What If Vladimir Putin Called U.S. Hawks' Bluff in Ukraine?

The faction that obsesses about maintaining American credibility does the most to risk undermining it.

President Vladimir Putin joins Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and army official Ivan Buvaltsev to watch Russian military exercises in the Leningrad region, on March 3. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)

How much does credibility matter in foreign affairs? Grappling with that question at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen puts forth two competing theories.

Under theory number one, "observers are using the behavior of the American government to draw inferences about its true underlying type. A single act of breaking a promise or failing to honor a commitment would show we really cannot be trusted, or that we are weak and craven, and so that characterization of our true type would be applied more generally to all or most of our commitments."

Under the second theory, "we don’t have that much credibility in the first place.  To be sure, we can be trusted to do what is in our self-interest. But there is not much underlying uncertainty about our true type. So we can promise Ruritania the moon, and fail to deliver it, and still the world thinks we would defend Canada if we had to, simply because such a course of action makes sense for us.... Our violation of a single promise changes estimates of our true scope of concern, but it does not much change anyone’s estimate of the true type of the American government."

On the whole, Cowen embraces the latter theory. "We’ve broken promises and commitments for centuries, and yet still we have some underlying credibility," he observes. "Still, when it comes to Taiwan, or those Japanese islands, or other Pacific islands, I think the first view plays a role," he continues. "That is, I think the world does not know our true type. How much are we willing to risk conflict to limit Chinese influence in the Pacific? Whatever you think should be the case, what is the case is not clear, perhaps not clear even to our policymakers themselves."

He may be right.

* * *

The long-running debate about American credibility has heated up this week because of Russia's actions in Ukraine. Foreign-policy hawks, many with neoconservative sympathies, believe America must act there to maintain its credibility.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board asserts that "Ukraine is in particular a casualty of Mr. Obama's failure to enforce his 'red line' on Syria. When the leader of the world's only superpower issues a military ultimatum and then blinks, others notice. Adversaries and allies in Asia and the Middle East will be watching President Obama's response now. China has its eyes on Japanese islands."
The newspaper's editorial states that Obama "must act, rather than merely threaten," and recommends that the United States restrict Russia's access to world financial markets, "deploy ships from the Europe-based Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea, and send the newly commissioned George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean." It concludes with the vague but seemingly absolutist statement that "the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea can't be allowed to stand. Ukraine must remain an independent state with its current borders intact."
Alex Berezow calls on the U.S. to take 5 steps, some of which he acknowledges to be extremely provocative:

(1) Economic sanctions and asset freezes. The U.S. and EU should immediately hit Russia with painful trade sanctions. Russian kleptocrats, who enjoy spending their millions of dollars abroad, should be slapped with asset freezes and travel bans. Russia should also be ejected from the G8 and G20 and uninvited from any international meetings. (The G8 is for democracies, so it's unclear why Russia is a member, anyway.)

(2) Diplomatic isolation. All democratic embassies in Russia should be closed. The UN should remove Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council.

(3) Fast-track Ukraine to NATO and EU membership. A Ukraine fully integrated into the West is what Mr. Putin fears the most. The West should make it clear that its goal is to accomplish that sooner rather than later.

(4) Deploy NATO troops to western Ukraine. If Ukraine allows it, NATO should deploy troops into western Ukraine. If Mr. Putin finds this objectionable, NATO can claim to be protecting the interests of ethnic Ukrainians and other Europeans. Two can play at that game.

(5) Surround Kaliningrad with NATO troops. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. It is surrounded by NATO members Poland (to the south) and Lithuania (to the north and east). Positioning troops along its border would be, by far, the most provocative action -- and one which might lead to an escalation in the conflict. However, it would also be a display of American-European strength and solidarity, something Mr. Putin would have to acknowledge.

Says Jonathan Tobin, "The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow." Temuri Yakobashvili has similar recommendations, including deployment of the 6th Fleet.
* * *

I am largely agnostic about how President Obama should respond to Russia's latest thuggery. It is plausible to me that imposing economic sanctions and multilateral punishments would be in our interest. At the same time, it seems obvious to me that the United States should not go to war with Russia, a nuclear power with a formidable military, in order to maintain the pre-invasion borders of Ukraine.

And I notice that even the most hawkish commentators don't go so far as to argue that war with Russia would be in our interests, if it came down to that choice. Perhaps they see the folly in that course, or maybe they just know the public would reject their counsel if we thought that it might prompt a war against Russia. Either way, it's telling that these hawks pronounce upon what "must" happen in Ukraine while staying conspicuously vague about the limits of their support.

What does the Wall Street Journal op-ed page suggest, if what "must" happen doesn't?

They aren't telling.

The hawks want the 6th Fleet sent to nearby waters ... and then? If they want it there to possibly wage war, they won't say. It's as if they want Vladimir Putin to think America is willing to use force on Ukraine's behalf without actually risking U.S. force.

What if that bluff were called?

The U.S. could start a war that would leave us much worse off.

Or we could not, which really would suggest that if we sent a bunch of naval assets to Taiwan or Japan, China shouldn't assume that we're necessarily willing to use them.

I'm no more a foreign-policy expert than the hawks who urged the ongoing Cuba embargo, the invasion of Iraq, or the failed surge in Afghanistan, so perhaps I'm missing wisdom they've never demonstrated before. But it seems to me that there's a strangeness to what these people urge. They're the first to tout the importance of American credibility, which they view as at risk of substantial collapse in every world crisis. Yet they're eager for us to engage in geopolitical bluffing.

Or if they're not bluffing—if they want to mobilize the 6th Fleet, admit Ukraine to NATO, and fight a war with Russia if those gambits fail—they should have the intellectual honesty to say so, rather than writing as if mere shows of strength always work.