Observation: Putin–Will he? Won’t he?

A think-out-loud thread on what I’ve been thinking while watching the unfolding situation in Ukraine, which could have massive repercussions both in Europe and the rest of the world.

I’ve seen several attempts to analyze what Putin is thinking and what he wants, and while all of these are interesting and perhaps even some of them are correct, I am reminded of something I read in “Against the Gods” (a book about risk management):

“We are never certain. We are always ignorant to some degree. Much of the information we have is incorrect or incomplete. Under conditions of uncertainty, the choice is not between rejecting & accepting a hypothesis, but between reject or not-reject.” (p. 207)

Here’s one such analysis: warontherocks.com
Putin’s Wager in Russia’s Standoff with the West

Here’s another, arguing Russia won’t invade: time.com
The Untold Story of the Ukraine Crisis

What we know right now can be fit on a quad grid. Essentially, Putin has moved forces near to Ukraine, in a bid for something we know not entirely what. He has the choice to ‘invade’ or ‘withdraw’; and in doing so he can either ‘win’ or ‘lose.’

This framework is helpful to me for thinking through some of the scenarios and possibilities. Some of the scenarios are solidly within one specific quadrant (for example, win-invade might lead to regime change that benefits Russia/Putin in some way).

On the other hand, some scenarios “bridge” one or both of the win/lose and invade/withdraw lines (for example, one can imagine a scenario where Putin withdraws and in some senses ‘wins’–perhaps in the court of world opinion–yet loses at home).

But the million dollar question is, of course, which of these boxes are most likely? We can begin by considering the major sides on either side of one specific line.

For example, on the invade side: Many analysts think it’s likely he will, but there are some significant minority opinions that think this is all a ploy. One thing we do know is that the forces are there, and it’s expensive to maintain them. They can’t stay forever.

Here’s a look at the forces arrayed against Ukraine: Economist.com

The best world for Putin is a ‘win’–one generally doesn’t play this kind of game if one expects to lose. He seems willing to invade. So if he is to withdraw, then there must be some way that he can be seen to ‘win’ that justifies the expense of the play.

I think it far more likely he would roll the dice and go for the ‘invade-and-win’ than withdraw without a firm ‘win-and-withdraw’ in hand. Withdrawing seems far more likely to be–or be seen to be (which may be equally important)–a loss.

Given the choice between a certain loss and a chance of win, I suspect the chance of win will be taken. That means invasion.

One other question for scenario building is how deep into one side he gets. For example, there are some analyses that suggest Putin will go for a “limited invasion” (just a little over the invasion side, not deep into the “invade” quadrant). He may get away with that.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, right now, most of the repercussions to Putin if he takes the invasion route appear to be economic. I’m not sure that’s enough to keep him from pulling the trigger. I think they think they can endure.

The upshot of all of this is that, thinking out loud, the invade side seems the more probable option to me, although I wish for the withdrawal side.

Given all that, I have been trying to imagine what the consequences of this will be. One is the withdrawal of Americans — and probably most Westerners — from the region. Many are actively pulling people out and suggesting dire consequences for those who don’t leave.

Another potential impact was highlighted in the Roundup this week: a scenario of tens of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees.

Then there are the knock-on effects of the war – with Russia invading one country, what about the others in the region? It was a piece of fiction, but remember Red Storm Rising: Russia invading Europe to remove NATO to set the stage for invasion of the Middle East.

In fact, in many ways, the whole current series of events reminds me of RSR – Russia making demands that no one will accede to, just to say no one met the demands and so it will invade.

I’m not saying that’s the game plan here, but it would be good to keep in mind that Ukraine may or may not be the ‘end goal’ of this entire strategy. I’m not sure anyone knows precisely what Putin’s motivations are, or what the ‘win state’ of this game is.

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