Assumptions are extremely important. If they’re wrong, everything which follows is probably wrong too. So when analysts don’t make their assumptions clear to policy makers, but instead try to pass them off as facts, there’s a great danger that poor decisions will result.

What brings this to mind is a new report by Duncan Allan, published by Chatham House and entitled Managed Confrontation: UK Policy Towards Russia After the Salisbury Attack. The report claims that,

The nerve agent attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury … was a UK policy failure. Following the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006, the UK government failed to deter another life threatening attack … Russian decision makers saw the UK as lacking purpose and resolve because its firm rhetoric was not matched by its actions.

Although the British government has acted more robustly after the attempted murder of the Skripals, Mr Duncan thinks that the response is still not tough enough and ‘there is a danger that the UK’s actions are again perceived to be out of line with its rhetoric and will thus prove ineffective as a deterrent.’ Duncan urges the government to resort to ‘deterrence by punishment’ by making it clear to Russia that in the face of future attacks it will use the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia to ‘exact a direct cost by sanctioning members of Russia’s elite and their interests’ According to Duncan there is a ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. By pressuring the latter, Britain can dissuade the former from misbehaving. This will inevitably harm the British financial sector, which does considerable business with rich Russians, but ‘the state’s duty to ensure the security of its citizens surely comes before the interests of a branch of the economy.’ For too long, Duncan claims, Britain has tried to have the best of both worlds – speaking out against Russia while continuing to do business with it. Consequently, Britain has signalled weakness, and so encouraged Russian attacks. ’ Up to now, says Duncan, Britain has ‘lacked credibility’. This needs to change.

What are the assumptions here? First, that Russia considers Britain weak. And second, that this perception encouraged the Russian state to poison Sergey Skripal. Allan Duncan portrays these as facts. They are not. He provides no evidence for either the one or the other. They are assumptions. So too is the idea which lies behind this report that there is such a thing as ‘credibility’ – one’s reputation for being willing to take robust action – and that the possession of ‘credibility’ deters hostile acts. Finally, Mr Duncan’s argument rests on an assumption that ‘deterrence by punishment’ actually works, which in turn rests on assumptions that a) Russians will correctly interpret the signals that Britain is trying to send, and b) Russian elites will respond to British pressure by successfully pressuring their own government, and c) the Russian government will respond to that pressure in the manner desired by the British. All these assumptions may, of course, be true. But as no evidence is produced to say whether they are indeed correct, one must conclude that they might equally be wrong. Consequently, the policy recommendations are without value.

Let’s take a closer look. Was the attack on Sergey Skripal a product of Russian perceptions of British lack of credibility? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. To say one way or the other, one would have to know what was going on in the brain of whoever ordered the operation. Since we don’t actually have any information about that, Mr Duncan’s claim cannot be treated as a serious basis for a major policy decision. Furthermore, as I have pointed out before in this blog, historical and political science research suggests that ‘credibility’ is a greatly overestimated virtue. Such evidence as we have about the way politicians come to their decisions suggests that considerations of whether a foreign state is likely to respond to a given action are rarely based on perceptions of how that state and its leaders have responded in the past, and whether they are credible, strong, determined actors, but rather on considerations of whether they are capable of responding and of whether the matter in question is of sufficient interest for them to be likely to want to respond. In short, when people worry about their credibility, they do so for no good reason. This undermines the entire logic of Mr Duncan’s report.

As I have also often said, misperceptions play an extremely important role in international conflicts. A lot of international relations is about sending signals to other states. The problem is that the message received is very often not at all what the person sending the signal assumed would be received. Mr Duncan assumes that punishment will be understood by Russian leaders as being punishment. That’s a very unwise assumption in my opinion. In the current political climate, in which Russians see themselves as the aggrieved party, I doubt that they will interpret being sanctioned by Britain as being punished for their own misdeeds and therefore feel deterred from further such misdeeds in the future. It’s just as possible that they will see this as further proof that the Brits are out to get them come what may and that there is absolutely no point in modifying their behaviour in the way the Brits desire, because they won’t get anything in return. Whether they’re right or wrong to feel that way is neither here nor there. If that’s how they feel then Mr Duncan’s proposal isn’t going to have the desired effect. It might even backfire and encourage even more hostile behaviour.

And then there’s the matter of the ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. Is this actually a thing? Duncan assumes a) that the business sector has a powerful influence over the Russian state and b) that business will pressure the state into changing its behaviour if financial interests overseas are threatened. Yet, the business sector in Russia is rather separate from the security organs whom the British consider responsible for the Skripal poisoning. Do rich Russians with accounts in the UK really have a say in what the GRU does? I have my doubts. Meanwhile, the example of anti-Russian sanctions to date provides no evidence in support of assumption b) above. On the contrary, as Richard Connolly has shown, the way the state-business relationship works in Russia is that when the business elite is hurt by sanctions, the state comes to its rescue and redirects resources so that business’s losses are covered. This might harm the economy as a whole, but it protects the targeted sectors. At the same time, it increases those sectors’ dependence on the state, making them less and less capable of pressuring the state to alter its political direction. The idea that ‘punishment’ of Russian businessmen results in changes in the behaviour of the Russian state is most definitely unproven, and may in fact be entirely false.

Obviously, if another attack on British soil were to be attributed to the Russian state, it would be politically impossible for the British government not to react, and I’m certainly not saying that it would be wrong to do so. But one shouldn’t imagine that punishing Russian businessmen for the alleged sins of their state will somehow prevent such an attack by enhancing British ‘credibility’. Allan Duncan calls for ‘managed confrontation’ with Russia. But by focusing on confrontation rather than on finding ways to eliminate conflict, there is a danger that his proposals will simply drive an ever bigger wedge between East and West. In this way, rather than enhancing British security, Duncan’s approach may serve merely to undermine it.

