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Strategic Ambiguity: Speaking Putin’s Language

Adding a personal touch to the backdrop of this week’s NATO Summit in Wales, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks.” As the Alliance struggles with finding an effective response to Russia’s aggression on its eastern border, NATO should take a page from the Kremlin’s own playbook. Instead of warning that there is no military solution to Europe's biggest crisis in decades, suggest to Putin that there might indeed be an armed response and mobilize military power as a demonstration of will. As geopolitical competition intensifies in both Eurasia and the Pacific, it is time to pull the art of strategic ambiguity off the Cold War shelf.

The opportunity to save Ukraine might have indeed passed, but it was once within reach. What if the West responded to Russia’s initial para-military invasion into Crimea with statements and actions suggesting a possible military response? Instead, Washington and Europe stated that that there was no military response to Russian aggression in Crimea. This position only served to embolden Moscow to take increasingly violent and provocative actions as each escalation was met with the same Western response.

Statements alone from Washington and European capitals suggesting the possible use of force are unlikely to have altered Putin’s course. But combined with a rapid deployment of the NATO Response Force to a base in Eastern Europe and immediate repositioning of a credible NATO maritime capability to the Black Sea, the West may have changed Moscow’s calculus. Even if unable to prevent the annexation of Crimea, the West may have deterred Russia’s continued military efforts in eastern Ukraine.

Strategic ambiguity is the practice of being intentionally vague on certain aspects of foreign policy or intended actions and carries a deterrence aspect involving will and capacity. Great or aspiring powers are unlikely to be deterred by statements alone, nor by the threat of actions requiring nonexistent capabilities. For strategic ambiguity to succeed, it must be accompanied by a credible demonstration of the possible use of force.

Strategic ambiguity is not a red line but rather an option that permits flexibility in a government’s response, potentially delays an opponent’s action, and reduces the risk of damaging credibility by not adhering to a specific course of action. Neither can it be in lieu of, or isolated from, clear political objectives. Instead, the threat of a military response may provide time to develop and pursue diplomatic options that reduce the likeliness of the use of military force. Credible strategic ambiguity creates uncertainty in the adversary by increasing the potential risk involved in a particular course of action. 

With the myriad number of crises facing governments, any additional time to build a coalition, generate consensus, gather more intelligence, or develop a comprehensive strategy is essential.  Consider the time and effort necessary to form the coalition to enact economic sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Crimea. Nearly a month passed between Moscow’s invasion and Western sanctions, which came only after Crimea’s annexation and Russian para-military force deployments into eastern Ukraine.

Strategic ambiguity is not without risk. A fundamental aspect of creating uncertainty is messaging, which is often the most difficult aspect of foreign policy in that it requires navigating the labyrinth of pitfalls with allies, domestic constituencies, adversaries, and selecting the appropriate diplomatic verbiage to convey a specific policy. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, deliberations between the United States and its allies and partners, including any options not agreed upon, need not immediately become part of public record. Instead, statements presenting a unified position which leaves all options available, combined with credible initial actions, would give the adversary reason for pause and possibly permit the opportunity for a diplomatic solution.

Russia has demonstrated that the era of geopolitical competition has returned, and the West’s military strategy must incorporate an art of coercion, intimidation, uncertainty and deterrence.  The NATO rapid-response force is a good start, but it must be part of a comprehensive effort as Ukraine is far from Putin’s last foray into Eastern Europe.

Chris Musselman is a US Navy Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. These views are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation.