Main Image Credit A column of Russian tanks near Mariupol, Ukraine, 23 March 2022. Courtesy of ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows the essential value of looking ahead to medium- and long-term strategic trends.
In foresight terms, the war in Ukraine is known as a ‘grey rhino’ – a high-probability, high-impact development that took shape over a long period but was largely ignored. Even so, the war has come as a shock, and thrown much prior consensus about international affairs to the wind as officials and observers alike point to the start of a new era. However, there is a danger that imaginative, long-term strategic thinking is forgotten in the face of such a pressing problem. But when a crisis of these proportions emerges, we must make strategy that also looks at the bigger picture.
In the weeks since the invasion, observers and officials have attempted to assess Moscow’s goals and psychology, and suggested ways in which the war could evolve. In some cases, probabilities are added to scenarios to give an illusion of ‘measurability’, including, for example, giving Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons a probability of up to 20%. But not only is this highly misleading, it is not foresight: it is just a listing of possibilities or simplistic prediction-making that very quickly becomes out of date.
Moreover, instead of thinking about the future looking ahead into the 21st century, analysts often look back in time. The crisis has spurred the revival – yet again – of a stock set of simplistic historical analogies with the Cold War or the Second World War. The use of analogies is a common phenomenon in times of crisis because they help to create a comforting illusion of déjà-vu and to accelerate decision-making.
Yet analogies are usually incomplete and misleading, turning history into a sacred tale that short-circuits policy debate. Moreover, history does not repeat itself, and causalities are therefore misidentified. Continuity and repetition are expected – change and difference less so. This creates blind spots, laying the groundwork for more surprises in the future.
Formulating and then implementing a strategy requires a different approach, one that maps out our own objectives and how to reach them. And a really good strategist considers all the options, including potential obstacles and blind spots, possible consequences and outcomes of actions and reactions – a process called strategic foresight.
Analogies are usually incomplete and misleading, turning history into a sacred tale that short-circuits policy debate
Rather than doling out terrifying possibilities or long wished for outcomes, foresight adopts a different approach: it seeks to think through under which conditions proposed scenarios would materialise. There are several benefits to the foresight process. First, as a process of causality, it helps to identify both continuity and change. It identifies longer-term “megatrends” that do not change dramatically in the short term – demographics, for instance – and possible game changers. These “game changers” can be active, including the deliberate efforts of governments and other actors, and also passive, what we might call the opposition of events, the fog and friction of strategy. It helps decision-makers identify their actual room for manoeuvre, and its limits. Armed with this insight, they can then build a strategy. Simply, foresight that does not help decision-makers to make decisions is not foresight.
Second, foresight can mitigate unhelpful views about other actors in the crisis, in this case the common view that Putin is “irrational”. This too is a common feature in the discussion about Russia: Western commentators and even officials have repeatedly psychologically “diagnosed” him at times of crisis, for instance in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. But this creates an analytical dead end: an irrational adversary will not understand normal causalities the way we do and be unpredictable – which frees us from attempting to engage either with the way that adversary may think or act.
In this case, it removes any sense that the Russian leadership may be acting strategically, even deliberately with a longer-term and bigger picture in mind. Interestingly, Moscow’s foresight – which has long been pessimistic about the trajectory of international affairs through the 2020s – is almost entirely absent from our thinking.
Foresight exists, therefore, to inform our decision-makers as agents of this process, and whose decisions will shape the future of this crisis. Its purpose is to identify what is under our control, and what we can, and what we cannot, do. It is a process of agency, tied to action. And this is where its last benefit lies: it calms the mind. Because it maps out the space of options, it creates a sense of control, and thereby frees the brain from the amygdala hijack. Of course, ideally foresight is done before the crisis occurs: this way, the brain freeze will either not occur at all or at a much lower rate.
The Road Ahead
We must recognise and go beyond our usual well-worn paths. Euro-Atlantic discourse on Russia has a long tradition of wishful thinking, of ignoring the ‘grey rhinos’ of Moscow’s strategic agenda, and instead mainstreaming ‘black swan’ scenarios (low-probability, high-impact events) such as Moscow shifting its policies to implement reform and seek reconciliation with the West. From the first days of this crisis, much of the discussion has simply echoed that of previous crises, with commentators sketching out possible scenarios of Moscow’s defeat and subsequent international isolation, and Putin’s fall. Perhaps such events may come to pass. But this is not foresight, nor a basis for strategy.
Euro-Atlantic discourse on Russia has a long tradition of wishful thinking
Instead, good foresight would approach this crisis by examining under what conditions Russia would escalate or negotiate. What would trigger Moscow to introduce national mobilisation, for instance, and what might this look like? What are the effects of Moscow’s wider international diplomacy? What is the impact in the summer and autumn of rising commodity prices?
Foresight introduces analysis of complex cause-and-effect processes to thinking about these questions and others. This includes ‘what ifs’ – what if we or someone else acts in a certain way – and ‘what if nots’ – the costs of inaction and assessing what if something we expect to happen does not. Furthermore, foresight also inserts a clear sense of linear time into our thinking: scenarios should not only include ‘megatrends’ and ‘game-changing events’, but offer a chronological sense of time that offers multiple entry points for decision-makers.
While the immediate horizon and how the fighting is brought to an end is important, it is essential to also think about what late-2022/early 2023 looks like and the medium- (2027) and longer- (2030) terms might look like. Foresight not only helps us to respond to the current crisis but prepares us for the next grey rhino coming our way.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Andrew Monaghan
Senior Associate Fellow; Founding Director, Russia Research Network