This time, however, it is the Russians, not the Americans, who find value in the strategic use of “madness.” Following a telephone call with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have confided that she was not sure the Russian leader was in touch with reality; “in another world” is how she reportedly described her interlocutor. And in the diplomatic volleys that followed Russia’s military seizure of Crimea, it was Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov who, in a radio interview with the Voice of Russia, warned that the Kremlin might respond to additional sanctions by the United States and its European allies with “asymmetric measures.”
What did he mean, exactly? In post-9/11 parlance, of course, “asymmetric” is usually used in conjunction with “warfare,” and typically refers to the tactics that rogue regimes and non-state actors, like North Korea and al Qaeda, respectively, have deployed against conventional powers: cyberwarfare and terrorism, chiefly. However, it is more likely that Ryabkov, channeling Nixon and Kissinger, was seeking to exploit existing fears about such terminology, and meant to signal that Russia intends, should the crisis deepen, to bypass the traditional practice of tit-for-tat responses.
That, so far, is what Moscow has been confronted with — a tit-for-tat approach — and it shows that the Obama administration has ignored two critical lessons from the Cold War. The first is the value of projecting unpredictability — or in Nixon and Kissinger’s case, even madness. Whereas Nixon once instructed his national security advisor to tell Dobrynin, “I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but he [Nixon] is out of control,” Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have sought continually to impress upon the Kremlin their supreme reasonableness. “We would like to see this de-escalated,” Kerry said during his dramatic visit to Kiev earlier this month. “We are not looking for some major confrontation.” The president’s advisors have maintained, pro forma, that all options remain on the table, but Obama explicitly removed the most potent of them: “We are not,” he told San Diego’s KNSD-TV, “going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.”