There are occasions when statements of the blindingly obvious are rather revealing, although not in the way that those making the statements intend. One doesn’t learn anything new about the specific matter being discussed – as it’s blindingly obvious, one knew it already – but one does learn something about the person making the statement, namely that it wasn’t so obvious to him or her. And that’s where it can get quite interesting.
Journalist Simon Saradzhyan has worked in Russia for 15 years, and is now part of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he runs, and writes for, the website Russia Matters. In his latest article, he has a go at explaining in what conditions Russian president Vladimir Putin is willing to endorse the use of force. He writes:
In my view, at least two conditions need to be in place for Russia’s leadership to seriously consider this option. They can be broadly defined as follows: First, Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests that he thinks cannot be neutralized by any means short of force. … The second condition for Russia to use military force against another country is that Moscow must have a reasonable hope that such actions would yield a net reduction in threats to Russia’s vital interests (“Condition 2”). This may not mean outright victory. But Russian leaders must be confident that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs.
To prove this case, Saradzhyan refers to the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015, and contrasts these with the non-use of force in cases such as Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and Armenia (2018). The first case (Georgia, 2008) is rather problematic because Putin wasn’t President of Russia at that time, and I’m not aware of any evidence that the decision to counter the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not Dmitry Medvedev’s. But that’s by the by. What really interests me here is Saradzhyan’s two conditions. Reading them was another of those occasions when I felt a powerful urge to say, ‘Well, duh!’. Putin, we’re told, only uses force when vital interests are at stake and a cost-benefit analysis suggests that benefits will outweigh costs. Of course! What else would you expect? After all, what’s the alternative? To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be crazy. All Saradzhyan’s thesis tells us is that in his opinion Putin is a rational actor.
So why are these two amazingly obvious conditions such a revelation? Why does Saradzhyan think that they will tell anybody anything that a rational person should not already expect? I see two possible explanations.
First, the image of Putin as irrational and unpredictable is so deeply embedded that an analysis which describes him as something different is considered revelatory, penetrating, and insightful rather than merely prosaic.
Second, Saradzhyan and his intended audience don’t understand that his conditions are simply common sense and should apply to everybody everywhere. And the reason why they don’t understand this is because those conditions are not Western practice.
And that’s where this article’s statement of the blindingly obvious becomes quite interesting. For, viewed this way, what this article explains to us is not the conditions under which Putin uses force so much as the conditions under which the West does so – when vital interests aren’t at stake, and when we end up worse off afterwards. Judging by this article, we’ve now become so used to this that anything else apparently comes as a big surprise.