The Russian invasion was a rational act

The Russian invasion was a rational act. By John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato.

We cannot equate rationality with success and non-rationality with failure. Rationality is not about outcomes. Rational actors often fail to achieve their goals, not because of foolish thinking but because of factors they can neither anticipate nor control.

There is also a powerful tendency to equate rationality with morality since both qualities are thought to be features of enlightened thinking. But this too is a mistake. Rational policies can violate widely accepted standards of conduct and may even be murderously unjust. …

There is solid evidence that Putin and his advisers thought in terms of straightforward balance-of-power theory, viewing the West’s efforts to make Ukraine a bulwark on Russia’s border as an existential threat that could not be allowed to stand. Russia’s president laid out this logic in a speech explaining his decision for war: “With Nato’s eastward expansion the situation for Russia has been becoming worse and more dangerous by the year… We cannot stay idle and passively observe these developments. This would be an absolutely irresponsible thing to do for us.” He went on to say: “It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty. It is the redline which we have spoken about on numerous occasions. They have crossed it.”

In other words, for Putin, this was a war of self-defence aimed at preventing an adverse shift in the balance of power. He had no intention of conquering all of Ukraine and annexing it into a greater Russia. Indeed, even as he claimed in his well-known historical account of Russia-Ukraine relations that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people — a single whole”, he also declared: “We respect Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe, and prosperous… And what Ukraine will be — it is up to its citizens to decide.” None of this is to deny that his aims have clearly expanded since the war began, but that is hardly unusual as wars unfold and circumstances change.

It is worth noting that Moscow sought to deal with the growing threat on its borders through aggressive diplomacy, but the United States and its allies were unwilling to accommodate Russia’s security concerns. On 17 December 2021, Russia put forward a proposal to solve the growing crisis that envisaged a neutral Ukraine and the withdrawal of Nato forces from Eastern Europe to their positions in 1997. But the United States rejected it out of hand.

This being the case, Putin opted for war, which analysts expected to result in the Russian military’s overrunning Ukraine. Describing the view of US officials just before the invasion, David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote that Russia would “quickly win the initial, tactical phase of this war, if it comes. The vast army that Russia has arrayed along Ukraine’s borders could probably seize the capital of Kyiv in several days and control the country in little more than a week.” Indeed, the intelligence community “told the White House that Russia would win in a matter of days by quickly overwhelming the Ukrainian army”. Of course, these assessments proved wrong, but even rational policymakers sometimes miscalculate, because they operate in an uncertain world.

The Russian decision to invade was also the product of a deliberative process, not a knee-jerk reaction by a lone wolf. …

Putin’s subordinates shared his views about the nature of the threat confronting Russia, and he consulted with them before deciding on war. The consensus among Russian leaders regarding the dangers inherent in Ukraine’s relationship with the West is clearly reflected in a 2008 memorandum by then ambassador to Russia William Burns; it warned that “Ukrainian entry into Nato is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in Nato as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests… I can conceive of no grand package that would allow the Russians to swallow this pill quietly.”

Nor does Putin appear to have made the decision for war alone, as stories of him plotting in Covid-induced confinement implied. When asked whether the Russian president consulted with his key advisers, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov replied: “Every country has a decision-making mechanism. In that case, the mechanism existing in the Russian Federation was fully employed.” To be sure, it seems clear that Putin relied on only a handful of like-minded confidants to make the final decision to invade, but that is not unusual when policymakers are faced with a crisis. …

Western policymakers would be well-advised not to automatically assume that Russia or any other adversary is non-rational, as they often do. That only serves to undermine their ability to understand how other states think and craft smart policies to deal with them. Given the enormous stakes in the Ukraine war, this cannot be emphasised enough.

This video by Adam Curtis has some brilliant insights, particularly concerning Putin. Putin did not seek power, which makes him very unusual for the leader of an empire.