Salami Slicing, Boiled Frogs, and Russian Red Lines
An F-16 Fighting Falcon - the latest offensive weapon the West have agreed to supply to Ukraine
Prime Minister, you believe in the nuclear deterrent?
- Oh, yes.
- Because it deters.
- Whom? Whom does it deter?
- The Russians from attacking us.
- They know if they launched an attack, I'd press the button.
- You would?
- Well, wouldn't I?
- Well, would you?
- At the last resort, yes, I certainly would. Well, I think I certainly would. Yes.
- And what is the last resort?
- If the Russians invaded western Europe.
- You only have 12 hours to decide, so you're saying the last resort is the first response? -
- Am I?
- You don't need to worry. Why should the Russians annex the whole of Europe? They can't even control Afghanistan. No, if they try anything, it will be salami tactics.
- Salami tactics?
- Slice by slice. One small piece at a time. So will you press the button if they invade West Berlin?
- It all depends.
“Yes, Prime Minister”, The Grand Design, Broadcast 1986
Deterrence supposedly works because an adversary knows that a major aggression would lead to a nuclear response. The obvious problem, which leads to doubts about the credibility of deterrence is the prospect of retaliation in kind. The likely adversaries also have nuclear weapons. This classic episode of “Yes, Prime Minister” points to another problem. The Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor explains to Prime Minister Jim Hacker why nuclear deterrence is not as straightforward as he thought it was. The aggression might not present in a form which warrants such drastic measures. Faced with a small step that points to a ‘red line’ being crossed, perhaps warning of much worse to come but also offering an opportunity to calm the situation, governments may be reluctant to unleash Armageddon. They can be fearful of the consequences of escalation while at the same time hopeful of some diplomatic solution. Keeping their options open while they await further developments, political leaders may believe that they can get away with expressions of concern, backed by some conspicuous military deployments or economic measures.
And the next step taken by the adversary might also be small, although undoubtedly moving to a more serious state of affairs. At this point should there be a move to a harsh response, that might really hurt the adversary, or will the response still be cautious and tentative? And if the process continues, step by ominous step, will the serious and decisive response ever come, or will it suddenly become apparent that the adversary has succeeded. This was what was meant by ‘salami tactics’. Each slice does not appear to engage the most vital interests but put all the slices together and the whole salami has been taken.
The idea was introduced by the Hungarian communist leader Matyos Rakosi in the late 1940s when he boasted about his strategy for seizing power. The first step was to establish an ‘anti-fascist’ government that would exclude all parties to the right. Then gradually each member of this coalition would be found to be unacceptable so they would be removed, one by one, ‘cutting them off like slices of salami,’ until only the ‘end-piece’ of the Communist Party was left. Only in one area did the communists start with the whole sausage right at the start - control of the Ministry of the Interior with the secret police. ‘We held this completely in our hands from the first day of its existence. Our party demanded the leadership and tolerated no respecting of coalition-proportion whatsoever.’
With that power secured it was possible to move elsewhere without causing the sort of alarm that would cause a backlash:
‘Take the banks for instance. First we requested only state control; later, the nationalization of only three big banks. In industry the same way: first we demanded state management of the mines; we gradually expanded this to the biggest machinery plants—and finally we shifted to nationalization.’
So the term was introduced to show how Communists took over power vulnerable countries with weak political institutions. It was soon used to refer to any situation in which an aggressive state achieved its objectives in stages, confident that they would not be challenged because each incremental step was not worth a major crisis. Writing almost 70 years ago, while making his name as a nuclear strategist, Henry Kissinger, just turned 100, observed:
The Soviets can achieve their ultimate goal, the neutralization of the United States, at much less risk by gradually eroding the peripheral areas, which will imperceptibly shift the balance of power against us without ever presenting us with a clear-cut challenge.
Russian Salami Tactics and aggression against Ukraine.
The underlying concept is easy enough to grasp and so the term continues to be used. Just before the Russo-Ukraine War an academic attempted to bring some clarity to the concept. Richard Maass identified five conditions which made this approach appealing and likely to succeed:
‘1) retaliation would be costly; 2) reversal is unlikely; 3) faits accomplis are easy; 4) fears of future predation can be undercut; and 5) further gains are possible.’
