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How the western political elite can move from uncertainty to certainty in the Russian war

There continues to be much debate about the prospect of a “stalemate scenario” in Ukraine. While such a situation may seemingly decrease uncertainty on a short-term basis, this does not take away Putin’s ability to cause further trouble down the road.

August 16, 2023 - Dmytro Zolotukhin Valerii Pekar - Articles and Commentary

An anti-aircraft turret in downtown Kyiv during a exhibition in 2021. Photo: Oleksiichik / Shuttestock

Life is full of uncertainty, and one of the major tasks of political leaders is to reduce uncertainty for their countries and people. Uncertainty threatens national security, the economy and human wellbeing. Therefore, political leaders fight against uncertainty by forecasting and foresight, making agreements and building partnerships, and eliminating sources of uncertainty. But it is not that simple.

A brief history of uncertainty

Since the publishing of Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 book On war, the uncertainty of conflict has been one of the notions actively discussed by military, political and business leaders. It describes the most significant problem for decision makers, based on the absence of a clear and fact-based forecast, which cannot be obtained because of the large quantity of actors and their actions that can turn the overall situation upside down. Sir Lonsdale Augustus Hale, in his book titled The Fog of War, described it as “the state of ignorance in which commanders frequently find themselves as regards the real strength and position, not only of their foes, but also of their friends.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written one of the most popular books about uncertainty, which is titled The Black Swan. He then proposed another book called Antifragile, about how to fight uncertainty not through predicting the future but through the proactive creation of your own infrastructure. To paraphrase Nassim Taleb and his works, one can win the confrontation with an opponent either by eliminating the uncertainty created by the opponent, or by being proactive in creating the certainty for oneself (which at the same time can be the uncertainty for the adversary). We shall describe the “operator of certainty and uncertainty” as a party that manages to regulate levels of certainty and uncertainty for itself and an opponent.

The best way to explain the paradigm is to remember the fairy tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The first time the thieves wanted to come and kill Ali Baba in his house was after they had made a mark on his door with a piece of chalk, so they could remember where he lived. They created certainty for themselves, which door they have to break in. After that, Ali’s wife Fatima erased the cross on his door, so the murderers could not find it when they would come during the night. She erased the certainty. But the next day the thieves made a cross on his door with a knife so it could not be erased. So, Fatima used her knife to make crosses on every door in their street. In other words, she created even more uncertainty for her adversaries with her proactive behaviour. The murderers pretended to be operators of certainty and uncertainty, but Fatima won this role for herself and therefore overcame.

Ukraine’s certainty and uncertainty

When the Ukrainian state suddenly appeared on the world map, this increased uncertainty for world leaders, because nobody had any idea what it would be like. The US wanted to eliminate the uncertainty that was produced by a country that now had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world after it and the Russian Federation. Of course, this amount of power could create huge uncertainty regarding potential proliferation and maintenance in the future. Thus, there was a decision made to trade Ukrainian nuclear weapons for “assurances” that were never kept as part of the “Budapest Memorandum”.

In fact, Ukraine agreed to eliminate huge uncertainty for the US and other western countries. However, it received even greater uncertainty in return, because it appeared that the word “assurances” meant nothing to the signatories. Eventually, this huge uncertainty has turned for Ukraine into a devastating war and genocide.

In order to increase certainty, the US and Germany made a decision not to overreact to the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014. The two powers then agreed to allow the launch of the “Nord Stream 2” gas pipeline. One of the reasons for this decision was an increase in certainty, which can be partially described as the predictability of your partner’s behaviour. The creed behind this was the belief that if the Kremlin would have the ability to freely trade with the EU, then uncertainty would shrink as it would be illogical to make war when you can increase your earnings and influence.

The elimination of uncertainty and the improvement of certainty by making agreements looks to be a very successful strategy. But this is true just partially. It depends on who is an operator of certainty and uncertainty. One really good strategy is to become an operator by winning this role from an opponent, and then regulating the levels of certainty and uncertainty to reach your own strategic goals.

The issue of Ukraine’s invitation to NATO has the same dynamic today. Any step towards strong signals for Ukrainian NATO membership will at the same time create some uncertainty for the NATO member countries.

However, in all three cases the uncertainty does not come out of nowhere. It comes from the operator of certainty and uncertainty, namely the Russian Federation and its leader. Vladimir Putin often wins in the geopolitical game because he is the one who creates a huge amount of uncertainty, which ultimately brings fear to the thoughts of global decision makers.

But the most frustrating thing is that Putin’s behaviour did not teach anyone that they should change their approach to certainty and uncertainty.

The present case

Freezing the conflict in Ukraine, even with territorial losses in the Donbas and Crimea, at first glance looks like a strategy that can bring relief and lower the intensity of the invasion. The “stalemate”, which keeps being repeated in the western media, creates an illusion of a lower level of uncertainty. But this is just the same illusion that we have already seen with the “Budapest Memorandum” and “Nord Stream 2”. This is an illusion because the level of uncertainty is always being controlled by the operator of certainty and uncertainty. In other words, Vladimir Putin will still be in control of the uncertainty level and the intensity of the conflict, whatever decisions would be made in the western capitals.

Putin fully manages the certainty and uncertainty of the war, being able to create new uncertainty at the borders of Poland and the Baltic countries, as well as in Syria, Libya and other places of the Middle East. This is also true in Central and Western Africa and the Black Sea. It is worth remembering that he is creating a grain shortage in Northern Africa and therefore a migration crisis in Southern Europe. Even in western capitals he is able to create uncertainty through penetration of the local political agenda and elections.

This is why the logic of bringing the “stalemate” scenario to Ukraine might possess the same weaknesses that were present in US intelligence forecasting regarding the situations in Afghanistan in 2021 and in Ukraine in February-March 2022. This is because the source of uncertainty is being controlled by other players (operators) and can be increased at any moment.

That is why the “stalemate” concept, which was logically born out of the willingness to decrease uncertainty, will result in a dramatic failure. It will only increase the uncertainty for western decision makers.

Thus, the only winning strategy is to take the role of an operator of certainty and uncertainty away from Putin and place it in the hands of the leaders of the free world. Being such an operator means the ability to smoothly increase and decrease uncertainty for the opponent, while keeping a high level of certainty for yourself and your allies. This includes a radical decrease in uncertainty in the Black Sea and therefore in the Mediterranean, as well as in other places that are part of the Putin’s regime worldwide operations.

Finally, the only thing that can dramatically lower the level of uncertainty in world politics is the defeat of the operator of uncertainty, which is namely Putin’s regime.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

Dmytro Zolotukhin is executive director at the Institute of Post-Information Society.

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