Rather than reliably reflecting any sense of domestic political vulnerability on Vladimir Putin’s part, Russian use of military force tends to be motivated by geopolitics.
What is the myth?
In November 2013, rising prices and an economic slowdown pushed Vladimir Putin’s public approval rating down to 61 per cent – the lowest it had been since Putin came to power. Fast forward to March 2014, however, and the Kremlin’s insertion of forces into Crimea catapulted Putin’s approval rating to 80 per cent. The Kremlin’s illegal annexation of Crimea prompted an outpouring of support for the president, his handling of the crisis and his ability to restore Russian prestige on the global stage. His public approval ultimately rose to a high of 89 per cent in June 2015.
Putin’s enhanced public standing in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea reinforced for many observers a narrative that the Kremlin launches military adventures to distract the public from political and economic failures at home. This explanation – known as ‘diversionary war theory’ – is perhaps the most widely known theory linking domestic politics and international conflict, and remains a commonly cited explanation for how the Kremlin decides to deploy military force.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
The notion that the Kremlin uses foreign adventures to distract from domestic troubles is a long-standing explanation for how the Kremlin makes foreign policy decisions. Such arguments appear in the media and scholarly analysis in different forms, including assertions that the Kremlin ‘us[es] revanchism to shore up domestic support’, or that ‘the turn to expansionism is more of a pressure release valve and a way to compensate for [Kremlin] weaknesses in other areas (including the economy)’. The diversionary war theory was an especially popular lens through which observers viewed Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Looking at this episode, scholars highlighted Putin’s domestic challenges at the time – and the level of his public support specifically – as key to explaining the decision to use military force.
It was therefore unsurprising to see that as Moscow built up its forces on Ukraine’s border again in late 2021, numerous assessments focused on Putin’s domestic standing as a key determinant in his decision-making calculus. Most of these argued that Putin was provoking conflict with Ukraine to distract from his sagging popularity. Indeed, Levada polling from October 2021 had shown Russians’ trust in Putin at its lowest level in nearly a decade. Some journalists suggested, therefore, that Putin was threatening Ukraine because ‘he just wants to gain back some of the popularity he has lost to COVID, corruption, and a poor economy’.
As Russians grow increasingly weary of Putin, another argument posited that ‘the temptation to instigate another conflict in Ukraine may become overpowering’. Notably, other observers took the opposite stance, suggesting that because Putin felt secure domestically, he was unlikely to move forward with an attack on Ukraine. As one journalist noted, with no major domestic unrest and elections two years away, ‘Mr. Putin doesn’t require an expansionist escapade to either shore up his rule or distract the population from its troubles.’
Why is it wrong?
Putin’s domestic standing is not a useful predictor of Russia’s use of military force abroad. For one thing, it is all but impossible to gauge how an authoritarian leader like Putin assesses his own security in office. Even when Putin’s public approval rating falls, growing repression and the lack of viable alternatives to him make it difficult to know if Putin actually feels insecure. Conversely, highly personalized autocrats like Putin are prone to paranoia. They often receive incomplete or misleading information from their advisers, and, especially as elite and citizen repression grows, autocrats can worry that they have a distorted view of public sentiment. In other words, autocrats can feel insecure – and therefore incentivized to use foreign policy to boost their standing – without public approval ratings hitting record lows. Observable indicators of public support, therefore, provide little insight into a leader’s sense of security, and are an unreliable lens through which to assess Kremlin decision-making.
More concretely, Putin’s popularity has fallen without prompting conflict. For example, the president’s public support began declining in 2019 after an unpopular change to the pension age and stagnating living standards. But Russia did not threaten a military conflict until over two years later, underscoring just how imprecise Putin’s public approval rating is as an indicator of the likelihood of foreign conflict. Conversely, military force has been used – notably the insertion of forces into Syria in September 2015 – when Putin’s public approval was strong. Public support for Putin, in other words, has not been the decisive factor behind his decisions to use military force. In contrast to some prevailing narratives, more insightful analysis of Russian public opinion data concludes that the Kremlin’s ‘aggressive foreign policy does not correlate with public support for the government in a way consistent with the diversionary war argument’.
Rather than being driven by an immediate need to distract the public from domestic problems, the Kremlin is most likely to use military force when it is acting to avoid geopolitical loss. In 2008, Russia acted to prevent Georgia from joining NATO. In Ukraine in 2014, it intervened to prevent Kyiv from slipping out of Russia’s orbit amid the prospect of greater Euro-Atlantic integration. In Syria in 2015, the Kremlin sought to prevent what it viewed as a US effort to topple a client state where Russia had historical ties and influence. And in Kazakhstan in 2021, Putin deployed Russian forces under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organization to prevent protests from bringing down a neighboring authoritarian regime and creating uncertainty about Kazakhstan’s future foreign policy trajectory. In each of these cases, the Kremlin perceived the stakes to be high, and was therefore willing to take greater risk, and hence use military force, to avoid a potentially negative geopolitical outcome.