He showed how this worked with Russian moves in 2008, when its forces pushed Georgian units out of South Ossetia, and then against Ukraine in 2014. This was when Russia began to show how it was prepared to assert its right to act wherever it chose in the former Soviet space, even with military means. The readiness to allow Moscow some latitude in this was demonstrated with the Georgia crisis when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed:
‘The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia. I see no reason to change that approach today.’
President George W. Bush insisted that ‘bullying and intimidation’ were unacceptable but confined his responses to airlifting a Georgian brigade back from Iraq and providing humanitarian aid.
The limited US response in 2008 may have encouraged Vladimir Putin that there would be no major pushback from the West in 2014. The moves then against Ukraine, starting with Crimea followed by Moscow-sponsored militias, largely led by Russian citizens, taking over territories in the Donbas, were implemented in such a way to generate only a limited response from the West. Elaborate stories were developed about Ukrainian responsibility for the crisis and how Russia was responding only to the will of the local people, while denying the role of Russian personnel. In Crimea, Vladimir Putin was soon able to consolidate Russian control which meant a true fait accompli. The outcome was more equivocal in the Donbas which stayed festering until Putin decided to use it as a rationale for the 2022 invasion.
The overall impression left from these episodes was of US, and European, hesitation and caution. Maass quotes Will Inboden explaining that: ‘Putin’s playing Risk, while Obama’s playing Candy Land.’ He offered a more sympathetic explanation:
‘No leadership deficiency on either side is required to explain this asymmetry, however. By design, salami tactics put the adversary in a pickle: Risking major war by trying to forcibly reverse a fait accompli in an area of peripheral interest is simply not a rational decision.
While it was never likely that the US would go to war against Russia on behalf of Ukraine, Obama’s reluctance to get the US too engaged in this conflict led to restrictions on the support given to Ukraine, even as it sought to develop its own armed forces to cope with the continuing challenge from Russia in the Donbas region. While weapons that were unambiguously defensive were provided anything that looked like it might have an offensive purposes was refused. Ukraine was to be helped to defend itself against further aggression but only to the point where Ukrainian forces would be unable to take the fight to the Russians.
Salami Slicing after the full-scale invasion.
It was evident in the build-up to the invasion of 24 February 2022 that the Russian leadership was reasonably confident that Western responses would be as limited this time as they had been after 2014, probably largely confined to economic sanctions. This would be particularly likely if, as they hoped and many in the West assumed, they could achieve a fait accompli in a matter of days. In the run up to the invasion the West threatened severe sanctions in the hope of deterring Russia, but in practice this was never likely to deter given the prize of Ukraine. The influence of the idea of salami slicing can be detected in the expectations of many in the West (including me) that Russia would take discrete steps, moving its forces first into the established Donbas enclaves, then taking over the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, before, depending on how digestible these slices turned out to be, moving on to more of Ukraine. In this case, however, Russia, decided to take the whole salami.
The shock of this audacious act shaped the subsequent conflict. Instead of responding to a modest move they were obliged to address a blatant and large-scale invasion. This raised the stakes for Western countries. Having made it clear beforehand that such an act would deserve a strong response, even if largely in the economic sphere, as soon as it took place these measures began to be implemented. But there was now an issue of proportionality. President Biden had mused beforehand that a ‘minor incursion’ might only get a minor response, but this was major, with no fait accompli and Ukraine fighting back. A proportionate response would have to be major.
While it was again made clear from the outset that there would be no direct military engagement by NATO countries, this time they soon committed themselves to keeping Ukraine in the fight. The more vicious Russia’s methods, the greater the commitment. Rather than worrying about an illegal but small-scale land grab NATO was addressing an attempted subjugation of a whole country using cruel and brutish methods. Over time it became apparent that allowing Russian to win would not just inflict a terrible blow on Ukrainians but would be a defeat for NATO, raising doubts about its ability to oppose any future aggression and such egregious breaches of the UN Charter and international law.
