One year later, what has the world learned about conflict from the war in Ukraine? In an interview with ProMarket’s Walter Frick, Chris Blattman says the answer is perhaps, more than anything, how important reputation and signaling can be. The West has gone to great lengths to signal its resolve to future adversaries, and that signaling has played a major role in the conflict so far.
On February 24, 2022, Russia shocked the world by mounting a massive invasion of Ukraine, including an attempt to capture Kyiv. The decision surprised many analysts, who had expected either no invasion at all or at least a smaller one focused just on Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
The invasion came as Chris Blattman, an economist and political scientist at the University of Chicago, was preparing to publish a book called “Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.” At the time, Blattman’s work helped me make sense of Putin’s decision to invade, and I wrote about it in a piece for Quartz, where I worked at the time.
His starting point is that war is rare because it is expensive: Fighting is usually worse for both sides than negotiating some sort of agreement. The challenge, then, is to explain why wars sometimes happen anyway—despite the tremendous costs. And Blattman offered five reasons, which I summarized:
Unchecked interests. War is more likely when the people in charge don’t pay the price for it. That’s almost always true to an extent, but some leaders are more or less insulated from the costs of conflict.
Uncertainty. Neither side knows for sure how strong the other is. One side could be bluffing about its strength or resolve, so sometimes the other side calls.
Commitment problems. When one side is growing stronger, the other may want to attack before its adversary gets too powerful. The growing power might promise not to attack later on when it’s the dominant power, but that commitment can’t be trusted.
Misperceptions. Decision makers are overconfident and don’t understand how their adversaries think.
Intangible incentives. Sometimes people care about things that can’t be bargained for and go beyond costs and benefits—like vengeance, glory, or freedom (Frick, 2022).
Each of these can arguably explain a piece of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But as the war enters its second year, I wanted to check in with Blattman and see what he’d learned from it. After all, his core thesis is that wars are rare because they’re so costly—yet the war in Ukraine seems, tragically, to have no end in sight.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
ProMarket: In “Why We Fight,” you note that most wars are short, because information gets revealed about who’s stronger, how hard they’re willing to fight etc. Once that information gets revealed, both sides know the other’s strength and have an incentive to bargain and end the conflict. A year later, the war in Ukraine is still going — why didn’t that happen here?
Blattman: Well, obviously it did: Putin has woken up to a large degree about what he’s facing. And I think the West and Ukraine actually discovered how resolved they were. (This is often a process of self discovery, not just convincing others.) So over the last year we have seen lots of information revealed about each side’s strength and resolve.
Still, it is kind of amazing how much uncertainty has persisted. For example, I think a lot of people wondered whether or not the European public would remain resolved through the winter, which affects Ukraine’s ability to keep fighting longer term. I think a lot of people are still just genuinely uncertain what the Russian mobilization will accomplish—like how effective will they be? What will happen in the U.S. with the Republican Congress? So a lot of information was revealed by the fighting, but a lot of uncertainty remains. The more uncertainty, the harder it is for two sides to come to a settlement.
What aspect of your explanation has proven most important in explaining the war in Ukraine?
It’s really reinforced the importance of reputational dynamics. When things are uncertain—including how others gauge my resolve to fight—I have an opportunity to send a signal, and I’m really paying attention not just to my adversary, but to all my future adversaries. And I’ve come to see the long war in Afghanistan in that light—as a U.S. effort in reputation building, and in refusing to withdraw not only because of the Taliban, but because of what Russia, or Iran, or ISIS, or China, or some other potential adversary would think. And so it was really a reputational concern. Reputation is so much more fundamental in world politics and even in relatively small conflicts—more so even than I appreciated when I was writing the book.
How is that reputational signaling playing out in Ukraine?
It’s really important to remember that this is not a fight between Ukraine and Russia, in isolation, or even between Ukraine and its Western supporters and Russia in isolation. This is a chance for the West to demonstrate to the next Russian regime and every other potential adversary in the world—every autocrat with ambitions of expanding their borders—that this invasion will not be tolerated. And so that gives the West an added incentive to draw a line in the sand here.
For example, when Putin decides to rattle the nuclear saber, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, well, can’t risk that; we really should settle lest this escalates.’ But when you think of it in terms of signaling reputation, this is just the first of many rivalries and if we back down when someone rattles the nuclear saber, that gives every other nation on the planet an incentive to acquire and threaten to use nuclear weapons in order to get the same treatment. And so the reputational dynamic actually increases our incentives to draw that line in the sand and say, ‘No, we’re going to show we’re willing to pay a great cost to ensure that Putin’s saber-rattling strategy will not pay off.’
In addition to game theory and economics, the book had a lot of psychological explanations for conflict. Are there aspects of this war that you think are not well explained in purely strategic terms?
