Why we’re so clueless about Putin
Mainstream media, rather than fight the cognitive biases that impede clear view of an enemy, surrender to them.
Over the weekend, while processing the Ukrainian army’s big breakthrough and the Russian army’s headlong retreat, I came across a tweet that said this:
On Russian state TV, Moscow State University professor Vitaly Tretyakov said (and I'm paraphrasing): “The West thinks there will be social unrest in Russia in order to make the war stop. In reality, there will be social unrest if we don't become more active in this war.”
Is Tretyakov right? Is there more political pressure on Putin to ratchet up his military campaign in Ukraine than to ratchet it down? Does that explain Sunday’s missile strikes (launched after that tweet) against Ukrainian power plants? Were those strikes a concession to the hard-core nationalist Russians who have long been saying Vladimir Putin should “take the gloves off” in Ukraine? (One of them tweeted about the strikes, “Six months late but better than never.”)
And could this political dynamic, combined with continued Ukrainian success on the battlefield, lead Putin to call a general mobilization—which, by hugely expanding Russia’s armed forces, would reverse the manpower advantage now enjoyed by Ukraine?
I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. One reason for my ignorance is that I get most of my information about the war from American media. Though the political forces shaping Vladimir Putin’s handling of this war would seem to be one of the most important subjects in the world, it’s a subject our finest journalistic outlets have spent the war almost completely ignoring.
This is starting to change. How Putin reacts to Russia’s humiliating battlefield setback is a question of such obvious importance that his political incentive structure is starting to get some attention in US media. Will the result be illuminating? So illuminating that it helps Americans think more clearly about the likely consequences of various policy options (e.g., providing Ukraine with new kinds of weapons, giving Ukrainians the green light to use the weapons in Crimea, etc.)?
The early signs aren’t auspicious. As Exhibit A, I give you a New York Times piece published this weekend about some of the blowback Putin is getting from Russian nationalists who think he hasn’t prosecuted the war vigorously enough.
Before I launch into my critique of the piece, I want to give its author, Times bureau chief Anton Troianovski, some credit. For starters, he beat the Times’s rivals, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, to the story. Also, as we’ll see, he provides some genuinely valuable insight into Putin’s current political environment.
Still, the main compliment I want to pay him is a backhanded one: His piece nicely corroborates my pet theory about why American journalists—and for that matter a surprising number of American foreign policy elites—have shown so little interest in the political forces impinging on Putin’s decision making even as Putin ponders options that could greatly increase the death and suffering triggered by his invasion of Ukraine.
My theory involves a cognitive bias (familiar to regular readers of NZN) called attribution error, which can cloud, among other things, our understanding of enemies and rivals. It works like this:
When an enemy or rival does something we consider bad, we tend to attribute the bad behavior to the person’s “disposition” (their basic nature) rather than to “situation” (such factors as peer pressure or political pressure or workplace stress or whatever). But if they do something we consider good, we tend to emphasize situational factors, not dispositional ones.
Our enemies and rivals, in other words, do bad things because that’s the kind of people they are and do good things only when pushed toward them by circumstance; attribution error is, among other things, a mechanism for preserving this unflattering framing of them. (With friends and allies it works the other way around: We tend to attribute good things they do to the kind of people they are and bad things they do to peer pressure or a stressful workplace or whatever.)
So if most American journalists and foreign policy elites view Putin as an enemy—and don’t somehow overcome the biased assessment of his motivation this view naturally brings—they’ll tend to ignore or downplay factors in his environment that encouraged him to invade Ukraine. They may note, even dwell on, the fact that some Russians oppose the war, but they’ll be less inclined to highlight Russian factions that support the war.
Which brings us back to that New York Times piece by Anton Troianovski. Though the piece at first seems to defy attribution error—Troianovski does highlight pro-war political pressures in Putin’s environment—the defiance is in the end incomplete. The piece turns out to bear the mark of attribution error. And the amount of scrutiny it takes to see that mark is a tribute to the subtlety with which this cognitive bias can do its work.
Troianovski’s piece focuses on hawkish Russian bloggers—some embedded with the Russian military in Ukraine, some writing from Russia—who have lately been complaining that, as Troianovski puts it, Russia has “failed to commit the necessary equipment and personnel to fight a long war against a determined enemy.”
Troianovski writes that, according to some analysts, “many in the Russian elite” think the war “can only be won if Mr. Putin mobilizes the nation onto a war footing and declares a draft.” The piece quotes one of these analysts saying that the nationalist pro-war bloggers “reflect the opinion of their sources and the people they know and work with. I think the biggest group among these people believes that it is necessary to fight harder and carry out a mobilization.”
That’s useful information! The more we know about how much domestic political support Putin would have for a mobilization, the better we can predict the consequences of various Ukrainian and American policy options.
