Russia: The Broader Narrative

The world was blindsided by Mr. Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine. Polite folks didn’t think that he would go that far. It was thought that he might try to meddle behind the scenes, but to outright invade? Well, that was beyond the pale.

And so we have a surprise on our hands. In conflict management, surprise is not good. It shows that an underlying theory of what drives folks is incorrect. That, in turn, forces a re-think.

My own re-think was that Putin would realize that he had made a policy mistake. He would see that the potential gains from military intervention did not justify the losses that would surely come from sanctions. I predicted that a settlement might be possible once he saw this. I was surprised again. Time has gone by, the bite of sanctions and plunging oil prices have exacted severe punishment on Russia. Yet there still is no settlement.

One surprise is nicht gut. Two surprises is very nicht gut. A deeper look at what is behind the scenes in Russia is in order. Several books have come out presenting the case that the underlying motivations of the Putin administration are not what they seem. That, I would argue, is obvious.  The question is what are they? A new book comes out with the claim that the entire Putin enterprise is rotten to the core – that they administer a “kleptocracy”.

I link to a review of the book at WSJ that makes this point

(The author) is ascribing complicated motivations to a set of actions that most likely came about through simple greed. It’s not that Mr. Putin didn’t set out to create an authoritarian state: He did. It’s that the link between authoritarian plans and illegal business dealings is assumed by the author, but never fully explored.

In other words, while some of Putin’s actions may have been based on greed, it does not mean that all of them were. There may be other motives as well.  So, once again what are they?

They may be simply a desire to stay in power in order to avoid arrest. Crisis provides a convenient excuse not to allow a transfer of power, and deepening crisis an even better excuse. They may be genuinely based on state interest. Winning in Ukraine and elsewhere is important for Russia. And of course, there is a third possibility. There may be no strategy at all motivating what is going on. Decisions may have been made on the spur of the moment without deep thinking about what might happen. Putin is a tactical rather than a strategic thinker.

From a conflict management point of view, this muddle is unfortunate. It forces the other side to assume the worst cast — that  Putin et al will not change course. That the powers that be in Russia are instead, intent on further destabilizing Eastern Europe and destroying NATO. Whether this is in fact true or not, doesn’t matter. Because one cannot be sure of what will happen, one must assume the worst.

We can learn about conflict management from this. The lesson is a simple one. It is very easy to get locked into conflict because of uncertainty. Once you are locked in, conflict acquires a logic of its own until the uncertainty is resolved one way or another.

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