Brute Force and Coercion in Ukraine

CSPS Student Fellow Vincent Escobar frames the Russian-Ukrainian war in terms of Schelling’s distinction between brute force and coercion, arguing that a clear understanding of the different logics is key to understanding how the war could end.


In the opening pages of Arms and Influence, Thomas Schelling wrote about two different ways of using military force to achieve a country’s goals: brute force and coercion. Both of these approaches are being utilized in the ongoing war in Ukraine, and understanding the different logics behind these methods is vital for actors interested in the resolution of the conflict since brute force and coercion have differing needs for enemy collaboration in order to work. Ukraine is engaged in a campaign of brute force to retake its lost territory, while Russia is attempting to hold on to its slipping gains through coercion.

Brute Force versus Coercion

            In his 1966 book, Schelling distinguished between brute force and coercion. He wrote, “There is a difference between taking what you want and making someone give it to you… It is the difference between brute force and intimidation, between conquest and blackmail, between action and threats. It is the difference between the unilateral, ‘undiplomatic’ recourse to strength, and coercive diplomacy based on the power to hurt.” Schelling observed that brute force is a matter of successfully using strength, while coercion involves the “exploitation of wants and fears” by using the threat of violence. In other words, brute force is about overpowering the target’s opposition to the user’s goal, while coercion is about making the target feel that opposition to the user’s goal is not worth the pain involved.

Ukrainian Brute Force

            The liberation of Ukrainian land is Ukraine’s goal, and Ukraine’s actions in the waning months of 2022 are characteristic of the use of brute force to achieve that goal. In August and September of 2022, the Ukrainians launched counteroffensives against the Russian occupied areas of Kherson and Kharkiv. The eastern counteroffensive in Kharkiv resulted in dramatic gains for the Ukrainians. In a matter of days, they reclaimed more than 3,000 square kilometers, and have continued to push forward. Recently, they took the strategic city of Lyman, an important supply center for Russian forces. On the southern front, the Ukrainians have made significant progress in their Kherson counteroffensive. In response to Russia’s claimed annexation of the occupied territories, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ruled out negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When it comes to restoring their territorial integrity, the Ukrainians are pursuing battlefield victories over bargains. With indispensable Western aid, the Ukrainians are, to paraphrase Schelling, “taking what [they] want.”

If the Ukrainians themselves were attempting to compel Russia into leaving, they would either seek to maximize pain inside Russia itself or maximize the pain of occupation. Although there have been some strikes inside of Russia, they were of military targets and were not threatening to inflict unbearable pain on Russian soil to persuade Russia to withdraw from the occupied territories. It could be argued that the Ukrainians are not using large, pain-maximizing strikes inside of Russia to avoid grave Russian retaliation. However, the Russians are already making the most serious retaliatory threats over war-torn territory that they now claim as part of their homeland. Rather, pain-inducing Ukrainian strikes inside Russia would jeopardize the Ukrainians’ access to the Western arms that are enabling their brute force campaign since the West does not want its weapons used for those purposes and the strikes would undercut the Ukrainian narrative of noble defense. While Russian families feel pain from the many body bags filled by the counteroffensives, Ukrainian efforts are more tailored to liberate land, not kill Russian soldiers. If achieving a critical mass of dead Russian troops was the strategy to get Russia to abandon the war, then the Ukrainian war effort could have focused on operations that would bog down and ensnare the Russians instead of higher risk counteroffensives. Instead, the Ukrainians have focused on the active, forceful reclamation of territory.

Thus far, the Ukrainians are succeeding in their attempt at brute force liberation. With recently increased US aid and the meager Russian conventional response, it seems that they can continue to retake their land without the need to employ coercion themselves. However, Russia is responding by threatening to move beyond conventional war in a continuation of their coercive approach to the conflict.

Russian Coercion

Ever since the war did not end in quick victory like they expected, the Russians have been attempting to coerce the Ukrainians into submission, and the recent declarations of annexation backed by nuclear threats are an extension of those efforts. When Kyiv did not fall in the initial phase of the invasion, Russia began striking civilians and they continued that behavior as the war progressed. In response to the rapidly advancing Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv, they attacked Ukrainian infrastructure, which cut civilians’ access to power and water. These conventional strikes on civilian targets were not attempts to overpower the Ukrainian military, but rather were inflictions of pain meant to convince the Ukrainians that resistance was not worth the price. The Ukrainians continued fighting unbowed. As this conventional coercion failed, Russia has claimed that Ukrainian land is now Russian through annexation, and Putin is intimating that he may use nuclear weapons to defend it as such. In explaining the differences between strength-focused brute force and violent coercion, Schelling wrote, “With strength they [opposing sides] can dispute objects of value; with sheer violence they can destroy them.” Russian strength has faltered in disputing Ukrainian land, and Russian nuclear threats raise the specter of destruction. To the extreme, Russia is doubling down on its attempts to threaten the Ukrainians with intolerable pain.

Context and Conclusion

While Ukrainian brute force and Russian coercion are clashing head to head, it is taking place in the context of dueling coercion between the United States and Russia. Indeed, US coercion is creating the environment for Ukrainian brute force to thrive in. However, this greater coercive context does not negate the Ukrainian intent and experience of overpowering deployed Russian strength as they are forcibly moving closer and closer to their objective.

With this identification of Ukrainian brute force and Russian coercion in the conflict, observers can see that the two direct participants in the conflict have different needs for enemy collaboration in order to be successful in the approaches that they pursue. Schelling noted that bargaining involves collaboration, and that while striking a bargain is essential for coercion, it is not required for brute force. The Ukrainian approach does not require Russian cooperation, while the Russian approach inherently needs Ukrainian acceptance. As global concern rises, epitomized by US President Joe Biden drawing parallels between the conflict and the Cuban Missile Crisis, knowing the frameworks that Ukraine and Russia are operating under helps interested actors see how the two countries understand the role that the other plays in ending the conflict. If actors wanting to effect change misunderstand these adversaries’ perspectives on their opponent’s roles, then their actions may have unintended consequences.

Vincent Escobar is a graduate student at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He holds a B.A. in Government and International Politics from George Mason University.

Photo can be found here.