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Coercion Theory: Understanding Russia’s Actions in Ukraine

By Dr. Kelly C. Jordan
Faculty Member, Military Studies and National Security Studies

Modern military success depends on an ability to understand the nature of conflict, the conduct of war and the most effective ways to use military force in support of achieving political objectives. The modern military must also retain its ability to address routine, simple difficulties and relatively predictable complicated crises, while also being capable of engaging effectively with unpredictable and complex challenges.

The nature of war, typically characterized as a violent, interactive, and uncertain political and human contest of wills, is enduring but not unchanging (as its core components are always present in some form). War is made inscrutably complex by infinitesimal and ever-changing combinations of the rational, irrational, and non-rational forces associated with it, along with the degree and influence of its enduring nature in each situation.

Military theory is particularly well suited to address the complexity of war, its conduct (i.e., warfare), and the actions of warriors engaged in the fight. At present, such a situation exists with respect to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and one particular aspect of military theory – coercion theory – can be very useful in helping to obtain a better understanding of this situation.

Thomas Schelling’s Coercion Theory

According to international relations and military studies scholar Tami Davis Biddle, coercion theory was first introduced by foreign policy professor Thomas Schelling in his 1966 book, “Arms and Influence.

According to Davis Biddle in the book, “Coercion Theory: A Basic Introduction for Practitioners,” coercion theory is “one of the most fully developed bodies of theory in the social sciences” that has helped advance “the field of national security by illuminating the logic that underlies threats, violence, and war,” beginning in the post-WWII era. Just as coercion theory helps us understand nuclear war, it can also do the same for the current situation in Ukraine.

Schelling developed a taxonomy that addressed several ways of using military power to hurt the enemy by inflicting pain, destruction and/or punishment. The two poles of this framework are coercion and brute force, each with substantially different dynamics.

Coercion involves making a threat to hurt the enemy in the future. The aggressor threatens to take actions in ways designed to manipulate an opponent in adopting certain behaviors and/or act in certain ways that are in the aggressor’s own interests.

According to Davis Biddle, the aggressor makes use of its bargaining power to hurt. The aggressor structures conditions and incentives in ways that force an adversary “to calculate, to decide – based on his own interests and position – whether or not to resist the threat being made” is worth avoiding the looming pain, destruction, and/or punishment.

Since coercion is based upon a form of persuasion stemming from implied action, the outcome of such efforts cannot be simply imposed by force. Instead, coercion requires compliance by an adversary to overcome the will and means of resistance. The aggressor gains “target compliance” via some form of persuasion, placing the outcome largely in the hands of whoever is on the receiving end of the coercion.

It is for these reasons that Schelling emphasized that coercion is challenging, complicated, nuanced and difficult for even the strongest of nation-state actors.

Achieving Target Compliance

Political scientist Patricia Sullivan adds another level to our understanding of coercion theory. According to Sullivan’s research, achieving coercive goals required gaining what she calls target compliance through some form of persuasion, focused more on eliciting an emotional response than on using rational appeals to conscious choices.

According to Schelling’s theory, brute force significantly differs from coercion. Brute force is forcible action that an aggressor uses to gain what is desired by simply overpowering an opponent and not relying on persuasion or intimidation.

This approach takes action rather than threatening to do so. Accordingly, this approach is relatively simple, straightforward, and active, and it places the outcome largely in the hands of the aggressor.

Applying Schelling’s Coercion Theory to Russian Actions in Ukraine

It is quite evident why Russia initially chose to pursue a brute force approach. This strategy allowed Russia to use its considerable military strength to overpower Ukraine, take what it desired on its own terms and remain largely in control of the invasion’s outcome.

Russia entered Ukraine intending to use brute force goals that it expected to achieve. Russia pitted its strength against the Ukrainians and let fbrute orce decide the outcome.

Also, Russia was confident that it could achieve its goals regardless of its opponent’s ability or will to resist. Consequently, Russian leaders felt that the Ukrainians did not require any form of persuasion and/or target compliance.

With the failure of its initial efforts, Russia has had to shift to pursuing coercive goals and achieving target compliance via some form of persuasion. This persuasion is focused more on eliciting an emotional response from the Ukrainians than on using rational appeals to conscious choices.

This strategy has shifted the internal situation within Ukraine. Rather than controlling the outcome of the invasion, Russia must now persuade the Ukrainians to accept the outcome Russia desires, giving Russia the power to determine the outcome of the war within Ukraine.In current U.S. joint doctrine, this strategy equates roughly to a shift from pursuing a strategy of annihilation (i.e., brute force) to a strategy of erosion (i.e., coercion).

It is exceedingly rare throughout military history for any military force to be successful in making such a significant transition to conquer an adversary. As a result, the outcome of Russia’s actions in Ukraine may not turn out to be what Russia intends or desires.

Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and he is currently a full-time associate professor of military studies and national security studies. Dr. Jordan received his B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, graduating with academic distinction and as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He holds a M.A. and a Ph.D. in military history from The Ohio State University and is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. As an academic, Dr. Jordan is an award-winning professor who has served on the faculties of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Naval War College, and the University of Notre Dame. As a scholar, he is the author of numerous military history and leadership studies publications.

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