Tag Archives: Military intervention

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.

Moronic speech of the day

Amidst hyperbolic, and it has to be said unsubstantiated, claims that the Syrian army is massacring civilians in Aleppo, the British House of Commons held a debate today to discuss taking action to protect the city’s inhabitants. MPs discussed ideas such as creating a ‘humanitarian corridor’ into rebel held areas, ignoring the rather obvious fact that these areas hardly exist anymore. The debate had a distinct air of unreality about it.

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t seem to feature much in Britons’ understanding of international affairs and their country’s role in them. After 20 years of failed military interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, almost nobody in the upper echelons of British society seems to be willing to question the fundamental principles of the UK’s foreign policy. Perhaps the only prominent figure who does so is the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, and the general consensus is that this eminent good sense marks him out as an extremist lunatic. The problem, you see, is not that Britain’s military interventions have been wrong per se, but rather that they haven’t been pursued aggressively enough. The world doesn’t need less Anglo-American aggression; it needs more!

At least that’s what former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in today’s debate.  According to Osborne, the destruction/liberation (depending on your point of view) of Aleppo was a direct result of the British parliament’s prior refusal to bomb Syria. Osborne said:

We lack the political will as a West to intervene. … I have some hope out of this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening.

We did not intervene in Syria: tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result, millions of refugees have been sent from their homes across the world; we have allowed a terrorist state to emerge in the form of Isis, which we are now trying to defeat; key allies like Lebanon and Jordan are destabilised; the refugee crisis has transformed the politics of Europe, allowed fascism to rise in eastern Europe, created extremist parties in western Europe; and Russia, for the first time since Henry Kissinger kicked them out of the Middle East in the 1970s, is back as the decisive player in that region.

That is the price of not intervening. … let’s be clear now that if you don’t shape the world, you will be shaped by it.

If by ‘we’, Osborne means only the United Kingdom, he is thoroughly deluded about the UK’s capacity to control international events. If by ‘we’, he means ‘the West’, then he’s just talking out of his hat. The ‘West’, in the form of the United States, has intervened in Syria from the start of the civil war there, providing arms, money, and training to rebel forces. In any event, Britain has not stayed out of the war, as reports suggest that British special forces have been operating in Syria. Britain’s Foreign Office has also been helping the Syrian rebels in their propaganda efforts.

Osborne’s claim that ISIS was a product of Western failure to intervene in Syria is also bizarre. ISIS is a product in large part of the chaos created in Iraq by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and of the subsequent failed counterinsurgency campaign. The British Army spent several years fighting to gain control of Basra province. Its efforts achieved absolutely nothing. Similarly, the British Army’s campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan was a dismal failure, and several former British officers (most notably Frank Ledwidge) have credibly demonstrated that the British Army actually helped to destabilize Helmand rather than the opposite.

What good precisely did British intervention do in these cases? How did it help bring law, order, and good government to Iraq and Afghanistan? And how did it help bring any of those benefits in other cases such as Libya?

The recent dismal record of the British military is not an aberration. In fact, the overall historical record of British military involvement in other countries’ affairs is decidedly poor. In a study published in International Studies Quarterly, Jeffrey Pickering  and Mark Peceny concluded that of the all the cases studied,

Not a single target of hostile British military intervention liberalized or became a democracy. Hostile British intervention consequently drops out of [our model] because it predicts failure perfectly. Furthermore, hostile British intervention has a negative and significant impact on political liberalization.

Other states have been a bit more successful, but not a lot. As Stephen Walt points out:

Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war. 

What then explains the continuing belief in the value of bombing, invading, and occupying foreign countries? I find I cannot easily explain it, except perhaps in terms of post-imperial delusions of grandeur combined with an arrogance brought about by the West’s victory in the Cold War and by the West’s belief in the universal supremacy of its own supposed value system. The combination of untrammelled military supremacy and a total belief in their own moral superiority has created an incentive to act which some find too tempting to resist, despite the fact that acting has been shown to fail again and again.

I registered as a British overseas voter in order to vote in the Brexit referendum. That means I will get a vote in the next general election (in East Hull). For the first time in my life, I will vote Labour – not because of the mass of Labour MPs, most of whom remain committed interventionists, but because in Corbyn they have a leader who actually realizes how counterproductive British policy has been. I disagree with just about everything else Corbyn stands for, but at least he’s right on this. It makes me understand why Americans voted Trump.

The Folly of Military Intervention

Last Friday I gave a talk at the University of Ottawa for the Institute of Liberal Studies on the subject ‘The Folly of Military Intervention’. Give that at this moment the British House of Commons is debating whether to join the war in Syria, this seems a good time to post the talk, which was filmed by one of the audience (the first couple of minutes are missing). You can watch it below.