A survey of Russian war motivations, plus predictions
I recently spent many months in Russia, Belarus, Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia.
In these countries, I enjoyed talking with dozens of regular people and learning about different ways of thinking.
Given the tragic invasion underway, it may be useful to share some of what I learned about Russian attitudes towards war:
Pre-war, Russians did not take the prospect of invasion seriously
I was in Russia from late December 2021 through March 1, 2022, which included the first week of the war.
Pre-war, whenever I asked Russians about the possibility of war, they didn’t expect anything serious to happen. When I told them that western media were covering the threat non-stop, they were generally somewhat amused, and assumed a cynical motivation (i.e., it was a distraction from US domestic issues.)
People seemed to believe that, even though the ones I talked to were relatively western — young people who speak some English at language exchanges, game meetups, etc. This demographic is almost unanimously against Putin. But, again, they weren’t expecting a serious war. The Associated Press also noticed that reality on the ground.
In fairness, at this pre-war time, the views of the people I spoke to sounded as plausible as anything else. The smart predictors at Metaculus had the probability of a Russian incursion (of any kind, including even a small one) at 40-60%.
Post-war, Russians I talked with seemed fine with the war
Here are the people in Moscow I asked about it, between Feb 26 and March 4:
— Young woman (age ~25): Masters student. Did not express any opposition to Russia’s actions. Said that others around her did not seem particularly opposed to the war.
— Middle-aged man (age ~40): Software developer. Said he was uncertain if the war would work out well for Russia, but that Russia definitely had a strong moral case for launching war, because Ukrainians had been mistreating of Russians in Ukraine. Asked why the whole of Ukraine needed to be attacked, he responded that it was because Ukraine was filled with far-right fighters, and they needed to be removed to ensure lasting peace.
— Young woman (age ~25): speaks only Russian (I was with a bilingual person who communicated with her.) Her job is a sales clerk at a store. She argued that the incursion was sad, but was necessary because Ukrainians had been mistreating Russians who live there. When asked why the whole country needed to be attacked, she didn’t have a reason but seemed sure there was a good one.
— Middle-aged woman (age ~50): speaks only Russian. She took the same general views as the preceding young woman, but also noted that in fairness, in Russia they only hear one side in the news, so … who can really say what’s right.
— Woman (age ~35): Expressed opposition to the war on the grounds that was bad for Russian businesses. So much trade and growth destroyed, and for what?
Another person said that the general mood in Moscow, aside from the isolated protests, was “indifference.” In general, Russians are relatively apolitical due to the country’s limited experience with democracy.
Things may rapidly change if Russia’s military or financial situations continue to deteriorate.1
Some takeaways from the above:
Don’t expect a “popular uprising” against the Russian government.
There are some brave protests, even despite the very high probability of arrest — yet, there does not yet exist the kind of widespread popular dissatisfaction that brought down the Soviet Union.
The media environment in Russia is totally different from that in the west.
That’s true even in the social media era, and despite western news sites not being blocked pre-war. I get the sense that Americans assume that western news sites were always censored, but they were not (except for, randomly, LinkedIn.) However, since the war, many sites, including Facebook and Twitter, have been blocked by the government. Some VPNs are also blocked, though, for example, “Free VPN” still works as of early March; VPNs allow a computer to pretend to be in a different country, and thus evade country-based censorship.
The biggest reason for the different media consumption is the language barrier for at least 90% of Russians. Sites like BBC Russian are rare (and now, post-war, it’s been blocked.) Instagram is making a difference in helping young people see the Ukrainian side of things, but it’s not enough to have shifted most of the population — at least not yet. And social media goes both ways. Two Russian-bloc people told me that Ukrainian friends of theirs had been rude on social media, by taking their anger out on Russians in general, rather than strictly against the government that launched the war.
Life in Moscow is far more normal than you’d assume from the media coverage.
I was in Moscow up until last Tuesday, March 1. At that time, if you were walking the streets, things were 98% normal. But there were a few differences:
Difference 1: A few more police / soldiers
The main visible difference was that in some high-traffic areas, such as near Moscow’s Belorusskaya train station, there were about a dozen police / soldiers in camo milling around with military-style transport vehicles that looked ominous — they looked like vans for arresting protesters. Just to give the gist of it, here’s a similar van from Belarus:
I did not seek out protests, and did not see any. Some Russians I talked with in early March were not aware that there had been attempted protests in Moscow, even though more than a thousand people were arrested.
Difference 2: The subway machines began to fail to accept credit cards.
When I saw this happen, it caused no serious problems, as tickets from the booth were always available. However, at times, it has apparently caused backlogs:
Difference 3: Western credit cards were intermittently declined, due to sanctions. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason, but after the war started, one credit card would fail at one store, and a different card at another outlet. I never had a case where all cards failed.
