The Hill


The only thing worse than wishful thinking is wishful denial.

If you believe without evidence that something will happen and it doesn’t, you’ll be either disappointed if you hoped for something good or relieved if you feared something bad. But if you believe without evidence that something can’t happen and it does, you’ll be surprised if you didn’t expect something good or devastated if you didn’t expect something bad.

While neither approach to reality warrants emulation — after all, we should have good reasons for our beliefs — wishful denial can get you into far more trouble than wishful thinking.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is occasionally accused of engaging in wishful denial about his country’s possible defeat in Russia’s war. But he has an excuse: Waging an existential war with a genocidal regime, Zelensky has no choice but to insist on a full return of all occupied Ukrainian territories.

The many Americans and Europeans who have been guilty of wishful denial regarding the impossibility of Russia’s defeat have no such excuse. Back in November 2023, for instance, two respected analysts argued that “It’s Time to End Magical Thinking About Russia’s Defeat.”

In reality, a Russian defeat would be inevitable if the significantly richer and militarily more powerful West would support Ukraine with all the military equipment it needs. Indeed, the war could have ended in 2023 if the United States and Europe had not pursued a drip-drip policy of providing Ukraine with too little too late.

Because of its wishful denial of the possibility of Russia’s defeat, the West now confronts the possibility of a Ukrainian defeat, with all the disastrous consequences that would have for the world.

More recently, Peter Rutland, a professor of government at Wesleyan University, argued that claims of the fragility of Putin’s regime amount to wishful thinking. In fact, Rutland is guilty of wishful denial, as Putin’s regime is far less stable than Rutland’s analysis — and Putin’s bravado — suggests.

Responding to an article that compared “Putin’s brittle regime” to the Soviet system, Rutland states that “Historical analogies can be attractive but misleading in that they may focus our attention on superficial similarities, while ignoring structural differences. And there are several important respects in which Putin’s regime is in a very different place from the Soviet Union of the perestroika era.”

Fair enough, if true — but is the analogy really that far-fetched?

First, Rutland argues that Mikhail Gorbachev was weak, while Putin is strong: “institutional foundations of the Putin regime are robust and it will likely survive the death of its founder.” Disregard the circularity: obviously, if the regime is strong, it’s true by definition that it isn’t brittle. Focus on the demonstrable fact that no dictatorships, whether Russian or not, can coexist with strong institutions. If they did, they wouldn’t be dictatorships.

Second, says Rutland, “a critical factor in the unraveling of the USSR was the fact that it was fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Russia is fighting a war in Ukraine which it is still confident it can win.” Notice the sleight of hand: That the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable is stated as a fact (even though the Soviets were surely confident they could win), while the war in Ukraine is presumably winnable, simply because Russia believes it to be.

In reality, the war in Afghanistan was winnable if the U.S. had not intervened, as the war in Ukraine would be winnable if the West provided Ukraine with everything it needs.

Third, the Soviet economy was “bankrupt,” while “Russia has a dynamic capitalist economy, well integrated into the global economy.” Dynamic? Russian business is struggling to make ends meet, and the only sectors experiencing growth are military-related. Capitalist? Only if you consider the corrupt Russian state a capitalist. Well integrated? Only if you believe that Russia’s shift from the West to North Korea and China is a good thing.

Fourth and finally, Rutland writes that “the USSR was a federation where ethnic Russians made up 52% of the population. Putin’s Russia is a more centralized state where Russians are 82% of the population.” True, but so what? Rutland senses his argument is weak by adding that, “Admittedly, the possibility of an Islamist insurrection in the North Caucasus is a potential security challenge. But the Chechens have learned that pursuit of independence is not worth the effort. None of the other ethnic republics in the Russian Federation are remotely interested in starting a war with Moscow.” Tell that to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who has effectively established an independent Chechen state ruled by sharia law.

Rutland also misleadingly focuses only on war. But the non-Russians don’t need to start a war to promote the regime’s brittleness: demands for autonomy, non-fulfilment of Moscow’s demands, conflicts over boundaries and the promotion of their own ethnic identities will do the trick.

So the USSR and Putin’s Russia may actually have more in common than Rutland suggests. Ultimately, that comparison doesn’t matter, because we know from Russia’s history and from the experience of the world’s many dictatorships that absolutist one-person rule really doesn’t work in the long run — and Putin’s 25 years in office surely qualifies as such.

Supreme leaders, especially those of advanced age and long tenure, are prone to making mistakes, resisting reforms, pursuing self-enrichment and encouraging buck-passing. They never measure up to Plato’s philosopher kings. Sooner or later, dictators fall flat on their faces, because their regimes really are brittle. And that’s not wishful thinking.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”