As we approach the six-month mark of Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, there is an opportunity to reflect on a conflict that offers the world unprecedented access into the mind of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. While the daily images of death and destruction are heart-wrenching, it is important to take some time to understand the psychology that led Putin to invade Ukraine and threaten the use of nuclear weapons. The free world needs that understanding as it attempts to counter Putin’s actions and ensure he does not follow through on his nuclear threat.
Indeed, deterring Putin’s nuclear threats is one of NATO’s top priorities. To do so, NATO must influence his decision-making process. Most people think about nuclear weapons as the manifestation of deterrence, but deterrence in reality is a psychological pursuit. It does not happen in the physical world, but is instead the result of an absence of action. Deterrence occurs in the cognitive domain, and it is better understood as something that happens inside an adversary’s mind.
Few analysts examining Putin’s actions discuss prospect theory, yet it may be one of the most insightful psychological frameworks for how people make choices. Although the name may be unfamiliar to readers, if you have ever read Freakonomics or Nudge, then you are familiar with behavioral economics – and this was deeply influenced by prospect theory. Let us explain further.
Are Humans Rational Actors?
Throughout the Cold War, American presidents and decision-makers assumed Soviet leaders were rational actors. They believed that rational choice theory offered an adequate understanding of how the Soviets would react to the United States’ deployment of nuclear weapons.
In its simplest form, rational choice theory holds three basic assumptions. First, all actors have preferences. Second, actors rank their preferences. Third, actors pursue their ranked preferences in order. In the process, actors effectively calculate the costs and benefits of any action.
Although rational choice theory does not specify what any actor must value, Americans naturally assumed that the Soviets had values similar enough to our own, meaning they would have a similar fear of nuclear war. In reality, American policymakers and strategists did not understand the Soviets particularly well, so they relied on mirror imaging as a substitute for real understanding.
When rational choice theory was challenged during the Cold War, academics offered bounded rationality and expected utility theory as alternatives to help understand why humans so often make poor decisions. The clear limitations of rationality aside, the American view continued to be that nuclear deterrence would hold because a nuclear war should be irrational by both Soviet and American standards.
Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky first challenged this view of human decision-making in 1979 by showing through experimentation that humans are fundamentally irrational. Prospect theory suggests that actors have an irrational fear of losses that causes them to overvalue potential risks and undervalue potential gains.
In the world of nuclear deterrence, this is a good thing. If Vladimir Putin has an irrational fear that war with the United States will lead to nuclear Armageddon, he is deterred, and we are all safer. However, when a loss is guaranteed to an actor, they will often become highly acceptant of risk in order to recover the loss.
This dynamic is troubling – it hints at the possible use of nuclear weapons in the months ahead. Further clarification might help with this aspect of prospect theory.
The two concepts just discussed are illustrated in the stock market and gambling. In the first case, many investors fear losing money if they sell a declining stock. Instead, they hold the stock in hope that the price will recover, and a loss is temporarily averted. A rational actor would sell and accept the loss.
In the second case, gamblers on a losing streak have a propensity to double down on their bets in order to recover their losses, rather than walking away, which is the rational gambler’s choice. The gambler becomes highly risk-acceptant even though taking more risk is irrational.
With this very brief description of rational choice and prospect theory in mind, let us now turn to Vladimir Putin. What can we say about his actions in Ukraine?
Prospects and Putin
When Putin approved the second, massive invasion of Ukraine, he most likely believed it was a low-risk move that promised a high reward. This proved incorrect, but at the time of the invasion Putin’s cognitive model did not foresee the losses Russia went on to experience. Explanations of Russian failures are plentiful, so there is no need to cover those points.
What is important to understand is that Putin is likely to double down on his bet in Ukraine now that he has taken a significant loss: He seeks to recover that loss. He may double down by using one or a small number of low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine in an attempt to force Ukrainian capitulation, or to drive NATO out of the conflict through fear of further escalation.
As Kahneman and Tversky illustrate with what they call the endowment effect, an actor (Putin) will irrationally overvalue a possession (Ukrainian territory) and take outsized risks to prevent further loss, and to regain what is already lost. This means that Putin may dramatically shift his behavior from risk aversion (nuclear conflict avoidance) to risk acceptance (nuclear weapons use).
With such a possibility looming, what should we do?
Based on this discussion, two primary options come to mind. First, the United States and NATO need to reshape Putin’s perception of risk such that he once again is focused on loss prevention, perhaps in greater Russia, rather than allowing Putin to remain focused on loss recovery, which he might do by using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Putin has an irrational fear of invasion from the West. This presents an opportunity to refocus Putin’s attention by moving NATO forces to Russia’s flanks – particularly in the Baltic states and the soon-to-be NATO member-states of Sweden and Finland, whose accession more than doubles NATO’s border with Russia. Such a shift of military manpower and materiel might reorient Putin’s fear away from Ukraine.
Let us not forget that it was Putin’s fear of a Western-oriented Ukraine that led to his invasion in the first place. Serious discussion of Ukraine as a prospective member of the European Union and, perhaps, NATO, was more than Putin could bear.
Second, it is important to reshape Putin’s perception of loss in Ukraine. Creating a path for Putin to view an exit of the conflict in Ukraine as a win is necessary. Simply grinding the Russian army into dust may feel good, but it will only cost Ukrainians even more than they have already lost. Whether such a “win” takes the form of territorial concessions, lifting sanctions, or one of many other options is the art of the decision-maker.
In the final analysis, the key to success in Ukraine is effectively managing Vladimir Putin’s perception of gains and losses. It may be difficult, but is certainly possible. As Putin said, “There is always hope, until they are ready to bring us to the cemetery to bury us.” Managing this fear is the key to success.
Robyn Hutchins is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Kansas State University. Dr. Adam Lowther is the Director of Strategic Deterrence Programs at the National Strategic Research Institute. The views expressed are their own.