In an attempt to explain bad social behavior, such as stealing and cheating, behavioral economist Dan Ariely proposes a Fudge Factor theory. The theory basically suggests most people lie, cheat and do other anti-social things only as much as these actions are not extreme enough to undermine their self-image as a “good person.” The distance between crossing the line and feeling bad about it is what is called a Fudge Factor.
Obviously, with invading and annexing parts of Ukraine’s territory, Putin has crossed the line. Is it possible Putin’s Fudge Factor tells him he shouldn’t feel too bad about it? Let us explore the possibility.
The obvious point to start with is identifying the Fudge Factor base level for a person like Putin. Enlightened by Machiavelli, one can argue politicians’ sensitivity to their own immoral behaviour is likely to be low. No matter if they lie, steal or kill, they might assume it is not that bad as long as it is done in “the name of the people.” Additionally, not only is Putin a politician, he is also a KGB-trained man, and history of this organisation gives us grounds to believe it could have boosted the Russian leader’s Fudge Factor significantly.
Still, even with the politician’s and the KGB “premium” on the Fudge Factor, Putin’s behaviour stands out: no other leader in the post-Cold War world attempted to so blatantly annex a territory of another state, not to mention it was done on a pretext copied almost word-for-word from Hitler’s justification for annexing Sudetenland.
Dr. Ariely suggests the Fudge Factor can be influenced by the situation one finds oneself in. Specifically, the immediate actions and reactions of social actors around us make us more or less likely to behave badly. If we think people around us cheat, and they don’t get condemned for it, we are more likely to cheat as well. If our own act of cheating has been disclosed, but people around us do not care, we are tempted to cheat again. In Putin’s case, it is likely that his peers - influential world political leaders, especially those of the West, could have impacted his “Fudge Factor.” This influence probably hasn’t been ennobling.
It could have started in the first years of Putin’s rule, with Western reaction to the Second Chechen War Putin launched in 1999. At that time, Putin was not in favour of peoples’ succession rights: he employed a regular army to suppress the separatist movement in Chechnya. Though complete and credible estimates of casualties are still not available, some tens - most likely, hundreds - of thousand people died as a result of Putin’s effort to keep Chechnya in the Russian Federation. The numerous independent reports of atrocities committed in this war are mind-blowing. The situation worried Western leaders at the time - they even suggested international financial assistance should be stopped for Russia if the government continued to kill civilians in Chechnya.
However, when The US government started their own war, the rhetoric changed. Putin supported American invasion of Afghanistan, and it seemed like a pact: You don’t mention civilians I kill, and I don’t mention those you kill. Indeed, Chechnya largely disappeared from the radar of Western politicians, though the state of human rights in the region remains dubious to say the least. De-facto, the West recognised it was ok to kill and torture government opponents and to lie about Chechen separatists’ affiliation with international terrorist groups, as long it was done within your “playground.” Putin might have perceived the situation as the West’s silent agreement to divide the world into spheres of influence.
Next, Western leaders themselves lied to start another war – to Putin, this just confirmed the arrangement already in place. However, quite soon he has got to realise the West is not going to adhere to what he perceived to be a gentlemen’s agreement: EU and NATO expanded to include most of Eastern Europe. In Putin’s mind, however, it might have looked like a revision of the spheres of influence.
At the end, he probably recognised Russia was still pretty weak and the West was strong - so he accepted the line defining his domain had to be moved to the East, to Ukraine’s Western border. The 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest seemed to confirm the new “demarcation.”
“You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country,” Putin allegedly told President Bush. “Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us." After this, NATO de-facto accepted his position and refused to offer a membership roadmap for Ukraine.
However, the victory of the second Maidan uprising in 2014 in Ukraine made Putin furious: the West recognised the right of people living on the territory of this “not-even-a-state” to reject Kremlin’s will. Putin was angry not only because he was losing his most important stronghold in Eastern Europe. He felt betrayed by his Western partners, as they seemed to be no longer willing to respect Russia’s “legitimate sphere of influence.”
As we know, furious people tend to act irrationally, and Putin was not an exception. In his aggression against Ukraine, he has almost no chances to win. He might be able to kill and terrorise a lot of Ukrainians, but in no way this can improve Kremlin’s position vis-à-vis the West – it is certain that as the result of Kremlin’s actions, Russian economy will be weakened, while Western presence is Eastern Europe will be strengthened. But as Angela Merkel noted, Putin seems to be living in another world. And as Dr. Ariely teaches us, his Fudge Factor might even tell him he is behaving within what’s acceptable.
There is no doubt that the immoral actions of world leaders over the decades has helped make the current Ukraine crisis possible. Critics are right in suggesting it is hypocritical of Western politicians to be harsh on Putin for his aggression against Ukraine, while they are silent on the crimes Western armies and secret forces have committed recently. Giving Putin carte-blanche to crash hopes for liberty in Ukraine today, however, will certainly not cure the illness. On the contrary, it will only reinforce the system of international politics where state interests, politicians’ ambitions and megalomania prevail over human life and dignity. We must call out the immorality of his aggression. But we also must not commit any more aggression ourselves.