The History and Logic of Military Ultimatums, From Suez to Crimea

We run through some important modern ultimatums to show why governments make them, and what—if anything—they accomplish.


What’s an ultimatum? It’s a thousand different things, depending on who’s making it—but it’s generally something like a threat attached to a set of demands.

“There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine” President Obama said in a speech on Friday, though he did not specify what the costs to the Russians would be, or how they would be exacted.

In Crimea Monday, three days after President Obama delivered his remarks warning of costs, and as Russian troops occupied more ground in Ukraine, A Russian admiral delivered his own ultimatum. According to Interfax news agency, Aleksander Vitko, Russia's Black Sea Fleet chief, gave Crimean forces until 5 a.m. on Tuesday to surrender or face a full military assault.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry denied receiving any specific threat from Russian officials, and the same news agency that issued the initial story later reported that a Russian spokesmen denied any ultimatum was given.

What to make of all these ultimatums, those rescinded or falsified and those left on the table? Start with this: they’re given so often because they’re easily made, the price of making them isn’t collected right away, and because they buy time for preparations and appear useful to those for whom a course of action isn’t immediately clear or available.

And ultimatums aren’t always cheap. They can be useful if they’re backed up by some decisive action that proves a cause and effect between warnings and consequences; they don’t necessarily require force, but some form of clear and effective retribution if they are not abided.

With no promises of thoroughness, here’s a rundown of some case-study ultimatums from our recent history. There are older examples that you won’t find here, ancient ones even, but to keep both the Bible and Hitler out of a complex situation that’s already been grist for reductive morality tales, let’s take a look at the scene starting after World War II. No Sudetenland references here, folks.

The Suez Crisis, 1956

An unlikely place to start, you might think, and a strange set of alliances: Israel, France, and England arrayed against Egypt, while the Soviet Union and the U.S. guarded their own interests and played peacemaker from the sidelines.

“Within 24 hours after Israel invaded Egypt, Britain and France joined in an ultimatum to Egypt and Israel—and then began to bomb Cairo,” Time magazine wrote in the Suez conflict’s immediate aftermath. The setup for the ultimatum: On the heels of an arms race between the French backed Israeli’s and the Soviet backed Egyptians, Israel invaded Egypt in response to the Nasser government nationalizing the Suez Canal and closing off the Straits of Tiran. France and Britain, wanting to regain control of the canal, are waiting in the wings to join the war.

An example of a certain type of ultimatum that, despite appearing to present terms to prevent war, was the pretext for an attack that was already decided.

Afghanistan, 2001

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The beginnings of a familiar modern ultimatum, which holds a state accountable not only for its own direct actions but also those carried out by its citizens and groups within its borders.

President George W. Bush responded to al Qaeda’s attack on the United States and the killing of almost 3,000 American citizens by issuing an ultimatum to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which had a close relationship with al Qaeda and allowed the group to operate freely in the country. Bush demanded that the Taliban turn over Osama bin Laden and the rest of al Qaeda’s leaders and rid the country of terrorists. The Taliban refused and less than a month later the U.S. war began.

The ultimatum failed to produce bin Laden. That would take another 10 years and SEAL Team 6 to accomplish. But it did help cement the international coalition that backed the U.S. invasion and created a precedent that held sponsor states accountable for the groups operating under their auspices, or those that they had allowed to work within their borders. This is an ultimatum seeking a target in the disorienting matrix of asymmetric warfare.

Syria, 2013

A slow fuse ultimatum and then an ultimatum put on hold. In response to a question about the Syrian civil war posed in 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

In 2013, after reports surfaced of horrific casualties from the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians and rebel groups, the vague ultimatum the president had established in the past year became a test of U.S. resolve and a mandate for action. Would the red line be enforced if evidence proved that Assad had used chemical weapons? Did enforcement necessarily mean invasion or could it be accomplished through long-range missile strikes and air power? Did it have to mean military action at all or were there other ways to ensure the Assad regime’s compliance and reinforce the message that the U.S. was willing and able to back up its words and enforce standards in the international order?

Scrambling to interpret the implications of its own ultimatum, the Obama administration passed through a series of policy positions until a most unexpected development released them from having to decide exactly what Syria's trespass of the “red line” required. Seizing on a statement made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia stepped in to broker a peace deal with Syria that promised to both get rid of Syria's chemical weapons and relieve the U.S. of having to follow through on the Red Line speech's threat of action. Some observers warned at the time that ceding the diplomatic initiative and appearing to abandon earlier U.S. ultimatums would embolden both the Syrians and the Russians in the future.

There might be a useful lesson in the recent history of ultimatums. Rhetoric itself can be powerful. In Syria, the Russians—whatever their own interests and intentions were—made the U.S. an offer that it thought it couldn’t refuse. To have turned down the Russian initiative would have appeared like favoring war over peace. By publicizing a deal the U.S. thought it had to accept, the Russians were able to seize the initiative and begin dictating terms in Syria. That shift in the power dynamic didn’t come from force or the threat of it but from maneuvering around interests.

There are two ways to judge the effectiveness of an ultimatum. One measure is how effectively it yields the demands made of the other party. The other, broader measure of an ultimatum views it as an instrument of leverage rather than a precision tool for producing specific results. By this standard a successful ultimatum might be one that can’t be met, as long as making it increases the relative power and maneuvering position of the party placing the demands.