The True Consequences of Audience Cost in the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict
As the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine passes, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine shows no sign of ending. To analyze the dynamics of the peaceful resolution of this military escalation, it is essential to examine the international relations theory of audience costs. Political scientist James Fearon popularized the term “audience costs”, which suggests that state leaders have three choices in an international crisis: attack, back down, or escalate. This article will explore how qualitative and quantitative studies of public opinion can help achieve peace through diplomacy which has developed since the beginning of the military conflict.
In the lead-up to the February 2022 invasion, both Putin and Zelensky faced significant audience costs, particularly when formally commenting on the Russo-Ukrainian situation. As a consequence of these statements, Putin's only politically feasible choice was to attack Ukraine, rather than attempt diplomatic negotiations. Furthermore, given Zelensky's campaign platform, continuing the fight has been his most feasible political choice as opposed to turning to the peace talk table. Thus, to achieve long-lasting peace, the country leaders must gradually change their rhetoric, lowering expectations from their respective electorates, and creating an environment where meaningful negotiations can occur.
The theory of audience cost suggests that political leaders have three options in an international crisis: attack, back down, or escalate. Each decision has its domestic political cost that affects the leader's credibility and power, sometimes forcing them to take violent measures to stay in power. These decisions can either result in war or de-escalation and hopes of successful diplomacy. As the conflict escalates, the audience cost will increase if state leaders back down. Based on a rationalist outlook, it is evident that states prefer to negotiate or find a peaceful way to solve disputes rather than resolve all issues through war. However, at times, the audience costs get too high, and states must go to war due to increasing domestic pressure from citizens.
Few international disagreements become wars, as wars are generally costly and unpopular with all sides going into the conflict. Despite this, states often misrepresent their willingness to go to war to gain a better deal when bargaining. Sometimes this misrepresentation is interpreted as a legitimate threat, resulting in wars. The signaling process to both international and domestic audiences is crucial in diplomatic bargaining, yet it is also one of the leading causes of war.
Leaders often prioritize domestic audience costs over international ones, as these costs determine their power and support. This focus is determined by the type of government in place. In a democratic system, a leader may tread carefully, as they could be voted out for unpopular decisions. However, in non-democratic regimes, leaders may pay less attention to domestic costs. As tensions escalate between states, both leaders reach a tipping point, known as a horizon, where they prefer to fight rather than back down due to the audience costs incurred. This is what happened in the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia can be seen as the result of Vladimir Putin's repeated attempts to integrate the country into the Russian sphere of influence. Putin has long run on an ultranationalist platform that promises to protect Russia and its satellite states from Western powers controlled by the US and NATO . He has engaged in high levels of public signaling, showing both domestic and international audiences the severity and extent to which he views the issue with Ukraine as a threat. With each step, Putin has accumulated greater audience costs, both domestically and internationally, bringing his nation closer to the horizon of a large-scale military conflict with Ukraine. By February 2022, Putin had crossed the threshold, and Russia went to war.
Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky ran on a reformist platform, promising an end to corruption in Ukraine, reining in oligarchs, and maintaining strong ties with Western allies. However, as he began his term, it became evident that many of his promises were unrealistic, particularly with the ongoing political and military conflicts with Russia. In 2020, Zelensky publicly promised to reintegrate the Donbas region into Ukraine and resolve tensions in the country's eastern region. However, these promises went unfulfilled, leading to a decline in his approval ratings. Zelensky's approval rating dropped from 73% to a low of 24.7% by October 2021, largely due to a lack of progress in fulfilling campaign promises, particularly regarding ending the conflict in the Donbas . According to the audience cost theory, virtually conceding this region to Russia in 2020 demonstrated weakness, as Zelensky backed down on his threats, making him less credible and powerless, according to the audience cost theory. When Putin announced a significant escalation in the military conflict in February 2022, Zelensky responded with a public statement regarding his resolve to defend Ukraine. This new resolve and refusal to back down resulted in a surge in his approval ratings, surging from below 30% in 2021 to over 90% as of June 2022 . By not backing down, Zelensky was able to mitigate the audience costs he had previously incurred. However, this decision, coupled with Putin's crossing of his horizon, ultimately led to the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine.
The National Democratic Institute in Ukraine, funded by USAID and UK Aid, conducted recent studies to evaluate developing trends in public opinion in Russia and Ukraine. According to their January 2023 poll, 89% of Ukrainians expressed optimism about their country's victory, while the percentage of respondents in favor of peace talks with Russia dropped from 59% in May 2022 to only 29% in January 2023. About 70% of Ukrainians oppose any peace talks at this point . President Zelensky's October 2022 decree, which specifically prohibited any peace negotiations with Russia, certainly influenced this dramatic shift. Additionally, top Ukrainian leaders, such as Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba, have publicly stated during multiple media interviews and at the Munich Security Conference 2023 that they want to change the Russian political regime and insist on reparations . Political leaders' bold statements have strongly influenced the Ukrainian public, resulting in 82% of Ukrainians insisting on the complete return of all territories, including Crimea, as a prerequisite for any peace talks to begin, according to Serhiy Kudelia, an associate professor of Political Science at Baylor University and an expert on the Ukrainian conflict . Although a diplomatic resolution is currently unlikely, Kudelia believes that several factors could promote it in the future. These include the continuing deadlock on the battlefields, the severe drain on both countries' economies, and the increased threat of nuclear escalation. Kudelia also notes the influence of audience costs in the US, as several US Congress members begin to criticize the massive financial expenditures that America continues to incur in Ukraine, which diminishes resources for domestic use. Additionally, due to increased economic instability in Europe, 48% of respondents in major EU countries indicate that they would prefer an immediate ceasefire and peace treaty. Thousands have expressed their opinions during continuous anti-war protests, especially in Germany . It is clear that the international community is actively searching for a solution to end the conflict in Ukraine.
Professor Kudelia's research suggests that there is a strong contrast in public opinion between Ukraine and Russia. While the majority of Ukrainians oppose any peace talks with Russia, an NDI study of Russian respondents in February 2023 showed that 66% would be in favor of a peace treaty and would not oppose it if President Putin initiated peace talks. President Putin himself has spoken publicly about Russia's openness to diplomatic talks, emphasizing that such negotiations should take place between Russia and Western countries, as they are the ones supporting Ukraine with weapons and financial aid. However, US leaders remain skeptical of Putin's claims, and the American public is not convinced either. These substantial disagreements keep the doors to diplomatic solutions firmly closed at present .
The military invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing conflict that has ensued is a multifaceted, complex issue that will continue to be analyzed for generations. Many international relations theories can be applied to this situation to provide adequate explanations for the diplomatic failures that ultimately led to war. The theory of audience costs can help coherently explain the process of diplomacy, escalation, and eventual war that has engulfed the nations of Ukraine and Russia. As of February 2023, one year after the initial invasion of Ukraine, the conflict is still ongoing with seemingly no end in sight. Nevertheless, a gradual shift towards less aggressive public rhetoric will ease the pressures placed upon these leaders to engage in war and hopefully bring them to the negotiation table, where peace can finally be achieved.
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