With this article, I present a public choice perspective on Russia’s war on Ukraine. I criticise the realist view according to which Russia’s security concerns, defined by President Putin, prompted the conflict. I argue that realism offers a deficient analytic framework to the extent that it disregards the political and economic structure of Russia and, generally speaking, how the political economy of each case study shapes preferences, strategies and intra-elite relations, which feed into foreign policy formation. Russia is a government-controlled economy and society; a key property of Russia’s political economy is the dependency of key socio-economic actors and groups on the regime’s survival. This landscape pre-empts the expression of genuine feedback and dissent from society, and explains why Putin’s decision has faced very little disagreement and resistance. Given the previously close economic ties between Russia and Ukraine, this article also challenges capitalist peace theory for its blanket assertion that dense economic relations would provide a strong disincentive for countries to resort to war. Instead of talking about capitalism generically, we can discern varieties of capitalism, as they condition state–society relations differently. In Russia, the value that key socio-economic elites assign to their relationship with Putin outweighs the costs they are experiencing from the conflict and the external sanctions. Developing a public choice perspective in the study of international relations focuses on the preferences and strategies of the leadership and of domestic elite-level actors within the aggressor state, and invites attention to the power asymmetries that characterise their relationship.
Macroeconomic theories picture the economy as a phenomenon tractable by their analysis and thus manageable by macroeconomic policies guided by this analysis. This approach has withstood recurrent policy failures, competing theories and several changes of policy paradigms, from Keynesianism to monetarism, because the development of economics as a discipline has been entangled with the demand from policymakers to receive clear macroeconomic policy prescriptions from the expert community. The idea that policymakers can steer the economy in a desired direction relies upon the development of theories with prescriptive and predictive claims, which, in turn, rely on a great deal of analytic reductionism. As a result, reductionist theories continue to offer misrepresentations of the macro phenomenon, particularly by overlooking how policy interventions generate diverse and intractable micro-adaptations that develop into undesired, unforeseen and unintended system-level consequences. This trend continues to cause trouble: reductionist macroeconomic theories foster overconfident interventionist policies that contribute to macroeconomic instability.