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When we focus on Russian aggression and motives, are we asking the wrong questions? - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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When we focus on Russian aggression and motives, are we asking the wrong questions?

How Russia has revived NATO | The Economist

Here’s a thought experiment I think it’s useful to perform. Start by assuming that Ukrainians and NATO could make invasion painful for Russia, but that Russia has the military forces to overwhelm Ukraine, the foreign reserves to survive sanctions, and the resolve to invade despite these costs and risks, should Putin not get what he wants.

If you take these assumptions as true, then I think you’re forced to conclude that there will be peace if Ukraine and NATO more or less capitulates, and violence if they do not. In this view, war hinges on the West and Ukraine coming to terms with their relative weakness and their unwillingness to fight. That probably means NATO officially or secretly guarantees that Ukraine will never be a member, everyone agreeing to interpret the Minsk agreement in terms favorable to Russia (giving Russia de facto control over the eastern separatist areas), along with other concessions.

I haven’t seen this point made in the reporting. Rather, most articles interrogate the assumptions. How strong is Russia relative to Ukraine? How potent are Western sanctions? What exactly does Putin want?

All that makes sense. Our starting assumptions might not be wrong. In that case, Ukraine and NATO can and should demand a better deal, maybe something like the comprehensive peace agreement proposed by Michael McFaul. But some of the opinion pieces sound to me like wishful hopes that Western bargaining power were stronger—sanctions more effective than they probably will be; a Ukrainian people more insurgent that one can probably expect; or more military aid to the country than the West is willing to give.

If that doesn’t happen, and you give weight to the more pessimistic takes—Russia is vastly superior, sanctions are limited, Putin is deeply determined—then the question of a violent invasion will rest on a pair of questions: How much do NATO and Ukrainians need to concede, and why aren’t they giving it?

I asked this on Twitter. A lot of people have good answers to this question. The Ukrainian people find the idea repugnant. They’re used to Russian aggression and don’t believe the threats. They’d lynch any leader who conceded to Putin. It would only encourage Russia and other autocrats to be more aggressive. And so on. All of these are plausible stories. But how do we make sense of them? Which ones are true? Are any of them true?

I have no idea. I know very little about Ukraine or Russia. But I know a fair amount about war in general, enough to try to organize some of the explanations I hear, in the hopes it helps people think through the dilemma better. (At least it helps me.)

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First let me clarify what I mean by capitulate. It’s probably an exaggerated choice of word. I don’t mean think Ukraine and the West have to completely give in. The difficulty of taking western Ukraine, the threat of insurgency, the pain of sanctions—all these imply that Russia would settle for something less than complete submission. War would be terrible for Putin and Russia in many ways (even if Putin doesn’t internalize all that pain). Still, the current balance of power makes me think that Ukraine and the West will have to give a lot up to avoid fighting.

I think they will. I’m in the minority (as far as I can tell), but I continue to think that an invasion is less likely than not. Or, that an invasion, if it did happen, would be relatively brief. (Tanks rolling peacefully in are effectively a capitulation—just a fuller and more painful one.) I say this not because I have any special knowledge of the situation (I do not) but because that is how most disputes get resolved most of the time. We just don’t pay attention to those quiet moments.

Every schoolchild knows about America’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even some diplomats forget the quick and quiet capitulation of Haitian dictators and Liberian warlords to US invasion. Those are just two examples. The fact is, most international disputes never even come to this point of tanks rolling in. Concessions get made by diplomats and lengthy violence is avoided. We don’t write as many books or articles about these compromises, many of which are bitter and unequal (just like any resolution in eastern Ukraine). To me, this forgetfulness means we are too quick to assume brinksmanship will lead to violence.

Still, a lengthy and violent invasion is possible, one where Ukrainians and NATO refuse concessions, and one where people do not let the tanks peacefully roll in. To me, the first big question is why. The second big question is which of those explanations are “mistakes” that diplomacy or other actions could fix?

There are many answers, but I think you can group them into five logics.

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(1) Principles (and other intangible incentives)

This is the idea that some critical mass of Ukrainians are simply unwilling to compromise over something so repugnant as giving up their freedom and sovereignty. This could be pride, ideology, righteous indignation, or any number of other intangible incentives—ones so powerful that people will uphold them even at great personal pain and risk. If this is true, any Ukrainian leader who attempted to give in would face a massive backlash, even a revolt.

Many movements throughout history have these principles at their root: independence and anti-colonial movements, for instance; resistance by ethnic “sons of the soil”; or religious fundamentalist movements. Granted, this is not how most societies respond to threats. Most peoples in history capitulate in the face of strength, and for that we forget them. But it could be present here.

Importantly, if Ukrainians feel this way strongly enough, there is no diplomatic solution (especially if Putin has his own intangible incentives for conquest). The two sides have mutually incompatible positions. This would get the region to war.

(2) Unaccountable leaders

Next is the idea that the Ukrainian people are not ideologically committed to independence—that they would prefer to concede a great deal to Russia to avoid a violent invasion—but that either NATO or Ukraine’s leaders face a different set of incentives, and so they refuse to give Russia what it needs and Ukrainians want.

For example, you could argue Russia wants NATO to make permanent and public commitments not to expand further eastward, but that NATO leaders will refuse, partly because they do not bear the costs of fighting. Why should they? NATO is not accountable to Ukrainians—the people who will suffer the costs of Russian aggression. Moreover, maybe NATO leaders fear that they will get voted out of office should they capitulate to Russia, and so they have incentives for brinksmanship.

(In principle you could make the same claim of Ukrainian leaders—that they have incentives to stand up to Russia against the public interest—though I haven’t seen anybody suggesting that.)

