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The most worrisome thing I’ve read on Russia

Summary:
A few weeks ago I explained why I thought a Russian invasion of Ukraine was unlikely. Last week I said rumors of another American civil war are exaggerated. That’s when my colleague Konstantin Sonin tweeted something unexpected, connecting the two: My @HarrisPolicy colleague @cblatts has an excellent piece on prospects of a new civil war in the U.S. I wish Kremlin had read this some time ago – you wouldn’t believe to what extent they rely on the idea that the U.S. is on the brink of a civil war.https://t.co/tDtnFuKq4A — Konstantin Sonin (@k_sonin) January 31, 2022 Konstantin is on sabbatical in Moscow for the year, and is a former vice rector of two of Russia’s top economics schools. I wrote to ask more. “Is this is more of a person-on-the-street belief or something that pervades the

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A few weeks ago I explained why I thought a Russian invasion of Ukraine was unlikely. Last week I said rumors of another American civil war are exaggerated. That’s when my colleague Konstantin Sonin tweeted something unexpected, connecting the two:

Konstantin is on sabbatical in Moscow for the year, and is a former vice rector of two of Russia’s top economics schools. I wrote to ask more. “Is this is more of a person-on-the-street belief or something that pervades the Kremlin?” His reply:

I believe both are true. Ordinary Russians believe that the US is on the brink of civil war. The Kremlin believes the same. I am not sure I can point out any serious research on this, but I can elaborate on it.

First, Russians are exposed to a massive onslaught of propaganda about the US. You would not believe how prominent were the BLM protests on Russian TV. They occupied top spots on major TV channels for a couple of months. (All the news and talk-show channels are directly controlled by the Kremlin.)

Yet I am not sure that people’s beliefs are a product of the propaganda onslaught. I think that it reflects the widespread loathing of the US (as has been done by leaders in many countries—think Mugabe or the Soviet leadership of my childhood.) It also exploits the racist stereotypes so commonly held. [Here is one example.]

This is not the case of a smart leader manipulating his subjects. In general, I do not believe in this model. In my experience, most leaders have the same stereotypes as the general populace. In fact, I think the big under-appreciated role of propaganda is to reinforce elite beliefs rather than to indoctrinate the rest.

I understand that it is hard to square the assumption of a rational leader with the worldview that I believe he holds—that America is weak because of political division and civil war. Yet if you look at what he says and, more importantly, does, I think this squares better with this picture than with the picture of a leader who knows better and feeds his people another thing as propaganda.

Let’s put this into the larger picture. The core issues haven’t changed. With Russia and Putin rising in power, Putin thinks his country deserves a better deal in Europe. From his perspective, the US exploited its advantage over the last three decades, gaining allies and military bases and influence closer and closer to Russia’s border. That’s deeply troubling to Russia’s rulers—just as if America’s enemies were steadily overtaking Mexico. But now that Russia has pulled itself together, and is rich with oil and gas money, a renegotiation is in order. It requires the United States to give up some of its Eastern European influence and ambitions. This is a reasonable and strategic take. America won’t like it, but that’s realpolitik.

Both sides are unsure exactly how serious the other side is, and so they both have to engage in costly theater. And even if Western democratic governments understand Putin’s relative power gains perfectly, maybe they need him massing on the border, and the imminent threat of a war, to convince voters that it’s ok to back down. This is one explanation for the jockeying and threats of the past weeks and months.

But what if one side seriously misjudges the other? America knows its own strength, but Russia’s leaders believe they are far more fragile and disunited. People who analyze wars call this an information asymmetry—one side has private knowledge the other does not—and that can make it harder to find a peaceful deal than normal. Russia will expect too much, America will not succumb, and so invasion becomes more likely.

But that’s not quite right. Belief in a new US civil war isn’t just bad information. It’s a deep-seated bias. A persistent misperception. If Konstantin is right, this isn’t just asymmetric information, it’s a belief that people may hold onto despite any reports to the contrary. That means that further saber-rattling and theatrical displays of resolve might not convince Russia that America is serious about its sanctions, military strikes, or whatever else is being threatened in private. It could even mean that, after fighting starts, Putin and his cabal hold onto to their mistaken beliefs, and fight too long.

Finally, Russia’s ruling class is also narrow and power concentrated. So, not that many people have to hold erroneous views to make a diplomatic or military mistake.

Fundamentally, I still think this scenario is unlikely. The incentives to find a way to avoid fighting, sanctions, and other nasty business are almost overwhelming. As always, the best prediction is still peace. But my probabilities of a conflict edged upwards with Konstantin’s frightening insights.

If you’re interested in how this combination of strategic forces, concentrations of power, and psychological biases conspire to create conflict (and why most of the time they do not), I have a book for you.

Follow Konstantin on Twitter here.

If interested, The Pearson Institute, where I’m based, is running an online event on Russian aggression and the Ukraine with some of our expert faculty and affiliates next week. Register here.

Chris Blattman
Political economist studying conflict, crime, and poverty, and @UChicago Professor @HarrisPolicy and @PearsonInst. I blog at http://chrisblattman.com

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