Monday, July 28, 2014

28/7/2014: Double Down or Stay Course in Ukraine: the Only Rational Alternatives for Moscow?

The latest reports from the U.S. strongly suggest that Russia is perceived as an un-yielding adversary in Ukraine and that Moscow is about to 'double-down' on its gambit in Ukraine (see here).

The point is that if so, then why and then what?

Why? Russia has currently no exit strategy from the conflict in Ukraine. Forcing complete and total closure of the separatists operations is

  1. Infeasible for Moscow (the separatists are not directly controlled troops that can be withdrawn on orders and indications are, they are not all too well coordinated and organised to be following any orders);
  2. Were it even theoretically feasible, will be immediately visible to the external observers. Note that, for Moscow, (1) means political benefits of such an action will not be immediately apparent, while (2) means political costs of such an action will materialise overnight.
  3. As sanctions escalate, the marginal returns of domestic political support become more important, since external economic benefits from cooperation vanish, but marginal costs remain (see below).
On marginal external benefits: it is absolutely uncertain what exact conditions Russia must fulfil to completely reverse the sanctions: is it

  • (a) compel the rebels to surrender unconditionally to Kiev troops? 
  • (b) compel them to surrender to either official troops or pro-Kiev militias, unconditionally? 
  • (c) compel them to surrender conditionally - without any conditions set and without any mechanism to enforce these in place? 
  • (d) compel them to declare a ceasefire - without any conditions set and without any guarantees of enforcement by the opposite side? 
  • (e) compel the separatists to engage in peace talks - not on offer by Kiev? 
  • (f) compel the separatists to stand down - in some fashion - and enter into negotiations with Kiev on Crimea? 
  • (g) Is Crimea at all on the table? and so on...
On marginal costs: the costs of sanctions are tied to Russia delivering some sort of compliance with Western demands. Can someone, please, point to me a website where these demands are listed in full and the states that imposed sanctions have signed off on a pledge that once these conditions are satisfied, sanctions will be lifted?

Thus, in simple terms, current Western position leaves little room for Moscow not to double down in Ukraine. The only other viable alternative for Moscow currently is not to escalate. De-escalation, as much as I would like to see it take place, is not within rational choice alternatives. The core reason for this is that when one constantly increasing pressure in forcing their opponent into the corner without providing a feasible exit route for de-escalation, the opponent's rationally preferred response, at certain point in time, becomes to strike back and double down.

Update: interestingly, Reuters editorial today (29/7/2014: provides very similar lines of argument on costs and incentives for Moscow to de-escalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine.

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