Russia and the U.S. just showed us how to back away from a war

2. Distance governments from the incident.

Sometimes an incident is leaked, documented by journalists on the ground or appears on social media. Governments then shift their tactics from secrecy to influencing how others interpret the incident.

By framing an incident as unofficial or accidental, authorities can disperse media coverage, reduce domestic controversy and decouple the government’s reputation from the incident. Even if headlines can’t be avoided, leaders gain breathing room and can better contain the damage.

You can see one such technique in Russia’s statement that private military contractors were killed in Syria: The government is distancing itself from the dead. Whether truthful or misleading, a state gains plausible deniability by characterizing its nationals as nonofficial military personnel, using such terms as contractors, mercenaries, privateeers or volunteers. For instance, during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Italy described its forces as “volunteers.” Russia used the same line recently about its personnel in Ukraine. Several other countries currently have such “volunteers” in Syria.

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