“Eight months into the war, Ukraine is now on the offensive. Their forces seem better armed, better trained, and better motivated, and most military analysts are predicting further Ukrainian territorial gains before the onset of winter. Russia’s partial mobilization looks like a logistical mess. Only four countries voted with Russia in the latest United Nations General Assembly vote condemning its attempted annexation of Ukrainian territory.
An underrated source of power in world politics is a reputation for effectively wielding power. This means Russia is in serious trouble.
What was supposed to be a lightning-fast decapitation of the Zelenskyy government has turned into a costly conflict with an opponent out-fighting and out-thinking Russians on the battlefield. Even before the recent strikes on civilians, Putin was forced to acknowledge that key partners like China and India had started making noises indicating dissatisfaction with the war.”
“Russia very much wants to remind friends and foes alike that it still can project destructive power. And while bombing civilians seems to have minimal military value, Russia might believe it to be an effective signal that bolsters its nuclear threats. After all, the logic runs, if Russia demonstrates that it is unconcerned about the norms and laws governing the use of conventional force, that sends a message that it is likewise unconcerned about the norms and laws governing the use of nuclear weapons.
And the more credible Russia’s nuclear threat is, the more it can rely on that tool as a form of coercive bargaining.”
“Even autocrats need to placate supporters among what political scientists call the “selectorate” — the people or group who, in practice, select a state’s leader. In a democracy, the electorate is the selectorate; in a more authoritarian regime, the selectorate is smaller and murkier. Regardless of regime type, a ruler needs to command a winning coalition with the selectorate.
Who are the actors in Putin’s coalition? A recent Institute for the Study of War (ISW) analysis of Russia’s information space concluded that there were three key pillars of support for Putin: “Russian milbloggers and war correspondents, former Russian or proxy officers and veterans, and some of the Russian siloviki — people with meaningful power bases and forces of their own. Putin needs to retain the support of all three of these factions.”
The reverses on the battlefield in the east and south of Ukraine cost Putin some support among his selectorate. According to the Washington Post, “A member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle has voiced disagreement directly to the Russian president in recent weeks over his handling of the war in Ukraine.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the Post that was “absolutely not true,” even while acknowledging, “There is disagreement over such moments. Some think we should act differently. But this is all part of the usual working process.”
This jibes with the recent public criticisms by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, about the way the war has been prosecuted. ISW reported similar discontent from nationalists and military bloggers.
As ISW writes, this dissension has a feedback effect that erodes Putin’s standing: “Word of fractures within Putin’s inner circle have reached the hyper-patriotic and nationalist milblogger crowd, however, undermining the impression of strength and control that Putin has sought to portray throughout his reign.”
Striking Ukrainian civilians with missiles makes sense for Putin within this domestic context. After the bridge attack, there were calls from Russian nationalists to escalate the conflict. They want the gloves to come off in the fight against Ukraine, advocating for ever more brutality. The rocket attacks against Ukrainian cities will placate Putin’s nationalist supporters for the time being, and allows his subordinates and surrogates to make the case on television that they are responding to reverses on the battlefield. Putin’s promotion this week of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, known as “General Armageddon” for his brutality in Syria, will also bolster his standing with nationalists.”
“Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his research with Amos Tversky demonstrating that most humans do not make decisions based on rational choice, but rather use a collection of cognitive shortcuts known as prospect theory. A central tenet of prospect theory is that individuals will be risk-averse when they are winning, and risk-tolerant when they are losing. In other words, when someone faces a setback relative to the prior status quo, they are more willing to take risks in an effort to “gamble for resurrection.”
This seems to describe Putin’s behavior over the past few months.”
“the West should hope Russia’s actions are explained by Putin’s individual psychology. Both the international and domestic explanations suggest that Putin will double down on aggressive actions. At the global level, Russia keeps getting humiliated by UN General Assembly votes. At the domestic level, Putin will need to amp up the barbarism to maintain nationalist support as Russian fortunes in Ukraine continue to deteriorate.
Only Putin’s reputed procrastinating tendencies suggest a return to Russian lethargy in adapting to Ukrainian military successes. It would be ironic indeed if the greatest gift Russia can give Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s torpor.”