Saturday, April 15, 2017

Unpredictability as a Strategy -- Russian or American -- Only Works if Others are Predictable

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 15 – Donald Trump has undermined Vladimir Putin by ending the Kremlin leader’s “monopoly on unpredictability,” Liliya Shevtsova says, a strategy that worked for Russia because Western responses were predictable. But now the US president has shown that he can be just as unpredictable.

            There is no question that by this change, “Trump has driven Russia into a corner,” as the Russian commentator suggests ( But the big and still open question is whether that will cause Putin to become more predictable or to raise the stakes and make the international system even more dangerously unstable than he has already.

            Shevtsova focuses on Trump’s response to Putin rather than the more general issue. She argues that “Trump has not simply destroyed the Russian monopoly on unpredictability. He in the boldest way has taken from the Kremlin the most important instrument of its foreign policy” because Moscow can no longer count on the West being predictable in response. 

            Moreover, she adds, with his use of cruise missiles in Syria and a bunker buster bomb in Afghanistan, Trump has declared “not only about his right to resolve world problems by force but also his readiness to engage in interventionism.” Consequently, the assumptions Putin has made are no longer valid: Trump might do almost anything.

            That severely limits Moscow’s options because while Russia has the ability to annoy the US, it can’t afford to engage in a direct confrontation. “The Kremlin understands this well,” Shevtsova says. Were it to try, Russia would be left without the resources it needs to do what it wants, resources that it has always assumed would be available to it.

            Right now, Shevtsova argues, the Kremlin is furious but also uncertain of what to do.  If it does something unpredictable now, Moscow almost certainly would provoke an unpredictable American response. But if it doesn’t continue to use unpredictability, it will have lost its major “trump” card in dealing with the US – and that will constitute a major and obvious defeat for Putin.

            Consequently, while Trump’s unpredictability may have forced Putin to reconsider his reliance on that strategy at least for a time, it is entirely possible that the Kremlin leader will raise unpredictability to a new level in response – and that could trigger an explosive cycle with potentially horrific consequences. 

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