This explanation – the Kremlin’s desire to avoid geopolitical loss – also in part motivated Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This, too, appeared unrelated to Putin’s concerns for domestic popularity, and rather was driven by his desire to prevent Ukraine from leaving Russia’s orbit. Thinking of his legacy, Putin did not want to be the leader who lost Ukraine – indeed it was his decision to illegally annex Crimea and occupy part of eastern Ukraine in 2014 that had hardened Ukraine’s resolve to pursue a westward geopolitical orientation – but rather the one who re-established Russian domination over it.
The fact that the Kremlin does not use foreign conflicts to distract from its flagging support does not mean that domestic factors are entirely absent from the Kremlin’s foreign policy decision-making calculus. For one thing, Putin’s creation of fictitious foreign threats – especially relating to the US and NATO – has been an important pillar of his survival strategy. Indeed, menacing the population with imagined threats and enemies is a tried and true tactic for many authoritarian leaders, who use such threats to deflect blame for domestic troubles, portray themselves as uniquely positioned to counter those threats, and justify repressive measures. Long-term domestic considerations, therefore, in certain respects reinforce Putin’s decision to sustain confrontation with the US and NATO.
Similarly, Putin’s use of military force is part of a long-term survival strategy that relies in part on his ability to reassert Russia’s status as a great power. Putin has learned that using or threatening military force compels the US to take Russia seriously. The use or threat of force gets Russia a seat at the table and allows Putin to portray himself domestically as a serious statesman, on a par with the president of the US. In the case of Ukraine specifically, Putin’s concerns about regime survival played a role. Putin’s use of force in Ukraine has been driven, in part, by the goal of preventing Ukraine’s democracy from deepening. If Russians – many of whom consider Ukraine and its leaders inferior to Russia – had come to view Ukrainian democracy as effective and attractive, it would have underscored the incompetence of the Putin regime, thereby weakening its hold on power. In these ways, the use of military force is indeed driven by domestic calculations in a broad sense, but not in the short-term, reactionary way that diversionary war theory suggests.
What is its impact on policy?
An overemphasis on Putin’s domestic support as a driver of Russian decision-making hinders the ability of policymakers and analysts to anticipate Russian aggression, because it is an imprecise indicator of the timing of potential conflict. Moreover, not only does this myth fail to provide analytic purchase on when the Kremlin is most likely to use force, but it also obscures insight into where the Kremlin would be most willing to do so. Because Russia is most likely to use force to prevent or reverse geopolitical loss, analysts should be alert to changing political tides in countries where the Kremlin perceives it has something to lose.
Moreover, the Kremlin uses private military companies such as the Wagner Group to expand its military reach while maintaining plausible deniability. Operations of this kind are not intended to boost public support, since the Kremlin seeks to distance itself from them. Likewise, the diversionary war lens obscures thinking about how Russia’s reasons to use force might evolve. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, for example, the Kremlin appeared increasingly willing to deploy military assets in the defense of autocracy. Russia’s actions to prop up Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, underscore this point, as do deployments of Wagner forces to shore up autocrats in places such as the Central African Republic and, potentially, Ouagadougou in the wake of the coup in Burkina Faso.
What would good policy look like?
Russian foreign policy is not driven by the popularity of Putin. Even if the president felt perfectly secure in his domestic standing, his aggressive tactics would not subside. Instead, the Kremlin’s calculus is shaped by many other factors, including those discussed above. Incorporating these complexities into foreign policy thinking will require that the US and European governments adequately invest in resources such as area studies and language programmes that produce the expertise required to anticipate and disrupt Russian actions – and to understand more clearly the relationship between internal and foreign policy in Russia.
More immediately, good policy would also recognize that the threat of Russian military force will not abate over time. Russian capabilities may be temporarily constrained by Western sanctions, export controls and military losses in Ukraine, but Moscow will maintain its intent to threaten US and European national security interests. The US and Europe must take steps to update their understanding of the nature of the Russia threat in light of the dynamics revealed by the attack on Ukraine. This should include efforts to upgrade net assessment capabilities with respect to identifying what the Kremlin seeks to do, when, and why, and its capacity to execute its objectives – akin to what the UK is doing as part of its Integrated Review. With the likelihood that Ukraine is not Putin’s last target, the US and its allies cannot afford to underestimate the Russian threat or put Russia to the back of their minds once fighting in Ukraine abates. Instead, the US and its allies must make strategic and budgeting choices that reflect the reality that Russia may be down, but is certainly not out.
Publication date: 14 July 2022