“Putin” does not equal “Russia”
Putin controls less military decision-making than one might assume
This article was drafted a few weeks ago. Subsequent events (e.g. “annexations”, mobilization, martial law) don’t change its conclusions.
In this article, I’ll quickly highlight a few points about Russia that:
May sound surprising, but even so …
… are widely known, or are implied by widely known facts.
Are important to predicting Russian strategic choices, but, …
… may not always be given the analytical weight that they deserve.
This exercise is an example of the “Know your players” dictum from our earlier article Think like a game theorist. It is meant to be background for further discussions of the Russia-Ukraine War.
These points and their top implications are:
Russia is prudent and responsible about avoiding strategic nuclear war. Its irresponsible-sounding threats along those lines can be almost entirely disregarded.
Russia’s nuclear choices are controlled by more officials than Putin alone. This is why the previous point can still remain true no matter what Putin tries to do. It also should influence the set of targets for any anti-nuclear-escalation persuasion.
Putin and the Russian military have little mutual trust. This surely increases Russians’ (Putin’s and military leaders’ alike) fear of admitting military defeat vs. Ukraine, in that the resulting blame-casting would surely be vicious. It also supports the idea that certain Putin orders, such as crazily unwise nuclear ones, would likely not be carried out.
Or to put it even more simply: “Russia” does not equal “Putin”, and strategists should not assume that it does.
Let’s examine each of those assessments in turn.
Moscow has long been responsible about avoiding strategic nuclear war
Russia talks recklessly about nuclear strikes. It does wildly evil things with conventional and perhaps low-grade chemical weapons. But Russia’s (and before it the USSR’s) actual nuclear behavior has been cautious, measured, and successful at avoiding crisis, for approximately the past 60 years – i.e., since shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In support of that view, please consider:
The Moscow-Washington hotline was established in 1963.
Russia and the US have established other “deconfliction” lines in regional hotspots, such as Syria and Ukraine.
Lists of nuclear-war scares tend to be short, and not particularly damning to Moscow.
Anything that sounds like an official Russian nuclear threat is usually worded in vague and noncommittal ways. This year’s Ukraine-related comments have adhered to that rule.
Putin doesn’t control Russia’s nuclear choices
I already argued this point in a previous article, and nothing relevant has chanted in the interim. Most notably:
Formally, Putin doesn’t have authority to launch nukes on his own.
The required collaborators, while surely susceptible to coercion on most matters, cannot be assumed willing to commit global suicide. Even holding them at gunpoint likely wouldn’t change that.
Putin and the Russian military have little trust in each other
To all appearances, the Russian military is carrying out Putin’s orders in Ukraine as best it can. Even so:
Russian military corruption is a massive limitation.
Putin, like his predecessor, has an apparent habit of killing competent generals.
This year has shown that he also tends to fire incompetent ones.
What’s more, leaks claim that Putin is sabotaging his generals, with examples that range from:
Assertions that Russia’s unquestionably poor planning for the initial invasion stem from Putin not telling the military of his true intentions.
Recent reports that blame Putin’s micromanagement for any upcoming debacle in Kherson.
If Putin’s survival ever depends on reckless nuclear weapon use, he can’t rely on Russia’s military to bail him out.