If the above is true, war could be avoided if NATO were held accountable for violence (and not punished at the polls for conciliation. Arguably, this is the function of all the journalism and debate happening right now. It is laying the ground for NATO and Ukrainian leaders to give in without a huge electoral penalty. Russia needed to bring the region to the brink of violence to let Western leaders off the hook.

(3) Misperceptions

Next there’s a whole cluster of arguments that come down to one party misjudging the situation despite evidence to the contrary.

For instance, some people say that Ukrainians are unrealistically hopeful that NATO will step in and defend the country, or that they’re naively overconfident and think that Putin is bluffing. These are stories of irrational beliefs.

(Likewise, you hear many arguments that Putin is overconfident, committing the classic sin of underestimating how hard conquest will be. That he is getting bad and biased information from a too-narrow set of cronies. Or any number of other misperceptions that might or might not be true.)

Whatever the source, if one side or the other grossly overestimates their chances of winning, or persistently misjudges the intentions of the other, then they may have to fight to resolve their differences of opinion.

There could be another way out. In principle, diplomacy and deliberation and reporting is to dispel these misperceptions, and that’s true. But the tricky thing about stubborn attachments is that they’re stubborn. If you really believe there are fundamental biases of perception and decision-making at work, then more and better information helps, but may not be enough.

As it happens, I don’t put a lot of stock in misperceptions stories. I think the real bias is that humans are programmed to overestimate the psychological biases of our leaders, and how much they matter. Whether it’s World War I or the US invasion of Iraq, we love to blame fighting on the frailties of our presidents and prime ministers. We personalize decisions too much.

I don’t reject them. I think misperceptions and biases exist and matter, a little. But they only matter because the strategic situation is so fragile. Partly it’s the principles and the unaccountable leaders that narrow the range of peaceful agreements, but I think most people overstate those forces too. To me, the most important thing to appreciate in this situation is the role of uncertainty.

(4) Uncertainty

This is a big category. There are several sub-clusters here. Let me focus on a few big ones.

(a) Noise

Let’s call the first one noise. Let’s be honest, no one really has a clue what is going on. Nobody is sure what Russia wants. No one really knows the Ukrainian capacity for insurgency. It’s not that the two sides have stubborn biases. They’re just operating from different information, with lots of room for error. In principle, the sides here should be able to avoid war, but it’s possible that they’ll fail, and that a (hopefully) brief fight will clear up the matter of different beliefs.

(b) Opportunities to bluff

The second and probably more important form of uncertainty is less about noise and comes from the fact that uncertainty gives both sides an incentive to pretend they are stronger or more resolved than they truly are. So, up until the very last minute Putin needs to say menacing things and threaten invasion, even if he doesn’t want it to come to that.

Likewise, up until that very last minute, Ukrainians have to pretend they will mount an insurgency, that they are ultra-principled ideologues who will never give in, that they underestimate Russian invasion. Game theory and history both show how how your optimal strategy is often to exploit your opponent’s ignorance.

Honestly, I think this is one way to interpret all the belligerent hype this week: combative posturing, in the hopes it will yield a more favorable deal. If Ukraine and the West are successful, then they get a comprehensive peace rather than a capitulation.

Most of the time, this bluffing doesn’t result in fighting. It’s terrifying, because we come so close. But concessions eventually get made, usually at the last moment.

Other times, however, fighting is one way to resolve the uncertainty. Game theorists have shown us that gambling with war can be the best strategy, to avoid getting hoodwinked.

(c) Reputation

Finally, there’s a variety of uncertainty that matters because this isn’t NATO’s last fight. NATO isn’t thinking just of Russia today. They’re worried that Russia will pull the same stunt elsewhere next year, or that Iran or China or someone else will eventually want to play the same dangerous game against a smaller and weaker neighbor.

But NATO’s resolve and willingness to incur costs is unclear. That uncertainty implies that NATO could use this standoff to send a signal to future aggressors. Let Russia engage in a costly war, and thereby improve NATO’s bargaining power in future.

Potentially Putin is interested in establishing a reputation as well. If he shows he is willing to bear great costs in this instance, maybe other neighbors will capitulate more quickly and more generously in future.

Can anything be done about this? Diplomacy and better reporting and information might help avert a war in the first two kinds of uncertainty—noise and opportunities to bluff. Ideally, Ukraine and Russia and NATO are all learning a great deal about one another this week through their agonistic behavior. The question is whether it’s enough. My guess is yes, but I really don’t know.

In the third case, however, there’s little reason to think this shuttle diplomacy would change either side’s willingness to tolerate violence in Ukraine for its larger and longer term interests.

So you are optimistic why?

With so many reasons for war, surely it’s inevitable?

Let’s be clear again: war is possible, and I don’t know enough about the specific circumstances to know for sure. The problem with the reporting, in my view, is that not enough people are investigating the four issues above. Just how willing are Ukrainians to take a principled stand? Or just how much is NATO weighing reputation concerns? There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty for such an advanced state of negotiations, and that is one of the worst and riskiest features.

I too would be as pessimistic as others if I didn’t look back and see most disputes come back from similar brinks. Fighting is just so ridiculously awful that compromise has an almost gravitational pull. Even to Putin.

One Response

  1. Really interesting piece, and I think I agree with everything said save with the role of misperception. I agree that it’s a little ridiculous, in most situations, to make the misperceptions of individual leaders bear the burden of causing war. But I don’t think the same can be said of structural misperception, in which the basic sociocultural assumptions on one side preclude the possibility of really understanding the other side. Replace one viable leader with another, or one whole set of decision-makers with another, and this deficiency will persist.

    I submit that the desire to cram an antagonist’s decision-making into familiar but inappropriate categories is part of the American problem with making policy vis-a-vis Russia in particular, and would fall under the category of misperception.

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