How Putin’s Increasingly Risky Decisions Shape Russia’s Wars

When invading Ukraine in early 2022, the Putin regime failed in its goals, predictably facing massive Ukrainian and Western resistance. Did the regime simply miscalculate or is it also becoming more accepting of risk? Confirming the latter, a recent article by Jonas J. Driedger shows how increasing risk acceptance has significantly shaped Russia’s offensive wars since the mid-2000s.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, it went up against a much more formidable opponent than in 2014, when Russia had annexed Crimea and started its semi-covert war in Donbass. Back then, Ukraine had been in political turmoil, its armed forces were poorly trained and ill-equipped, virtually nobody outside the Kremlin had expected the attack, and the West struggled to respond to the speed of events.

But in 2022, Ukrainian society was united and staunchly patriotic, its armed forces well-trained and ready, and the West had threatened massive retaliation months before the invasion took place. This different reality in 2022 was easily observable and could be corroborated by a wide array of publicly available information.

So why did the Putin regime decide to attack anyway?

In a recent article Jonas J. Driedger uncovers a key component of the Russian decision: By 2022, the Russian elite had become much more willing than it previously had to accept risks for itself, the Russian state, and for Russian society. In other words: Putin and those around him are observably becoming more reckless, and this process has been going on for a while.

For example, in 2022, Russia did not seek a credible pretext, broke international agreements and predictably faced a committed international backlash from the West.

Back in 2008, Russia also invaded another neighboring state, Georgia. But it only did so after Georgian troops had shelled secessionist territory. As there were Russian troops stationed there, Russia used this attack to claim both self-defense and humanitarian intervention, minimizing international backlash following the invasion.

The Russian regime also risked much more domestic backlash in 2022 than before.

In 2022, Russia unleashed an all-out invasion with massed troops, broadcasting the event to its own population, even though polling before the invasion had shown that Russians were worried about the fates of their loved ones in the case of a war with Ukraine.

This was not the case in 2014, where the regime denied use of Russian troops and annexed Crimea through an incremental operation, allowing the regime to avoid casualties and perceptions among Russians that it had tried and failed in a military operation.

Lastly, in 2022, the regime was also more willing to accept the risk of getting bogged down in the conflict, publicly announcing that the invasion would “de-militarize” and “de-nazify” Ukraine. Committing to the goal of all-out military victory, it became entangled in a grueling war of attrition.

In sharp contrast, in 2014 the regime undertook various measures so that it would not face exactly such a scenario during the Donbass War. By outright denying its role, using secret service personnel, mercenaries, criminals, and troops without uniforms, Russia was in a much better position to change plans if the situation called for it. In 2022, when facing staunch Ukrainian resistance, the regime did not double down. Rather, it wound down its goal of a pro-Russian “New Russia” (Новороссия) on Ukrainian territory, opting to exert influence through the much smaller pseudo-independent “People’s Republics” in Donbass and Luhansk.

All these findings flow from an analysis of all military operations that the Putin regime has undertaken against other states, zeroing in on observable trade-offs between risks and war-related goals using congruence and comparative analysis on policy documents, speeches, expert literature, and various interviews with Russian, Ukrainian, and Western policymakers. The article also checks for the role of miscalculation by juxtaposing relevant information available to Russian decisionmakers with the design of the operations, concluding that the finding of increased risk acceptance is robust.

The article also contributes to other areas of research. First, it provides a template to engage and measure risk acceptance in other cases, contributing to the explanation of other historically crucial cases and the further development of theories on the various interlinkages between risk acceptance and war onset. Second, the article questions the widely held assumption that risk acceptance is a historically rare and thus theoretically negligible factor. Third, the findings tentatively corroborate arguments based on prospect theory, which stipulate that leaders are biased toward recouping or avoiding perceived losses, driving both risk acceptance and war decisions. Indeed, the Putin regime waged all of its four offensive interstate operations against neighboring states that were seemingly shifting allegiances to the West.

Various findings of the article are relevant for policymaking vis-à-vis Russia. As the article finds that the regime’s risk acceptance has grown since the mid and late 2000s, the article cautions against a sole reliance on short-term, leader-specific factors and corroborates the significance of long-term developments, such as the role of increasingly autocratic institutions within Russia, or that of growing ties between Russia’s neighbors and US-led institutions, such as NATO.

However, on a cautiously optimistic note, the article also finds even the 2022 invasion still evinces limits of Russian risk acceptance. Albeit ineffectively, the Russian regime accepted trade-offs that jeopardized apparent war goals, for example, by using fewer troops than were warranted to placate anti-draft sentiments within Russian society. Additionally, while the regime has accepted further risks during the war through the unpopular partial mobilization of late-2022, the data suggests that the Russian regime can still be deterred or possibly also bargained with.

Jonas J. Driedger is the author of “Risk acceptance and offensive war: The case of Russia under the Putin regime”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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