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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

Relations between Russia and the West have become more dangerous than during the Soviet-US confrontation. Deterrence is now accompanied by the loss of institutions and a clear understanding of mutual interests and intentions. Communication and dialogue were the previous approach to settling conflict, but today these need to be meaningful rather than a protocol procedure. Communication should lead to a clear understanding of decision-making in individual countries, interpretation of national interests and strategy by individuals and organizations. Lack of this understanding will be replaced by stereotypes and will lead to erroneous decisions. The price under current conditions could be high.

In the Cold War period the interest in military-political predictability coexisted with tough confrontation. The current situation is much more dangerous.

Relations between Russia and the West have become more dangerous than during the Soviet-US confrontation. Deterrence is now accompanied by the loss of institutions and a clear understanding of mutual interests and intentions. Communication and dialogue were the previous approach to settling conflict, but today these need to be meaningful rather than a protocol procedure. Communication should lead to a clear understanding of decision-making in individual countries, interpretation of national interests and strategy by individuals and organizations. Lack of this understanding will be replaced by stereotypes and will lead to erroneous decisions. The price under current conditions could be high.

Many analysts compare current relations between Russia and the West with the Cold War times. This is not quite accurate because there are many differences – both good and bad. Foreign optimists note that the current confrontation is regional unlike the global nature of the Cold War. There is no rivalry between ideological doctrines, each of which was also universal. Russia’s condition is weaker compared to that of the USSR. Instead of the world’s second economy with relatively self-sufficient industry and highly skilled human resources, the West is dealing with a peripheral country with a narrow, raw materials-based economy and a stagnating population count. Moreover, Russia is linked to the Western (European) market much more strongly than the USSR ever was. For the West, Russia is an important, but not the only, problem. Considering the difference in potential, this problem will be resolved sooner or later – by retribution or agreement.

However, there are important differences for the worse. During the Cold War the Soviet Union and the United States understood each other’s intentions. Both were fighting for peripheral influence; both were trying to shake the unity of the confronting blocs (eventually the US succeeded in this); and both conducted a policy of deterrence. That said, both Soviet and American leaders realized the impossibility of crushing the enemy through military means. Moreover, with the growth of their nuclear potential even the price of a local conflict could be unacceptable because each conflict held the risk of an escalation up to and including a nuclear exchange. For this reason the Cold War turned a desire to ensure maximum predictability into almost an instinct. Paradoxically, the interest in military-political predictability coexisted with tough confrontation.

The current situation is much more dangerous in this context. On the one hand, we have returned to an open policy of deterrence. On the other, there is no consistent interest in the new, understood rules whereas the Cold War-inherited mechanisms are being or have been destroyed. Strategic stability is undermined. The Ukrainian crisis has intensified the weakening of communication on many issues.

Still worse, the intentions of the players have become much less obvious. This leads to erroneous decisions and overreactions to what would seem insignificant actions of the other side. The number of players has increased and their coalitions and interests have become more complicated. For instance, the conflict between Russia and Turkey does not fit in into the logic of Russia-West confrontation on the Ukrainian issue. That said the conflict itself has aggravated the general situation.

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Meanwhile, the Russian and American nuclear arsenals have not disappeared. For Russia its nuclear arsenal is a key guarantor of sovereignty and security. The role of nuclear weapons for Russia has sharply increased because of the loss of its former position in conventional arms and rapid development of precision non-nuclear weapons in other countries. The Unites States is also modernizing its nuclear deterrent on a large scale. As a result, there is a dangerous mix of misunderstood intentions, a growing number of mutual offenses, the loss of predictability, ongoing local conflicts and conventional and nuclear arms just waiting for the push of a button. This mix may lead to an irreversible escalation of individual military incidents into a local conflict that will develop into a limited nuclear conflict and subsequently into a full-scale exchange with all available means. Indicatively, during the Cold War both camps clearly understood that the border between a limited and full-scale nuclear conflict was highly illusive. It would be impossible to avoid crossing it at a critical moment. This is why the risk of even a single use of nuclear arms is unacceptable.

Regarding the current situation, many Cold War veterans are unanimous that states go to war because they misunderstand the other’s intentions. It is essential to maintain communication and dialogue despite serious contradictions. Communication is always helpful in and of itself. Any interaction that reduces the level of uncertainty decreases the risk of unintentional escalation. In the final count, both Russia and the West position themselves as defensive parties that are compelled to react to the actions of the confronting side and are interested in predictability.

However, the issue of communication is not that simple. Protocol meetings of departments, parliaments and experts may be useless if they are devoid of the right purpose. It is easier to understand this purpose by reviewing the analysis of political decision-making during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in a book by Graham Allison. Fortunately, today’s crises are on a smaller scale and don’t include the threat of a nuclear or missile attack so far but the very mechanism of decision-making remains similar.

Allison constructed three models for assessing the conduct of a state’s foreign policy. The first is a widespread rational actor model where a country is approached as an integral whole that clearly realizes its interests and chooses the best ways of meeting them. This approach is widely accepted today as well. We often make mistakes trying to interpret the interests of a state from outside. We make even more mistakes trying to predict the methods and strategies that other states will use. What we consider rational, correct or optimum is brushed aside. But essentially different decisions are actually being made.

Two other models make it possible to avoid such mistakes. One of them – the organizational behavior model - implies an understanding of how organizations and government institutions function in a country. Leaders delegate many foreign policy issues to organizations. A leader’s decision and the way it will be executed may depend on the latter. Each organization deals only with part of a general problem and has its own subculture and access to information, and its own style of processing it and decision-making. Moreover, different organizations may have different interpretations of interests and ways of implementing them. It is also important to consider the routines of organizations – standard decision-making mechanisms. Such routines rarely change and can impart persistence in politics and decision-making.

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The other model – the government politics model – is based on the approach to the policy of a state from the viewpoint of psychology and the interests of individuals in the decision-making systems. Both leaders and subordinates play a role in this. Not infrequently, interests and strategies are interpreted differently even within the same organization. These interpretations compete against the background of the distribution of resources and powers of authority. Any bureaucratic machine operates in this way. An abstract “national interest” may be imbued with different content. Moreover, it may be determined both by rational considerations and existing stereotypes, views of the world, etc. Things become even more complicated when a small group comes into action because it is the primary medium for the origin and implementation of a political decision. As with other cases, the result depends on a set of many psychological factors.

Do we consider the latter two models while trying to understand the conduct of the opposite side? Probably, but much more often we find it more convenient to use the first model and view the opposite side as a rational machine, and to invent or over-interpret its interests and strategies.

The gist of communication mentioned by Cold War veterans evidently consists of reliance on the second and third models. It is necessary to realize who makes decisions and how, the views of decision-makers, their understanding of your own country and interpretation of their national interests. Such work requires much more efforts. Continuous dialogue is a must in this respect. Experts and think tanks are much in demand. Only this approach can promote more inter-state trust and predictability.

First published in Valdai Club

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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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