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Strategic Miscalculations Regarding Ukraine and the Failure of the Rational-Actor Model

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POLICY PERSPECTIVE

by John Gilmour
CGAI Fellow
March 2022

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Strategic Miscalculations Regarding Ukraine and the Failure of the Rational-Actor Model

Why wasn’t Ukraine previously admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to forestall Russian intervention in that country? Other former Warsaw Pact countries, including Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Hungary, have been admitted at various times since the end of the Cold War. And there hasn’t been a moratorium on welcoming other countries to the club – Macedonia became a member as recently as 2020. From a geopolitical, economic and military perspective, it is surprising NATO has not been falling over itself to encourage and facilitate such a strategically situated country to join the alliance. And, of course, had Ukraine been a NATO member, a compelling argument could be made that Article 5 obligations would ideally have deterred Vladimir Putin’s designs on that country, including his violations of territorial integrity in the Crimea and eastern border regions in 2014. 

But Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Consequently, short of putting boots on the ground and risking escalation of the conflict beyond Ukraine, Western countries’ options to address the Russian intervention in that country are limited. They remain focused on supporting logistical networks and aid (including weapons) and most importantly, a comprehensive array of financial sanctions. Ideally, sanctions will serve to cripple Putin’s ability to meet his military and political objectives and to undermine support for, and legitimacy of, Putin himself.

But why is this the case?

Interest or efforts in seeking Ukraine’s admission to NATO have waxed and waned over the past 25 years, both within Ukraine itself (it can be assumed the pro-Moscow Yanukovych administration prior to 2014 was not actively seeking membership) and Western capitals. Western leaders over this period have always encouraged Ukraine to take the necessary steps to be considered a candidate for admission – or at least haven’t stated that membership is just not in the cards. However, there have always been concerns as to why Ukraine was not quite there yet in terms of meeting the thresholds for admission which NATO published in 1995, essentially kicking the issue of Ukraine’s membership down the road.

One practical concern since 2014 would be admitting a country that has been engaged in unresolved border disputes with Russia in both the Crimean and Donbas border areas, with NATO then inheriting a military conflict with Russia, something it would want to avoid.  Concerns about rampant state-sanctioned corruption in Ukraine’s government are often offered as an excuse. There may be some truth to this as Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, has rated Ukraine 122 out of 180 countries.1 Ukraine’s perceived inability to contribute to NATO military programs (obviously ironic given its singular steadfastness in the Russian invasion) and challenges in growing its economy have also been cited as reasons why admission has been impossible. It is suggested that had the same criteria or concerns been applied so rigorously to other former Warsaw Pact countries when their membership was being considered in the post-Cold War era, many would still be officially non-aligned and facing the same Russian threat to their sovereignty that Ukraine faces. Indeed, the point has been made whether NATO member Turkey would be admitted to the alliance today, given its sustained crackdowns on political dissent and the media, and its significant economic challenges. Despite Ukraine receiving military training and supplies from NATO members (including Canada), over the years, there was nothing on the table to suggest Ukraine was even close to getting approval to join NATO prior to the invasion. So, is there some other less tangible rationale as to why Ukraine finds itself fighting for its very existence today?  

Since his ascension to the Russian presidency two decades ago, Putin has had three primary objectives: 1) To restore Russia’s sphere of influence and status as a regional hegemon in  Eurasia which will never be unjustly “disrespected” the way it was in the 1990s. Ukraine is considered to be inextricably linked to Russia’s identity as a great power; 2) To turn back what he saw as a NATO encirclement of Russia – including the deployment of short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons – in parallel with U.S. influence and other outside pressures in the region that threatened Russian security and political agendas; and 3) To fracture the Western alliance structure, especially between the U.S. and Europe, through subterfuge and bilateral commercial and political relationships. 

