The psychology of war: analysing Putin's motivations

Understanding political leaders' psychology is crucial to making sense of foreign policy decision-making processes. Consuelo Thiers highlights Vladimir Putin's change of beliefs as a key factor in his decision to wage war against Ukraine

In the last couple of weeks, the world has been shocked by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Political analysts and policy advisors have been trying to answer one key, pressing question. What motivated Putin's behaviour?

The Biden administration gave clear warnings of Putin's plans to invade Ukraine. Despite this, the Russian President's behaviour seems to have taken the world by surprise. In fact, only a few days before Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, some political analysts had widely dismissed the idea of an attack. They claimed that the costs were too high and that a large-scale operation did not fit into Moscow’s cost-benefit calculus.

Rational-choice approaches tend to rely on a cost-benefit analysis of foreign policy. They fail to acknowledge that decision-making processes are also shaped by the psychology of those making the decisions.

Rational-choice approaches fail to acknowledge that psychological factors also shape decision-making processes

Decades of research have shown how political leaders' psychology shapes foreign policy decision-making. Personality traits, motivations, and belief systems can significantly impact judgments. This can help explain the foreign policy, and policy fiascos, of such leaders' countries, and their decisions to escalate and de-escalate conflict.

Assessing Putin’s belief system

Unlike psychologists, researchers rarely have direct access to the people they want to evaluate; in this case, policymakers. To overcome this, scholars examine speeches, interviews and other verbal material to assess leaders and explain their behaviour. The way politicians talk can reveal significant information about their personal beliefs, character traits and ideological motivations.

My study captures Putin's psychological profile using the Operational Code Analysis framework. I took a previous study assessing Putin’s beliefs from 2000–2016, and compared it to his two major speeches on Ukraine, on 21 and 23 February, the week preceding the attack.

My main objective was to determine whether Putin’s behaviour can, in part, be explained by a change of beliefs about the political context. The February speeches are crucial because, before them, Moscow had on several occasions denied its intention to invade Ukraine. In these two key speeches, however, Putin changed his tone, and openly presented his true intentions. Thus, he offered us a clearer picture of what was really going on inside his head.

A drastic change in Putin’s outlook

General analysis of the results shows a drastic change in Putin’s beliefs about world affairs. His overall diagnosis of the political climate, and his perception of other political actors, became increasingly hostile. My results also reveal how Putin’s confidence in achieving his fundamental political goals progressively weakened.

In comparison with the years before the attack, Putin's perception of how far he could predict the political future diminished. What's more, any sense that he could control historical developments and political outcomes dwindled substantially. Instead, Putin began to attribute a greater role to chance.

Putin's beliefs changed drastically between the earlier study and my own. He grew more hostile, and considerably more pessimistic

Putin's beliefs about himself, and about his position in the world, also changed drastically. His views on the best strategy for achieving political goals shifted from a cooperative approach to a conflictual one. Rather than exercising power through cooperative means, he began to employ combative methods.

Putin stopped believing it was helpful to make promises. Rather, he began to consider threats, punishments and opposition as the best strategies to achieve his goals.

Whether these perceptions are based on objective facts is up for debate. However, my results show that Putin's beliefs about the political world changed radically. Putin started to perceive the world as increasingly hostile towards Russia, and began to doubt he would achieve his goals using cooperative tactics. This gives weight to the idea that Putin felt increasingly threatened by the political context, and sensed his influence in world affairs had weakened. This, subsequently, led Putin to believe that the best response to any threat was a hostile one.

Why do political leaders change?

My analysis helps explain Putin's decision to wage war. What is less clear, however, is why his change in outlook occurred.

Research shows that changes in leaders' beliefs can result from foreign policy learning. In interstate rivalries, for example, leaders are regularly exposed to rivalrous interaction. Through this, they learn about the rival, the conflict, and the consequences of their behaviour. Thus, we can surmise that Putin's decision to invade Ukraine may be linked to a process of learning. In a nutshell, Putin learned to be less optimistic about achieving his goals. And he learned that less cooperative strategies and tactics were a more effective way to address the conflict with Ukraine, and with the West.

It is likely that a process of learning brought about this change, alongside the impact of Putin's concentrated power throughout his long time in office

Personality-related factors can also shed light on leaders’ foreign policy shifts. For instance, Kaarbo indicates that while several factors influenced the decision to invade Ukraine, Putin's concentrated power is crucial to deciphering his state of mind, and how it may have changed during his long time in office.

Leaders’ psychology matters

Explaining why a country decides to escalate conflict is not a straightforward endeavour. We must take into account a range of factors. However, the current Russia-Ukraine war shows how basing analyses solely on geopolitical or rational-choice motives fails to explain why states behave in ways that seem to defy mere cost-benefit analysis.

If we want an all-encompassing explanation, it is essential to bring psychological factors into the equation.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Consuelo Thiers
Consuelo Thiers
Postdoctoral Researcher, Ghent Institute for International and European Studies, Ghent University

Consuelo holds a PhD from Edinburgh University and a Master’s degree in International Studies from Universidad de Chile.

Her research interests include enduring interstate rivalries, political psychology, foreign policy analysis, and political leaders’ psychological assessment.

She also has a particular interest in the foreign policies of Latin America.

Consuelo's research focuses on the application of psychologically oriented and agent-based approaches to understanding decision-making in international relations.

Currently, she is particularly keen to conduct research that helps expand the understanding of the role of emotions in shaping policymakers’ decisions in international conflicts.

She tweets @Consuelothiers

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2 comments on “The psychology of war: analysing Putin's motivations”

  1. I am very skeptical on assessing somebody's believe system and perception from such a distant. However, Ms Thiers argument aligns with the claims made by Angus Roxbury in his insightful book, "The Strongman". After numerous attempts to establish peaceful and prolific relations with the West, and to have Russia treated as an equal partner by other countries, Putin noticed that the West has no interest in having Russia as a peer and started playing hard ball since his famous discourse on European security in 2007.

  2. As an intelligence analyst specialising in Russia and CIS I disagree on many accounts with the above research. Trolando Lero has put it accurately: "...skeptical on assessing somebody's believe system and perception from such a distant". Russian analysts tend to be more on point with their judgement. Greg Yudin is one of the best to reflect on political psychology and anthropology.

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