Why could Russian president Vladimir Putin not resist attacking his neighbor Ukraine? The horrific war is the result of his own misperceptions, writes Roberta N. Haar.
Over the past weeks, many people volunteered their theories to me on why Russian president Vladimir Putin waged a war of choice on his neighbor Ukraine. The explanations range from he is terminally ill to he is totally irrational, or completely insane.
Roberta N. Haar is Professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at the University of Maastricht and the University College Maastricht.
Although he is clearly without a conscious and willing to inflict vast suffering on a vast amount of people, both Russian and Ukrainian, his actions mirror those of many authoritarian leaders before him. Putin’s war of choice is the result of misperceptions about his adversary’s capabilities and power as well as misperceptions about his own strengths and power.
The seemingly Unprepared
The choice to invade is clearly Putin’s alone. Domitilla Sagramoso, a senior lecturer at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, further argues that military failures by the Russian army can be strongly linked to the structure of the current Russian political system—one that is firmly ruled from the top with little room for dissent. This structure led to an intelligence community that brought analyses designed to please their main recipient, which added to Putin’s false views. This exaggerated hierarchy also meant that Putin kept the decision to use force so secret that analysts were not asked to examine war-game scenarios.
Those scenarios might have anticipated that despite amassing a war chest of $650 billion, Russia would face a deep and prolonged economic contraction, higher inflation and reduced living standards as sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies sapped it of vital products and technology. Possible war gaming might have contemplated a Russian reverse industrialization as it deals with these sanctions, a significant loss to Russia’s fighting ability as it battled a Western-backed Ukraine, an EU moving to reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, and a possible unprecedented international isolation for the Russian state as it defaults on its debt payments and Western brands shed assets and flee.
On the eve of Operation Barbarossa
If the Russian political system facilitated a single-handed decision, the next question is, why did Putin make such a risky one, a step that seemingly puts his entire nation in long-term peril and perhaps his rule in short-term peril? The most prominent answer starts with the knowledge that there are many examples of egotistical authoritarian leaders overvaluing their power and their own military might. Princeton University Professor Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for identifying the hazards of over-confidence and the cognitive shortcuts that confident people make to create an “illusion of validity” for their actions.
I presented another example in a lecture that I gave in Maastricht University’s TeenzCollege program, in which I consider the causes of the Second World War from a foreign policy levels of analysis perspective. I present contributing elements in the international environment, the causes that originate within the warring states, and those determinants that emerge from key individuals.
In particular, I focus on the roles of the two dictators: Hitler and Stalin as they both miscalculated and misperceived the reality of their worlds catastrophically. For example, on the eve of his attack on the Soviet Union, code-named Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s misperceptions included the image he had of himself, his image of his adversary’s character, his image of his adversary’s intentions toward himself and his image of his adversary’s capabilities and power. Stalin made similar miscalculations, believing that he could trust a fellow dictator over the intelligence information that came from Britain, France and the United States, which conveyed 84 warnings to Stalin that Germany was about to attack.
A short, sharp war
Like Putin, Hitler’s contempt for his enemy blinded him completely to the strategic realities of the early 1940s and his rages about a coup in Belgrade delayed Operation Barbarossa by several weeks. Hitler’s overconfidence further caused him to disregard what happened to Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, where winter and vast distances killed 400,000 French troops. Both Hitler and Napoleon started their eastward advance at the end of June, believing a short, sharp war would achieve their war aims. Hitler’s overconfidence led him to downplay the immense space his invasion faced and the amount of manpower and resources that “General Winter” could deplete. Having not war gamed scenarios that learned from the past, the German Wehrmacht lost the Battle for Moscow at a cost of over 830,000 men.
It is obvious that Putin also thought he was sending his army into Ukraine for a short, sharp war against an enemy that he held in contempt and that he thought would easily collapse. Putin expected to capture Kyiv in three days and to have stabilized control of the whole of Ukraine by Victory Day on 9 May. Putin was not the only one to misperceive Ukraine, many Western military experts also confidently predicted that the Russians would conquer in a matter of days.
While it seems that everyone underestimated the Ukrainians, for the Russian army such calculations have been catastrophic. Russian soldiers were not only confused by the goals of their operation, but they were also extraordinarily unprepared to meet Ukrainian resistance. In an ironic point, the Russian army did not even prepare their soldiers to fight General Winter, that same meteorological condition that took such a toll on the French and German invading armies.
Cut the head of the snake off and you kill the snake
If misperceptions are the main driver for Putin, it is attractive to believe that if you take away Putin, reality will reconvene. Several people suggested to me that assassination would be a neat and clean way to end the war—an option voiced by Sean Hannity of Fox News, who said, “cut the head of the snake off and you kill the snake,” on his daytime radio show.
But removing Putin will be hard and talking some sense into him equally hard. By now, there is plenty of official video evidence showing that no one in the Kremlin is courageous enough to tell Putin that he might be wrong and that contradicting the Czar is a perilous exercise. Several videos show Putin demeaning the highest members of his government when they dare to point out other possibilities or alternative courses of action. The current structure of the Russian political system, which prizes loyalty, breeds fear of betrayal and rewards greed, does not support Putin’s removal by any means, bullet or otherwise.
Moreover, at the public level, systemic opposition has been wiped out via largescale repression and imprisoning opponents for non-political, made-up crimes. Nor is there a civic society to build a new Russia upon. Add to this that public opinion is thoroughly manipulated through many years of cracking down on any information that goes against official communications. Indeed, state media has created a parallel world—one based on the narrative that Russia is a besieged fortress. This means that a large part of public opinion accepts Putin’s reasoning about Ukraine, to the point that some Russian-speaking Ukrainians blame the United States for Russian bombs falling all around them.
Ultimately, like all dictators, Putin’s main objective is survival and overcoming his foes. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith point out in their Dictator’s Handbook that bad behavior is almost always good politics for leaders willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power. Such leaders do not care about the national interest, or even their subjects, unless they must for their own survival. This also means that Putin is unlikely to start a nuclear war or a World War III, as some have suggested to me.
Since 1999 and the string of Moscow bombings that brought him to power, Putin has little by little built an authoritarian state to ensure his survival. The true structure of the current Russian political system is Putinism. This means that even after Putin is gone—that perhaps his Botox-and-champagne-and-caviar lifestyle catches up with him—the state that he created will unfortunately endure for some time to come.