Anne Applebaum’s warning on Ukraine, and Putin’s choices

See Anne Applebaum, “The U.S. Is Naive About Russia. Ukraine Can’t Afford to Be; Putin is right about one thing: A free, prosperous, democratic neighbor is a threat to his autocratic regime,” The Atlantic, January 3, 2021.

Anne Applebaum, a seasoned scholar and reporter on Eastern Europe, Russia and Vladimir Putin, reports in The Atlantic that there is genuine cause for alarm over the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine among the U.S. and its allies. Applebaum is the wife of a leading Polish politician, a former foreign minister, and has her own extraordinary network among high officials in eastern Europe and Russia which she has developed over the years. Moreover, she is an extraordinary reporter.

She writes:

This time, the alarm bells are ringing louder in Washington than in Kyiv. Secretary of State Antony Blinken began warning European allies about a possible new Russian invasion of Ukraine several weeks ago, and rumors of genuinely terrible things to come are flying around other Western capitals too. An invasion of Kyiv. An occupation of the country. The warnings seem to be based not just on the operational intelligence that many have seen—ominous photographs of military equipment and personnel accumulating around Ukraine’s borders—but on strategic intelligence, insights into the thinking of Kremlin insiders, which U.S. officials are allegedly showing their allies.

American leaders, in the eyes of Ukranians, are incredibly naive, Applebaum reports. Ukranians understand that Russians’ potential actions toward Ukraine involve violence, because their current actions in the Donbas involve violence. American leaders, in contrast, think in terms of diplomacy and non-violent means of defusing the crisis caused by Putin’s threat of invasion of Ukraine.

The Observer notes that even if Russian decisions were made by a unitary “Rational Actor”, in this case Putin, there is no guarantee that he has current information and advice based on reality. The emotional biases of a dictator may affect not only the “rational” nature of his decisions but also the flow of information upon which his calculations are based. The decisions of a “unitary” actor, of a single calculating mind, may turn out not to be those of a “Rational Actor”. That is one reason why it is so dangerous to fall under the sway of “the Rational Actor” fallacy.

Putin seems to be acting from a position of weakness. He has been cracking down even further on domestic opposition groups, or potential opposition groups, as revealed by his dismantling of Alexei Navalny’s organization and that of the Russian NGO named Memorial. In 2014, Memorial made public some inconvenient information about Russian military casualties in the fighting in the Donbas.

Putin seems to be repressing all sources of even potential criticism. This could suggest he plans to invade Ukraine and wants to thwart in advance any criticism of his actions or military casualties.

An alternative possibility is that he has been threatening to invade Ukraine in order to disract attention from his domestic crack-down. Why he would feel a need to crack down further is an intriguing question.

A third possibility is that Putin may perceive a threat to his power from internal power centers, such as elements within the military. In Russia, we may never know what internal threats Putin faces, until the day we wake up and he is no longer in power.

One risk which Putin must weigh in deciding whether to invade the Ukraine is that the military casualties that would ensue, and Russia’s expulsion from the SWIFT international payments system and other heavy sanctions, could produce sudden and unpredictable shifts in his support and the likelihood of his retaining power.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.