Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a paradox. For the West, Russia’s actions do not appear to adhere to logic or rationality – on the strategic, political or economic level. Any war of choice involves a leader weighing up potential losses and gains. Cognitive psychology tells us that human subjects are loss averse; prospect theory tells us about the conditions under which subjects are likely to take riskier decisions to prevent a loss as opposed to seeking a gain. My own research on the psychology of war suggests that the language of loss pervades military decision-making.
Vladimir Putin’s decision-making, however, seems to undermine this theory. One the most revealing aspects is Putin's attitude towards economic costs. Nord Stream 2 has cost $11 billion and Putin seems to have decided overnight to waste years of planning, investment and potential economic gains. Russia’s currency has precipitously declined in value, its business elites are witnessing their fortunes evaporate and the country faces damaging sanctions. We know that Putin had factored these outcomes into his decision-making; British and American intelligence suggests that this invasion was planned months in advance. Clearly Putin believes this economic loss is a price worth paying – but for what strategic or political gain exactly? Our understanding of his rationality and psychological dispositions has to be reassessed at this point; foreign policy analysts must revisit some of the assumptions they previously held about Putin. Unlike in 2014, when the annexation of Crimea, although abominable by any normative standard, made strategic sense because it secured a naval base in Sevastopol, this invasion of Ukraine represents only futility and loss.
To understand Putin’s rationale is to understand how he interprets Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. Putin describes Ukraine as an inauthentic and inferior state – unworthy of sovereignty. He interprets Russia’s purpose and role in world politics through an imperialist frame and believes that it should dominate others; he believes in spheres of influence as a norm, not as a thing of the past. His distorted version of Ukraine’s history plays into a fantasy of reclaiming what was lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like an abusive partner in a failed marriage, Russia is trying forcefully to lead Ukraine away from European Union and Nato partnerships, and into its orbit which Putin is trying to re-establish. Tragically, this invasion will cost many Russian and Ukrainian lives; it will inflict a trauma that will define Russia-Ukraine relations for decades to come.
What sort of loss will Putin be receptive to? How many dead Russian soldiers will constitute a loss that is no longer worth sustaining? The answer lies in Russia’s prestige and the stability of Putin’s domestic support. If Ukraine can turn this invasion into a war of attrition – a type of urban guerrilla war, then the prospect of losing a war to Ukraine will be too humiliating for him to contemplate. Dead Russian soldiers will inevitably turn Russia’s domestic audience against him, especially when many Russians view this war as unnecessary. Losing both prestige and political support is a prospect that Putin cannot fathom and will force his hand.
There are several pieces of evidence to support this hypothesis. The recent history of Russia’s military excursions, namely Crimea and Syria, has demonstrated Putin’s aversion to the loss of military life. The fact that Russia masked its soldiers during the initial invasion of Crimea in 2014, popularly referred to as the ‘little green men’, suggests that he was fearful of suffering public backlash if Russian soldiers did lose their lives. Russia’s use of mercenaries in Syria was a consequence of growing public alienation with that conflict; that decision again underscored Putin’s aversion to the loss of military life because it potentially compromised his domestic standing. Putin is a peculiar dictator, in that he perceives himself to be constrained by his own people; to some extent this anxiety surrounding popular opinion is explained by his experience as a KGB officer in East Germany prior to unification.
Even two days after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he has displayed signs of a diplomatic pathway – signalling a potential “agreement” if Ukraine displaces its “neo-Nazi” leadership in Kyiv; comments that are in stark contrast to the angry chest-beating rant he delivered prior to the invasion. It may seem that the prospect of domestic unrest and Russia’s military becoming swamped in an Afghanistan-like scenario has now influenced his approach to this war.