What Motivates Russian Military Intervention?

A few years ago, I discussed the possible relevance of prospect theory to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Prospect theory suggests that humans are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to achieve a gain. This fits the well-known psychological inclination of loss aversion. Losing stuff bothers us much more than failing to gain stuff. In the world of international relations, that means that one should expect states to use military force more often in cases when they are threatened by loss than as a tool to acquire something they don’t already have.

It’s interesting, therefore, to see some confirmation of this in a new study published by the RAND Corporation, entitled ‘Russia’s Military Interventions: Patterns, Drivers, and Signposts.’ This analyzes instances of Russian military intervention in the post-Soviet era and concludes that prevention of loss is one of the main motivators.

The report lists 25 military ‘interventions’ carried out by the Russian Federation since 1992. The term ‘intervention’ is quite loosely defined as “any deployment of military forces outside of Russia’s borders that meets a threshold of 100 person-years for ground forces (or an equivalent threshold for air and naval forces) and that engages in a qualifying activity, including combat, deterrence, humanitarian response, stabilization (i.e., peacekeeping), train and assist, and security, among others.” Most of the 25 interventions fall under the ‘stabilization’ heading, including a bunch of UN peacekeeping operations, provision of border security in Tajikistan, and so on. By contrast, post-Soviet Russia has not engaged in combat very often.

The report concludes that, ‘By comparison either to the Soviet Union or to the United States, Russia’s military interventions have been modest in scale and number and limited in geographical scope.’ As you can see from these charts, the Russian Federation’s military footprint abroad is much smaller than that of the USSR. Moreover, the great majority of its generally very limited ‘interventions’ have taken place within the space of the former Soviet Union.

Modern-day Russian, therefore, is much more regionally-focused than was the Soviet Union and its primary focus is regional stability.

The report analyzes a variety of motivations for military intervention previously identified in scholarly literature on the topic. It dismisses most of them as not relevant or only marginally relevant to the Russian case.

For instance, the report says that there is little or no evidence that
Russian military intervention is driven by economics or by ideology. Likewise the study dismisses the idea that Russia is afraid of the ‘diffusion’ of democratic ideas from neighbouring countries such as Ukraine and therefore seeks to prevent democracy from taking root there. As the report says:

“We certainly do not have examples of Russian leaders speaking of their fear of the demonstration effects of Ukrainian democratic success on the Russian populace. Moreover, we know that Russian elites have a very low opinion of their Ukrainian counterparts; it is difficult for them to conceive of the possibility that Ukraine can survive without Western assistance, let alone become a thriving democracy.”

Also rejected is the ‘wag the dog’ theory. Russia doesn’t engage in military activity in order to distract attention from internal problems, claims RAND. “There is scant evidence to suggest that Putin has ever felt that his popular support, the bedrock of his power, was under serious threat,” says the report, besides which there is no statistical correlation between low levels of government support and foreign intervention. In fact, as this chart shows, military intervention has declined under Putin compared to his predecessor, Yeltsin (i.e. since 2000).


In any case the study argues, it’s wrong to view Putin as the prime driver of Russian military interventions. As it says:

“if we examine all of Russia’s interventions that meet the threshold described in this report, it becomes clear that the majority occurred before Putin’s rise to power … most importantly, there is broad consensus today among Russian elites on foreign policy matter … [there is] little firsthand evidence to suggest that Putin’s personal predilections are a primary driver of Russia’s interventions.”

In short, all the claims that Russia seeks to export its authoritarian ideology, destabilize democracy, prop up the ‘Putin regime’, or is just driven by the aggressive personality of Putin himself are wrong.

So, what does produce Russian intervention?

According to the report, three motives stand out: concerns with national status; the regional power balance; and external threats. The authors conclude:

“Changes on the ground in post-Soviet Eurasia, particularly in Ukraine, that create an external threat or the perception of a rapid change in the regional balance or Russia’s status in ways that contradict Russian interests should be seen as potential triggers for Russian military action. Moscow will not hesitate to act, including with force, in its immediate neighborhood. Second, Russia does seem to act in ways consistent with a desire to avoid losses when it comes to regional power balances. Moscow has intervened when it perceived regional balances to be shifting away from a status quo that was favorable to Russian interests. … Russia seems to act in ways that are consistent with a desire to avoid losses when it comes to regional power balances. Moscow has intervened when it perceived regional balances to be shifting away from a status quo that was favorable to Russian interests. … In short, prevention of imminent loss could push Russia to act.”

In other words, Russia intervenes when it feels threatened with a loss of status, stability, or security in its immediate neighbourhood. It doesn’t intervene in pursuit of what one might call ‘aggressive’ or ‘imperialistic’ goals, or to deflect from internal political problems. And it’s not a question of Vladimir Putin. Russia will retain the same interests and the same predilections regardless of who is in charge.

The report ends with a brief set of recommendations for US policy, primarily that the US should avoid putting Moscow in a position where it feels that it’s about to suffer a major loss in its near abroad. As think tank reports go, this is remarkable sober and sensible, and I don’t find much to criticize beyond the rather broad definition of ‘intervention’. Basically what it comes down to is ‘don’t drive the bear into a corner.’ In that sense, it’s really pretty obvious. It also contradicts the current prevalent narrative, which is that Russia is hell bent on aggression and needs to be cut down to size by every available means, including by intruding on its near abroad. If this report is right, that’s about the very worst thing one could do. But I doubt anybody is listening.