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Social Psychology Provides Insights for Defusing the Ukraine Crisis

Classical attribution theory holds the key.

Key points

  • Russia experts such as former CIA executive George Beebe believe that Russian and U.S. leaders seriously misunderstand each other's motives.
  • Misunderstanding and distrust lead both Russia and the U.S. to perceive each side's defensive military moves as aggressive provocations.
  • A tendency to view our own motives as driven by external forces, but others' motives as character flaws, likely underlies this problem.
  • Such "fundamental attribution errors" might be reduced by framing Russian behavior as a response to external forces vs. national character flaws.

When I worked at CIA, my boss, George Beebe, seemed to know more psychology than I did, even though he was a trained Russian linguist and intelligence analyst, not a professional psychologist like me.

George may not have always used the “correct” psychology jargon, but he deeply understood key subjects, especially in the realm of social psychology: particularly attribution theory (more about that later).

Today, George is a Russia specialist at the prestigious Center for the National Interest, and regularly travels to Russia, appears on Russian TV, and has met with senior Russian officials, such as Foreign Minister Lavrov.

From his current work and experience as head of Russia analysis at CIA, George understands the Russian mindset (to the extent there is such a thing), about as well as any American. And right now, George is worried about Ukraine. Very worried.

In a recent article published in The National Interest, George asserts that Russian and American leaders profoundly misunderstand each other, mutually interpreting fundamentally defensive military preparations as evidence of aggressive military intent. For instance, while U.S. policymakers believe they expanded NATO up to Russia’s borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a purely defensive measure to consolidate democracy and deter Soviet-era-style aggression, Kremlin leaders interpret those same moves as evidence that the U.S. and its NATO allies are intent on crippling, if not overthrowing, the Russian regime.

Although George’s recent article never uses the phrase, these mutual perceptions of mistrust could be a textbook example of “fundamental attribution error," a term coined by social psychologist Lee Ross to describe mistakes that we make in attributing motives to other people’s behavior. An example of attribution error in the current context is that we believe our own behaviors (such as placing NATO troops on or near Russia’s borders in countries like Latvia and Poland) are forced upon us by external factors (Russian military rebuilding in the Putin era) while attributing Russia’s military moves to fundamental internal personality traits (Putin and other Kremlin leaders are by nature, aggressors).

Conversely, Kremlin leaders, who remember existential threats to Russia from Napoleon and Hitler are inclined—with some historical justification—to view Western leaders as having internally driven territorial ambitions on Russian soil.

According to Beebe, these kinds of perceptual distortions on both sides have played a big part in getting us into the current crisis in Ukraine, where for example, the West believes Russia, possessed of an imperialistic character flaw, is up to its old expansionist tricks in Ukraine, while the Russians believe they must draw a sharp line in the sand to prevent further eastward expansion of an inherently aggressive NATO.

Although I hold a significantly harsher view of Russian motives than George does, I agree with him that perceptions are dangerously distorted on both sides, and that even if—no, especially if—Russia invades Ukraine, a hard reset of Western perceptions of Russia is badly needed. For instance, Putin’s provocative deployment of “peacekeepers” to break-away regions in eastern Ukraine, whether ultimately leading to full scale war or not, might motivate more non-NATO European countries, in order to avoid a similar fate, to move closer to NATO, which in turn could elevate Russian fears about NATO and appetite for military action near their borders, fueling still more angst in the West. Such a volatile upward spiral of East-West military confrontation, propelled by our attributions of Russia’s behavior (and theirs of us) is unlikely to end well.

Before you conclude I’ve just drunk some Russian Kool-Aid, I want you to do a thought experiment.

Imagine that 30 years ago, the U.S lost the cold war, and as a result three of our states, say, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas not only seceded from the U.S. but promptly joined a Russian-lead Warsaw Pact, a military alliance arrayed against the U.S. Then further imagine that close allies Britain, France, Germany, Denmark and Norway switched from being military allies in NATO to military opponents in the Communist Warsaw Pact.

This is exactly what happened to Russia when Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia split off and joined NATO and allies Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, (and what was then Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia) followed suit and ran into NATO’s embrace.

Now, fast forward to today and imagine that Canada and Russia are seriously discussing Canadian membership in the Warsaw Pact. What would we do?

Would American military pressure on Canada grow out of an inherently aggressive character, or sound defensive thinking driven by external events?

Makes you think about the reasons that people think what they think, doesn’t it?


Ross, L. (1977). "The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process". In Berkowitz, L. (ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 10. New York: Academic Press. pp. 173–220

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