Christoph Meyer is a professor at King’s College London and co-author of “Warning about War: Conflict, Persuasion and Foreign Policy.” His work has been funded by the European and U.K. Research Councils (ERC and ESRC).
“Russia won’t be able to catch anyone by surprise anymore,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said recently in Brussels.
Kubela must be an optimist. In fact, many European leaders have yet to learn lessons from Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia and its undeclared war against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
With rhetoric heating up again, and Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s border, odds remain high that Moscow will once more catch Europe by surprise. The damage to European interests would be enormous. This time, Western leaders would have no excuse for being wrongfooted.
Surprise is a force multiplier — and it’s essential to the Kremlin’s strategy. Russia’s economy is no bigger than Italy’s, and its nominal military spending is only a quarter of Europe’s combined. While Moscow has invested heavily in the armed forces since 2009, it still needs to keep people guessing about its plans.
The Kremlin has shown skill at exploiting the information asymmetry between itself and the West. It is fairly easy for Moscow to gather high quality information about key European leaders from open sources and anticipate how they are likely to lean in different Ukraine scenarios. Russian officials operate under far more effective secrecy and better counterintelligence. Decision-making is concentrated around President Vladimir Putin and a small circle of trusted advisers, which Western intelligence has found hard to penetrate.
As a result, Western officials are often unsure who to listen to in Russia. For instance, ahead of Russian’s 2014 war against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Putin adviser Sergey Glazyev said that Russia could no longer guarantee Ukraine’s status as a state, and could possibly intervene if pro-Russian regions of the country appealed directly to Moscow.
Rather than heed this warning, most European officials either missed completely or dismissed Glazyev’s comments as lacking credibility. Instead, they accepted the reassurances by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “We are serious people, we are not paranoid,” Lavrov said, promising to “calm down the hotheads.”
Today, with Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border, another Kremlin official, Dimitrij Kozak, deputy head of the presidential administration, has spoken of the “beginning of the end” of Ukraine. Anyone targeting ethnic Russians in the Donbass region will not be “shot in the leg, but in the face,” he warned. This time around, European leaders would be wise not to dismiss comments like these as just meant for a domestic Russian audience — as if preparing Russian opinion for war is not serious enough.
Similarly, Russian troop movements should not be ignored. In the run-up to the Georgian war of 2008, European observers saw similar troop movements and military provocations in the separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as they are seeing in Russia and Crimea today. Back then, Moscow masked its impending offensives by saying it was just carrying out normal “maneuvers.” Today, it is citing unspecified “combat training” to justify its troop surge on Ukraine’s border.
In Moscow’s attempts to surprise, it can count on consistent help from an unlikely source: Many Western experts and policymakers are all to keen to delude themselves about Russia’s intentions.
When analysts lack reliable information, they often engage in what Robert Jervis called mirror-imaging: What would a rational reaction be for my government to this situation? They have greater difficulty imagining leaders would dare to blatantly lie or rip up fundamental international law — including violating the borders of a sovereign country and annexing territory as their own.
From a Western perspective, a Russian invasion appears irrational. A survey of 905 experts on international relations showed that only 14 percent foresaw a Russian military intervention in Ukraine, just days before the last one happened.
This approach undervalues the domestic pressures and incentives faced by authoritarian leaders and misconstrues who really holds power. In the case of Georgia in 2008, Western analysts thought it was impossible that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili would be “mad enough” to launch a pre-emptive military attack, given the likelihood of an overwhelming Russian response. Turns out, for domestic reasons — he had promised to reestablish control over the separatist states — he was.
Public opinion is often seen, erroneously, as another constraint on Moscow, as it was years ago in the run-up to the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. In 2013, Western analysts expected some Russian punishment of Ukraine, but did not consider an outright military intervention — let alone annexation. The few warnings that were communicated by the foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden were not taken seriously as they appeared to some as biased against Russia given their known views.
Warnings are easy to ignore when they reveal flaws in the core assumptions that underpin Europe’s foreign policy approaches and economic agreements. In the case of Georgia 2008, they exposed how NATO has mishandled the country’s membership at the Bucharest summit, leading to harmful, unintended consequences. In the case of Ukraine 2014, it exposed geopolitical blind-spots in the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership. Today, it would call into question Germany’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, or France’s diplomatic reset strategy.
Accepting warnings is psychologically stressful for decision-makers. It confronts them with hard choices about values and interests. Yet, if history is any guide, inaction only makes those choices harder. This is as true today as it was the last time around.
Should Western leaders agree to a diplomatic settlement that would give Russia a de facto veto on Ukraine’s future path? Or are they willing to lend tangible support to Ukraine, and devise credible sanctions to deter Russia, averting a worst-case scenario? These are questions that would be better answered before, rather than after, an invasion.
Western leaders might be forgiven for being surprised in 2008 and 2014. They’ll have no excuse if they let themselves get fooled again.