Despite these priorities often being at odds with their own agendas, Western leaders have shown a tacit sensitivity to Putin’s broader agenda, especially as he consolidated power over the years. This resulted in a consensus that it is probably best not to poke the proverbial bear in such matters. Witness Russia’s increasing willingness to engage in military interventions starting with the Caucasus (admittedly, major combat was both pre-Putin and considered a domestic affair), the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and North Ossetia in 2008 and of course, annexing the Crimea in 2014 (not so much domestic). So, as former U.S. ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute said, one key question was whether Ukraine’s membership in NATO would “actually contribute to the stability of Europe, or would it contribute to destabilization? I think it is indisputable there wouldn’t be a consensus among the 30 members [a consensus by all 30 members is required for a new country to join], even though all allies agree that Ukraine has the right to aspire to become a NATO member.”2 In an interview in the Miami Herald on February 25, 2022, Sean Monaghan of the Centre of Strategic and International Studies said: “There are a lot of European allies who were dead set against inviting Ukraine because they had hopes that they could develop a closer relationship with Moscow. So there was both the formal and technically accurate reason, but also an unspoken, for the most part, political reason as well.”3  Both France and Germany have specifically opposed Ukraine’s membership. 

Taking these observations at face value, it would appear Western leaders were prepared to let Ukraine maintain its non-aligned status, albeit with some ongoing military support, despite the fact Putin considered it “an inherent part of our [Russian] history, culture and spiritual space”4 and the risk that view posed to Ukraine’s sovereignty in light of the 2014 events in the Crimea and Donbas regions. By adopting this position, Western leaders pursued a strategy that sought to balance regional stability and bilateral commercial interests against avoiding military escalation with Russia.

In pursuit of this strategy, it is suggested that a number of assumptions which were developed in the rational-actor model influenced Western views regarding Ukraine’s status and sovereign integrity. This model suggests that leaders and organizations associated with one’s adversaries decide to optimize strategic choices in support of their broader objectives, somewhat akin to a cost-benefit analysis. The rational-actor model assumes that adversaries will choose strategies that maximize overall efficacies and utility from a choice of options. Friendly entities then develop a strategic response in kind, based on what the most rational way forward for the adversary appears to be. But to be most effective, those undertaking rational-actor assessments must have information that is current to the calculus, and ensure that assumptions going into the assessment either remain valid or require revision. It is now obvious such was not the case when it came to the West’s strategic forecasting on the Russian-Ukraine nexus.

In this instance, Russian views towards Ukraine would be presumed to be based on careful, well-defined rational calculations making, in turn, Western assumptions about how Russia would engage with Ukraine easier to determine and plan for. The primary knock against this assessment approach is that the norms, values, opportunities and constraints inherent in the organization or society undertaking the assessment are mistakenly transposed cognitively to the adversary. Consequently, underlying key assumptions associated with a hypothesis of how an adversary may or may not act might not fit with the facts about the adversary’s real capacities and intentions and be at odds with their behaviour, resulting in a potentially dangerous situation.

In the case of Putin’s objectives specifically and Russian vital interests in general, did the assumptions supporting the theory match the facts?

It is suggested Western leaders were happy to apply the rational-actor model when it came to Putin’s designs on Ukraine, as it supported their optimistic narratives and strategic objectives. Thus, the perceived checks and balances available to minimize the risks to Ukraine against Russian aspirations towards that country were seen as useful and legitimate. These included:

  • The view that Putin would be astute enough to realize an all-out invasion of Ukraine would make him an international pariah, at a time when he was trying to expand Russian influence beyond Eurasia (Africa, the Middle East, Latin America). It can only be a matter of conjecture of how much Russia would be isolated if it only engaged in a limited incursion (i.e., the eastern provinces);
  • The threat of economic sanctions by the global community would serve as a disincentive for invasion at a time when all countries were trying to overcome the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Russian grievances against the West in general and Ukraine specifically had no legitimate basis, so there was no need to spend Russian blood or treasure to correct the status quo.  There was no need to take a maximalist approach to the country;
  • As British Minister of State for Europe James Cleverly said, a full-on invasion of Ukraine would be “a quagmire” for Russia, and would be punishingly high for the Kremlin.5 (In the absence of intervention by NATO forces, and Ukraine’s perceived inability by Western leaders to contribute fully to NATO programs, who was expected to deliver such punishment remains an outstanding question);
  • The risk to Putin’s personal stature and political future if an invasion failed or became drawn out, or if sanctions began to affect the day-to-day livelihoods of both the powerful oligarchs and the Russian public, leading to broad protests;
  • A possible recognition of enhanced Russian influence in the breakaway provinces in Eastern Ukraine as a concession would likely serve Russian objectives of fracturing Western European countries, as they would remain internally divided over an appropriate level of diplomatic, economic and military response. Consequently, a full-on invasion would not be required;
  • Russia undertook its 2014 violation of Ukrainian territories at a time of disarray for the Ukrainian government in the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution when it was unable to provide an effective response. In the interim, the government had become more established and evolved politically, diplomatically and militarily, and was therefore capable of engaging in diplomatic discourse or some means of a measured military response to mitigate any further threats to its sovereignty.

