Putin’s Coercion Game

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Putin’s Coercion Game

“I am gonna make him an offer which he can’t refuse”[i]

Huseyin Oylupinar

PhD in History and Cultural Studies, MA in International Relations,

Academic Adviser in Eastern European Affairs, Foreign Policy Institute (Ankara)

Formerly Founder and Resident Researcher of Turkish-Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar Studies Program at Harvard University[ii]



Brute use of force and threats has been and still is central to international relations. This very fact gave rise to processes of communication and bargaining to control escalations that might led to destructive wars. Yet, communication and bargaining ensued development of coercion and persuasion techniques. I argue that the Russia is confronting the NATO and the US, through Ukraine, makes coercive demands, puts deadlines and defines rules of communication at the backdrop of potential use of force, as an apparent instrument of foreign policy.

In this latest face-off, I see two distinct stages through 2021 and extending to present through which Russia runs the flow of events. First is extensive Russian military preparations and drills until December 17, 2021 with moderate raising of alarms in the fall in the western capitals. Second is a steep escalation with the publications of template security guarantees.

The First Stage: Slow to Steady Escalation

The most striking event that can be marked as the start of escalation was Russia-ran military exercise along Ukraine’s border and within Crimea in March 2021 with estimated 100,000 troops. The movement on the ground has been so remarkable that the US European Command raised alarms for a potential imminent crisis. By the end of April 2021, Russian Minister of Defense announced troops returning to their bases by May 1, calming down the concerned.

Later Vladimir Putin publishes his notorious and well-discussed article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” on July 12, 2021, in which he argued that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people, a single whole” and nowadays not so much thanks to “formula they [read enemies of Russia] apply …from time immemorial – divide and rule”.[iii] He referred to Ukraine “yuzhnye i zapadnye ruskie zemli” (south-western Russian lands), an imperial/colonial connotation. It is rather awkward, an intelligence officer to be convincing historian. Yet, he, with factually selective and overly simplified historical narrative, tried to convince Ukrainians that they actually have no past different than that of the Russian. He is asking them to disassociate from being Ukrainians and the Ukrainian state by rejecting “forced assimilation” at the hands of the westerns. “Putin’s history”, at a time when the Minsk Peace Process and Normandy Meetings have come to a stall, was a last call to people of Ukraine to apply pressure on its government to distance itself from the western countries and stop, as he coined, “being a tool in someone else’s hands”.

No doubt, Putin’s call did not lead to an uprising against the government in Ukraine. Hard power tools had to be showcased with the military exercise “Zapad” (September 10-16, 2021) where the Russian Armed Forces, joined by and Belarusian Armed Forces, conducted military exercises on the Russian Western Military District. Many of the exercises took place in Belarus in an effort to integrate Belarusian forces to a large-scale operation led by the Russian-led command.[iv] Eventually, large numbers of soldiers returned to their home bases while some military hardware are observed to remain in bases near the Ukrainian border.

Late October 2021 was a historical turn in engagement in occupied Donbas. Ukrainian army first time used Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones to destroy a D-30 howitzer of the Russian sponsored and backed[v] forces. Russia took this as a major shift in nature of armed conflict, having been humiliated by the poor performance of the Russian hardware against the TB2 in the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020, and reacted sharply. Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary of the Russian President, said “… the deliveries of these types of weapons to the Ukrainian military can potentially destabilize the situation on the line of contact.”

Not soon after, reports and satellite photos flooded the news about thousands of Russian armored vehicles and artillery systems with estimated soldiers deployed numbering up to 100.000. Levels of Russian military buildup was to the extent that on October 30, CIA director Bill Burns travelled to Moscow to check with Russians their military activity. Throughout November 2021 concerns about a possible Russian intrusion into Ukraine kept increasing. On November 10th, the “US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership” is signed.[vi] On November 15th, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General, raised alarms about the Russian military activity while meeting with Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister .

