Why do we think we can read Putin’s mind on Ukraine?

NBC News

Why is the U.S. government apparently so confident that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threatening moves toward Ukraine presage an invasion?

It would be one thing if such predictions were coming from leaked intelligence reports or “unnamed senior officials.” Instead, it is the highest authority in the country, President Biden himself, who sees no harm in saying “my guess is he will move in. He has to do something” when asked about Putin in his latest press conference. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki even gave reporters a time frame for the supposedly imminent invasion: “The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February.”  

Biden later caveated his comments, as have others on his team. But this core prediction — and those of others in government — resonated more loudly than any doubts. It is perhaps for that reason that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has, ironically, just asked the United States to tone down its fatalistic rhetoric on the supposed inevitability of a worsening crisis.

Alas, history suggests that we usually get these kinds of predictions wrong. For example, the CIA thought the Afghan government would hold onto power for at least six months when we pulled troops out last summer. In fact, former President Ashraf Ghani and his team held out for just a month.  

Maybe the CIA is at risk of overlearning the lesson of the last war — or not making the same mistake (underestimating an adversary) twice — and now is overcompensating? Perhaps the Biden team wants to prepare domestic public opinion so that there is no surprise, and no criticism from the foreign policy community that the administration was caught off guard, if Putin does “move in.”

Former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was fond of saying that we have a perfect record of predicting the next war — we always get it wrong. There is much truth to Gates’s observation. We didn’t anticipate Pearl Harbor, or the 1950 North Korean invasion of South Korea, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, or (with a few exceptions in the intelligence community) Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Nor did we foresee Putin’s attack on Ukraine in 2014, or his move into Syria in 2015, or the aggression against Georgia in 2008 by former Russian president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and Putin.  

So why would we be so confident of our prescience now?   

It is not automatic that any time Putin seems menacing, he will follow through with violent action. For example, he has, to date, limited his belligerence against the Baltic states — formerly part of the Soviet Union, but in NATO since 2004 — to cyber attacks. This, despite the fact that many in NATO thought he might seek to recapture what he views as lost Soviet lands.  

There are many reasons for Putin to threaten Ukraine and not to invade — to see how NATO and the European Union react, and thereby learn about their internal cohesion and decisiveness at a time when many Western countries have new leaders; to intimidate Ukrainians into not asking for NATO membership; to persuade NATO members that it is too risky to offer any such invitation, now or in the future; or to attract high-level diplomatic attention from around the world. None of these reasons requires that Putin actually invade.  

So, again, why are we so seemingly sure of ourselves? 

Yes, British intelligence has uncovered purported Russian plans to install a new puppet government in Kiev after overthrowing the Zelensky regime. And yes, American intelligence has found evidence of Russia preparing false evidence of attacks against Russians or pro-Russian groups in Ukraine to create a pretext for invasion. But these findings tell us little, even if true.  Putin may well want us to reach such conclusions, for the purpose of creating anxiety within NATO about the possible consequences of any further NATO expansion beyond the current 30 members. These plans could well be feints that were designed to be “discovered.” 

Being incorrect about Putin’s intentions could be dangerous. Perhaps Putin will feel that, to prove his manhood and deprive Biden of bragging rights at having somehow made him change his mind, he will need to use force (at least in limited amounts) to maintain his perceived machismo. Otherwise, if we credit ourselves with dissuading him from an action he was nearly certain to take, he may conclude that we are either taunting him or reaching incorrect conclusions about our own power.     

Better to acknowledge our uncertainty. We can’t read Putin’s mind today, any more than President Bush thought he could “look into Putin’s eyes and get a measure of his soul” or some such back in 2001. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. 

Michael O’Hanlon holds the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. Omer Taspinar is a professor at the National War College and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings.

Tags Baltic states Jen Psaki Joe Biden NATO expansion Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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