A more fact-based approach would have provided a better appreciation for Putin’s calculus when it came to justifying an intervention into Ukraine, and how he assessed the risks associated with doing so:

  • Western leaders did not seem to fully appreciate Ukraine’s critical, historical role as part of Russia’s “near-abroad” defensive strategy, especially as Putin made it abundantly clear he was most concerned with being encircled by NATO-member countries. He required absolute certainty that Ukraine would not join NATO. In his view, even its current independent status as a non-aligned state would not provide much comfort as it would still be subject to Western influences, including efforts towards enhanced democratization within a population that was mostly antagonistic towards Russia. Western rebuffs of key Russian negotiating propositions in the final days before the invasion sealed the deal, but in the wrong direction. With the invasion, Putin has signalled he was prepared to prioritize civilizational, historical and defensive considerations rather than abide by international law or a rules-based international order. Whatever the outcome in Ukraine, any thought of that country joining NATO is essentially a non-starter for years to come;
  • Russia had already been subject to financial sanctions as well, most recently as a result of annexing Crimea. They amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist in Putin’s view. Furthermore, as the world shakes off two years’ worth of economic slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, gas and oil prices are expected to surge. Given Western Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and oil, especially during the winter months, and to fuel export-based economies, Putin most likely believed there would be no consensus on the application and severity of sanctions, so as not to risk Russia retaliating by cutting off oil and gas supplies or negatively impacting the Gordian knot of geo-economic Russian commercial interests in Europe;
  • The international community’s inability to generate a meaningful response to Russian interventions in 2008 and 2014 would have likely boosted his confidence that a Western response to an intervention in Ukraine would be both tepid and fractured;
  • Putin was no doubt aware that Western states were not going to introduce military forces in Ukraine so as not to escalate the conflict beyond the immediate area of operations. President Joe Biden essentially confirmed this on February 24, 2022 when he said there would be no U.S. military boots on the ground.6 Given that Western European militaries would most likely not intervene on their own, it was certain that Ukraine was virtually on its own when it came to in-theatre military forces. Therefore, the order-of-battle weighed strongly in Russia’s favour;
  • Given the respective orders-of-battle, Putin probably expected a quick campaign and so the need for long-term logistical planning was unnecessary;
  • Putin is not constrained from using a broad spectrum of weapon systems, and he even put the Russian nuclear force on high alert in the conflict’s early days. Unlike the tools it had in its ongoing quest to absorb Belarus, Russia was arguably limited to some form of military intervention when it came to the certainty of Ukraine’s future alignment, as compared to some other form of economic or diplomatic leverage;
  • A number of commentaries have suggested Putin may actually be suffering from some form of mental stress affecting his rationality or judgment; this is obviously something hard to determine in a clinical rational-model assessment. However, framing the rationale for the invasion by trying to assess Putin’s state of mind may tend to over-personalize the issue, something Western leaders and media are prone to do.7 We don’t know what level of support for invasion rested within the military leadership of Russian forces or other key political centres (not the oligarchs). Was it strong, or fractured?

