Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine reflects broader patterns of the Russian political system

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Given how gruesome and fateful Putin’s war in Ukraine is proving, says Vladimir Gelman, more and more people are trying to explain how the Kremlin leader came to the decision to do so, with many suggesting that he it was an emotional act or reflecting Putin’s thinking on Ukraine Alone.

Both of these views are deeply flawed, says the political scientist from the European University of St. Petersburg. Putin had rational reasons in his mind for taking this step; and his action was entirely consistent with the nature of the political system he created, two things that make this action even more dangerous (ridl.io/sut-pagubnogo-resheniya/).

“Most of the actions taken by the Kremlin” before and after the start of the invasion “seem quite rational,” Gelman argues. “There is therefore no reason to consider the launch of this military campaign as something exceptional. Instead, it must be assumed that it fits into the general logic of governance in Russia.

The “perniciousness” of what Putin has done in Ukraine is not only the result of “the specifics of Russian policy towards Ukraine”, but “of more fundamental factors” – “the characteristics of the Russian regime, its mechanisms governance, misconceptions about the consequences of decisions and assessments of future outcomes based on experience.

Personalist autocracies like Putin’s are much more likely to fall victim to it. If we compare his decision to go to Ukraine with the Soviet decision to intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1968, we see the difference. In Putin’s case, there was no real decision; in the Soviet one there were discussions in a variety of places.

Moreover, Gelman continues, “foreign and defense policy are far more affected by the vices of ‘bad governance’ than other areas.” They are hidden behind “a veil of state secrecy” that allows power to “cover up various miscalculations and encourages enforcers to focus only on ends rather than costs and consequences.”

Another factor that undoubtedly played a role in this decision was the propensity of Russian leaders “to project onto Ukraine’s leaders their expectations that ‘American puppets’ would flee to their masters when threatened. and then collapse when the latter did not support them.

The Russian authorities could project onto the Ukrainian leaders the hope that the “American puppets” would flee to their masters when threatened, and that they themselves would stop supporting them.

Other erroneous assumptions that have played a role include the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, that the rift between eastern and western Ukraine is “eternal and unremovable” and that most Ukrainians, with the exception of nationalists in government, are pro-Russian. .

And behind all these errors lies the worldview of many in Moscow and elsewhere that what has been lost can be restored to the past. It’s found in Donald Trump’s rhetoric of ‘making America great again’, just as it is in Putin’s oft-repeated insistence that ‘we can do it again’. “.

Such views have no doubt led Putin to conclude that he could repeat the victory he won in 2014 and in the same way, particularly because he sees the recent unrest in the West as proof that it is “in a state of deep and irreversible decline and therefore is fundamentally incapable of decisively resisting Russia.

Most likely, Gelman concludes, “the Kremlin assumed that everything in 2022 would go much the same way as in 2014, but on a larger scale; but it turned out that “you can’t go in the same river twice”. Whether Putin will learn much from this remains to be seen.


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