12 thoughts on “Assumptions”

  1. “‘managed confrontation’”

    Possibly managed up to some point beyond which it gets out of control due to unforeseen circumstances. Why don’t people learn?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fully agree, managed confrontations get out of control very quickly. This is how world wars start.

      The Anglos, the brits not less than the Americans, despite their self image of sophistication, are not capable of understanding other cultures. Just look at the farce of the Brexit negotiations. Any hostile action towards Russia will convince the people of Russia that the west is really out to get them. Is there any point in Russia having any relations with the soon to be devided kingdom?

      I think that the Anglo superiority complex and insularity has a lot to answer for. I do feel that Britain needs a defeat to get them to start analysing themselves. Maybe a really chaotic Brexit and the attendant bad will might do it


      1. Another Anglo issue is the immunity complex, I.e. we can do things to people but we are invulnerable. Any action has a reaction. As an example of British government stupidity hms Albion , a British warship sailed through a stretch of water in the South China Sea claimed by the PRC in a provocative freedom of navigation action. Needlessly Pissing off the Chinese right now is not smart

        As some other commentators have said below, there are alternative financial centres for rich Russians to park their cash. Russia has a current account surplus and if needed can get investment from China. The action to seize the Azeri woman with a Harrods shopping addiction should act as a warning to any foreigner bringing money to Britain. Not smart when you run a massive current account defecit.


      2. Yes, two standards:
        Anglo superiority complex and insularity has a lot to answer for.
        superiority as related to Colonialism? P.O.S.H.? Insularity going back all the way to the Spanish Armada?


  2. Concerning “credibility”:

    I believe that there is value, and that the US, as well as the west, has a pretty massive credibility problem. However, this problem is not one of lacking deterrence capability, but one of general untrustworthiness.

    With a fairly shocking regularity, western Actions demand A of some other nation while threatening consequences should that other nation not fullfill western demands. If this other nation fullfills western demands, the threatened consequences happen anyway.

    My understanding is that Russia perceives the Anglo Saxon west in particular to be simply mad. Russia is currently more interested in deterring more shenanigans, and wishes to improve its “deterrence credibility” to do so. They will react to any escalation with an escalation of their own.


  3. Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia to ‘exact a direct cost by sanctioning members of Russia’s elite and their interests’ According to Duncan there is a ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’… This will inevitably harm the British financial sector, which does considerable business with rich Russians, but ‘the state’s duty to ensure the security of its citizens surely comes before the interests of a branch of the economy.’

    And this is precisely why it will not happen. That and Tory MPs being heavily invested in London’s elite property market.

    Even though most Russians, myself, and probably Putin for that matter will be perfectly fine with having the UK take itself out as an offshore destination.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Although the British government has acted more robustly after the attempted murder of the Skripals…”

    I can’t take seriously various talking heads, analysts, politicians and journos (i.e. members of the West’s “invisible clergy”) when they include in their sermons word “robust”. My BS-meter turns up to 11, starts sparkling, whirling and buzzing, and then explodes. But, keeping in sync with the theme of this blogpost, I just assume that all those who pepper their speech with the term “robust” are either mindless drones or bullshiters of the highest order and lowest moral.

    “This will inevitably harm the British financial sector, which does considerable business with rich Russians, but ‘the state’s duty to ensure the security of its citizens surely comes before the interests of a branch of the economy.”


    Oh, wait… He’s serious – let me laugh even harder!


    1. Lyttenbourg, could you drop some of your challenger mood? It’s not that I do not understand, or at least it feels I vaguely do.

      But strictly you ‘chip off’ the context. Don’t you?

      And why would you want to degrade an innocent word that may or may not have its usage in one or the other context? It isn’t the word’ robustly’ after all, but his more basic take that the robustresponse could be right? After all? No?

      Look I am vaguely open to your assumption, if that is what your assumption is I guess, that the British secret forces or some type of interest party with criminal intent staged it for larger geopolitical reasons.


    1. Ok, I am sorry. But in my own field I wondered about way too many generally assumed basics.

      I love your blog. But yes, I was highly suspicious of Chatham House partly due to one of its members whose trails I followed … in the early post 9/11 years. Hadn’t been aware of it before.


  5. Chatham House ‘reporters’ tell us what the Chatham House owners want us to hear and think. They also stick to the script in order to remain ‘inside’. All of these foundation-funded think tanks are designed for downwards propogation of ‘acceptable’ thought and action . For example they promote the bs that the formation of public-private partnerships are an effective means for serving public welfare. They are effective – at transferring wealth and profits upwards, whilst losses and liabilities are propagated downwards.


  6. There is an assumption that Britain cares about justice being done regarding the Skripals

    If this was so why didn’t they follow due process and the rules regarding alleged chemical weapons attacks?

    Instead we got grandstanding from the highest level from Theresa May and accusations against President Putin and his government.
    Calls for sanctions, expulsions of diplomats all with out proof.

    The British police are still investigating.

    The Russian side therefore can assume from all this that this alleged poisoning was a political stunt. Used by the UK government to harm Russia

    Assumptions therefore about what actually happened on both sides lead in very different directions!

    – if this poisoning actually happened ( we have to take the UK government word for it ) the UK would be on firmer ground if it followed due process and investigated it step by step.


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