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Conclusion

Clearly, Putin saw political control of Ukraine in some fashion as a vital interest for Russia, and worth fighting for. In his own cost-benefit calculations, he was prepared to upend the status quo in Europe to secure an acceptable geopolitical alignment of that country. The West, over the past couple of decades, has demonstrated for a variety of reasons, that it was not. Nobody wanted to fight a real war for Ukraine. It did not fall into anybody’s definition of a vital interest the same way Putin perceived it. European peace was to be preserved and military escalation with Russia avoided. No doubt this factored in some manner into Putin’s risk calculus. Yet Western leaders still, on paper anyway, held to the position that Ukraine had a right to join NATO, knowing this abstract principle remained a significant irritant to Russia. The duality of this policy made responding constructively to Russian concerns extremely difficult. The decades-long willingness to play chicken with Ukraine’s sovereignty was only made more complicated when Western leaders processed possible outcomes regarding Ukraine through filters based on a Western rational-actor model, until it was too late. There was a lack of recognition or acceptance of how Russia viewed the strategic reality, in that rationality itself is situational, and that in some cases, political ideology sometimes trumps sound strategic logic. This tended to skew the Western strategic cost-benefit calculus, leading to incorrect assessments or forecasts.

A return to conventional warfare in Europe means that power politics is here to stay. Historically based rhetoric about Russian interest in centuries past to expand its influence in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East will no doubt be resurrected. And just when the United States sought to retrench after Afghanistan and Iraq, it will now be obliged to provide assurances to NATO members – likely through the deployment of military units once again to both core and periphery NATO countries – that their sovereignty will remain intact in the face of possible future Russian aggression. This assumes, however, that Western European states will continue to forgo the necessary investments and co-ordination on a sustained basis required to enable them to handle their own security problems. In any event, the ability of a more united Western Europe to have both strong commercial and economic ties with Russia while belonging to NATO is over, at least for the short to medium term.

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End Notes

1 Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index 2021, https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021?gclid=CjwKCAiApfeQBhAUEiwA7K_UH8fDyL4ZFpxWKsfrERJG9MM-J6skmyJnGrqX6hIbat81q_8i6L2u1xoC1o0QAvD_BwE.

2 E. Wong and L. Jakes, “NATO Won’t Let Ukraine Join Soon: Here’s Why,” New York Times, January 13, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/13/us/politics/nato-ukraine.html.

3 C. Coyer, “Why is Ukraine Not in NATO and Is It Too Late to Join? Here’s What Experts, NATO Say,” Miami Herald, February 25, 2022,  https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/article258774458.html.

4 C-Span, “Russian President Putin Statement on Ukraine,” February 21, 2022, https://www.c-span.org/video/?518097-2/russian-president-putin-recognizes-independence-donetsk-luhansk-ukraines-donbas-region.

5 L. Fix and M. Kimmage, “What if Russia Wins? A Kremlin-Controlled Ukraine Would Transform Europe,” Foreign Affairs, February 18, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2022-02-18/what-if-russia-wins.

6 C. Hernandez, “US Troops ‘Will Not Be Engaged’ in Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, Biden Said,” Buzzfeed News, February 24, 2022, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/caitlinhernandez/biden-us-troops-russia-ukraine.

7 S. Walt, “The West is Sleepwalking into War in Ukraine,” Foreign Policy, February 23, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/23/united-states-europe-war-russia-ukraine-sleepwalking/.

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About the Author

John Gilmour joins CGAI after a thirty-seven year career in the federal government in positions of growing responsibility. His initial professional experience was with Transport Canada and the management of Canada’s major international airports. This included serving as project manager and analyst for airport security programs. This led to a two-year assignment with the Security and Intelligence (Operations) section of the Privy Council Office as a senior policy analyst, in support of the office of the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister (NSA). 

From there John joined the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), where he served in a variety of branches, most recently as the Head-Strategic Planning and Operational Analysis with the Service’s Counter-Terrorism Division.  Although retiring from the Service in 2018, he continues to be periodically retained as a senior advisor.

John has a BA from Carleton University (Ottawa), and a Masters and Ph.D from the War Studies Program of the Royal Military College of Canada (Kingston). He serves on the Advisory Board of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS) – Vancouver, and is an instructor with Ottawa University’s Professional Development Institute on terrorism and intelligence/national security issues.

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