Bluffers Assume Everyone Else is Also Bluffing

”Nobody thought Putin was going to invade last night.”


There's a consistent pattern to these events and they begin with the assumption that the other side must be bluffing about the use of force because they couldn't possibly be willing to disrupt the peace and risk war.

A day after U.S. intelligence said there would be no Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s troops started coming over the border.

There was good reason to think Putin wouldn’t do it. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State John Kerry that Russia respected the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. U.S. intelligence assessments concluded that the 150,000-man Russian military exercises announced by Putin on Wednesday were not preparations for an invasion of Ukraine because no medical units accompanied the troops. And Russian and U.S. diplomats were still working on Iran and Syrian diplomacy. All of this followed a successful Winter Olympic games for Putin’s Russia.

Until Friday, no one anticipated a Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory.”Nobody thought Putin was going to invade last night,” one Senate aide who works closely on the Ukraine crisis. “He has the G8 summit in Sochi coming up, no one really saw this kind of thing coming.”

Really? Because Putin is worried about the G8 summit. US intelligence assumed Saddam was bluffing. He wasn't. Then it assumed he was bluffing again and turned that into the narrative. Now the assumption is that Iran is bluffing.

And Russia? Obviously bluffing. So long as we don't pressure it and force it to bluff harder.

We have a very weak hand,” Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest, tells The Daily Beast.

If anything, Saunders added, President Obama’s warning to Putin that “there will be costs” to the incursion might force Putin to dig in to his position, lest he be seen as caving to American pressure.

“It’s a mistake of the administration coming out I the way that it has trying to discourage Russian military action because they are in essence waving a red cloth in front of a bull,” Saunders said.

So far the red flag has consisted of a mild condemnation of the invasion of a sovereign country that the US has security agreements with.

The thinking here is the essence of the problem. Saunders still doesn't get it. He's thinking that Putin is reacting to us when we're reacting to Putin. Putin doesn't care what Obama says or about G8. He's following national interests in the most direct path possible.

The thinking that Putin is still bluffing and that he didn't really mean to invade and that he will leave if we don't upset him. That is how we ended up in WW2 because the assumption was that Hitler didn't mean it, he wasn't really going to go all the way. Not after doing so well on the world stage.

The point isn't to compare Putin to Hitler, but to point out that we've never gotten over those fallacies. Bluffers assume that everyone else is bluffing too. Pacifists assume that everyone else is really a pacifist and is faking hostility.

There's a high price to pay for forgetting history and human nature.