The Risks of a Russian “Gamble for Resurrection”

Dan Drezner nails it – Putin is backed into a corner, and that should frighten us.  Putin is actually paying massive costs for his strategy in Ukraine, for no discernible gain.  Sanctions are increasingly biting, and with the MH17 incident mobilizing Europe this will only get worse in the near-term future.  And so far, his gains from this strategy amount to: Crimea.  At tremendous economic and financial cost, and for the loss of his client state in Kiev. Even worse, the sanctions are beginning to splinter his domestic base.

One classic IR idea is the “gamble for resurrection“.  This is the idea that leaders, especially in authoritarian states, cannot afford to lose in major crises or conflicts – the regime’s support is shallow, and they might lose control if they show weakness.  So rather than back down, often leaders will escalate conflicts because it serves their best interests rather than those of the state.  The more sanctions undermine Putin’s elite coalition, and the less he has to show for it, the greater the risk that he will decide he cannot afford to lose and will start being riskier and more aggressive.

I’d add one more point to Drezner’s – that sanctions aimed at splitting Putin’s domestic base might well be read by Putin as an attempt to force regime change.  Putin surely understands the above logic, but might well put a different spin on things – that the point of these sanctions are to undermine his base of power and hope for a new government.  If so, the incentive for him is clear – each new round of sanctions must be met with more escalation, because if he backs down the personal costs could be immense.

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