In recent weeks, international politics has been roiled by a cascade of emergencies. North Korea carried out seven missile tests in January, more than in any other single month on record. Russia has massed well over 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, leading to acute fears of an imminent invasion. Just next door, in Belarus, would-be asylum-seekers eager to cross into the European Union continue to languish along the country’s borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia as a result of a state-orchestrated migration emergency.
At first glance, these three crises may appear strategically and geographically disconnected. There is, however, a common thread running through these ongoing developments: In all three cases, relatively weak actors have intentionally manufactured crises that have seized the attention of their much more powerful counterparts in the West. This is unlikely to be an accident.
Why would states take such seemingly irrational steps as serial missile tests and military escalation that risk antagonizing much more powerful states and triggering punishing retaliation? Why turn to the creation of crises as a method of influence? Above all, how should the United States and its partners respond to this pattern of behavior?
Far from irrational, crisis generation is a tried-and-true strategy of weak actors seeking negotiations and concessions from stronger actors opposed to granting either. Indeed, research conducted by one of us shows that many such actors view crisis generation as a necessary precursor to negotiations with their more powerful counterparts. The strategic creation of crises represents one of the few methods of leverage weaker states have against their much more powerful counterparts. After manufacturing military standoffs, humanitarian emergencies, and other potentially escalatory crises, weak actors can turn around and offer to make them disappear in exchange for military, economic, and political concessions. This explains, for instance, why North Korea’s neighbors and international interlocutors have frequently noted repeated bouts of “drama and catastrophe” when dealing with Pyongyang.
In the face of such constructed catastrophes, stronger states are frequently compelled to pay renewed attention to weaker states’ interests and grievances. Before a crisis is created, policymakers in strong, especially Western states often discount and dismiss weaker states’ concerns and resist meeting their demands—indeed, even meeting with them. Hubris among the powerful prevails, with stronger states underestimating weaker states’ resolve and willingness to run the risks of creating costly crises. Once manufactured crises are initiated, however, stronger states often temper or reverse their positions. Dismissiveness and derision are replaced by dialogue; sometimes, they even prove ready to negotiate or grant concessions previously deemed unthinkable. Crisis generation can thus help level the playing field, enhance weak actors’ credibility, increase the potency of their threats, and generally improve their bargaining position.
Consider Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s manufactured migration border crisis. If, as some have speculated, Lukashenko sought a reversal of EU sanctions or formal recognition that he won the fraud-ridden 2020 presidential election, his gambit failed miserably. But if instead Lukashenko’s aim was to rattle European leaders, sow internal divisions, and force them to engage with him as the Belarusian head of state, he succeeded, at least in part.
Not only has the European response to the migration crisis led to further EU infighting and accusations of illegality and insensitivity to the plight of migrants and asylum-seekers, but also the Belarusian leader had several phone calls with then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel—attention he could not attract before the crisis. Belarus remains isolated, and European leaders are deeply opposed to the regime in Minsk. Nevertheless, as EU leaders have widely acknowledged, they remain vulnerable to such manufactured crises. Indeed, as Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs, conceded, what Lukashenko is up to “isn’t really a migration crisis—it is a geopolitical crisis.”
Russia’s actions against Ukraine evince a similar logic. For years, Russian leaders cautioned that Ukraine constituted a vital Russian interest and its possible alignment with the West would cross Russian red lines. The United States, however, since 2008 has been publicly committed to welcoming Ukraine into NATO; likewise, Western involvement in Ukrainian politics and security affairs has escalated since 2014, just as the Ukrainian government has itself cracked down on pro-Russian political and business groups in the country while making no secret of its interest in closer Western ties.
Under these conditions, Russian behavior is condemnable but unsurprising, and Putin’s public accusation that the United States has ignored Russia’s concerns makes perfect sense when seen in this light. Seeing a worsening situation, Russia has generated a crisis that underlines the risks the United States and other NATO members would run in treating Ukraine as a formal or de facto ally. Putin’s gambit may fail. Still, the United States and its allies have been compelled to take Russian interests more seriously than at any point in recent memory; detailed discussions on the panoply of Russian military and diplomatic concerns—involving Ukraine and the broader strategic situation in Russia’s near abroad—are currently underway.
For his part, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is simply following the playbook used by his father and grandfather before him: escalate tensions and create a crisis—conventional, nuclear, and/or migration—and then offer to solve the problem in exchange for international concessions.
If the crisis-generating behavior of Putin, Lukashenko, Kim, and others shares a common cause rooted in the hubris of the powerful, then a course correction by those same powerful states is in order. Among other steps, greater acknowledgement and appreciation of the options available to relatively weak states, if and when the latter begin making threatening noises, could lead to earlier political intervention. Such active and nuanced diplomatic engagement could produce fewer future crises and a much-reduced risk that international tensions will lead to insecurity spirals—let alone conflict that neither side really wants.
This is not an argument in favor of appeasement, nor is it a call for preemptive concessions. Instead, it is a call for overdue recognition that weak actors won’t necessarily bend to the will of their more powerful counterparts, threats of punishing sanctions and belligerent rhetoric notwithstanding. Highly committed states, however weak, will do what they need to do to be heard and to be taken seriously when the stakes for them are perceived to be high, even existential. This often includes generating potentially escalatory, dangerous, and deadly crises. As current events remind us, we all forget this inconvenient fact at our own peril.
Kelly M. Greenhill is 2020-22 Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor at SOAS (UCL), Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, and Visiting Associate Professor and Resident Senior Research Scholar at MIT.
Joshua Shifrinson is an associate professor of International Relations at Boston University, an affiliate of MIT’s Security Studies Program, and Fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.