Though its full implications were not appreciated immediately, the unavoidable and deep commitment to backing Ukraine’s efforts to liberate its country from Russian occupation turned the issue about salami slicing round. The Russians had not only failed to take the whole salami, but the Ukrainians were soon taking individual slices back. As they did so – pushing back Russian troops close to Kyiv, then from Kharkiv, and later much of Kherson – NATO’s material support was validated and the incentives to reinforce Ukrainian success grew. The debate became one of how many slices could and should be taken back, and in particular whether perhaps the Russians might be allowed to keep their two original slices from 2014 – Crimea and the Donbas enclaves - as some sort of consolation should they agree to abandon the other slices voluntarily.
Ukraine at the arms buffet
When announcing the invasion in February 2022, Putin warned that any country trying to ‘impede’ his forces ‘must know that the Russian response will be immediate and lead to consequences you have never seen in history.’ This was taken seriously. President Biden and other Western leaders were explicit that their forces would not participate in the fight. To that extent Russian deterrence worked and has continued to work.
This even affected the West’s readiness to support Ukraine with advanced weaponry. The precedents for arms supplies to Ukraine going back to 2014 involved a determination, restrictively applied, to confine supplies to defensive systems, such as anti-tank and air defence systems. Yet the distinction between defensive and offensive systems is always artificial. You might need anti-tank weapons to stop enemy advances but then tanks to take back any territory lost. If you are being attacked from distant bases you can’t prevent the attacks at source unless you have systems that can operate over long-ranges. To insist on only defensive systems therefore hampered the Ukrainian as they fought back. The more Ukraine demonstrated its resilience, grit, and military competence, and the more NATO became committed to its success, then the less sense these restrictions made.
Let’s switch our culinary metaphors. Think of Ukraine being invited to a buffet with a spread laid out before them full of the tastiest Western military dishes. At first they are guided to the salads and told that is all they are allowed. But that hardly satisfies their appetites, and they are soon looking longingly at more nutritious dishes, only to be told that there is no room on their plates or that they might find the food too rich. Eventually the conversation shifts. If they choose carefully and are not too greedy they might start to take from more of the buffet. And as they gobble up these dishes they argue persuasively that there is no point in denying them access to the rest. And so it has come to pass that slowly but surely the Ukrainians have acquired long-range artillery, infantry vehicles and tanks, advanced air defences, and cruise missiles, and are now looking forward to fourth-generation aircraft.
Along the way Kyiv has been required to show that it can learn how to use these systems and knows what it wants to do with them. But the main source of hesitation remains the fear that providing them to Ukraine would be unduly provocative, crossing Russian red lines and risking escalation to a wider war. And Russia encouraged this view. Each time a new capability was mooted, let alone delivered, there were somber warnings of severe consequences and the inevitability of a harsh response. Yet as the Russians were already doing all they could to win the war, and they did not want a wider conflict with NATO, which they would probably lose, in practice they were unable to do much to stop the flow of arms. As this was recognised by NATO countries the more relaxed they became about giving the Ukrainians what they asked for. They were now almost unconditionally committed to the Ukrainian struggle and dare not let them fail.
The Russians have been caught out by these incremental steps. Their commentators now grumble about how their red lines have been crossed without response, so that their deterrence has failed. This might have been referred to as ‘salami slicing’ although the preferred American metaphor appears to be ‘boiling the frog.’ The idea here is that put a frog suddenly into boiling water and it jumps out immediately, but put it in tepid water and slowly bring it to the boil and the frog will be cooked to death. This captures the idea of not appreciating a developing danger until it is too late. Apart from the fact that the underlying premise isn’t true – frogs are not so stupid and will jump out when they appreciate their predicament – the salami slicing metaphor is anyway more apt. The problem for Moscow is not that it was caught unawares by these development. It knew exactly what was going on but it was at a loss, with each incremental step, to know what to do about it.
The Russian predicament goes beyond the successive arms packages provided by Western countries to Ukraine. Other than the direct involvement of NATO forces Moscow’s other big red line was that there must be no attacks on Russian territory, even though it was acting with impunity against Ukrainian territory. This was a line blurred by the Russians once they insisted that they had transferred chunks of Ukrainian territory to the Russian Federation. Even so the Biden Administration was nervous that any truly long-range systems provided to Ukraine would be used to attack Russia within its recognised borders. It would rather not be associated with such strikes.