Service people were aware of the situation. “Probably because of the war,” said one waiter.
Non-difference: Lines at ATMs Overblown?
Western media reported heavily on ATM lines, and there are photos of it on day 1. But in the following days I passed many ATMs in Moscow and, while maybe they were a bit busier than usual, I did not see major lines, and people were successfully withdrawing cash. (For major lines, go instead to the McDonalds drive-though in Murmansk around 11pm.)
Business as usual
Moscow’s streets had as many people as ever, as of March 1. All the businesses were open. People going to work and shopping. There was no public panic.
Things were very normal.
In the days since I left, many western companies, such as Apple and H&M, have closed their businesses in Moscow.
For an update — as of March 8, a Moscow acquaintance writes:
...it's pretty calm now... But lots of companies are closed. I'm OK with that, just little upset because of IKEA)
Moscow has also dropped the vestiges of an ineffective vaccine passport system that was hardly used anyway:
Moscow cancelled QR codes!
We have a joke that Covid, like other companies, recalled its bacteria and stopped work in Russia
Personally, I ended my Russia trip on March 1, not because it felt unsafe for ordinary life — but rather just because things can change quickly in a war, and because it seems like a bad idea for an American tourist to publicly write anything about Russia, from Russia, at this time.
Post continues below, but first: if you enter your email here, you won’t miss future posts!
Is Putin “crazy”? The geopolitical cause of the war
It’s certainly bizarre to see such an old-fashioned war in the modern era.
We have to go back to World War 2 to find another attempt to swallow up such a large country (Ukraine has 44 million people) with fighting road by road, block by block.
Along with most people, I did not predict such a full-scale invasion. I was expecting a small incursion along the lines of Russia’s successful 2008 incursion into Georgia, and Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. In both of those cases, Russia carved off specific areas which contained ethic minorities who — while maybe they weren’t exactly clamoring to become a Russian protectorate — were at least sort of okay with it.
But history doesn’t always repeat, and this time Russia has launched a much bigger invasion, which looks likely to devastate Russia’s economy, cost it thousands of lives, and potentially lead to a long-term bloody quagmire like the US saw in Iraq.
Why? Is Putin “crazy” — as western media and politicians have speculated?
We can’t read his mind. But we can look at Russia’s strategic situation, Putin’s statements, and Russian ideology — and see if it’s possible to find a sane explanation.
And, there is one.
I suspect some people have a hard time seeing it, because geopolitical strategy is not common in the modern popular consciousness, which centers around cheesy action movies. But geopolitics is how Putin, and most world leaders historically, think about things.
Basically: Russia’s leaders feel under attack, in terms of their country’s place in the world order.
Consider that just 40 years ago, Russia’s “sphere of influence” consisted of all the red countries — spanning a large part of Europe, and much of the world:
But communism failed to support anything close to the lifestyles that capitalist countries created for themselves — and so eventually Soviet citizens overthrew their government. Living standards in the former Soviet Union have partly caught up to the west since capitalism began there, but in terms of geopolitical influence, the impact on Russia has been brutal. Here’s where Russia stands now:
That’s a smaller sphere of influence than the former core of the Soviet Union, and also smaller than the former Russian Empire under the Czars.
The most recent loss to Russia’s sphere of influence came in 2014, when Ukraine (labelled on the map above) asked to join the anti-Soviet military alliance NATO. Ukraine has a 1,400-mile shared border with Russia.
Much of Ukraine has always had a distinct ethnic Ukrainian identity, but it has also been part of the Czarist Russian empire for hundreds of years, since well before the USA was even a country, as this map from Encyclopedia Britannica shows:
Ukraine first flirted with joining NATO in 2008, but then backtracked when it elected a pro-Russia president in a 2010 election that international observers determined to be fair.
Below is the striking breakdown of Ukraine’s 2010 election. Western Ukraine, including Kiev, had strong majorities for the pro-western candidate, while eastern and southern Ukraine felt just as strongly about wanting to stay out of western alliances and maintain relations with Russia (but note: that does not mean that they wanted to be invaded by Russia.)
Adding to this complex situation, the pro-Russian president who was elected in 2010 was removed not democratically, but rather via revolution, in early 2014.
In response to his ousting, Russia almost immediately seized Crimea, the diamond-shaped, almost-island in the south of Ukraine. That was quick and nearly bloodless.
Less wisely, Russia also supported violent separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions [Clarification: beyond supporting them, it largely create them] — the darkest blue area eastern Ukraine. Protracted fighting there led to Ukraine to once again ask to join the NATO military alliance in late 2014.
Ukraine joining NATO would more than double the border Russia shares with NATO:
Putin has warned for years that Ukraine joining NATO was a red line for Russia. For instance, in December 2021, he explained Russia’s position:
PUTIN: We have made it very clear that NATO's further eastward expansion is unacceptable. What is incomprehensible here? Are we placing missiles near the borders of the Unites States? No!
