The Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022: A theory of the nascent Russian decision-making modus operandi

By Domonkos D. Kovacs, Deputy Director for Publications

As the first three weeks of the Russo-Ukrainian war revealed, Putin is no longer a pragmatic, strategic, and perhaps not even a rational actor in the international arena. The current op-ed makes an attempt at formulating an explanation for the nascent Russian decision-making modus operandi.

As evident from the plethora of accounts from academics, pundits, and policymakers, who considered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impossible, almost all models of Russian foreign policy, including the author’s were based on the well supported and ubiquitous assumption that Putin is above all, pragmatic, rational, cautious, and calculating. The Russian decision-making structure was bistratal; its foundation was pragmatism and strategic thought. The leadership gathered the best available intel, made models with the help of the most competent cadres, and chose the policy option which promised the greatest economic-political-security benefit to the regime, without any consideration for ideology, emotions, and fantasies. Up until two weeks ago, Putin was seen as, and was, a cold, calculating machine running on pragmatism.

Russian pragmatism runs deeper than the past two decades. Churchill famously remarked: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Russian foreign policy behaviour mapped onto the analytical framework of Rationality so far. By understanding the leadership’s interest precisely (ends) you could almost always predict the policy (means) and pragmatism was the bond between the two; the assumed rationality, as perceived by the West, was undoubtedly present. We could be certain that the propaganda-narrative didn’t matter, the decisions were made based on ubiquitous and universal strategic pragmatism. Rationality as a terminology of foreign policy analysis is too vague of a framework here; it is entirely too easy to satisfy the requirement of means connected to ends, if a leader is not clinically insane. Instead, I suggest we use ‘pragmatism’ as a more specific frame of reference; it has more explanatory power and relevance in the context of Russian foreign policy.

The rationale and modus operandi of the Russian leadership emerging now is neither pragmatic nor strategic, and perhaps not even rational; all models are void and Russia has metamorphosed into a rogue state overnight. The bistratal decision-making collapsed into a singular flat plane of ideology and propaganda. Strategic thought, cost-benefit analysis, good intel, and pragmatism no longer inform the foreign policy outcome. The propaganda, which up until now was the a posteriori justification of the strategic decision, became its a priori ‘Prime Mover’, in an Aquinasean sense.

In the previous system of bistratal decision-making, high quality, accurate, unbiased intel was key for pragmatic decisions. Just like with the Russian leadership’s immense emphasis on accurate polling data, it needed good intel and good analysis to make the best possible strategic decision. The propagandists were responsible for the propaganda stratum, whilst the FSB and the military-political high command dealt with the apolitical, non-ideological strategic stratum of the decision-making process. Now, it appears that a characteristic of late-stage autocracies has emerged. The top-brass now values analysis which supports the propaganda line more than accurate models, and the bureaucracy delivers. Putin’s style appears to have become more Stalin-esque, surrounding himself with yes-men, and intimidating them into submission (look at his recent exchange with Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service — SVR). It appears that during the pandemic and his isolation, Putin and his closest cronies convinced themselves of the imperial delusions which so far were only used to sell the pragmatic policy decisions to the public.

Putin was neither conservative, nor liberal, neither a true Soviet nostalgist, nor a ‘shock-therapist’; he was a strategist with great power ambitions, and he understood that the road to achieving these ambitions leads through calculating strategic pragmatism. Now, Putin entirely succumbed to imperial fantasies. It has to be underscored that he does not want to revive the Soviet Union; he wants to revive the Russian Empire which has survived another 69 odd years under a red veil. Putin has truly believed his own propaganda and acted in accordance. Pragmatism and strategic thought were superseded and gave way to imperial delusions. The disguise became policy’s true driver.

I was a committed believer of Putin’s pragmatism in the past years, and so was most of the scholarship; no wonder that the majority of the academic-professional community considered this war to be impossible and it caught them off guard: the pragmatic-strategic decision would have been not to start this war, and the propaganda narrative accounts to nothing anyways, does it? Putin’s speech of the 21st of February was the true turning point, the big reveal. We’ve initially believed that this was the propaganda stratum of the decision-making process, as per usual. Wrong; now, for the first time, it was the strategic part, and it presented us with a cross-section of the new dynamics of the decision-making rationale.

