The Russian conundrum

By Lorenzo

Bryan Caplan thinks there should be more analytical humility: in particular, that none of us know the best way to deal with Russia.

Part of the difficulty is trying to work out Putin’s intentions. According to someone who spent some years as his major economic advisor, they are to take what he can get away with (via). (Which is not the same as saying an invasion of, say, Finland is imminent.) So, that when Putin said:

First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.

he was not kidding. Since there is no sign Putin hankers for a return of the command economy, it is presumably Soviet Union-as-Russian Empire whose passing he regrets. And that he falls more on the “flight from Europe” than the “search for Europe” division within Russian history.

Another part of the difficulty is working out what the proper policy aim is. If we take minimising disruption to the world state system as the aim (which includes minimising the risk of war, which is a significant disruption of said system, without giving it absolute priority) then consideration of the general patterns of war and peace is useful. Historian Geoffrey Blainey’s principle that:

When nations prepare to fight one another, they have contradictory expectations of the likely duration and outcome of the war. When those predictions, however cease to be contradictory, the war is almost certain to end.

suggests that clear signalling is very important. Given that the US and its allies have clearly much greater military power than Russia–Putin goes on and on about the US spending 25 times what Russia does on defence–the danger is mutual misunderstanding about where the limits are.

Putin with toys.

Putin with toys.

So, what are the limits of implicit or explicit Western defence guarantees? NATO membership fairly obviously, EU membership presumably. Hence Putin’s hostility to expansion of either. Hence also the attractiveness of both to nervous neighbours.

The question then becomes–what are the limits to Western acceptance of Russian actions to block expansion of either? The extent of German sympathy for Russian actions suggest an answer of “whatever Putin wants”. Though the Budapest memorandum says he can’t use nuclear weapons.

So, the way to “deal” with Putin and Russia is to work out what the West would find unacceptable as means of pressuring Russia’s neighbours not currently in the EU or NATO and then make that clear to Putin. Geoffrey Blainey’s analytical principles that are particularly relevant:

If it is true that the breakdown of diplomacy leads to war, it is also true that the breakdown of war leads to diplomacy.

And the most pertinent one of all:

In human behaviour few events are more difficult to predict than the course and duration of a war: that is one of the vital unlearned lessons of warfare.

But that gets into the biggest difficulty of all–the strength of current “priors”. If one simply presumes that Putin could not possibly have a “more territory is better” and “malign forces manipulate events” view of the world, then that sort of clear thinking and signalling is not going to be engaged in. Which is why I like the above approach–it presumes very little, it just makes clear what the constraints are.

Failing to do so, however, could be much more dangerous.


  1. kvd
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Putin has demonstrated that he will do what he says he will do. The West has not. Putin needs external crises to reinforce his tenuous internal ‘control’.

    I think he Russia is more interested in preserving uneasy equilibrium with China, regards Siberia, than any piecemeal reattachment of Euro territory, and if push comes to shove over China’s intentions, he Russia now has once more demonstrated willingness to both push and shove.

    As to your Blainey quotes, the last one is probably the very first observation drummed into any officer cadet at every military college. Blainey observes the political class, not its defenders.

  2. Tim Quilty
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, KVD, but China now have a new doctrine for invading neighbors and seizing disputed territory. This is not in Russia’s long term interests.

  3. Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I believe that Blainey was referring to the political class (as in those who make the decisions for peace and war). Mind you, the odd military dictatorship has miscalculated too–the Falklands comes to mind …

    Also, I am not sure getting embroiled in disputes on your European borders exactly improves your manoeuvring over your Eastern ones.

    [email protected] But they may not rise to the bait; they have other reasons to be unhappy at the Crimean precedent.

  4. kvd
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 3:28 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I accept your point, but think it is also strategically significant that Russia has now demonstrated its willingness to act, as opposed to just talk. There are many references to the Russia-China Siberia equation – such as this old one – but most seem cast as if both players will not ultimately resort to force.

    I just think that has now changed somewhat.

  5. Adrien
    Posted April 6, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    As someone who thinks that everyone who wishes to paint this tinpot dictator and/or revolutionist as the next Hitler is an opportunistic shyster I feel a bit perturbed to declare that Putin is the,um, next Hitler.

  6. Posted April 7, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Just because the Munich analogy is way overused, does not mean it will never be appropriate. What Kissinger said about Nixon applies–just because’s a man’s paranoid does not mean he does not have enemies.

  7. Khoukharev
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Oh, it seems like somebody actually takes Illarionov seriously.

    The best way to prevent this situation was to take Russia’s interest into account. I think Putin never had any intentions to take on Crimea or Eastern Ukraine, but Russia was put into situation when not taking it would be much worse for Russia than sanctions and all that stuff.

  8. Posted April 12, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] But what if “Russia’s interest” turns out to be a weak, undemocratic Ukraine looted by Putin-friendly oligarchs?

    As it is, the US seems to be not sharing basic intelligence about Russian troop movements with Ukraine. Not sure who that helps.

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