It was the United States that came to our home with their missiles; they are already in front of our home. Is this some kind of excessive demand — not to put any more offensive systems in front of our house? What is so unusual here? …
How would Americans react if we put our missiles on the border between Canada and the US, or put our missiles on the border of Mexico and the United States?
To be clear, none of the above justifies the awful Russian military invasion, which has already killed thousands and displaced millions.
But it certainly helps us to understand Russia’s motivation.
The above is not news to foreign policy experts — in fact, it’s conventional wisdom. Many warned against NATO expansion, on the grounds that it would needlessly push Russia into an adversarial position.
This tweet thread provides a list, from Henry Kissinger advising against NATO expansion because, “to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country” — to other long-time experts warning that “the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked” and advocating that instead of expanding NATO, the west should ensure Ukraine’s continued neutrality and promote economic growth.
Considering all the above, Russia’s motivation is no mystery. Putin is almost certainly not insane, but rather he is making a desperate play with a relatively weak hand.
That’s bad for the world, of course.
One wishes Russia tried to take Ukraine not by war, but by bettering itself and then appealing to Ukraine with high quality of life — just as the west did, to pull Ukraine into its orbit. That’s obviously not the approach Putin took.
While most of this post is about understanding Russia, it’s important to remind ourselves that plenty of what comes out of Russia is deceitful propaganda. For example, in Putin’s announcement of the invasion of Ukraine:
PUTIN: Russia cannot feel safe, develop, exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine.
…leading Nato countries, in order to achieve their own goals, support extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine who … will climb into the Crimea … in order to kill.”
Actually, there are a few neo-Nazis fighting for Ukraine, illustrated by Facebook’s decision to un-ban its users from praising a Ukrainian neo-Nazi vigilante brigade (as long as the praise is in the context of them fighting Russia.)
But, the idea that fascists are a major force in Ukraine is ridiculous. Ukraine’s President is Jewish.
Other Russian propaganda — such as the unsuccessful attempt to pretend Ukraine was starting the attack — also consists of grotesque lies.
Another lie appears to be Russia’s claim that it is not using poorly-trained draftees in their invasion (which would be against Russian law.) It seems they are using them, but first they are pressuring the draftees to sign something that technically turns them into professional soldiers. UPDATE 3/9/22: Russia now admits it sent draftees into war; Putin throws lower-level officials under the bus for it.
Beyond the issue of security, Putin’s speeches point to deep anger at Russia’s fall from being a great power in the eyes of the west:
NATO … despite all our protests and concerns, is steadily expanding. The [NATO] military machine is moving ...
Where does the disdainful attitude towards our interests and absolutely legitimate demands come from?
The answer is clear ... The Soviet Union in the late 80s of the last century weakened, and then completely collapsed.
It’s worth knowing that Putin is anti-Soviet and anti-communist, and despises Lenin in particular for the harm he did to Russia, per historian Robert Service.
But older generations of Americans still have a communist image in their heads — such as this particularly ignorant US senator:
"He can't feed his people," Sen. Tuberville said, referring to Putin. "It's a communist country, so he can't feed his people, so they need more farmland."
Russia, besides not being communist, is a net exporter of food.
Another common misunderstanding is the idea that Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for a security guarantee from the US. But what people don’t know is that the security guarantee consisted of: A) The US promising not to invade Ukraine, and B) The US promising to file a complaint with the UN if anyone else attacked Ukraine. It was not a military alliance.
Predictions about the war
First, let’s note that Russia has displayed gross military incompetence, from underestimating Ukrainian resolve, to getting stuck in a 40-mile long convey outside of Kiev, to failing to make good use of air and firepower advantages, to reliance on old Soviet tactics, to this messy invasion map:
The sanctions on Russia have also been tough. Businesses are rapidly losing contracts, and supplies they need for manufacturing. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a total economic collapse that would make daily life hard in Russia. It has not, yet, but that’s something to watch for.
It’s also worth considering what’s likely to happen in the future. Here are six scenarios, along with my rough probability estimates2:
1. Bloody slog, Russian “victory” (15%) — Russia continues fighting for months, kills Ukraine’s President or forces him into exile, establishes either direct or puppet control over all of Ukraine, or, at least Kiev plus all of Ukraine that borders Russia. Insurrectionists are put down using brutality and martial law.
2. Bloody slog, “draw” (10%) — Russia’s military tries for months, but proves simply unable to take and control Kiev. Russia instead contents itself with taking Ukraine’s south and east (roughly, the blue areas in the election map above) and calls it a win. In this case, western Ukraine likely later joins NATO.
