The New York Times reports today that President Putin’s gestures toward Ukraine seem conflicting: he talks of peace while sending arms. Grasping a foreign leader’s intentions is notoriously challenging precisely because most leaders give conflicting signals. That’s why judging them by their prior patterns can easily mislead. Let me use some history to explain.
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, followed by President Kennedy’s poor performance at a summit meeting, Nikita Khrushchev concluded that Jack Kennedy was a lightweight, easy to dominate in foreign affairs. Khrushchev was surprised one year later when Kennedy stood firm against Soviet missiles in Cuba. If President Putin is unwise, he will make Khrushchev’s same mistake, basing his future moves in Ukraine on an interpretation of Obama’s past behavior. He will consider Obama’s reluctance to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, his taking a back-seat role on Libya, and his backing down over Syria. He will conclude that Obama lacks the nerve for a fight. But if Putin is wiser, he will look into Obama’s behavior at pattern breaks.
Most of the time statesmen misread their enemies, bungling their policies and blundering into wars. One reason for this is that leaders simply observe a pattern of past behavior and assume that the enemy will continue on that path. But tracing patterns often fails because our pattern selections are usually biased. Hawkish advisors invariably select evidence of an enemy’s past aggression and conclude that he will remain aggressive in current and future crises. Dovish advisors, in contrast, will locate evidence of the enemy’s prior conciliation and assume that he can be brought around to reason. Both types of arguments were made about Hitler in the 1930s, and that time the hawks were correct. But both views were also made of Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that time the doves got it right.
What this should tell us is that focusing on an enemy’s past behavior is not the best basis for prediction. Patterns are important, but they can only show us how people have behaved; they cannot tell us why they behaved that way in the first place. To get at someone’s underlying drivers, we need a smarter short cut.
The leaders who read their rivals best focus not just on prior patterns, but more on pattern breaks. During dramatic episodes, when routine norms are completely overturned, individuals tend to reveal what drives them most. Crucial pattern breaks often involve times of crisis, when the leader, his regime, or his nation is at risk. The statesmen who scrutinize their enemies’ behavior at these pattern-breaking moments learn powerful lessons about what will likely come.
For example, when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power, many wondered whether his talk of Glasnost (openness in Russian society) was rhetoric or real. Then came Chernobyl, a pattern-breaking moment when the Soviet Ukraine was at risk. Until this moment, Russian leaders were notorious for their capacity to conceal any inconvenient truths. Yet rather than deny the disaster as his predecessors might have done, Gorbachev not only admitted what had happened, he invited American medical experts into Russia to help treat those suffering from radiation burns. His behavior at that pattern break showed much about his true intentions.
If today's Ukraine crisis had a pattern-breaking moment, it occurred when popular protests ousted President Yanukovych. Although the turbulence that followed did not threaten Putin’s power, it did reduce it. Before then, Russia wielded sway in Ukraine’s capitol. Though unaccustomed to the force of people power, Putin quickly turned that same factor to his advantage. He rallied popular opinion to support Russian annexation of Crimea. At best this shows crafty opportunism; it does not evidence reckless aggression. Above all, it exposed his desire to expand Russian influence in its borderlands.
President Obama’s own behavior in his gravest pattern-breaking moment suggests that when he perceives an issue as essential, he will fight for it—and at considerable cost. For months and even years before the U.S. government shutdown in 2013, Republicans charged Obama as a weak leader who could be rolled. Yet when America’s debt crisis reached a pattern-breaking moment and a deadline for default approached, Obama hung tough and refused to budge. He would not even negotiate. We all know the result: a total Republican surrender.
Russia’s ongoing agitation in Ukraine makes it seem as though Putin were adhering to one of Vladimir Lenin's alleged sayings, that national expansion is like a bayonet drive: "If you strike mush, keep going." But if Putin reasons based on Obama’s prior patterns and meddles too much in Ukraine, he ought not be surprised if he meets stiffer opposition than expected. And then he should remember the other half of Lenin’s adage about national expansion: “If you strike steel, pull back.”
 Neil MacFarquhar, “Conflicting Gestures From Putin to Ukraine Leaders,” The New York Times, June 23, 2014. See also Andrey Krasnoschekov, “Putin Is Just Getting Started in Ukraine,” The Daily Beast, June 19, 2014.