Second Stage: Let the Putin’s Coercion Game Start

In early December 2021, at Vladimir Putin’s behest, preparations for a document, that set in stone the security guarantees Russia demands from the NATO and the US, have started. Indeed, such a document communicated on December 17th as draft agreements and demanded the NATO’s ban on Ukrainian future membership, returning NATO forces where they were in 1997, that is removal of any troops or weapons deployed in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

On December 23rd, 2021, Mr. Putin holds a press conference and upon a question, if Russia will attack Ukraine, said that this will depend on results of meetings [over the template agreements]. The meetings took place with the US on January 10th, 2022, with NATO on January 12th, and during OSCE plenary of January 13th. The main defense line of Russian positions during the negotiations with the US to have them accept Russian demands from NATO. Sergey Ryabkov, the head of the Russian delegation for the Russia-US meeting, underlined that there is no chance that Russia would step back from their demands from NATO and that the articles of the agreement with NATO could not be itemized in negotiations and can only be accepted as a whole. Regarding the articles in the template agreements about strategic arms and limitations, Ryabkov voiced more flexible foreign policy position and admitted that such negotiations can last long.

Ahead of the Russia-NATO meeting, Mr. Lavrov, talking about former countries of the Warsaw Pact, said that these territories are left without a landlord (“beskhoznye territorii”) in the post-Cold War era and the NATO has become a geopoliticalproject to claim these territories. Negotiations with NATO led by Aleksandr Grushko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, who confirmed during the post-meeting press conference that there is no progress on the main issues of security guarantees and that arms control negotiations appeared to have a chance to progress. Yet, Grushko confirmed that Russia will not respond the US and NATO calls for de-escalation by withdrawing Russian troops from near Ukrainian borders. Likelihood of de-escalation may happen, he said, only if the US and NATO withdraw all their personnel and support from Ukrainian territory. Again, as Ryabkov did earlier, Grushko emphasized Russian expectation to receive a written response to their template agreements and that time is limited.

The tone of the press conference of the head of Russian delegation to OSCE was not different than that of the earlier to press conferences. Russian side emphasized that their offers for security guarantees are not accepted and implied that they have arrived to the end of diplomacy. It means that the tools beyond diplomacy (as the Russian formulation follows, military-technical measures) will be employed according to the decisions of the Russian government.

Points repetitively emphasized by the Russian side during and after the foregoing meetings are:

  • The rejection of the Russian security demands will jeopardize European security and the US will be held responsible for the ensuing developments.
  • Russia has no intention of occupying Ukraine.
  • There left no space for Russia to step back and Russia has no time to play around, that it cannot wait long for response and the response should be in written form.

These meetings were followed by Anthony Blinken’s visit to European partner states that culminated with his meeting with Sergey Lavrov. Mr. Lavrov’s statements after the meeting were sharp and demanding following the lines expressed earlier and shown no withdrawal from the positions which Russia demanded as security guarantees. In the aftermath of these meetings Russia did not take any steps to deescalate but instead increased its deployments within Belarus and on the border with Ukraine.

Time to Perform: I Told You I Will Hurt You!

I argue that the events and narratives of the second stage that you went with me through shows that Putin employs a coercive diplomacy (a strategy to have an adversary to behave in a certain way by threatening to use force) with his own certain twist. One of the main characteristics of such a diplomacy is an ultimatum which sets forth a solid demand. This is the template agreements of December 17th, 2021, with which Russia was telling its adversary, that is the US and NATO, to stop doing what they are doing with Ukraine and rollback NATO to 1997. Here Russia communicated the message loud and clear. Yet, this is not enough to achieve a result. Therefore, the second characteristic should move in.

Time limitation and sense of urgency is the feature of coercive diplomacy. The adversary has to be told “I cannot wait anymore. What you have been doing should stop right now”. This was one of the issues Russian diplomats kept voicing that Russia cannot tolerate the situation anymore, and that there is no space left to step back. After the template texts were handed over to the US and NATO, Russians were focused to get a conclusive response around the prearranged the Russia-US meeting on January 10th, 2022. Yet, the US and NATO took these meetings as an opportunity to explore Russia’s position in general without going into details, which disturbed Russia as voiced by Mr. Lavrov after completion of three rounds of meetings on January 13th, 2022. He kept repeating that time is limited and the US and NATO should respond to the template texts in a written form. While the time limitation is mentioned, a deadline for the US-NATO acceptance of the Russian demands or a deadline for the written response have never been mentioned. This has dramatically decreased the coercive pressure and therefore, emerged as the weak spot of the coercion game. Still, while one can read this particular choice as Putin’s weaker position against his adversaries, this also may signal that Russia is preferring a “try and see” approach, postponing or delaying the strongest and the most serious coercive urgency for compliance.

