An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that the current agitation about Russia resembles a carefully orchestrated pantomime of aggression, rather than real aggression. Were an invasion actually imminent, any military leader worth his salt would insist on its being swift, decisive, and above all, secret.
To understand what is really going on, therefore, we probably need to look as much to domestic as to international politics. President Biden would very much like to show critics that he is a “Putin tamer” not a Putinversteher (“Putin-understander”). The least costly way to do this is to concoct a manageable danger that he can then take credit for resolving. The eminent American political scientist Murray Edelman referred to this long-standing aspect of American politics as “constructing the political spectacle.”
But while this is all well and good for American domestic politics, it invariably leads to brinkmanship in our dealing with other nations, by blinding us to the “red lines” they regard as vital to their own survival. Moreover, just as they did during the Cold War, government officials engaged in such brinkmanship like to pretend that they are in total control of the situation, when in fact it can spiral out of control at any moment.
The danger of accidental escalation is especially acute in Ukraine, where “volunteer battalions” of armed nationalists regard the conquest of Donbass as the only honorable solution, and barely tolerate government supervision as it is. We should not forget that it was the attack by the head of the Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, on April 20, 2014, that precipitated all-out warfare in Eastern Ukraine. Foremost in his mind, Yarosh recalls, was torpedoing the Geneva peace talks, which would have forced Ukraine to pursue negotiations with the rebels.
Should the situation again spiral out of control, international actors will try to pull back from all-out war, but what incentives would these independent players have to join them? After all, they have long argued that only a Ukrainian victory parade on Red Square will suffice; recently, some former top Ukrainian officials have even called on the West to “go all the way” and attack Crimea.
Lots of political spectacle here, to be sure, only this time with unforeseeable consequences for the audience.
The solution that suggests itself is to stop playing games, and to engage in a truly sweeping and comprehensive negotiations. Our objective, as I have recently argued elsewhere, should be to reach a true post–Cold War settlement. The first post–Cold War generation failed to do so because it could not imagine an international order in which Russia might play a constructive role.
This is still the fundamental choice before us—either Russia will be on the inside, defending European security, or on the outside, undermining it.