3. Peace treaty, Russian “victory” (20%) — Ukraine’s government gets to survive in some remaining part of the country (e.g., Lviv, maybe Kiev), but Ukraine and NATO agree to never allow Ukraine to join NATO. Russia also gets, at least, all of Donetsk and Luhansk (not just the parts they had pre-war).
4. Peace treaty, “draw” (40%) — Ukraine’s government and NATO agree to never allow Ukraine to join NATO, but Russia returns essentially all land captured in this war; it does not get to take the entire Donetsk or Luhansk territories, or any other additional Ukrainian region. Note: According Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, Russia has already made a peace offer along these lines. Ukraine is declining it, for now. Of course, the offer will get better or worse depending on how the war turns.
6. Russian internal collapse (15%) — Putin tries to keep up a bloody flight, but the impact on Russia’s population or military become intolerable, and Putin is removed. Prediction markets basically put this at 22%:
I suspect that’s slightly too high because the traders are mostly seeing western perspectives, but anyway, if this scenario does happen, what’s likely to follow is that all Ukrainian land is returned, and Ukraine joins NATO.
Regarding the above scenarios, we also have a bit more info from prediction markets, in particular Polymarket:
Traders put the probability of Russia adding a new region to itself at 37%. Basically, if Russia takes new Ukrainian regions, it may make them “independent republics” as it did to Georgia’s Abkhazia/E.Ossetia and to parts of Ukraine’s Luhansk/Donetsk, or it may incorporate them into Russia itself — as it did with Crimea. This 37% represents the chance that Russia opts for adding new territory (or the territory they had pre-war in Donetsk/Luhansk.)
Traders put the probability of Zelenskyy remaining President of Ukraine at 71% — so his odds of being removed are around 29%. His odds have been rising rapidly as Ukraine has fought Russia to a standstill outside of Kiev:
Beyond predictions, regarding what SHOULD happen, there’s a strong case for reaching a peace deal as soon as possible.
That would require Ukrainian neutrality, and a guarantee of not joining NATO — but does the world really need Ukraine in NATO?
The west obviously doesn’t want to go to war over Ukraine. So why fight to preserve the option to have a military alliance that would commit us to go to war over Ukraine?
It’s reminiscent of World War 1, an unmitigated disaster which was fought thanks to entangling alliances that surrounded Serbia — except that the current proxy war in Ukraine is about preserving the option to have an entangling alliance with Ukraine.
A common argument against a peace deal giving Russia anything is that Russia needs to be taught a stern lesson not to invade more countries. However, all the states in northeastern Europe are already covered by either NATO or the EU (which also requires member countries to defend each other. CLARIFICATION, 3/9/22: It requires all EU countries to aid a member when it’s attacked, but the method of such aid is left up to individual EU countries.3) Russian leaders would have to be crazy to try a ground invasion of those countries.
The strongest argument I see for taking a hard line in peace negotiations — which would push things toward either continued war, or Russian internal collapse — is that China needs to see that things won’t be easy for it, if it ever tries to invade Taiwan.
I hope that China is already seeing that, in the harm done to Russia’s economy. Additionally, if the peace deal gives Russia no new territory, that seems a good precedent.
There are no easy answers. In the meantime, we can respect the brave, effective fighting shown by Ukraine’s outnumbered soldiers.
We can also work to give all sides a hearing and avoid falling for “our team” biases that run extra-hot during wars.
For more analyses that attempt to add objectivity to issues, please subscribe, for free!
Get all future posts by entering your e-mail:
Also, this post has been different from previous statistical deep dives on this site.
But more of those are also soon to come! I’ve been working hard on an in-depth look (including regression analysis) into whether Covid vaccines actually prevent spread. I think that’s important to know, since it’s the basis for all the mandates, many of which are still in effect.
The very limited, questionable post-war polling also gives some sense of things: When the war broke out, a survey of Moscow internet users (surely more pro-west than the average Russian) conducted by anti-Putin activists, found that when the war broke out, just 14% of respondents blamed Russia for the war, and 54% blamed either the west, or Ukraine. By March 3, they reported that 36% blamed Russia and 41% blamed the west / Ukraine. This should taken with a grain of salt, but it hints that some Russians are starting to blame their own leaders as the war drags on. But it also points to the fact that many support their government’s actions, even when measured in a way favorable to anti-regime activists.
I’m happy to bet on these, but also, don’t take them too seriously! They are just my rough estimates. But I think it’s better to give them than not, for the same reason blogger Scott Alexander makes predictions: to hold oneself accountable and to stay grounded in reality.
Here is the exact wording from the EU Treaty: Article 42... 7. If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.
On a practical level, it is hard to imagine major countries like France and Germany not sending soldiers to Finland/Sweden, if they faced the kind of brutal ground assault that Ukraine is facing currently.