Well, the thing I think we tend to underestimate is the role of ideals and ideology. Or we do it in a really specific way: we recognize the ideology of our enemies but not always of ourselves. So from day one, Putin and his regime’s grand ambitions were for Russian national glory or getting the empire back together or one of the dozen related stories you’ve heard. That’s why he’s fighting—for some larger goal and damn the costs. So we’re quick to recognize that and I don’t think we see the ideals and ideology on our own side that have contributed to the conflict. I happen to think they’re more noble, so maybe we should be able to recognize them and not feel bad about them, but we don’t even think about them.
I think the Ukrainians are fighting on principle. I think that Russia is strong enough to, with high probability, hold on to some of the territory. And there’s a sense in which if you ignore all the reputation-signaling considerations we just talked about, it actually makes sense to settle. And Ukraine has wholeheartedly rejected that, and said we’re just going to fight no matter what, because the idea of sacrificing territory to Russia is repugnant. And I actually think that’s the story of a lot of democratic wars. It was the story of the American Revolution—a refusal to back down against a much more powerful, tyrannical superpower on principle. I happen to admire that and share a lot of those principles. But maybe we should be more self aware and recognize that we find ourselves embroiled in a lot of long wars because we’re stubborn. We’ll fight on principle.
And one such principle here is the idea of “indivisibility.” Explain that.
Yeah, so there’s this old idea in the study of war that says one reason we fight is that we can’t divide the thing that we are fighting over. So there’s an ethnic homeland, or a sacred site, or something that simply can’t be split. Now, that’s not literally true. Nearly everything can be split, including most sacred sites and most ethnic homelands. We just don’t want to split them. We don’t want to split a temple or homeland because we don’t want our liberty or our sovereignty to be divisible or eroded. It becomes all or nothing. That’s the kind of ideal that I think lies behind a lot of long fights.
In the book you talk about how unchecked leaders can make war more likely because they don’t personally pay the costs. Last year you wrote that wars can drag on when leaders see their own survival as linked to the conflict. Is there an aspect where Putin feels he can’t quit, because his own survival is at stake?
Probably. I mean, nobody really knows what he’s thinking—even the most informed experts don’t have any idea what’s going on inside his head so everything here is speculation. But the fact that he officially declared these occupied areas Russian territory, it’s hard to walk back. That’s kind of a strategic move, saying, ‘Look, I’m going to tie my hands to some degree, I’m going to do something that is going to be really hard for me or a successor to walk back in order to give me leverage in my bargaining with you. And I’m going to do that at great risk.’ And so that’s the sense in which I think he has staked his regime on this. If he withdrew or reneged on that, and then went back to the 2014 borders, for example, would he be overthrown? I don’t know. He has a pretty tight grip on the country. But it does happen.
How do you see the war evolving going forward?
I started as an optimist thinking that this war was unlikely to happen. And if it did happen, it was likely to be quick. I stand by that in the sense that that’s almost always your best prediction. But it wasn’t true. The average war is maybe 100 days long. We’re way past that. And there are a few dynamics that make me think this could go on for a long time: this amazingly persistent uncertainty; these reputational dynamics; the fact that positions have hardened on both sides; the ideological and idealistic positions that both Ukrainians and Russians have taken. So I think continued fighting for the next year is quite likely. I think it’s possible they fight one another to a stalemate in that time, and then you get what’s a very common situation, which is sometimes called a frozen conflict. Which is to say that you’re not actively throwing bombs at one another, but there’s a sort of belligerent brinkmanship. Maybe the best example of that is Kashmir: no official peace agreement, no international recognition. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. The best case scenario is if Ukraine were strong enough to actually push Russia back to the 2014 borders, but I think that’s probably not going to happen.
What aspect of your work do you most wish policymakers in Ukraine, Europe and the U.S. would bear in mind over the next year?
I’d like to think the top brass in the Pentagon and the White House, and Zelensky and his advisers, and the foreign policy and military experts in European capitals are consciously aware of this strategic gamble they’re taking. That they are saying it’s worth the fight on principle and because it sends a clear message to future adversaries. And that they’re making very thoughtful and reasoned decisions to take these risks. I hope they’re not just doing it out of anger, or emotion or vengeance, or self interest or something—then I would be really scared. I’m optimistic that it’s the former but I worry a little bit about the latter.
You’re saying something like, ‘I think we should support Ukraine, in spite of this nuclear threat from Putin, in spite of the risks of this escalation, in spite of the pain that Europe will bear, in spite of the death that Ukrainians will experience, because I think it’s going to pay off in the future in a more stable world order where others don’t try the same thing.’ That’s the gamble, because that might not be right. That might not be the lesson that Xi Jinping internalizes. And then there’s the risk that things go the other way—that public support in America and Europe collapses, or if Ukrainians basically run out of military forces and personnel and Russia gets more than most people think it should get. That’s another aspect of the risk. I think it’s a reasonable gamble to make. I think I’d make it if I were in that position. But that’s why I hope the people in charge are actually thinking this through in this way.