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Janice Gross Stein on the Russia-Ukraine De-Escalation Dilemma

Janice Gross Stein on the Russia-Ukraine De-Escalation Dilemma

“There’s a fine line between deterring Russia and escalating the conflict,” writes geopolitical expert Janice Gross Stein in a recent article with Foreign Affairs.

In this detailed article, Janice — the Founding Director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy — outlines the options available to NATO and the West in ending Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the difficult choices they face in supporting Ukraine while preventing a global war that could easily turn nuclear.

The Ukraine Dilemma

Western governments, Janice writes, have two competing objectives. They want to support Ukraine’s defense as much as possible while also preventing a full-scale war against Russia.

“What makes the challenge so hard,” Janice says, “is that the more they do to achieve one objective, the less likely they are to achieve the other.”

The more involved NATO is in the conflict, the higher chance that Russia will unintentionally or deliberately attack NATO forces. NATO is a collective security organization with an understanding that an attack against one member is an attack against all. With Russia having the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons, this is exactly what NATO is trying to avoid, Janice writes, especially as Russia has not been coy about threatening a nuclear attack.

“Putin has raised the alert of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces twice,” Janice writes, “and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned on March 2 that any war with NATO would be nuclear.”

The Fine Line Between Violence and De-Escalation

While the economic sanctions being put in place across the world are hitting Russia hard, it’s not enough to stop them. If anything, Janice writes, it’s fueling fire. This is where the fine line between deterring Russia and escalating the conflict sits, with two approaches available. From the article:

The first draws heavily on well-established theories of rationality and deterrence. The only way to stop an aggressive leader, these arguments go, is to raise the costs of military action and demonstrate unshakable resolve, both in words and deeds. That was how the economist Thomas Schelling saw the Cuban missile crisis… When you’re playing chicken, Schelling argued, the best strategy is to throw away your steering wheel, so that the other driver sees that you can no longer swerve. That driver now has no choice but to swerve in order to avoid a crash.

We’ve seen this in action since the war began. NATO has sent troops to its members bordering Ukraine, while constantly sharing the message that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.

The second approach is less conventional. “The Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman and the psychologist Amos Tversky,” Janice writes, “demonstrated repeatedly in experiments that when people find themselves anticipating or experiencing serious loss, they are more inclined to exaggerate the likelihood of the loss they face and to make riskier decisions.”

This describes Putin’s position exactly, Janice says. He has made it known that he wants to re-instate Russia’s historical borders, that he views the West’s action against Russia as a betrayal, and is now affronted by the economic sanctions devastating the Russian economy.

“As Putin’s speeches during the crisis make clear,” Janice writes, “this is a man whose sense of loss has only deepened.” Meaning, he is more likely to choose the riskier path. In their efforts to try and reduce conflict, NATO may only be provoking more.

What’s Next?

Looking historically, Janice says, the strategies currently in play by NATO can be effective in de-escalating conflict, but it’s a gamble on time, and only Putin knows just how much time he is able to invest in this.

Alternatively, NATO can explore back channels to Putin. “Establishing a private channel would not only send a message to Putin that NATO is open to negotiation if he stops the fighting but would also give leaders plausible deniability if their efforts were rebuffed,” Janice writes. “As painful as this is to contemplate, these offers would have to signal a willingness to lift some sanctions in response to de-escalation.”

Of course, there are risks to both of these options. Time means more deaths and being open to negotiations could signal weakness to Putin who will try to capitalize on it, Janice writes. Either way, political leaders will face difficult choices and criticism. “But trying to control escalation in a grossly unequal fight where the dominant power has nuclear weapons is not appeasement,” Janice writes.

The only way the current conflict can end, Janice says, is:

  • If Ukraine is able to hold off Russian advances long enough.
  • A ceasefire is negotiated leaving parts of Ukraine outside of Russian control or sees the entire country subjugated, likely leading to more insurgency.
  • A palace coup removes Putin from power.

Janice calls the last option highly unlikely. In the coming weeks, we will see this political upheaval play out, most likely with the goal of deterring a worldwide war. From the article:

Prudence dictates that the United States and its fellow NATO members try above all to avert the escalation of a war that could kill untold numbers of civilians far beyond the borders of Ukraine, in addition to tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians. NATO has already acknowledged that there is a ceiling to the support it can offer Ukraine, given that avoiding escalation is so important; the alliance cannot break through that ceiling and avoid a dangerous war with Russia. That is not fair to Ukraine, a country that has, against all odds, held off an unprovoked and brutal attack by Russia. Not for the first time, international politics is forcing hard choices.

Read more from Janice.

Whether it’s economics, geopolitics, or international security and terrorism, few people have a better understanding of global issues than Professor Janice Gross Stein. Both realistic and hopeful, she leaves her audiences with a better understanding of current global issues, and a clear, compelling vision of the future.

Speakers’ Spotlight made a donation in support of Ukraine through the Red Cross Ukraine Emergency Appeal. If you are interested in supporting the people of Ukraine during this crisis, below are some charities accepting donations: