The High Cost of Committing Human Error with Ukraine

by Wall Street Rebel | Michael London | 02/16/2022 8:37 AM
The High Cost of Committing Human Error with Ukraine

Each side is attempting to persuade the other that war is costly. It's a tricky game with intentional ambiguity that may lead to fatal miscalculations and human mistakes.


The governments of Moscow and Washington are engaged in a high-stakes, ever-more sophisticated game of signaling to accomplish their aims without firing a single shot in the direction of Kyiv when it comes to the situation in Ukraine.

Traditional diplomacy is just one component of this dance, which also involves various other elements and movements. The shutting of embassies, the holding of leader meetings, and the dumping of information are all designed to indicate each country's readiness to carry out certain threats or face specific future risks.

Its goal is to determine the future of Europe as definitively as if it were decided by war. Still, it does so by telegraphing how a fight might play out rather than actively participating in it, as would be expected if it were. In essence, it is a form of high-stakes negotiation that is carried out both verbally and through actions.

Russia expects that by relocating thousands of soldiers from its far eastern frontier to the Ukrainian border, it would be able to convince Washington and Kyiv that it is prepared to go to war to achieve its goals and that those nations would be better off satisfying Russian demands peacefully.

By acknowledging the possibility of a Russian invasion, even closing its embassy in Kyiv, and threatening economic retaliation, the Biden administration sends a message to Moscow that it should not expect desperate American concessions, making further escalation less appealing.

In recent weeks, there has been a flood of similar gestures. Russia conducted naval exercises in the Black Sea, implying closing trade routes. President Biden and European leaders issued synchronized statements, showing that they are unafraid of American sanctions threats that would harm Europe and the United States.

However, the more both sides try to make their threats credible, such as by changing troops, the more likely they will make a mistake that would throw the situation out of control.

Each side also cultivates uncertainty about what it will and will not accept and what it will and will not do to force the other side to prepare for all conceivable outcomes, thereby spreading its energies widely over the battlefield.

The White House has said that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin may decide to invade this week, deflating Moscow's careful ambiguity while also indicating, especially to apprehensive Europeans, that any attack would be led by Russia rather than in reaction to an external provocation.

According to President Vladimir Putin, Moscow took efforts on Tuesday to re-create doubt by removing a limited number of soldiers while conducting adjacent military rehearsals and charging Ukraine of genocide against its native Russophone population. By making simultaneous de-escalation and invasion feints on Tuesday, Moscow pressured the West to prepare for both de-escalation and invasion.

"This dynamic is very volatile," said Keren Yarhi-Milo, a Columbia University political scientist who studies how governments communicate and maneuver in times of crisis.

She added several characteristics peculiar to the present crisis, such as different political cultures, multiple audiences, and rising uncertainty, "make signaling at this moment very, very difficult to execute."

As a result, a diplomatic cacophony is nearly as challenging to manage as war itself, with equally high risks.

Would a Russian invasion offer Moscow more benefits than drawbacks?

And, more crucially, will the West's tolerance for the pain of Mr. Biden's proposed sanctions be lower than Russia's, resulting in their abandonment?

If Moscow can convince Washington that the answer to both questions is "yes," Mr. Biden and his allies will be forced to conclude that it is better to make whatever concessions are required to prevent Russia from starting a confrontation with the U.S.

If the U.S. can convince Moscow that both responses are "no," Mr. Putin will have every motive to reduce his losses and back away from the cliff.

When defining what he considers a successful invasion of Ukrainian territory, Mr. Putin has been evasive. And acts like as his recent trip to China or the bravado of his ambassadors in the face of sanctions show that he is ready and willing to accept the foreseeable consequences.

If war were so advantageous, it would very indeed have begun by now, which is one of the numerous signals that Mr. Putin may be bluffing, though how much he is bluffing is difficult to discern.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, has provided armament to Ukraine, sending a message that he wants to make any conflict with Russia more unpleasant for Russia, and has outlined specific punitive measures. While he has hinted at Western unanimity on sanctions, this could be just as much a bluff as Mr. Putin's war rhetoric.

As part of this campaign, his administration has made public what it claims are Russian preparations to fabricate a rationale for war, suggesting that any such ruse would be immediately exposed and hence less appealing.

However, threats and bluffs are most effective when accompanied by action, raising the likelihood of a conflict that neither side may genuinely want.

These attempts are hampered by the fact that each party must convince several audiences with conflicting ideas simultaneously.

Mr. Biden must convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that Western sanctions would be automatic and strong while also persuading Europeans, who will bear the brunt of the financial burden, that sanctions will not be overly harsh or carried out without their approval.

Furthermore, Mr. Putin attempts to portray himself to Western leaders as a war-ready leader while telling war-averse Russian people that he is being pushed into one, for example, by bogus charges of American and Ukrainian aggression against Russian territory.

According to Christopher Bort, a former U.S. intelligence official who wrote an essay for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Western leaders frequently struggle to distinguish between statements intended for them to take seriously and statements intended for them to ignore as domestic bluster.

Mr. Bort went on to say that the Kremlin's "torrent of falsehoods" over Ukraine runs the risk of persuading Western leaders that Moscow's diplomatic entrees can be ignored as cover for an invasion it has already decided to launch — potentially closing the door on a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Mr. Putin's inner circle has dwindled; it has become more controlled by yes-men who tell him what he wants to hear and by security service commanders who are hawkish and wary of the West.

His stance is not unique: studies have shown that strongmen leaders like him are more prone to start wars and more likely to lose them because of their power and authority.

Consequently, what the U.S. regards as Russian brinkmanship or bluffing, such as dismissing sanctions threats or implying that some Ukrainians would welcome Russian liberators, may be genuine beliefs stemming from political instability.

"Information flows to Putin are choppy at best," said Eddie Fishman, a senior official in the Obama administration in charge of sanctions strategy. "Sanctions are a highly technical subject that isn't even well understood in Washington."

So far, neither side has made any glaring misinterpretations of the other's intentions. This might be attributable, in part, to the length of the crisis, which has allowed each capital to promote its intentions and capabilities to the public constantly.

However, as each side intensifies, that same component generates more potential for a mistake.


                       War at what price? Russia, NATO weigh cost of Ukraine showdown • FRANCE 24 English




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