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The West should not count on Russian sensitivity to casualties to deter Putin

Russia-backed separatists carry the coffin of a comrade during a funeral at a cemetery in the east Ukrainian village of Mospino, near the city of Donetsk, Ukraine, on Feb. 12. (Petr David Josek/AP)

The following is a guest post from Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


One argument in favor of the West arming Ukraine is that additional weapons will deter Russia due to Vladimir Putin’s sensitivity to Russian casualties. There is no official data on Russian casualties in Ukraine, though one Russian NGO claims to have identified 260 Russian soldiers and volunteers who have been killed in action in eastern Ukraine. Reported attempts to conceal the cause and location of some of these deaths indicate that Russia’s leaders are sensitive to killings of active-duty Russian soldiers in the neighboring country.

But can this sensitivity change? And if so, under what circumstances? Recent polls and academic studies of public sensitivities toward combat deaths suggest that Russians (and, therefore, Putin) would be more willing to tolerate significant casualties among their uniformed compatriots in Ukraine if three conditions are met: 1) Russia stages an open military intervention in Ukraine for a cause that the Russian public finds just; 2) Russian troops enjoy success in this intervention; and 3) the costs of war do not become prohibitive. How likely are these conditions to emerge and hold in the immediate future?

1. Can Russia stage an open military intervention that many Russians would view as just?

As stated above, Russian leaders persistently deny having sent any military units to fight in Ukraine. But the Kremlin can change its stance, admit involvement and order an overt intervention if, for instance, the most recent cease-fire agreement completely falls apart and the Ukrainian military launches a counter-offensive against the separatists and comes close to defeating them. Chances of an open intervention will increase if the United States follows up on its threats to arm Ukraine’s armed forces and impose harsher sanctions on Russia.

Recent polls indicate that a significant portion of the Russian public would support a claim that the Russian army needs to intervene  to defend the sizable ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine. Some 45 percent of respondents in a November 2014 poll conducted by Russia’s Levada Center said they would react positively if the Russian military were fighting in the conflict. And more than half of that poll’s respondents said they have a positive attitude toward the participation of Russian volunteers in the conflict. Also, a January 2015 poll by the Levada Center showed that 62 percent of Russians want eastern Ukraine to either become independent or join Russia, while a March 2014 survey by the same pollster found that 65 percent of respondents believed Russians’ actions to protect Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine would be righteous.

2. Will Russia’s military intervention succeed in the short term? What about long term?

But a just cause is not sufficient to increase a nation’s tolerance toward the deaths of its soldiers. Theodore Gerber and Sarah Mendelson find in their study of post-Soviet Russians’ sensitivity to combat casualties that “Russians who embrace their administration’s definition of the message as a noble struggle … and believe that the campaign is going well are more likely to support continuing military action.” Likewise, Peter Feaver and his co-authors find in their study of Americans’ sensitivity to the second war in Iraq that “believing the war was the right thing to do combines with expectations of success to determine an individual’s tolerance for the human costs of war.”

Analysis of Russians’ attitudes during past conflicts supports the academics’ proposition that such support would remain significant as long as the public views a war as just and successful. Only 21 percent of Russians believed that the second war in Chechnya was pointless, while more than 50 percent said the goals set by the Russian government in that war were either fully or partially achieved, according to a 2014 Levada Center poll. The poll found that Russians saw the second Chechen war as a success despite the estimated 3,700 soldiers and 25,000 civilians who perished during the military phase and the conflict’s subsequent low-intensity phase from 1999 to 2010. In comparison, 30 percent of  Ukrainians polled by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology in January 2015 supported what Kiev describes as the anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine. Such low support should not be surprising given the setbacks and casualties the Ukrainian army has suffered in Donbass. These casualties exceeded 1,400 in January, which is more than Russia’s armed forces acknowledged losing in the deadliest year of the second Chechen war. The overall death toll in the Ukrainian conflict has already exceeded 5,000, according to the U.N.

There is a fair chance to expect that the Russian army will succeed in an open intervention in Ukraine. Russian forces enjoy overwhelming superiority in personnel and armaments compared to their Ukrainian counterparts. They are also generally better trained. In the longer term, however, Russians’ support for their country’s open involvement in Ukraine – and tolerance of associated casualties – could diminish significantly if Ukrainian forces resort to guerrilla methods to bleed Russian forces once the latter have intervened and established control over parts of eastern Ukraine. Gerber and Mendelson warn that “the undeniable preeminence of casualty concerns despite the best efforts of the regime implies that casualties may inherently become the paramount factor in a protracted military conflict.” In their study titled “Casualty Sensitivity in a Post-Soviet Context,” Gerber and Mendelson find similarities between Americans’ and Russians’ attitude toward military campaigns. Indeed, U.S. experience also demonstrates that support for wars plummet when insurgencies bleed American forces. More than 50 percent of U.S. respondents concluded that the second Iraq war was a mistake by early 2005, when U.S. combat deaths were hovering around 1,500, according to John Mueller.

3. Will costs of military intervention be prohibitive? 

Even if the Russians see the cause of intervention as just and chances of its success as great, they may still become less supportive of military action if the economic costs associated with intervention become significant, according to Gerber and Mendelson.

So far, common Russians do not perceive these costs as prohibitive – after all, their real incomes have declined by about 1 percent. For these perceived costs to increase dramatically, oil, which is the single best predictor of the Russian economy’s performance, would have to plummet further, while the West would have to impose Iran-like sanctions. But Russian officials have already vowed that Iran-style sanctions, such as excluding Russia from SWIFT, would be treated as a declaration of war against Russia. Chances are that many Russians, half of whom believe their country’s largely state-owned television is the most reliable source of information, would support their leaders’ view that Russia is in a major war with hostile foreign powers in the short term. Russians have repeatedly shown willingness to endure economic hardship when their nation is threatened by hostile external powers, though how long their patience will last in a new Cold War (if there is one) is an open question.