Discussion Paper

What Led to Putin’s Blunder in Ukraine?

  • Angelina Flood
| Feb. 24, 2023

This day one year ago, Vladimir Putin unveiled what is likely to become the most consequential decision of his time at Russia’s helm: the launch of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. This paper seeks to ascertain which of the hypothetical factors that the author has inferred from literature on Russia’s past military interventions, as well as from cross-country studies of such interventions, may have influenced the Russian dictator’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.1 These factors include: a threat to vital national interests as seen by the leader; the leader’s need to save face; the leader’s need to ensure his popularity; the leader’s reasonable hope that the intervention will succeed; the exhaustion or lack of non-military options for responding to a crisis; and an increase in Russia’s national power (see Table 1). The author’s examination of these factors indicates that three of them are likely to have contributed to shaping Putin’s decision to launch the invasion a year ago.

  • First, Putin was motivated by his perception that there were acute growing threats to several of Russia’s vital national interests as he saw them, including the interest in preventing Ukraine’s “escape” to a hostile hegemon’s camp.
  • Second, Putin may have believed he had run out of non-military options for responding to these threats.
  • Third, Putin thought he had a reasonable hope that his war would succeed in warding off the aforementioned threats.

The jury might still be out on whether Putin really thought he had run out of non-military options of dealing with the perceived threats to Russia’s vital interests, but it is increasingly clear that he seriously overestimated (1) the chances that a full-blown invasion could succeed in warding off these threats and (2) the sum of net costs that such an invasion would impose on Russia. It is perhaps this misguided war optimism that played the most decisive role in shaping Putin’s erroneous decision to choose the full-scale invasion as a means of re-anchoring Ukraine to Russia and preventing NATO’s further expansion along Russia’s borders.

That Putin chose the full-blown invasion option in spite of a wealth of publicly available evidence that it wouldn’t be a walk in the park constitutes an important lesson for those of us seeking to anticipate the Russian dictator’s choices: Rather than assume that Putin would choose the policy option “common sense” would indicate, one should try to grasp what costs and benefits the dictator associates with each policy option available to him and, more importantly, what value he assigns to each of the pros and cons, no matter how misinformed his perceptions might be.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Saradzhyan, Simon.“What Led to Putin’s Blunder in Ukraine?” Russia Matters, February 24, 2023.

The Author


Angelina Flood