Skip to content
Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia

On Ukraine and Misperception

The Biden administration can diffuse the crisis by making some key announcements.

Words: Chris Fettweis
Pictures: Yaroslav Konyk

As the innermost circles of the former Soviet Union descend into chaos fueled by misperception, it is hard not to think of the intellectual giant who passed away last month. Robert Jervis was a longtime professor of international relations, one whose wisdom would have certainly been helpful to those policymakers tasked with the unenviable job of steering their countries through this crisis.

One of Jervis’s many important insights was that misperception is the rule, not the exception, in international politics. Leaders find it very hard to understand one another.  And in most cases, those misperceptions make the other side appear much more belligerent than it intends to be. We know we are peaceful and hate war, but we can never be too sure about them.

The crisis brewing over Ukraine and now Kazakhstan is a textbook case of misperception in international politics. Both the United States and Russia today see the other side as the aggressor, and both think they are merely reacting to the provocations of the other side. Such misperceptions threaten to lead to quite bad outcomes that no one wants, as has happened so many times throughout history.


It is difficult to put oneself in another’s shoes, but to diffuse this crisis, a little empathy is necessary on both sides. We should be under no illusion regarding how the United States would react to what it perceived as foreign interference in close proximity, were the situation reversed. Had the Soviet Union won the Cold War and extended its influence across the Atlantic, Washington would not be rational in its response. Although the chances of a Russian invasion of the United States would be slim, the United States would be acting as if it were a certainty. If Mexico or Canada — or what is more applicable to today’s situation, both — were threatening to join the Warsaw Pact, US troops would be in their capital tomorrow. We would not be receptive to Russia’s suggestions for a negotiated solution.

We would be paranoid.

The crisis brewing over Ukraine and now Kazakhstan is a textbook case of misperception in international politics, where both the US and Russia see the other side as the aggressor. Such misperceptions, however, threaten to lead to quite bad outcomes that no one wants.

The mere fact that President Vladimir Putin’s paranoia is understandable does not make it acceptable, of course, nor does it justify military action. It does, however, mean that the United States should keep in mind the Russian mindset as negotiations move forward. In any international interaction, the stronger side has the greatest effect on the outcome. The United States is by far the stronger side in the US–Russia relationship, so it can have the most say in what happens. The stronger power has far less to lose than the weaker if things go wrong. It is US power, more than any other factor, that makes Putin so afraid.

Empathy is difficult in international politics, but disaster often follows policies made without it. Leaders in Washington never saw what motivated Saddam Hussein, for instance, and convinced themselves that he was a threat.  And we do a terrible job of understanding Iran. In order to get out of this crisis, we have to do a better job understanding where Putin is coming from. In other words, we have to make empathy a tool of our strategy.


It is possible to get out of spirals of misperception. The United States should remember that although we cannot control what the Russians think, we can control what we do.  The United States can diffuse this crisis not with belligerence and deterrence, which will only feed the Kremlin’s paranoia, but with concession. Such actions will not be costly, since Washington has no interest at stake in either Ukraine or Kazakhstan. Very little that happens in those far-away lands will affect US security or prosperity. The stakes for Russia, though, are much higher.

The Biden administration cannot control Putin, but it can take steps to decrease his misperception and paranoia. Announcing that Ukraine will never be in NATO would be a good place to start. Perhaps Biden fears being labeled an appeaser; perhaps he wants to keep options open for some future date. Regardless, making such an announcement now would bring benefits that would far outweigh these trivial costs. It is simply not in the US interest to add Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan or any other country to the alliance. Affirming that reality would go a long way to defusing this crisis.

Biden could make it clear that such a policy would not be a kowtow to Putin, but an action taken in the interest of the United States. Doing so would be a first step toward ending this completely unnecessary, irrational crisis. Putin for his part needs to understand that his bluster and threats will backfire, if indeed his desire is to keep Ukraine out of the European orbit. He will be able to contemplate such realities more rationally once the immediate crisis has passed.

Basic insights from international political psychology, such as using concessions instead of aggression and being empathetic to another state’s security concerns, can help negotiators come to an agreement and avoid a war that no one wants. Jervis is no longer here to help, so it is up to those he taught and influenced to carry the torch.

Chris Fettweis is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Tulane University, where he teaches courses on US foreign policy and international relations. His most recent book, Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in US Foreign Policy (2018) discusses empathy in international politics.

Chris Fettweis

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.