Putin’s operational code and strategic decision-making in Russia

Authored by: Graeme P. Herd

Routledge Handbook of Russian Security

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  January  2019

Print ISBN: 9780815396710
eBook ISBN: 9781351181242
Adobe ISBN:


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Though we are not direct participants in strategic decision-making in Russia, by identifying the belief systems of Russian decision makers we are able to discern how they structure and weigh alternative courses of action, calculate risk and formulate strategies (Dyson and Parent, 2017, 2; George, 1969, 191). Nathan Leites, in his seminal The Operational Code of the Politburo (1951), argued that decision-making and negotiating behaviour within the 14-man Soviet Politburo was guided by an ‘operational code’ – the rules, causal relationships and fundamental assumptions which were believed to be necessary for effective political action and which guided Bolshevik interactions with the outside world (Dyson and Parent, 2017; Forsberg and Pursiainen, 2017; George, 1969; Leites, 1953). Such beliefs are usually internally consistent and logically coherent. Leites identified Soviet diagnostic and prescriptive beliefs – such as ‘politics is a war’, ‘push to the limit’, ‘there are no neutrals’, ‘avoid adventures’, ‘resist from the start’, ‘retreat before superior force’ and ‘war by negotiation’ – and explained this through three motivational images: (1) the question of kto-kovo (‘who beats or destroys whom’), (2) the fear of annihilation and (3) the principle of the pursuit of power (Walker, 1983, 180). Black-and-white Manichean thinking is also a feature of post-Soviet politics: ‘Whoever is not for Gaydar’s reforms is for a return to communism’, ‘whoever is not for the dispersal of the Supreme Soviet is for the Red-Browns’, ‘whoever is not for Yeltsin for president is for Zyuganov’, ‘whoever is not for Putin is for the terrorists’, and ‘whoever is not for Navalny for mayor is for the Kremlin and Sobyanin’ (Vishnevsky, 2017). In short, the classic zero-sum Bolshevik ‘whoever is not with us is against us!’ prevails. Building on the work of Leites – operationalizing it so to speak – George identified two sets of beliefs – philosophical and instrumental. Philosophical beliefs are attributional. They relate to the attributes we assign to people, events and situations, to how fundamentally hostile or benign we understand the world to be and how much control we perceive ourselves to have over our environment. Instrumental beliefs are prognostic in that they relate to what we understand needs to be done – in terms of cooperative or conflictual means – to achieve our preferred policy outcomes.

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