Sense of ambiguity sets the character of the coercive diplomacy of Putin. Here is his twist: for the coercive diplomacy work out for the best results, power to hurt through military force should be displayed and level of potential harm should be communicated. In a rather curious way, against all intelligence reports, Russian administration claims that the military buildup near the Ukrainian borders are not meant for a war on Ukraine but for military drills. Russia, yet, implicitly communicates the damages it can inflict on Ukraine to have the US and NATO behave to avoid it. The ambiguity here leaves the US and NATO in dark to estimate the costs and force them to consider the heaviest calculations, including the nuclear war possibility.

Game is Still On! What is next?

On January 26, 2022, the US handed over Russia its response in written form. The response of the Russian president is expected to come in couple of days. Hence, what are Russia’s options ? The art of coercion, intimidation and deterrence have a rich menu of tools and Russia has them in its inventory. To increase effectiveness of coercion, Russia may issue its strongest call, with a deadline, to communicate ultimate urgency for its adversaries to comply unconditionally. In the meantime, it may clarify what Russians exactly mean by “military-technical means” and increase level of intimidation. They can go further with naming the precise punishment, as it may be limited armed aggression to fully-fledged war for a partial or full invasion of Ukraine, if the deadline will not be met .

The US response may possibly include lucrative offers for negotiating strategic postures. In this case, increasing the level of coercion may complicate positive outcomes which Russia may achieve on that front. In this case Russia may introduce range of coercive measures that are short of war (consider deploying arms in Venezuella, Cuba, or/and Nicaragua) to force NATO to close the door for Ukraine. In the meantime, Russia may introduce incentives ranging from not bringing the wrath of war, to neutralizing Ukraine. Russia also may cut down its apparent irreducible demands of “No to Ukraine in NATO” and “NATO rollback to 1997” and define a new irreducible demand which in this case can be “No to Ukraine in NATO”.

Mr. Putin’s Russia needs the US and NATO to do what it wants, however, from the perspective of the coercion game he set up, his hand is not strong. He could not call a deadline for his demands to be met, his diplomats have given away that they may negotiate strategic arms postures, and once Russian side received the US written response they did not escalate the diplomatic tone. Nevertheless, Putin is in fact weak but dangerously able to activate his military machine. Considering the foregoing the suggestions would be:

  • The US and its allies should continue arming Ukraine.
  • The US and its allies should support Ukraine’s home production of arms (particularly in air and sea defence arms production).
  • The US and its allies should increase level and intensity of military training support that they provide to Ukraine.
  • Increase Ukraine’s deterrence by punishment capacity (that is increasing the costs for Russia in case it starts an armed aggression).
  • US and its allies in Ukraine’s support has to declare readiness of their private military contractors to set foot in Ukraine in case its existence at stake.

The foregoing measures combined with sanctions will convince Mr. Putin that its coercion game will not bring what he projects to get for a rather acceptable cost. Acts of the US and its allies on the ground will have decisive result than the words and declarations.

[i] Don Vito Carleone, The Godfather, 1972.

[ii] Founded at Harvard University (2018-2020).

[iii] Статья Владимира Путина «Об историческом единстве русских и украинцев». 12 июля 2021 года.

[iv] Russia’s Zapad-2021 Exercise | Institute for the Study of War (understandingwar.org)

[v] Weapons of the War in Ukraine, Conflict Armament Research, London, 2021, Weapons-of-the-war-in-Ukraine-low.pdf (conflictarm.com)

[vi] U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership – United States Department of State

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