Putin and Putnam: The Unethical Rationality of Vladimir Putin Viewed Through a Game Theory Perspective

October 2023 No Comments

Speaker: LTC Nathan Colvin (US Army)

Date: 11 October 2023

Speaker Series Summary

In current discourse, Putin has been described as an irrational actor, choosing to commit armed aggression toward non-NATO countries even when the negative side effects of his actions seem to outweigh the benefits. To explore these assumptions, LTC Nathan Colvin developed a three-player simultaneous game to give an alternative perspective to Putin’s decision-making calculus. In this game, the three actors are Putin as the autocrat and primary decision maker, the Russian domestic audience, and the western liberal world order (LWO). LTC Colvin forces two choices upon each: first Putin chooses whether to compete or to engage in conflict, then the Russian people choose to support Putin or not, and then the LWO responds by engaging or remaining neutral. Ultimately, there are eight potential worlds from this decision tree. When the game was run considering what was best for Russia as a state, competition without conflict was the most reasonable and outcome. However, when Putin’s goal of staying in power was considered along with Putin’s tight control of Russian levers of power, conflict short of nuclear warfare was the most logical outcome for Russia. While the game outcomes showed that Putin would fare better when choosing conflict over competition, it showed that Article 5 remains a deterrent to protect NATO countries from Russian aggression. Through this exercise, LTC Colvin is challenging the idea that is a Putin a bad strategist and instead suggests that Putin is playing an entirely different strategic game.

To read more about LTC Colvin’s game and his analysis of Putin’s rational decision making, please read his article “Your Adversary is Rational, Just Not the Way You Want Them to Be.”

Speaker Session Recording

Briefing Materials

Biography:  LTC Nathan Colvin is a Public Policy Fellow at the College of William and Mary. He is in the fourth year of his Ph.D. study at Old Dominion University in International Studies, with concentrations in Cooperation & Conflict and Modeling & Simulation. He is also studying Russian language and culture at Ohio State University. As an Army researcher, LTC Colvin led the development of federated, large-scale simulation research projects on the future of warfare. Later, he became the Chief of the Joint and Multinational Wargaming branch and worked across services from dozens of nations. His previous research at the School of Advanced Military Studies in 2013-2014 used a Complex Adaptive Systems approach to understand how exponential technological growth could contribute to expanding transnational technocracies with simultaneous cultural balkanization. His current dissertation looks at the role Stability Policing plays in Multi-Domain Operation.


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