Ukraine has respected this restriction. The UK storm shadow cruise missile, for example, has been used effectively to attack military targets in occupied territory but not in Russia. But that does not mean that Russia has been spared attacks on its soil. From quite early on in the war there were occasional acts of sabotage and unexplained fires at oil facilities for which no one took responsibility. The Kerch bridge joining Russia to Crimea last October and airbases in the peninsular were also attacked.
More recently attacks on Russia have been stepped up. Notable have been drone attacks on Moscow, specifically the residential area favoured by the elite, as well as Kursk, Smolensk and Krasnodor, sabotage of rail lines bringing weapons and war materiel to the front, and, most dramatic, raids into Russia by far-right Russian oppositional groups, which have moved into the border territory of Belgorod (from where many attacks on Ukraine have been launched). They alarmed the local population as did the Russian forces who rushed to the scene, who appear to have been somewhat indiscriminately shelling villages where they suspected the intruders were to be found.
Ukraine uses the same techniques employed by Russia of denying culpability, while enjoying Russia’s discomfort, although the attacks could not have happened without Ukrainian connivance. They have real strategic value in complicating Russia’s defensive plans and embarrassing their decision-makers, who hate acknowledging that they are losing the initiative. Moscow is under pressure to come up with new strategies but they have already thrown everything available at Ukraine, other than nuclear weapons and these events are all too trivial to warrant the use of the ultimate weapon.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and hapless rent-a-threat, offered a suitably lurid quote from his repertoire of hysteria:
‘It’s clear what response is needed: They need to be annihilated, not just in a personal capacity, but we have to destroy them in the hornets’ nest itself. The regime that has developed in Ukraine should be exterminated.’
But he has been talking this way for months. In February he responded to Western arms transfers by forecasting:
‘a total fiasco. Loss for everyone. A collapse. Apocalypse. Where you forget for centuries about your former life, until the rubble ceases to emit radiation.’
The point has now been reached where remarks which once would have demanded our attention no longer attract notice.
In general the rhetorical response has been subdued for most Russians are unsure how to explain what is going on. Putin says little these days, uttering only on mundane matters. He was obliged to respond to the drone attack on Moscow but could only say that ‘the air defences had worked satisfactorily.’ His propagandists appear capable of only Candide-like utterances that all is for the best, that the Ukrainians are really suffering one terrible reverse after another, while Russian forces cope with all challenges. Tatiana Stanovaya observes:
“Within a few months, it seemed that the Kremlin’s red lines had either never existed or had become extremely mobile. The reaction of the authorities was more or less the same every time: downplay the significance of the event, present Russia as the victim, and depoliticize the problem—all without any public involvement from Putin.”
So long as Putin is not panicking then everybody else is obliged to stay calm. Putin dare not give the appearance of panic because that would suggest to his people that the Special Military Operation is not going as well as they had been led to believe. Reverses can be explained because they are now really facing NATO and not just Ukraine, without explaining how the world’s most formidable alliance can be defeated. The Financial Times reported that Ukraine’s capacity to strike deep within Russia has rattled nerves. In Shebekino, one of the towns attacked in Belgrood, there were complains of abandonment. ‘The locals are infuriated by state TV presenters consistently mispronouncing its name and frequently referring to the city as a village or settlement, which he said plays down the danger.’ A survey by Kremlin-friendly pollster FOM had 52 per cent of respondents saying that their friends and family were ‘anxious’ rather than ‘calm’ — the highest result since January. An in depth report from Russian sociologists suggested that the war is increasingly being seen as ‘a natural disaster’, about which they cannot do anything about, rather than as something they are firmly convinced is right.
It is now Russia’s deterrence that is losing credibility as they continue to be caught out by a series of incremental Ukrainian moves for which they have few answers. A recent Washington Post story notes that the Biden Administration has become less worried about Russia’s red lines because Putin ‘has not followed through on promises to punish the West for providing weapons to Ukraine.’ As his bluffing became evident, Western leaders gained in confidence. Of course this confidence carries its own risks if one day Putin decides that he dare not bluff any more, but for now it is the Russian salami that is being sliced in ways that leave it frustrated and thwarted.
Comment is Freed is a reader-supported publication. A monthly subscription is £3.50 and an annual one is £35. It includes at least four subscriber only posts a month.