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September 16, 2008

The world sat startled when Russia heavy-handedly violated the sovereignty of Georgia.  It is currently aggravated at Russian reluctance to promptly leave.  In the aftermath, everyone is hurriedly analyzing, grasping for reasons why Russia felt the need to go all in.

  More than once I have heard intelligent expects exasperatingly exclaim that Putin is behaving irrationally or flying off the handle.  When you begin to believe a nation’s leader is acting irrationally, might I suggest it may be time to re-evaluate your own ability to dispassionately analyze the situation.

I think it is safe to say that a man who worked through the ranks of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate responsible for foreign intelligence, survived the breakup of the Soviet Union by becoming a local politician in St Petersburg, quickly climbing to the spotlight of national politics by becoming Prime Minister for Yeltsin, eventually succeeding Yeltsin as President for two terms and finally maintaining his grip on Russian political power by transforming and reassuming the Prime Ministry is someone who can cogently analyze his options and rationally conclude what he perceives to be the best option.  What experts really mean is what Russia did does not make sense to them.

There may be a number of reasons why we are having a difficult time understanding the move.  It could be we lacked information of the internal Russian politics needed to have anticipated the attack.  There may also be a little hesitancy to face Russia realism for fear of rekindling Cold War flames. But I believe most people may be ‘mirror imaging’: a process by which one assumes what they value is equally valued by their adversary.

At its most basic level, decision making is weighing each option in terms of its feasibility and apparent costs against possible benefits.  Political costs and benefits are measured on a non-absolute scale of values.  Any option will have a different value that is based on who is responsible for the calculus.  In other words, your perspective comes from where you are sitting.  If you want to understand why Russia invaded Georgia at obvious cost to their economy and world relations, you have to find out why they valued the benefits of the invasion as highly as they did.

One definite difference in values between Western nations and Russia is the fear of invasion.  Genghis Kahn’s Golden Horde was the first of many organized invasions by which the Russian people have been brutally victimized.  Preventing another invasion is still paramount in Russian foreign policy.  The Warsaw Pact was an effective buffer against invasion and is still considered excellent policy in Russia.  Perhaps when they saw NATO extending membership invitations to the very states they once used as that buffer, Russia felt threatened at its very core.  That would certainly raise the value of invasion vis a vis any economic turmoil caused.

Another interesting difference in perspective between Russia and the west is it perception of national prestige.   The invasion of Georgia has brought condemnation upon Russia from the world.  Certainly this minor nation is not worth the world consternation?  Military operations are at best onerous to the west as President Bush’s approval ratings here and abroad can attest.  But perhaps Russia was concerned about the world’s perception of its military.  The collapse of what was once the most formidable military force in the world has been colossal.  Even before the Georgia invasion, Russia had begun Air Defense Identification Zone penetrations with their bombers for the first time since the end of the Cold War.  Maybe for the Russians this invasion raises prestige because it increases respect for their armed forces?

These two examples are not meant to be the exhaustive analysis and reasons why Russia chose this drastic response or even a necessarily accurate one although I believe they are both reasonable.  It only illustrates that the only explanation of the invasion of Georgia is not that Russia’s leaders are acting irrationally.  It also highlights the danger of imprinting your values upon a competitor.  Complete, emotionless analysis requires you walk a mile in the other’s shoes.  Maybe we will not be surprise the next time.

Christopher Harness is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency.