Ukraine Crisis, February 22, 2022: Putin makes impossible demands on Ukraine, supports inclusion of Ukraine-occupied territory in boundaries of “people’s republics”; Biden’s “rational actor” approach to graduated sanctions not likely to deter Putin from larger war


Andrew Roth, Emma Graham-Harrison, and Julian Borger, “Likelihood of war escalates as Putin promises to support proxy Ukraine states; Biden denounces Putin’s recognising Donetsk and Luhansk as ‘so-called countries’ and unveils new sanctions,” The Guardian, February 22, 2022 (19.45 GMT),

Vladimir Putin did two things today, February 22, 2022, that suggest he has decided and is determined to launch a broader war that goes beyond, and perhaps far beyond, the current territory occupied by his puppet governments in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the Eastern Ukraine.

First, he announced that Russia supports the territorial claims of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics he recognized yesterday, to include areas of the provinces currently under Ukrainian control. If Russian and separatist forces attack Ukrainian forces, in his phantasy world where real facts are irrelevant, he could argue–for domestic consumption–that Ukrainian forces are attacking the people’s republics, and that Russian troops are repelling the attacks in exercise of the inherent right of collective self-defense.

This action would likely be coupled with a false-flag operation that would serve as a pretext for attacking the Ukrainian troops. His new support of the boundaries claimed by the people’s republics could then serve as a pretext for taking not only the territory claimed by the “separatist” governments, but also the entire territory of both Donetsk and Luhansk orovinces.

With such a pretext and with military action underway, Russian troops could seize not only Mariupol, but also take the territory needed for a “land bridge” to the Crimea.

The second thing Putin did was to make peremptory demands on Ukraine which he must know are non-starters for any negotiations. If accepted, such an acceptance would amount to a capitulation. Consequently, the demands must be viewed as simply laying a further basis for resort to war.

Roth, Graham-Harrison, and Borger report:

Putin suggested further military action would be unnecessary if Kyiv negotiated with Moscow over “difficult questions”.

He laid out three demands of the Ukrainian government: recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, seized in 2014; renunciation of Ukraine’s aspirations to join Nato; and partial demilitarisation.

These demands are reminiscent of the unacceptable demands he made on the U.S. and NATO in December, which Putin surely knew could not be accepted. Putin appears to be laying them down as predicates for an invasion.

Putin is a lawyer by training, and seems to have a certain legalistic streak that leads him to check the boxes and lay everything out in a logical manner. The only problem with his approach is that the facts don’t fit the arguments, and indeed the argument itself may be rejected by everyone else even if the facts were to fit.

So, we see Putin doing everything by the book, in his mind at least. He recognizes the “separatist” republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, so that they can formally invite him to send in Russian troops as “peacekeepers”.

He gets permission from the Duma (lower house of parliament) to use force abroad.

In order to make another legal “justification” for intervening militarily in the Donbas, under the widely rejected alleged “right of intervention to protect nationals”, he issues as many as 600,000 Russian passports to residents of the Donbas, so he can claim they are Russian citizens and that he is sending his troops in to protect them. This week Russia has even charged that they are victims of genocide.

It is all quite deranged, and would provide great material for a comic opera if its consequences were not so disastrous.

Putin must have had a bad experience in law school, which seems to have warped his mind in very peculiar ways.

Biden’s “rational actor” approach to graduated sanctions is not likely to deter Putin from a larger war

The “rational actor fallacy” is a phenomenon well known by political scientists and students of international affairs. The classic study of this phenomena is Essence of Decision by Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard, who demonstrated the flaws in using a “rational actor” model to analyze the behavior of the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

As we wrote yesterday,

Joe Biden, like Barack Obama before him, seems to have fallen into the trap of assuming Russia is a single, unitary mind, rationally calculating costs and benefits in making decisions that determine state behavior. Now, like Obama, Biden is trying to make fine intellectual distinctions in weighing sanctions, as if Putin were an accountant carefully adding up on his calculator the costs and benefits of invading Ukraine.

In fact, however, Putin is a KGB thug, a war criminal (Syria, Chechnya), an apparent serial murderer of his opponents (Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny–unsuccessful attempt, to be sure, et. al.), and someone who invaded the Donbas in 2014 and kept a war going that has cost some 14,000 lives.

–“Ukraine Crisis, February 21, 2022 (Part II): Weighing options–Biden’s Munich moment,” February 21, 2022.

The problem with Biden’s “rational actor” approach to graduated sanctions is that Russia’s actions, at this point in the execution of a huge and carefully choreographed war plan, may not be under the control of Putin, the postulated unitary, rational actor. Moreover, even if they are, the finely graduated sanctions of Biden’s team are not likely to have enough power to jolt Putin out of his war trance in time for him to pull the emergency brake, assuming that he can be persuaded that he needs to.

At this point, only massive sanctions, imposed immediately and simultaneously, might conceivably jolt Putin out if his war trance. Graduated sanctions are very unlikely to do so. Even massive sanctions, holding little in reserve, may not work. But they should be tried.

The one thing that is certain is that there is no single rational actor, sitting in a control room somewhere, who could accurately perceive the threatened impacts of additional tranches of sanctions, and then exercise control over a country and a war machine that are fully engaged in war.

The Trenchant Observer