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An actor-centric analysis of the 2022 Ukrainian invasion

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An actor-centric analysis of the 2022 Ukrainian invasion

Scholars of international relations are quick to focus on ‘the state’ as a decision-making unit, neglecting the influence of individual motivations in determining political decisions.

Kaarbo conceptualises Foreign Policy Analysis as a distinct perspective to studying international politics which focuses on the individual level, based upon the argument that all that occurs in the international arena is grounded on human decision makers acting singly or in groups [1]. This analysis will support the argument that actor-specific theories may act as a complement to the main theories of international relations. Specifically, the shortcomings of realism will be discussed, pertaining to its inability to fully explain contemporary international politics. Using the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine as a demonstration of its explanatory gaps, this essay proposes that analysing the role of the central decision-making unit is both crucial and necessary to the understanding of international politics. 

Indeed, credit can be given to realism’s proposition that Ukraine and Russia are engaged in a security dilemma. Realists would suggest that Ukrainian actions to assure its own security through increased NATO involvement, trigger Russia’s military insecurity in return, creating a security paradox of increasingly offensive displays of power [2]. Despite this, Russia is assumed to be a rational actor [3], one which understands that the socioeconomic implications of a military invasion of a European Union and United Nations-backed Ukraine, would be too dire for the Russian people to endure [4]. Therefore, if factors of the international system are considered, the invasion of Ukraine should not have taken place [5].

However, contrary to expectations, Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. A possible argument, thus, arises, which criticises the privileging of the international over the domestic. If Russia’s, and specifically Vladimir Putin’s, decision-making processes are examined, valuable insight arises on the relevance of personal motivations to explain the military invasion. Perhaps Putin is not a rational actor, and FPA highlights that leaders are subject to personal psychological pressures that alter decision-making [1]. 

Using Levinson’s conceptualisation of the compulsions that male adults experience as they age, one could argue Putin’s trajectory as political leader may parallel psychological expectations [6]. 

During his young-adult transition, at age 23, he joined the KGB and developed a formative interest in foreign policy, being stationed around the world to promote Russian political interests and serve the regime. Hermann also considers a leader’s preference in foreign policy over domestic a predictor of how likely political decisions are to be affected by a leader’s personality [7]. Similarly, during the midlife adult transition, at age 44, he took on a government role, beginning his path towards self-actualisation with political power and responsibility. By the time he reached the late adult transition characterised by heightened aggression and frequent displays of power, at age 62, Vladimir Putin ordered the military annexation of Crimea. 

This is not to say that Putin has invaded Ukraine because he is becoming aware of his old age and diminishing capabilities, but perhaps Levinson’s intuition may serve as a useful departure from viewing leaders as ‘rational’, unemotional and expendable decision-makers who operate identically, and if replaced, would simply replicate history.

Instead, political leaders should be viewed as individuals which are subject to the same psychological conflict and internal pressures as everyone else. 

Unlike realism would suggest, domestic and international pressures are not always distinct or separable [8]. Partially influenced by Putin’s political motivations, and personality, the line between the domestic and international is blurred. Scholars have characterised Russia’s history of aggression and Putin’s Russian nationalism as an expression of the desire to bring back the “lost kingdom” of Russian supremacy [9] [10]. Elevating Russia’s political influence and economic power is an international perspective of state relations which determine dynamics of dominance and subordination. While realist theory privileging material capabilities is relevant, an actor centric theory analysing Putin’s personality traits which make him susceptible to grandiosity adds a layer of nuance to his actions.   

According to the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria, Putin’s personality patterns were found to exhibit attributes of hostility, narcissism, and risk-taking [11]. These findings also coincide with a Leader Trait Analysis performed by Hallin using translated Russian speeches. Due to the imperfect translation of Russian grammar and context, the results may offer underestimated values of personality scores, however, Putin scores akin to other political leaders with relatively high levels of self-confidence and need to control events [12]. These findings can be extrapolated to corroborate Hartmaan’s contributions to ego-psychology which finds individuals with large egos less able to make objective decisions due to a greater interaction between their sense of self and external problems [13].

Therefore, this analysis argues that the decision to invade Ukraine may strictly appear as a matter of international politics, however has also been influenced by Putin’s idiosyncrasies and personality. 

In conclusion, this paper proposes that actor-centric approaches can be used to justify explanatory gaps present in main international relations theories, and particularly realism. The past of decision-makers and the psychological veil which affects their interpretation of political events can determine their course of action, and in the case of Vladimir Putin, the course of history.


[1] Kaarbo, Juliet. 2015. “A Foreign Policy Analysis Perspective on the Domestic Politics Turn in IR Theory.” International Studies Review 17 (2): 189–216. https://doi.org/10.1111/misr.12213.

‌[2] Muradov, Ibrahim..2022. “ Russia’s war against ukraine: Security dilemma or what? Avrasya Dünyasi, 10(1). 

[3] Mearsheimer, John J. 2014. “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.” Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs Magazine. August 18, 2014. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault.

‌[4]Ciuriak, Dan. 2022. “At What Cost? The Ledger on Vladimir Putin’s War.” SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4150006.

[5]Specter, Matthew. 2022. “Realism after Ukraine: A Critique of Geopolitical Reason from Monroe to Mearsheimer.” Analyse & Kritik 0 (0). https://doi.org/10.1515/auk-2022-2033.

‌[6] Levinson, Daniel J. 1986. “A Conception of Adult Development.” American Psychologist 41 (1): 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.41.1.3.

‌[7] Hermann, Margaret G. 1980. “Explaining Foreign Policy Behavior Using the Personal Characteristics of Political Leaders.” International Studies Quarterly 24 (1): 7–46. https://doi.org/10.2307/2600126.

‌[8]Fordham, B. 2009. “The Limits of Neoclassical Realism: Additive and Interactive Approaches to Explaining Foreign Policy Preferences.” In Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge Universtiy Press.

‌[9] Herpen, Michael. 2015. The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism. Rowman & Littlefield.

‌[10] Serhii Plokhy. 2017. Lost Kingdom – a History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vlad. Penguin Books Ltd.

‌[11] Immelman, A, and J Trenzeluk. 2006. “. The Political Personality of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.” DigitalCommons@CSB/SJU. https://shorturl.at/mnEKN.

‌[12] Hallin, Katherine. 2023. “Leader Trait Analysis of Vladimir Putin: A Translation Studies Approach to Personality Scores in Translated English to Russian Speech.” New Perspectives 31 (3): 223–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/2336825×231187272.

[13] Hartmann, Heinz. 1958. Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation. Madison: International Universities Press, Inc. https://doi.org/10.1037/13180-000.




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