All this is clearly demonstrated by the reasons for the war effort’s failure so far. The war is failing primarily because Putin truly believed that this is a Special Operation, and in accordance, it was planned as one. During the early days of the invasion, the VDV (Russian Airborne Forces) was parachuted into Ukraine, to Hostomel. The VDV is branded as the Russian Army’s elite force. It is not, it is glorified riot police, essentially a psyops force. Its only utility is suppressing revolts. In the past 90 years, it was deployed in its parachute capacity only three times so far: to Hungary in 1956, to Czechoslovakia in 1968, and to Ukraine in 2022. The prior two were revolutions against Soviet rule, where organised armed resistance could not have been expected. Putin apparently believed that Ukraine is a rebellious Russian satellite, and not an independent nation with an independent army; the Russian tactics reflected this. It didn’t work out, the VDV was obliterated at Hostomel, because the Ukrainian army is a large nation sized, potent, organised fighting force, and not a rebellious partisan group. This is where the evaporation of Putin’s pragmatism is strikingly apparent. If he would have formulated policy based on strategic pragmatic considerations as he has done before, the VDV would not have been sent in the initial phase. The size of the Russian invasion force hints at the same tendency. As Major General Mick Ryan (@WarintheFuture) explains, the current force of approximately 190k (which is half of the Russian Army’s ground forces) is mathematically not enough to surround and lay siege to Kyiv, which should have been the centrepiece of any military operation aiming to subdue Ukraine. It seems that the Russian government truly believed that the troops will be welcomed as liberators after some initial pockets of resistance, and there will be no need for a siege, consequently, no need for a full-size invasion force. The temporary suspension of Russian military doctrine could be seen to mirror the same post-pragmatist tenet as well. The Russian Army, above all, is an artillery army; it shines when it can annihilate its enemy in a war of attrition with artillery barrages and aerial bombardment. Whoever, they will only resort to this when they consider the conflict a war and not a Special Operation against rebels. They did it in the Second Chechen War, and they did it in Syria with great success, at enormous cost to civilian life. Since the tenth day of the war, the Russian C2 started to reckon with its failures emerging from its reluctance to consider the war a war, and subsequently fell back on its tried and tested doctrine of mass destruction. The Russian blitzkrieg of 2022 was planned based on misconceptions, and failed in accordance. As they expected no real resistance, only one echelon of forces was staged and sent, with no second and third echelons to secure the supply lines; in came the Ukrainian army and Russian armour ran out of fuel.

Even in the case of Georgia, another former soviet member state wishing to extract itself from Russia’s orbit, the 2008 war has been a war. The due diligence in intelligence and planning has been done, the Georgian army was considered an army, albeit small, and voila the Russian force of barely 10k troops scored a decisive victory in five days with minimal losses (~50), despite its catastrophic operational failures. However, we mustn’t extrapolate further militarily from 2008: Georgia is a country of ~3.7 million, whereas Ukraine’s population is ~44 million, we are looking at a fundamentally different Russian army in 2022 (albeit some shadows have been cast upon this claim in the past days), and the reasons for the Russo-Georgian War were different than those of the Russo-Ukrainian war, albeit this will be debated for decades.

These failures are primarily not a result of a lack of capacity. The Russian leadership is very skilful at understanding the sentiments of its own population; Levada Centre is allowed to function, and even VCIOM is surprisingly thorough and unbiased with its research output because the leadership is in dire need of good data to be able to make strategic decisions. Yet, they failed to grasp that the Ukrainians en masse really don’t like them (even in the DNR and LNR only a minority of ~40% wants independence!), and after eight years of preparation they will be armed to the teeth and ready to fight. Instead, sloppy, biased analysis was done driven by fantasies and preconceptions, informed by wishful thinking; everyone said what the leader wanted to hear. They’ve committed the mistake of the rookie academic: find the data which supports your point and ignore the rest. Putin saw Zelenskyy as an inexperienced, increasingly unpopular politician who will be unable to resist a Special Operation, yet he failed to take the ‘rally around the flag’ effect into consideration, which he himself relies on to a large extent. If Putin was still pragmatic and strategic, this war would have either not been started at all, or with fundamentally different tactics; Putin’s hubris undermined the Russian Army.

All in all, we can see the emergence of a post-pragmatic Putin, and subsequently a rogue state Russia. Instead of a dictatorial, murderous, but pragmatic and strategically apt Putin, we are now facing a rogue and increasingly isolated dictator with imperial fantasies. The common denominator of strategic pragmatism, which enabled western politics and scholarship to predict Russia’s behaviour no longer informs Russian decision making, and this has grave consequences. The West has for long not trusted Putin but trusted his pragmatism and sober calculus. Both of these are now void, which implies that we are absolutely in the dark trying to predict what the hivemind called Putin will do; barely anything is impossible now.

European Horizons welcomes open and innovative analysis on relevant and occasionally controversial transatlantic issues. The viewpoints expressed in Transatlantic Perspectives do not necessarily reflect an institutional position.

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