Troianovski’s piece also illuminates one reason Putin may be reluctant to heed calls for general mobilization. About half of Russians tell pollsters they’re paying “little or no” attention to events in Ukraine, and that’s the way Putin likes it; instituting a draft “could shatter the passivity with which much of the Russian public has treated the war.”
So far so good. Troianovski has done a more balanced job than most American observers of describing Putin’s political incentive structure. Contrary to tendencies ingrained in us via attribution error, he’s highlighted a situational factor— the opinion of hawkish nationalist bloggers and likeminded elites—that probably encouraged Putin to do a bad thing (invade Ukraine) and is now encouraging him to amp up the badness.
But attribution error is a mighty foe! Completely resisting it is hard, and that becomes clear when Troianovski does his grand summing up of the forces impinging on Putin. He writes:
Escalating a war whose domestic support may turn out to be superficial could stir domestic unrest, while continuing retreats on the battlefield could spur a backlash from hawks who have bought into the Kremlin narrative that Russia is fighting ‘Nazis’ for its very survival.
So Troianovski is characterizing Russia’s hawks—not “some” hawks, or “many” hawks, but hawks in general—as people who have “bought into the Kremlin narrative that Russia is fighting ‘Nazis’ for its very survival.” This is a strange thing to say for a couple of reasons.
First, at the risk of being nit picky:
Though lots of Russian hawks would say Russia is fighting for “its very survival,” many of them would characterize the ultimate source of the threat as NATO, or “the West” or the US—not Ukrainian Nazis. Indeed, what self-respecting Russian ultra-nationalist would talk as if Ukraine by itself could come anywhere near threatening the survival of mighty Russia? To be sure: Many Russian nationalist hawks do see Ukrainian groups they identify as “Nazis”—for example, the Azov brigade, which does have a neo-Nazi lineage and some current neo-Nazi members, even if their number is greatly exaggerated in Russia—as a threat to the survival of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. But that’s not the same as considering them a threat to the survival of Russia.
Second, and more important:
The idea that all Russian hawks are hawks because they “bought into” this “Kremlin narrative” is just wrong. Many of these hawks were hawks long before Putin ramped up his belligerent rhetoric about Ukraine and started talking about “de-Nazification.” Indeed, Russian nationalist hawks have been known to note that they were promulgating anti-Ukraine talking points long before Putin finally got the picture they’d been painting and started repeating those talking points!
Why would the Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times write such a strange and hard-to-defend sentence? Here’s my theory: Because he’s human! That weird sentence, I think, is an example of attribution error sneaking in through the back door and having its way with Troianovski.
Troianovski had seemed to defy this cognitive bias by suggesting that some Putin belligerence might be a result not just of Putin’s disposition but of his situation—specifically, pressure from nationalist hawk elites. But then he tells us that the hawks are only hawks because they bought Putin’s narrative. So it all comes back to Putin after all: His disposition is the prime mover, and any “situational” factors are actually products of it. Attribution error for the win!
“Cognitive bias” can be a misleading term. The word ‘cognitive’ sounds cold and clinical, but cognitive biases like attribution error are dependent on emotions. It’s the feeling of enmity toward Putin—or any other enemy—that triggers the biased assessment of his motivation. That’s one reason some of the best reporters are people who try to cultivate a kind of cool, non-judgmental detachment from the subjects they write about.
I hesitate to say this, because I’ve only been paying attention to Troianovski’s work since the invasion of Ukraine in February—and only sporadic attention at that—but: He doesn’t strike me as someone who works hard to cultivate a detached, non-judgmental attitude. It seems to me that no few of his pieces have as their subtext, “Vladimir Putin is a bad man.” But, again, I haven’t done a rigorous study of his writing, so judge for yourself.
Of course, “Vladimir Putin is a bad man” is an eminently defensible thesis. But back in olden times, when I did some newspaper reporting, we tried to leave judgments like that to editorial writers; the idea was that if you see your journalistic mission as driving home moral judgments about the people you cover, your journalism will suffer.
But that was then. In a digital and tribalized age, there seems to be more pressure on media outlets to play to the passions of readers, especially by underscoring reasons to keep loathing the people they loathe. The sub-headline of this Times piece, indeed, ends on a Putin-is-a-bad-man note: “Russian bloggers reporting from the front line provide a uniquely less-censored view of the war. But as Russia’s military flails, these once vocal supporters are exposing its flaws, lies and all.”
Now, the fact that Putin and other Russian officials lie strikes me as just about the least newsworthy thing in the entire piece—much less newsworthy, and also less important, than the evidence that significant numbers of Russian elites may favor a mobilization. But I guess a buried lede is better than no significant lede at all. When it comes to coverage of Russia, I’ve learned to be grateful for small things.
Some of the comments illustrate the bias discussed in this post. That Putin is an absolute ruler who does not need to care about what anyone else thinks and that he is a mobster motivated by money. Neither assumption strikes me as realistic. I suppose another way of expressing this very helpful post is that we err when we confuse moral judgments on someone's actions with their practical motivations.