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Chekhov's gun is the famous theatrical principle that one "must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off." From Washington to Berlin to Kyiv, officials and experts are warning that there is a loaded gun on the stage in Eastern Europe, and that Russia could invade Ukraine as early as January.
But unlike theater, geopolitics does not follow a script. There is still a chance the gun will not be fired. One man — Vladimir Putin — will decide whether Russia will attack. However, responses from the United States, Europe and Ukraine itself may shape Putin's choice.
For years, experts have hotly debated whether engaging with Putin is helpful or harmful at volatile moments like this and how to use negotiations and penalties to persuade him to stand down. To understand the most effective way to manage the crises Putin periodically induces, it’s helpful to look at the track record of the past few. In Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014 onward) and Syria (2015 onward), the United States successfully balanced firm resolve with limited compromise, with a clear eye toward de-escalating the immediate crisis. Presidents prevented escalation by restricting U.S. military moves to defensive ones and signaling reassurances to Putin that a major U.S. military move wasn’t imminent. The risk of giving even an inch to Putin was mitigated by limited military action, direct engagement with the Russians, tough sanctions, diplomatic and military support to embattled partners, and sustained international solidarity.
Fortunately, Washington appears to be taking precisely this middle-of-the-road approach in the current Russia-Ukraine crisis. In a two-hour video meeting with Putin this week, President Joe Biden threatened a strong sanctions response to any Russian military aggression, voiced the concerns of a broad international coalition and reiterated the right to help Ukraine defend itself. At the same time, he balanced the approach by making clear U.S. troops would not be on the ground in Ukraine, calling for de-escalation and situating the crisis within a broader US-Russian dialogue.
If history is any guide, Biden is doing all of the right things, thus far. This is encouraging. Looking ahead, the playbook America has used to effectively manage Russia’s provocations in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria should continue to inform future policy.
No Military Solution... In all three of the previous crises, the U.S. and its allies concluded that the territory in question was not vital. In Georgia and Ukraine, the U.S. did not have the military capability to engage Russia directly and made clear to partners it would not enter the conflict. In Syria, Washington was unwilling to continue supporting the opposition to Bashar Assad in the face of Russian military action, focusing more on de-escalation including a military hotline to Russian forces. These moves assured Putin that the geopolitical outcome he feared was not forthcoming, discouraging him from upping the ante.
…But Military Options: At the same time, the U.S. took military steps to limit Russian success, hedge against further aggression or signal determination. The riskiest move was President George W. Bush’s order to airlift a whole Georgian brigade from Iraq to Tbilisi in 2008, while sending U.S. naval assets to the Black Sea. In 2014, the U.S. and NATO initially provided Ukraine with non-lethal military aid, but gradually expanded that to include lethal defensive systems, training and small rotational deployments. In Syria after 2015, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition indirectly put military pressure on Assad while avoiding confrontation with Russian troops.
In each case, the U.S. signaled that “no military solution” was not an absolute, underlining that although the U.S. did not seek direct conflict with Russia, a robust military response was on the table to defend vital interests, including treaty allies.
Sanctions: The U.S. and Europe have used sanctions to respond to Russian aggression by targeting top decision-makers, the Kremlin’s military-industrial complex, and the key sources and intermediaries for Putin’s personal wealth (in the Syria case, Damascus and Tehran were also sanctioned). Though sanctions could not undo actions Russia had already taken, they helped deter Moscow from pursuing more expansive aims.
Broad Coalitions: In all three conflicts, the U.S. effectively mobilized allies. The Bush administration blessed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s lead on the 2008 negotiations that prevented further fighting between Russia and Georgia, and similarly backed France and Germany on the Normandy format talks that brought Russia—not just Russian-backed proxies—to the table with Ukraine. Syria crisis management was a cooperative effort by the U.S., EU states, the Arab League, and eventually Turkey and Israel under pro forma U.N. leadership.
Top-Level Engagement: Finally, U.S. administrations have used face-to-face meetings and calls between top leaders to convey this message of de-escalation backed by firm resolve. In 2008, Bush personally managed the U.S. response to Georgia: He met immediately with Putin at the Beijing Olympics, and followed up with a half dozen phone calls to his Russian and Georgian counterparts. On Ukraine and Syria, diplomacy was conducted mostly at the secretary of State level, but resulted in the Minsk agreements on Ukraine and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 on Syria, as well as a 2017 ceasefire negotiated between Donald Trump and Putin in Da Nang, Vietnam.
Though critics often decry engagement with the Russians as a reward for bad behavior, the crisis management playbook shows that it is essential. Earlier this year, during the last Russian buildup along the Ukrainian border, Biden defused the situation with direct high-level dialogue, particularly face-to-face meetings with Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. With this week’s Biden-Putin call, and the launch of a follow-up dialogue on European security that will include U.S. allies, Washington is again choosing wisely to engage.
New sanctions are also on the table. On Tuesday, Biden warned Putin of stringent economic penalties if he went ahead with an invasion. After the call, national security adviser Jake Sullivan was pressed on what specific sanctions the two leaders discussed. He declined to share much detail — which was exactly the right thing to do. Ambiguity to the outside world, combined with clarity to Putin about America’s intentions and coordination with allies, has repeatedly been the most effective way to deter Russian escalation. The following day, Biden made clear that U.S. troops would not be sent to Ukraine to fight Russia, hewing again to a message of de-escalation rather than provocation.
Underlying all of these debates is the same thorny issue: how or whether to cut deals with Putin. In these pages, Samuel Charap recently argued that Washington should press Ukraine to compromise on Minsk requirements, while David Kramer and Toomas Hendrik Ilves responded that those accords already are tilted toward Russia, and advocated instead for unbending resistance to Moscow. Perhaps unsatisfyingly, the historical record suggests that the most prudent path is to split the difference. Previous crises have repeatedly shown that if given nothing, Putin will escalate — but if given too much, he will also escalate. Even though the U.S. hasn't been able to stop all of Putin's bad behavior, the playbook has been successful in its more limited aim of preventing a major war with Russia.
Even as Biden works to calibrate his approach, a final lesson from the past decade is that the U.S. also needs to show solidarity with the countries actually facing Russian aggression. Because the United States will not intervene militarily, Ukraine’s ability to showcase its own capacity against the looming Russian threat is key. U.S. support has helped and will continue to help Ukraine strengthen its national defense to send the strongest possible deterrent message to Moscow.
But it is not just a matter of military might. Putin has claimed that the Ukrainian government is dysfunctional and not worth talking to, denying Ukraine's history, national identity and basic right to sovereignty. The U.S. should help Ukraine show that Putin is wrong. Zelenskyy has defended his government against extremist domestic elements, stood up to Ukraine's oligarchs, and pushed to reform the economy while cushioning ordinary people from the crushing burden of rising food, housing and energy costs. Most recently, he has renewed his call for direct negotiations with Russia, rather than with Putin’s puppet Donbas separatists.
A successful U.S. and European approach depends on backing Ukraine in all of these efforts, with concrete resources whenever possible, and with sustained attention beyond the current crisis. Indications are that Washington is ready to do this. Biden has already made clear to Putin the severe costs to Russia of starting a major war, and he has accepted Putin’s proposal for further high-level dialogue. History suggests this mix could be enough to convince Moscow that in the high-stakes drama of Eastern Europe, life should not imitate art.