Despite the failures they have suffered in this war, Russians’ confidence in their own abilities remains quite high.
In November 2021, shortly before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, CIA Director William Burns visited Moscow to meet with senior Russian officials. He warned them that if Russia opted to attack Ukraine, the West would respond decisively, and that the consequences for Russia would be serious. According to the American ambassador who was present at this meeting, the Russians reacted to the warning very confidently. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council, said that the Russian army had been so modernized that it could now challenge even the US, and for them "it would not be a problem to do what they want to do." Burns, upon his return to the US, reported to Biden that Putin had indeed decided to take Ukraine, and that the Russians were absolutely confident that they would win a quick victory.
Reading these testimonies published by journalists from The New York Times last December, I couldn't help but smile skeptically. This was not only because I knew that a large part of that "modernized" Russian army, which was supposed to quickly achieve victory, is already resting in the ground or had been turned into scrap metal. Instead, the reason was that the Russians had spent their history stepping on rakes. Modern science knows these “rakes” as the overconfidence effect, whereby people typically overestimate their abilities and the accuracy of their conclusions, and consider themselves better than other people in many respects. For example, in one study, 94% of college teachers rated their teaching skills higher than average, and in another, about 80% of drivers similarly rated their ability to drive a car. There are a huge number of similar studies that reached identical conclusions - that we tend to overestimate ourselves in many parameters, which creates a basis for overly confident behavior. This self-confidence has been the cause of many failed wars, bankruptcies, failed projects, and unsuccessful marriages: by overestimating their own strength, people take on tasks that are beyond their capabilities, and even failures do not always make them reassess their self-esteem.
what will happen to this Russian self-assurance
The behavior of Russians on the eve of the war does not surprise me. It is so typical that it will probably become a new classic example for textbooks that talk about the effect of excessive confidence. Currently, the question of and what it is preparing for us in the future is more relevant.
Common sense tells us that when reality begins to contradict our confident conclusions, we change them. But the human mind has its own rules - it perceives information that confirms our beliefs and desires more readily than information that contradicts them. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that despite the failures that Russians have experienced in this war, their confidence in their own abilities still remains at a fairly high level. They simply ignore the unpleasant truth and focus instead on the accomplishments that do exist. Moreover, let's not forget that they constantly maintain their level of confidence by talking about the hundredth destroyed Patriot and the three hundredth HIMARS, so there is every reason to believe that such "psychotherapy" does not allow Russian self-assurance to fall below the critical level after which their faith in their own abilities is shaken.
Even if further failures at the front shake Russian confidence and force Russians to see the true level of their own strength, this does not guarantee that their desire to fight will disappear. The human mind has another interesting tendency called the "sunk cost effect" - the desire to continue to invest efforts and resources into something which we have already invested a good deal in. This tendency can lead to irrational behavior, because often the situation is such that what we have invested in is already unsuccessful, so investing in it further makes no sense, as it will only lead to new losses. A rational person would stop in this case, as they do not want to continue suffering losses. However, our tendency to keep following sunk costs pushes us towards new investments, because we do not want to admit that past investments have gone "nowhere." We do not want to lose them, so we continue to invest in a failed endeavor, hoping that we will still eventually succeed.
The same unwillingness to acknowledge that everything invested in this war was in vain may push Russians to further their efforts. Voluntary withdrawal would be equivalent to acknowledging that hundreds of thousands of lives, huge amounts of money, and massive efforts which they spent were all in vain. Ordinary citizens may ask what their sons gave their lives for, and what they lost their wealth and the opportunity to communicate normally with the civilized world for. The unwillingness to acknowledge that all these losses were in vain may even push ordinary Russians to continue investing in this war to the end, no matter what that end may be. Of course, propaganda will support this impulse, and the population will consume it willingly, as it will require informational "doping" to continue investing in an endeavor that promises them little reward.
Therefore, it makes no sense to expect that further failures will undermine Russians’ confidence to the point that it forces them to stop. They may simply change their motivation for the war and thus seek to justify their lost lives and efforts. Does this change anything for us? Hardly. In any case, we need to do our job and not expect those failures that still await the Russians to make them see the light, give up their plans for aggression, and sit down at the negotiating table to achieve a just peace.
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