favorable conditions” identified by Brancati and Snyder exists today in Afghanistan. For starters, there isn’t yet a peace agreement. It’s possible that a peace deal negotiated between now and 2014 might involve a power-sharing government, but that outcome would actually be in tension with the commitment to free and fair elections. Either the next elections are fair and competitive, in which case the power-sharing deal is essentially dead on arrival; or the power-sharing deal trumps the elections, in which case the balloting is an exercise in wasted spending and dashed expectations. Either way, the two processes seem to be working at cross purposes.

Some observers are already talking about how to put these processes on more complementary tracks. In a recent blog post for Foreign Policy in Focus, writer Conn Hallinan sees a cease-fire, a government of national unity, a constitutional assembly, a regional conference, and continued development assistance as the ingredients most likely to produce a successful exit from this messy tangle.

Hamish Nixon and Caroline Hartzell put more meat on some of those bones in a December 2011 report for the U.S. Institute for Peace, arguing that “any negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict should involve a set of transitional arrangements to govern the period between the signing of a peace settlement, a cease-fire, and the entry into force of more permanent institutions for conflict management.” That transitional period would involve negotiations over long-term institutions, the form of which would not necessarily be proscribed by the existing constitution. In their view,

A wide range of potential measures could create opportunities among the conflicting parties to share influence, as well as balance that influence with more roles for noncombatants, civilian political actors, and vulnerable groups.

Power sharing and reform are not mutually exclusive approaches to addressing the political dimensions of the conflict. A combination of power-sharing, power-dividing, power-creating, and power-diffusing mechanisms can provide groups within divided societies with assurances that they will not be permanently excluded from state power and resources, while generating more effective and accountable governance and establishing the foundations for a more capable, accountable, and resilient state.

In Afghanistan, this might include clarifying or even redefining the powers of the president, National Assembly, and the courts, modifying the relationship between the central government and provincial and district administrations, or creating and diffusing decision-making authority among new or existing institutions over issues such as appointments.

I don’t know whether either of these approaches would work, and I don’t know what other options might exist. I do know, though, that we should be dubious of the assumption that the upcoming elections will automatically advance the causes of peace and development in Afghanistan, as long as they’re sufficiently clean and well-run.

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