By Keren Yahri-Milo, Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs
The death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin reveals that Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to consolidate his power two months after the mercenary’s aborted mutiny threatened his grip on it. Prigozhin’s demise also counters official thinking in the United States about what the mutiny, coming on top of a stalled war in Ukraine, signifies for Putin’s regime.
CIA Director William J. Burns recently said that the uprising showed “signs of weakness” in Putin’s rule, while other analysts noted that it revealed the flexibility of Putin’s red lines. Faced with a direct challenge to his rule, noted Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, Putin did not have Prigozhin immediately executed, but “was cold and calculated and rational … to ensure the survival of his regime.”
Policymakers should separate words from actions
Herein lies the dilemma for the US. With cracks in Putin’s authority becoming visible, and with the Russian military divided and demoralized, some experts say now is the time to go “all in” on support for Ukraine, supplying the country with cluster munitions, F-16s, and any other desired military equipment. But the psychology literature on prospect theoryshows that when individuals – whether gamblers in a casino or leaders fighting a war of conquest – face setbacks (what researchers call “the domain of perceived losses”), they are more willing to accept undue risk. Moreover, narcissistic autocrats tend not to respond well to personal humiliation.
This suggests that US officials (and, to a lesser degree, pundits) should detach economic and military assistance from name-calling. That means increasing military support to improve Ukraine’s position on the battlefield while avoiding personal attacks against Putin that might needlessly trigger him in ways that could make the war even more brutal and unpredictable.
The fight in Ukraine is as much psychological as physical
In other words, policymakers here should separate words from actions. Once senior US officials publicly declare that Putin is “weak,” the conflict takes on a personal realm. And it is well-known that autocrats tend to be thin-skinned. US President Joe Biden’s description of Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “dictator,” for example, did nothing to resolve the multiple issues dividing the two powers, much less help reset US-Chinese relations.
Like most wars, the fight in Ukraine is as much psychological as physical. While the US intelligence community skillfully anticipated the initial invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s mental state remains a black box. Presumably he has been humiliated by Prigozhin’s challenge to his authority, not to mention the botched war. The scope of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine went far beyond his pattern of aggression against Russia’s neighbors, making it difficult to draw comparisons and conclusions. But even if we do not know Putin’s psychological make-up or what led him to this point, the conflict has clearly become existential for him.
"To the extent that international relations is an extension of interpersonal relations, how leaders publicly talk about their adversaries is important. US rhetoric about Putin, as much as shipments of F-16s, can push him – and thus the war – in various directions."
Having suffered a series of recent humiliations, a weakened Putin is in the domain of perceived losses. This makes him more likely to ratchet up tensions and, not satisfied with efforts to “coup-proof” his military or round up the usual domestic suspects, to escalate the war. There is some evidence of this, with Russia’s recent attacks on grain silos and civilian infrastructure in and around Odesa, and even on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown.
To the extent that international relations is an extension of interpersonal relations, how leaders publicly talk about their adversaries is important. US rhetoric about Putin, as much as shipments of F-16s, can push him – and thus the war – in various directions.
The notion that calling Putin “weak” could pressure the Russian population, elites, or armed forces to rise up and overthrow him, much less hasten the end of the war, may be wishful thinking. True, Putin will act in dangerous and unpredictable ways, regardless of what is said about him – as the death of Prigozhin shows.
A revealing passage in his 2000 memoir, First Person, recounts a young Putin spotting a giant rat in his apartment building’s communal hallway in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad). “I drove it into a corner,” he writes. “It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened.”
When someone like Putin is cornered, he – like that giant rat – lashes out. But what retaliatory measures he takes are unclear. Will he up the ante by killing more of his political rivals? Might he engage in more intensive cyber operations abroad?
Regardless of what these actions look like, an autocrat who wages aggressive war can be defeated only through progress on the battlefield. Cheap talk or personal attacks will not help that effort – and in fact, could undermine it.
Keren Yarhi-Milo is Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and author of Who Fights for Reputation: The Psychology of Leaders in International Conflict (Princeton University Press, 2018) and Knowing The Adversary: Leaders, Intelligence, and Assessment of Intentions in International Relations (Princeton University Press, 2014).