With the university closed Tuesday morning due to weather (which is becoming something like a routine around here), I was granted a couple of more days to think about just how I’d address the crisis in Ukraine in my Causes of War class. In the intervening time, I was fortunate enough to see Jay Ulfelder’s post, “This Is Not a Drill,” and to have some lengthy discussions with colleagues about what, if anything, to say responsibly during a highly fluid—and potentially high-stakes—situation that bears pretty directly on the topic of my class. (And not only the class, as I’ll mention below: the very unit we’re in the middle of.)
One option in situations like this is, of course, to say nothing. “Folks, the schedule says we’re going to talk about Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, so, by damn, that’s what we’re going to do.” There’s a lot to be said for that approach, to be frank: this early in any crisis, we know so very little about what’s actually happening on the ground, much less why these things are happening. Speculation is always in tremendous supply, and, entertainingly, often preceded by “I don’t want to speculate, but…”
However, I decided today while crafting a response to an email from a student asking about the crisis that, even in a tide of speculation, there’s still something to be said for analysis, or at least rigorous thinking, in light of the few things we do know. If nothing else, it gives us a guide for understanding subsequent events and a few things to look for.
So I’ve decided to talk about Ukraine. The next question, of course, is what to say. As it happens, the class is currently deep into thinking about the use of military force in response to commitment problems (e.g., here and here). We’ve been analyzing when countries will attack, invade, or occupy one another as a way to arrest or prevent a process of declining bargaining leverage that would invalidate deals that are otherwise perfectly acceptable in the present. The use of force may be costly up front, but states may nonetheless opt for it when those costs are are preferable to watching today’s bargain (the status quo) wither away in the future.
Part of our exercise will be to identify these motives in Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, when it calculated that its naval power would be as close to that of the United States’ as it ever would be. Then, the question will be whether Russia might be intervening in Ukraine’s messy domestic situation to arrest its own potentially declining bargaining leverage. If we look at the current situation, it’s possible (though, of course, not yet definitive) that we see another species of commitment problem (and, of course, not one producing an attack on another great power, as we saw in 1941). Here’s how:
- Ukraine’s domestic upheaval might herald a prolonged shift to the West.
- Russia has secured basing rights in the Crimea (which it ceded to Ukraine in 1954), most notably at the port of Sevastopol—rights it would like to protect. These rights aren’t under direct threat now, but…
- If a Westward tilt in Ukrainian politics would erode Ukraine’s commitment to honoring leasing agreements, then the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
- Alternatively, if a descent into deeper political chaos were to occur, the current deal might be ever more difficult to keep in place.
- If either or both of (3) and (4) would lead to an abrogation of Russian rights in Crimea, and if the consequences of losing of those rights would be greater than the costs of using force (roughly), then Russia’ decision to occupy the region could plausibly be read as a response to a basic commitment problem.
Does that mean Russian actions have derived entirely from the desire to prevent the loss of military privileges in Ukraine? Maybe not, but this is a plausible story consistent with the facts as we (think we) know them. At a minimum, thinking in these terms can tell us where to look if, indeed, this is a response Russia’s expected “loss” of Crimea; if we’re looking at a commitment problem, Russian actions would be designed to secure access to Sevastopol, etc., in the event of further domestic change in Ukraine. How might that be achieved? More autonomy for Crimea? Reversal of the current process of domestic change? A renegotiated treaty? It’s difficult to say at this point, but putting a little structure on otherwise confusing events can’t hurt—as long, of course, as we’re willing to adjust that little bit of structure as required by the emergence of new facts.
And I’m sure my students will make sure that I keep an eye out for just such an eventuality.